Response PageCritics Page

Non-Mormon Scholars

Jules Remy

"Fortunately there were in existence two books which succeeded almost in accomplishing this aim. The first was Jules Remy's A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, written after a visit to Utah Territory in 1856. The other was Richard Burton's The City of the Saints, written after a similar visit in 1859. Both authors were Europeans, and thus lacked the prejudice of most Americans of the last century. Both took their subject seriously. Both had the advantage of writing about the Mormons from direct, first-hand observation. Burton in particular was a learned man, already noted as an explorer, whose interest in world religions had led him to the Mormons. He believed that in them he had discovered the birth of an American religion. While the fashion in America was to treat the Mormons as a passing phase of frontier history, predicting their end, first with the death of Joseph Smith, then with Brigham Young's death, and finally with the passing of polygamy, Burton saw them as a new chapter in a long history of religious societies. He did not prejudge them on the basis of any existing prejudice, but attempted, rather, to see them with his own eyes and to subject them only to the test of comparison with other more traditional forms of religious worship. Such a method allowed him to recognize the eclectic nature of Mormon beliefs and to see it as the recurrence of a essential eclecticism present in all new religions" (West 1957, xix)

Richard Burton

"The Mormons have been represented, and are generally believed to be, an intolerant race; I found the reverse far nearer the fact. The best proof of this is that there is hardly one anti-Mormon publication, however untruthful, violent, or scandalous, which I did not find in Great Salt Lake City." (Burton 1862, 203)

Phil Robinson, a London Telegraph correspondent spoke about where to find reliable information on the Mormons. He said, "I have ransaked the literature of the subject, and yet I really could not tell any one where to go for an impartial book about Mormonism later in date than Burton's City of the Saints, published in 1862. Burton, it is well known, wrote as a man of wide travel and liberal education--Catholic, therefore, on all matters religious, and generous in his views of ethical and social obliquities, sympathetic, consistent, and judicial. It is no wonder, then, that Mormons remember the distinguished traveler, in spite of his candor, with the utmost kindness. But put Burton on one side, and I think I can defy any one to name another book about the Mormons worthy of honest respect. From that truly awful book, The History of the Saints, published by one Bennett (even an anti-Mormon has styled him `the greatest rascal that ever came to the west') in 1842, down to Stenhouse's in 1873, there is not, to my knowledge, a single Gentile work before the public that is not utterly from its distortion of facts. Yet it is from these books--for there are no others~that the American public has acquired nearly all its ideas about the people of Utah. (Sinners and Saints~1883, p. 245)" (Roberts 1965, vol 4, p.528-29)

William Alexander Linn

"Of course, the comic treatment and the polemical are not mutually exclusive. In the best- known books on the Mormons, they are mixed. As late as 1901, when William A. Linn published The Story of the Mormons, there was a good deal of righteous indignation blended with what was essentially a "comic" view. By 1925, when M. R. Werner published his biography of Brigham Young, much of the indignation had been replaced by an indulgent admiration, but the method remained the same a highly ironic style which treated the unique aspects of Mormonism as a typical American joke. The difficulty with such books (and they still represent two of the best books written about the Mormons) resides in their mixture of intentions. Both works pretend to be serious historical and biographical studies, which they are so far as their research on the subject is concerned; but by presenting their material humorously they distort certain facts about the Mormons and generalize their conclusions." (West 1957, xv)

"In the first half of the twentieth century, the most widely quoted book on Mormonism was probably William Alexander Linn's The Story of the Mormons (New York, 1902). Linn devoted more space than any previous writer to the period of Mormon origins, and his book appeared impressive by its documentation. He used the Mormon writings of Joseph Smith, Lucy Smith, Orson Pratt, and Parley P. Pratt. Nevertheless, his primary source material was the Berrian Collection of Mormon materials (mostly anti-Mormon) in the New York Public Library." (Allen & Arrington 1969, 252)

"The first half of the twentieth century has produced a group of books on the Mormon past which have quite a different aspect; they are both `objectivist-realist' (rather than polemical or sensational) in approach, and, to some extext, scholarly in method. William A. Linn, The Story of the Mormons (1902); I. Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism: A psychological Study of Joseph Smith Jr. (1902); M. R. Werner, Brigham Young (1925); Harry M. Beardsley, Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire (1931); and Fawn McKay Brodie, No Man Knows My History; The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet (1945) ~ all have such traits in common despite varying emphases, styles, and particular choices of subject within the generality of Mormon history. As such they are in a real sense pioneering works that play a part in the evolution of Mormon historiography. Unfortunately they tend to share the same serious limitations: They are all at heart books of expose'; and while they seek to expose the frauds, delusions, and dangers of mormonism in a less Victorian and a more intellectually sophisticated mode than do their nineteenth century antecedents, they still do not escape the general frame of interpretation found in the earlier works." (Flanders 1966, 57) 

