This is the third and last in a series of discussions on biographies of Joseph Smith. It is a look at the best and worst of important works dealing with his life. Each criticism is broken down into three sections: positive aspects, negative aspects, and implications.
Joseph Smith: The First Mormon by Donna Hill
Positive: This biography manages to do something that others have not reached. It treats Joseph Smith and his friends and enemies as people. She does more than talk about what people say and do, but how they felt during their experiences. The way this is accomplished is to allow sources to tell the story, often revealing what those involved felt about events. It becomes much more personal than other biographies have been written. Her extensive use of a variety of sources also helps the reader feel they are making discoveries right along with her. Whenever she narrates the story, she allows a quote or two to fill in the details.
No matter how controversial the subject, she remains as neutral as possible. As an “orthodox believer” none of what she talked about was troubling. Her approach was never like correlation or trying to be revisionist. It seemed like good story telling with the inclusion of pertinent information. There was nothing new and groundbreaking, but the book did seem to fill in the details. As great as the biography was, it is still strange that it remains to this day in the background.
Negative: The start of her problems might be the title of the book. The saying goes that you should never judge a book by its cover, but in this instance it becomes hard to ignore such a boring name. I have tried to think of a more interesting title appropriate to her writing without success. It would have to be a quote from one of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons to follow precedent.
Another weakness occurs right after Liberty Jail about the time Nauvoo was to be established. She decides to write some essays about such topics as polygamy and the priesthood ban. As important as these subjects are, they detract from her otherwise wonderful linear narration. She loses focus and never gets it back. Perhaps I should give the Nauvoo section another read, but it seems the personal nature of her writing never recovers from the tangents. What could have been my personal definitive biography of Joseph Smith flounders.
Implications: It seems that biographies on Joseph Smith can either be about the history or the personality and never completely both. Some may believe that they are dealing with both by focusing on one, but it is never that easy. Donna Hill comes close to achieving that combination, but misses the mark. It would be great if there was an author that could combine the talents of both Bushman and Hill as they compliment each other. Luckily, we can read what they wrote and compare the two.