American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church

American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church

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by Alex Beam
     
 

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On June 27, 1844, a mob stormed the jail in the dusty frontier town of Carthage, Illinois. Clamorous and angry, they were hunting down a man they saw as a grave threat to their otherwise quiet lives: the founding prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. They wanted blood.

At thirty-nine years old, Smith had already lived an outsized life. In addition to starting

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Overview


On June 27, 1844, a mob stormed the jail in the dusty frontier town of Carthage, Illinois. Clamorous and angry, they were hunting down a man they saw as a grave threat to their otherwise quiet lives: the founding prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. They wanted blood.

At thirty-nine years old, Smith had already lived an outsized life. In addition to starting the Church of Latter-day Saints and creating his own “Golden Bible” – the Book of Mormon – he had worked as a water-dowser and treasure hunter. He’d led his people to Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois, where he founded a city larger than fledgling Chicago. He was running for President. And, secretly, he had married more than thirty women.

In American Crucifixion, Alex Beam tells how Smith went from charismatic leader to public enemy: how his most seismic revelation – the doctrine of polygamy – created a rift among his people; how that schism turned to violence; and how, ultimately, Smith could not escape the consequences of his ambition and pride.

Mormonism is America’s largest and most enduring native religion, and the “martyrdom” of Joseph Smith is one of its transformational events. Smith’s brutal assassination propelled the Mormons to colonize the American West and claim their place in the mainstream of American history. American Crucifixion is a gripping story of scandal and violence, with deep roots in our national identity.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/20/2014
Aside from the fact that Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith was assassinated in jail by gunfire, not nailed to a cross as the title indicates, Beam’s tale brings alive a cast of early 1840s characters as strange, flawed, and significant as any in American history. Beam (Gracefully Insane) presents Smith as an inventive, narcissistic visionary hounded for beliefs that ran counter to those of most Americans. If his new bible, The Book of Mormon, wasn’t enough to condemn him, his belief in plural gods and practice of polygamy surely would. But in Beam’s balanced telling of Smith’s tumultuous final years, it was the prejudice and intolerance of others as much as Smith’s strangeness that condemned him to early death and his new religion to enduring battles. Few Mormons and “Gentiles” get off lightly here, and Beam makes a strong case that they shouldn’t. That may not endear the book to all readers, whatever their beliefs, but it reveals how the fight over Mormonism, one built both on its distinctive claims and its enemies’ intolerance, extends into our day. Better, Beam implies in this lively telling, to try to understand its sad and violent origins than to condemn or praise it outright. Illus. Agent: Inkwell Management. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“High drama as one of America’s greatest—and most mystifying—characters, Joseph Smith, meets one our most incisive writers, Alex Beam, at a crossroads of our history.”—Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars

“If Mormonism is the most American of religions—and it is—then the story of its founding is an American epic. In this gripping book, Alex Beam tells the story of the fate of Joseph Smith amid the Mormons’ rising tensions with ‘gentile’ neighbors—and among themselves. With an acute eye for character, he depicts Smith, Brigham Young, and their enemies as vivid, complicated human beings, immersed in struggles over money, power, survival, and the controversial doctrine of polygamy. With its dramatic and consequential ending, this book throws new light on the trek to Great Salt Lake and the birth of the LDS Church we know today.” —T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

American Crucifixion is an engrossing, powerful account of the rise and fall of one of the most remarkable figures in American history. Alex Beam’s portrait of Joseph Smith—equal parts P. T. Barnum, Huey Long, and the prophet Jeremiah—captures the man in all of his contradictions and complexities.”—Gary Krist, bestselling author of City of Scoundrels

Library Journal
★ 03/15/2014
One of the great stories in American religious history is given balanced coverage by Beam (columnist, Boston Globe; A Great Idea at the Time). The murder of Mormon religious leader Joseph Smith is compelling on its own terms and is made all the more so here by Beam's thorough research and riveting storytelling. He sets the stage by providing a capsule biography of Smith and a history of his church up to the Mormon arrival in Nauvoo, IL, in the early 1840s. Wherever Smith went, controversy followed, and Nauvoo was no exception. Though initially welcomed, Mormon immigrants, by their sheer numbers, intimidated the area's previous settlers. Beam characterizes Smith as a complex figure but often a braggart who did not endear himself to the local citizenry. Then the doctrine of plural marriage was added to Mormon practice; although it was supposed to be a secret, it was not a very well-kept one. Finally, Smith ordered the destruction of Nauvoo's only opposition press and the already combustible situation exploded. Add to this mess anti-Mormon mobs, the Mormon's own homegrown army—the Nauvoo Legion—and an indecisive governor and you have the making of a true-crimes thriller. VERDICT Beam's page-turner will appeal to history (not just religious history) buffs, as well as find a place on specialists' shelves owing to its examination of primary sources.—David Azzolina, Univ. of Pennsylvania Libs., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-16
An account of the Illinois Mormon settlement Nauvoo and the events that precipitated the church's flight to Utah. When Boston Globe and International Herald Tribune columnist Beam (A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, 2008, etc.) introduces Joseph Smith (1805–1844), founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith is on the run again. The author examines the reasons for his desperate Mississippi River crossing and what led to previous, similar episodes. The founder of a brand of Christianity that still fascinates and polarizes the world today, Smith was no less divisive a figure in his own time. The author notes that the very idea of a new religion was disturbing enough to Smith's contemporaries, but he also focuses on the doctrine of polygamy as the truly alienating issue that led to the downfall of the Mormons' Illinois "Zion" and Smith's own death. The rift in the church following Smith's revelations about taking more than one wife legitimized the long-standing hostility of their neighbors. Beam is the consummate journalist, precise about his research and offering judgment only where there is ample proof of wrongdoing. He treats Smith with journalistic objectivity but doesn't hesitate to point out that "Joseph received so many revelations that they inevitably conflicted." With so much history to tackle, from the roots of Mormonism to the economic, political and moral climates in which hatred of the new religion developed, it is impressive that Beam maintains narrative tension and excitement while injecting personality. The author's use of antiquated language—even outside historical documents—adds color to his writing but may also be a source of confusion for some readers—e.g., when he calls the governor of Illinois Thomas Ford "Pecksniffian." A fascinating history that, while particularly appealing to those interested in religion, is sure to inform a far wider audience.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781610393133
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
Publication date:
04/22/2014
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
1,308,973
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

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