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No Man Knows My History

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No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith
No man knows my history (first edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorFawn McKay Brodie
CountryUnited States
PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
Publication date
1945; revised ed. 1971
Media typePrint
Pages576 (1971 ed.)
289.3/092 B 20
LC ClassBX8695.S6 B7 1995

No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith is a 1945 book by Fawn M. Brodie. It is the first important non-hagiographic biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Latter Day Saint movement. The book has not gone out of print, and 60 years after its first publication, its publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, continues to sell about a thousand copies annually.[1] A revised edition appeared in 1971, and on the 50th anniversary of its first publication, Utah State University issued a volume of retrospective essays about the book, its author, and her methods.[2]


Reared in Utah in a respected, if impoverished, Mormon family, Brodie drifted away from religion during her graduate studies in literature at the University of Chicago. Having found temporary employment at the Harper Library, Brodie began researching the origins of Mormonism. Progress toward her eventual goal of writing a full biography of Smith was slowed by the birth of her first child and by three rapid moves to follow her husband's career, but in 1943, Brodie entered a 300-page draft of her book in a contest for the Alfred A. Knopf literary fellowship, and in May, her application was judged to be the best of the 44 entries.[3]

Brodie's research was enlarged and critiqued by other students of Mormonism, most notably Dale L. Morgan, who became a lifelong friend, mentor, and sounding board.[4] Brodie finally completed her biography of Smith in 1944, and it was published the following year by Knopf when the author was 30.[5]

Perspective on Smith[edit]

During her research, Brodie discovered primary sources that had previously been overlooked or neglected.[6] She presented the young Joseph Smith as a good-natured, lazy, extroverted, and unsuccessful treasure seeker, who, in an attempt to improve his family's fortunes, first developed the notion of golden plates and then the concept of a religious novel, the Book of Mormon. This book, she asserts, was based in part on an earlier work, View of the Hebrews, by a contemporary clergyman, Ethan Smith. Brodie asserts that at first Smith was a deliberate impostor, who at some point, in nearly untraceable steps, became convinced that he was indeed a prophet—though without ever escaping "the memory of the conscious artifice" that created the Book of Mormon. Jan Shipps, a preeminent non-LDS scholar of Mormonism, who rejects this theory, nevertheless has called No Man Knows My History a "beautifully written biography ... the work of a mature scholar [that] represented the first genuine effort to come to grips with the contradictory evidence about Smith's early life."[7]

Reception and influence[edit]

The significance and ground-breaking nature of Brodie's work is generally acknowledged within the field of Mormon studies. Dale Morgan declared Brodie's first book the "finest job of scholarship yet done in Mormon history and perhaps the outstanding biography in several years—a book distinguished in the range and originality of its research, the informed and searching objectivity of its viewpoint, the richness and suppleness of its prose, and its narrative power."[8] In 1971, Marvin S. Hill, a LDS historian at Brigham Young University (BYU), wrote:

For more than a quarter century Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History has been recognized by most professional American historians as the standard work on the life of Joseph Smith and perhaps the most important single work on early Mormonism. At the same time the work has had tremendous influence upon informed Mormon thinking, as shown by the fact that whole issues of B.Y.U. Studies and Dialogue have been devoted to considering questions on the life of the Mormon prophet raised by Brodie. There is evidence that her book has had strong negative impact on popular Mormon thought as well, since to this day in certain circles in Utah to acknowledge that one has "read Fawn Brodie" is to create doubts as to one's loyalty to the Church.[9]

In 2005, LDS scholar Richard Bushman published a highly regarded biography of Smith entitled Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling which has frequently been compared to Brodie's work. In his book, Bushman noted that Brodie's "biography was acknowledged by non-Mormon scholars as the premier study of Joseph Smith"[10] and called Brodie "the most eminent of Joseph Smith's unbelieving biographers."[11] Bushman wrote in 2007 that Brodie had "shaped the view of the Prophet for half a century. Nothing we have written has challenged her domination. I had hoped my book would displace hers, but at best it will only be a contender in the ring, whereas before she reigned unchallenged."[12]

Nevertheless, Brodie's book has been criticized by some scholars, most often for its speculative interpretations of early Mormon history and its presumptions about Smith's internal motivation. In reviewing No Man Knows My History, Vardis Fisher (himself a prolific novelist—and atheist—who remained unconvinced by Brodie's theory of Smith's motivations) incorrectly speculated that Brodie would "turn novelist in her next book."[13]

Brodie's theories—laid out in the book—of Smith fathering children through polygamist relationships have been among the catalysts for professional genetic genealogy studies. During the 2000s, researchers at the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation used Y-DNA testing to trace the ancestry of descendants of three of the five children whom Brodie suggested, and found that none of the three were fathered by Smith.[14][15]

Mormon reactions[edit]