I. Woodbridge Riley

"The beginning of the modern non-Mormon view dates from I. Woodbridge Riley's Yale Ph.D. dissertation in history, published as The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr. (1902). . . But The Founder of Mormonism is nonetheless the most original and important non-Mormon work of the twentieth century. Riley's greatest achievement was to break with the Spalding theory of the Book of Mormon, which he analyzed at length and destroyed. The removal of one of the pillars of the skeptical interpretation compelled Riley to seek an alternative which he accomplished with great imagination. He revived Alexander Campbell's short-lived belief that contemporary cultural influences accounted for the Book of Mormon, and identified the nineteenth-century themes in the volume: anti-Catholicism, anti-Masonry, fear of infidelity, and curiosity about Indian origins. Riley was the first to suggest Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews (1823) and Josiah Priest's Wonders of Nature and Providence (1825) as sources for the Book of Mormon. . . Riley reached the conclusion that `the psychiatric definition of the epileptic fits the prophet to a dot.'(p. 74)" (Bushman 1984, 191)

"A strictly psychological approach to Joseph Smith, Riley's Founder of Mormonism boldly began with the thesis that the `state of his body goes far to explain the state of his mind, and his ancestry [explains] both. Like the distorted views of his grandfather, `Crook-necked Smith,' Joseph's mental abnormalities are to be connected with physical ills'" (Allen & Arrington 1969, 260)

"According to Riley, the Book of Mormon was a clue to the Prophet's mentality. Its four chief marks were `a redundant style, fragmentary information, a fanciful archaeology, and an unsystematic theology' (p. 168)--all evidences of the fancifulness and restlessness of Joseph." (Allen & Arrington 1969, 261)

Although Riley's work might mark the beginning of serious history by non-Mormons, the old stories continued to be resurrected and presented in new clothing. Since it was not possible to accept Joseph Smith as he presented himself, they were continually searching for a "suit of clothes" that would fit their expectations and prejudices. Some stories that were discredited in earlier books would be presented again with no reference to the difficulties. Some books would make an attempt at reasonable scholarship, while others were content to tell the worst. 

Eduard Meyer

"Another scholarly study was Eduard Meyer's Urspung und Geschichte der Mormonen. . . (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1912), . . . the relationship between Mormonism and American religion was to be found in Joseph Smith's cultural traditions. Joseph was a product of a belief in biblical literalism, continuous revelation, spiritual gifts, and the rejection of the Protestant belief that the canon of scripture was complete." (Alexander 1978, 9)

"At the end of the last century the great tradition of European scholarship in the grand style culminated in the person of Eduard Meyer. If he did not have the stature of some earlier scholars, it is certain that he was in a position to survey and assimilate more of the learning of the past than any human being before or since his day. . .

Now this man had a particular interest in ancient religions, and it occurred to him that in Mormonism he might study at first hand how a real religion gets started. So impressed was he by the possibilities of such a study that he packed up and went to Utah in 1904, to devote a year of his priceless time to studying the Mormons. Few churches have had the good fortune to be examined at first hand by a man of such vast learning and complete impartiality. For in keeping with the high `Wissenschaft' of his day, Meyer himself professed no religion. He was neither partial nor hostile to the Mormons, who as far as his feelings were concerned might have been beings on another planet or a heap of ants.

Meyer's entire Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen is a study in parallels, comparing the new religion with revealed religions of the past. While grandly contemptuous of Joseph Smith's low coefficient of `Kultur,' the great savant illustrates at length the `exact identity' of his church both is `atmosphere' and sundry particulars with that of the Early Christians. A `striking and irrefutable' parallelism supports Mormon claims to revelation, `with perfect right' they identify themselves with the apostolic church of old. The similarity extends to the faults as well as the virtues of the prophet and his followers~they may be matched `at every point' by the faults and virtues of the ancient prophets and the ancient church." (Nibley 1946, 18-19)

"Like Riley, he [Meyer] rejected the Spaulding theory. He was generous to the `three witnesses,' who,he explained, actually saw the gold plates, even though they did not really exist, because desire and promises led to a common vision `conjured up to them by the anticipation of the long preparation, the pregnant atmosphere of miracles through which they lived, their prayer together, and the Prophet's power of suggestion'" (Allen & Arrington 1969, 261)

Whitney R. Cross

"A new era in scholarly studies of Mormonism dawned with the publication in 1950 of Whitney R. Cross's Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press). . .

Cross's analysis of the cultural background of Mormonism is insightful. Palmyra, he argued, was not a frontier, but a rural area experiencing rapid growth. He accepted the evidence for gold digging, but pointed out that it was culturally based. He rejected the Howe-Hurlbut testimonials as self-serving and vague, pointed to the evangelical background of the family and rejected the hypothesis of imposture together with the Spaulding story as `too transparently simple to explain the broad appeal of the new church. Such myths not only destroy Joseph's character but also breed serious misconceptions of how any religious novelty is likely to arise.' . . . Above all Cross recognized, as Brodie did not, that Mormonism's religious heritage was rich and varied rather than `sterile,' since it was based on authentic religious experience rather than half-disguised fraud." (Alexander 1978, 11)