A Few thoughts on Brian Hales’ Review of Alex Beam’s “American Crucifixion”

AC 4Introduction

It is 1974 and Richard Nixon is embedded in the White House and fighting to keep the Office of the President of the United States—but losing badly. The reason why? Two investigative journalists named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and a confidential informant named “Deep Throat”.

These two reporters (with “Deep Throat’s” help) blew the lid off of Nixon’s Presidency with a series of articles about his involvement in bungled burglaries, abuse of power and a massive cover-up which forced our Commander-in-Chief to declare “I am not a crook” and become the first man to resign the Presidency of the United States. Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions to the paper ultimately helped the Washington Post win the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1973.

Not satisfied to rest on their laurels, they again teamed up to write a non-fiction book about their investigation which they cleverly titled “All the President’s Men”, which became a best seller and has been lauded as “maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time.”

In their prestigious best seller (which also became a blockbuster movie), the first thing one sees upon opening it up is a “Cast of Characters”, which conveniently allows the reader to keep track of everyone in the book. One reviewer put it this way,

Fortunately, the authors included a “Cast of Characters” section in the beginning of the book and an “Index” at the end, both of which prove helpful and provide one with references. 

All the President's Men Cast of Characters 1The reason that I mention this is because noted author Alex Beam uses the same technique for his recent work of popular non-fiction, American Crucifixion, and Brian Hales (who seems to have become the Mormon apologist “go to guy” for all things related to Joseph Smith’s polygamy) has claimed in a review of Beam’s book that,

The book begins with a “Cast of Characters” similar to what you would find in a play, which is a departure from what you would typically find in a scholarly work of historical nonfiction. In fact, listing a “Cast of Characters” may intuitively call the nonfiction element of the book into question simply because nonfiction is about real people and real events not characters.

I think Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would beg to differ; along with many literary critics including Time Magazine, which hailed All the President’s Men as “perhaps the most influential piece of journalism in history.”

It’s ok that Brian Hales doesn’t like Alex Beam’s use of a “Cast of Characters” in the beginning of his book, or that he thinks it is best used by playwrights. But to insinuate that this might “intuitively call the nonfiction element of the book into question” is hogwash.

And his ad hominem at the end where he insinuates that because Alex Beam used this literary tool to help the reader, he wasn’t aware that they were “real people” who experienced “real events” is rather amusing.

But Hales doesn’t stop there when it comes to trying to smear Alex Beam because he doesn’t like Beam’s portrayal of Joseph Smith’s polygamy in American Crucifixion. He gets even more silly.

Let me give you an example or two.

I. Who’s Defaming Who?

The accusation of defamation seems to be a current trend with Mormon apologists. For example, see the recent “Big Trouble in River City: American Crucifixion and the Defaming of Joseph Smith”, by Craig L. Foster and Brian Hales. To defame someone is to use falsehood to try and damage their reputation. This is done purposefully and with malice and is also kind of hard to prove when it comes to writing about characters that are dead and lived almost 200 years ago.

Yet, apologists like Brian Hales will claim that Alex Beam does so, even though lots of other authors agree with his conclusions. To Hales, they are but “a few biased authors.” Interesting that those “biased” authors that Beam quotes from (provided by Hales) include Richard Bushman (Mormon), Todd Compton (Mormon), Andrew Ehat (Mormon) and Linda King Newell and Valeen Avery, (both Mormon). The rest are all Ex-Mormons with a wealth of knowledge about Joseph Smith and Mormonism, but in Hales world they are disqualified because they are not “faithful”. See the comments from this Essay by Cheryl Bruno who Hales tries to claim isn’t a spiritual enough Mormon to teach about it. Hales wrote, among other things,

Perhaps I should apologize, but when a person like Cheryl or me places themselves in front of others as teachers of Joseph Smith’s life and doctrines, our personal beliefs become an issue. Why? Because he taught, “If ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14).

Hales and Foster employ the tactic of first trying to create in the reader’s mind that Alex Beam is biased, therefore his conclusions are flawed. They seem curiously obsessed with the fact that Alex Beam was critical of Mitt Romney in some of his news columns. So was over half the country, so much so that Mitt didn’t win the 2012 election. Hales even has problems with Beam’s obvious disdain for Bain Capital, which has plenty of problems that Hales (ever so transparent) doesn’t bother to mention.

They then focus the rest of the introduction to the article on how much they feel Beam hates Mormonism. It is laughable stuff because lots of people don’t like the people they write about.

For example, if I were going to write an historical piece on Adolf Hitler, would I be disqualified because I don’t like the fact that he mass murdered millions of Jews? Should I then present all the crazy theories that there was no holocaust?

I really don’t care if an author is biased or not. What difference does it make? It will simply show up in their work, which can be checked.

Critics of others work should focus on that and leave the ad hominem out of it. But to obsess over it, as Hales and Foster do only makes them look petty. To quote one of those claimed “biased” authors Todd Compton,

(1) No piece of evidence is perfect. As I wrote in In Sacred Loneliness (p. 29), contemporary evidence is very desirable, but is not perfect. Even if someone writes something in a diary (contemporary evidence), it is still biased and limited to his or her viewpoint. That person’s enemy, or even a friend, may write on the same day about the same events and look at them very differently.

Therefore, since no piece of evidence is perfect, if you do not like any piece of evidence, you can always object in some way and throw it out. As a result, it is important that one does not hold a double standard for crucial evidence, that one is consistent. For instance, if one rejects a piece of evidence whose content one does not like on the argument that it is second-hand, one should not accept another piece of evidence (whose content one likes) that is equally second- hand.