Although No Man Knows My History questioned many common Mormon beliefs and portrayals of Joseph Smith, the work was not immediately condemned by Mormon institutions, including the LDS Church, even as the book went into a second printing.[16] In 1946, The Improvement Era, an official periodical of the Church, claimed that many of the book's citations arose from doubtful sources and that the biography was "of no interest to Latter-day Saints who have correct knowledge of the history of Joseph Smith." The "Church News" section of the Deseret News provided a lengthy critique that acknowledged the biography's "fine literary style" and then denounced it as "a composite of all anti-Mormon books that have gone before."[17] Brodie's most notable Mormon critic, BYU professor Hugh Nibley, published a scathing 62-page pamphlet entitled No, Ma'am, That's Not History,[18] asserting that Brodie had cited sources supportive only of her conclusions while conveniently ignoring others. Brodie considered Nibley's pamphlet to be "a well-written, clever piece of Mormon propaganda" but dismissed it as "a flippant and shallow piece."[19] The LDS Church formally excommunicated Brodie in June 1946 for apostasy, citing the publication of her views "contrary to the beliefs, doctrines, and teachings of the Church."[20]


  1. ^ Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary, 4.
  2. ^ Newell Bringhurst, Reconsidering No Man Knows My History (Utah State University, 1996).
  3. ^ Michael Kammen, In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21; Newell G. Bringhurst, Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer's Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 80.
  4. ^ "Despite his own deep fascination with Mormonism's past, Morgan... was not a practicing Latter-day Saint." Bringhurst, 86. Yet Morgan twice critiqued Brodie's manuscript with "alarming frankness" convincing Brodie that what she had already written read too much like an exposé. "In general, Morgan was much more incisive and penetrating in his critique than the Knopf panel had been in awarding Brodie her fellowship. The difference was that Morgan knew Mormon history and the Knopf readers did not." (88) After publication of No Man Knows My History, Morgan (probably unwisely) wrote for Saturday Review of Literature a glowing review of a book in whose production he had played a central role.
  5. ^ Bringhurst, 96–97.
  6. ^ New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1945, 5.
  7. ^ Jan Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons (University of Illinois Press, 2000), 165. See also Jan Shipps, "Richard Lyman Bushman, the Story of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, and the New Mormon History," Journal of American History, 94 (September 2007).
  8. ^ Saturday Review of Literature, 28 (November 28, 1945), 7-8.
  9. ^ Marvin S. Hill, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 7 (Winter 1972), 72. The entire issue in which the review appears is freely available as a PDF from Dialogue.
  10. ^ Bushman, Richard Lyman (2005), Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, New York: Knopf, p. 58, ISBN 1-4000-4270-4.
  11. ^ Id. at 58.
  12. ^ Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 102.
  13. ^ New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1945, 5.
  14. ^ Brodie identified several possible sons of Joseph Smith including: Oliver Buell, Orson Washington Hyde, Frank Henry Hyde, John Reed Hancock, and Moroni Pratt. (460, 484)

    Brodie thought Buell's photograph "showed an unmistakable likeness to other sons of Joseph borne by Emma Smith." Also Buell's mother reputedly told another woman that she "did not know whether Mr. Buell or the Prophet was the father of her son." (460) Brodie also said "Between 1835 and 1858 Nancy bore ten children. Two sons were born in Nauvoo who might possibly have had the prophet for a father: Orson Washington born November 9, 1843 and Frank Henry born January 23, 1845." (441)

    Brodie also claimed "...One of [Clarissa Reed Hancock]'s sons may have been [Smith]'s child. ... [John Reed Hancock] might have been the child in question." (464)

    Later she said, "Moroni [Pratt], born on December 7, 1844, may be added to the list of boys who might possibly have been sons of Joseph Smith." (484)

  15. ^ Jane Gitschier (January 13, 2009). "Inferential Genotyping of Y Chromosomes in Latter-Day Saints Founders and Comparison to Utah Samples in the HapMap Project". The American Journal of Human Genetics. Cell Press. 84 (2): 255 and 258. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2009.01.018. PMC 2668019. PMID 19215731. Of particular note, during revision of this manuscript, I was informed by Scott Woodward and Ugo Perego of SMGF that they had previously reported a haplotype, involving a subset of the markers described herein, for Joseph Smith [Jr.] in a Mormon historical journal; the haplotype they reported is identical to the consensus prediction herein.
  16. ^ "Latter-day Saint spokesmen, official and otherwise, were extremely slow to comment publicly on No Man Knows My History. Various Mormon publications, most prominently the Deseret News, the Salt Lake City-based daily newspaper owned and operated by the LDS Church, declined to review, or even to acknowledge the book's existence for months after its release." Bringhurst, 107.
  17. ^ This review was soon reprinted as a pamphlet and missionary tract. Newell G. Bringhurst, Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer's Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 110.
  18. ^ Nibley, Hugh W., No, Ma'am, That's Not History, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, archived from the original on 2013-06-18, retrieved 2013-02-20
  19. ^ Bringhurst, 111.
  20. ^ Bringhurst, 112, quoting from William H. Reeder to FMB, May 23, 1946, Brodie Papers, University of Utah.