Evidence can be used, and should be used, even if it is not perfect. (Otherwise, no evidence could be used at all.) One can use evidence skillfully, but still allow for its limitations. For instance, if one has two pieces of evidence, one can balance them against each other. One limited truism of historical research is that late evidence is inferior to contemporary evidence. In many respects this is true, but not necessarily. I cited Eliza R. Snow’s contemporary diary entry for the day she married Joseph Smith, In Sacred Loneliness, 313. Nowhere is there explicit mention of the marriage in that entry. A researcher with that diary alone would never affirm or try to prove that Eliza married Joseph on that day, or at all. However, in a late piece of evidence, her autobiography, she explicitly affirms the marriage to Joseph (cited at In Sacred Loneliness, 312), and in other late evidence she gave the date. No one piece of evidence was perfect, but all were valuable. Combined, they presented a reliable, full view of the event.

Yet we find Hales accepting all kinds of second hand evidence/sources to support his narrative of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. What Hales does though is even worse, he uses primary sources, but he manipulates them to support his own views. I will show a classic example of this below.

There is nothing wrong with using and quoting secondary sources. Sometimes they are written better, have better observations, but as one uses them it is best to compare their analyses with the original documents if you can get them. Many times secondary sources quote primary documents, something that Hales doesn’t mention much. It is pretty easy these days to go and check and see if they are quoted accurately.

Hales and Foster write,

What if the secondary sources are overly biased for or against Joseph Smith, or what if they misrepresent the reliability of some statement or conclusion? The secondary sources he quotes reflect just these sorts of weaknesses, which are only compounded when further filtered through Beam’s storytelling. He becomes at best a tertiary source, which can tell us no more than the secondary sources upon which he uncritically and reflexively relies. One worries that he is simply finding in them what he already expects to find. Having located it, he looks and questions no further.

They act like no one but them has ever thought of this before! Why are they so worried (their word) about this? And how does Hales know that Alex Beam did not read original sources? He doesn’t. He just didn’t interpret them the same way that Hales does, which Hales just can’t seem to understand. Hales is actually the oddball among Joseph Smith’s polygamy historians with his claim that Joseph Smith almost never had sex with anyone but Emma Smith, didn’t practice polyandry and that he didn’t really lie about any of it. It is a ridiculous assertion that no one but Mormon apologists or “faithful” Mormons buy into. Joseph Smith himself claimed that “I do not want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not.”

As for Foster & Hales’ claim that Alex Beam defamed Joseph Smith, one example may suffice. Foster and Hales write,

Beam writes that Eliza admitted she had been “the Prophet’s wife and lover” (89). He provides no documentation and obviously missed Eliza’s 1877 letter to RLDS missionary Daniel Munns where she flatly denied having ever been Joseph Smith’s “carnal” wife but freely acknowledged that there were “several ladies now living in Utah who accepted the pure and sacred doctrine of plural marriage, and were the bona fide wives of Pres. Joseph Smith.” During a June 9 interview with MormonStories podcaster John Dehlin, Laura Hales, wife of Brian Hales, addressed this lack of evidence for this statement during the question and answer period. Beam appeared nonplussed by the fuss regarding his use of the term “lover,” which he admitted was an ill-chosen word to describe Eliza’s relationship with Joseph. This speaks of his willingness to infuse dramatic prose into his text without regard to documentary evidence.

Eliza Roxey SnowIn another article on the same subject (criticizing Alex Beam about calling Eliza Snow Joseph’s raven haired lover), Hales writes,

During the June 9 podcast interview, my wife Laura addressed this lack of evidence, which apparently was an unacceptable question because both Dehlin and Beam felt it was confrontational, but I wondered about their willingness to provide documentary transparency. 

Now I’m all for documentary transparency, so let’s see if Hales is as transparent about this incident as he claims. But before I get into that, here are the comments and the question that Laura Hales put to Alex Beam from the June 9, 2014 podcast,

Alex thank you as a fellow writer I appreciate you explaining the audience for this book. You said it was a book written for writers and as a writer I appreciated this book

when I read a book I look at it from a structural level um you’ve um said it was a work of popular non-fiction which is a genre I am not totally familiar with as a separate genre as I read the book I saw several genres represented

You start your book out with a cast of characters which I find very engaging which would be um more indicative of a play

um you talk about the raven haired poetess when referring to Eliza Snow which conjures up the cover of a Harlequin RomanceEliza-Harlequin-Romance

Those who know Eliza Snow perhaps would not use those words to describe her She had um at age 38 when she married Joseph Smith published a few poems but she was um a old maid who worked as a governess at the time

um but that page were you described Eliza Snow as the raven haired poetess was particularly interesting to me um I gotta pull it up at the bottom of the page [89] you a mention a familiar story about Eliza getting upset I mean Emma getting upset with Eliza but at the end of the paragraph you said uh “Snow never spoke of the stairway incident, confirming only that she had been the Prophet’s wife and lover.”

Now I’m also a professional copy editor mostly of historical non-fiction and so I look at footnotes especially those um in quotation marks and I happened to look up your footnotes for this which referenced two books that you regard highly one was Fawn Brodie and the other was Mormon Enigma I went to the pages you referenced and neither of those referenced um a statement by Eliza that she had been the prophet’s lover

in fact you went much further than Fawn Brodie who intimated that maybe the marriage was consummated um being a little familiar with the relationship between Eliza and Joseph as far as primary documents um she only made a couple statements that were very nebulous very difficult to determine whether she consummated her relationship at all um let alone was his lover

so when I’m reading works of non-fiction and I check out footnotes and I go there and find out the information that is supposed to be there it tends to discredit the author in my mind and while non-fiction doesn’t have to be true um if it is about fact and people who are true and the author’s obligated to write what he believes to be true

so I’m … my question is to you obviously this information did not come from the source cited, where did you get that information?

I’ll let the reader hear Alex Beam’s reply to Laura Hales which can be found at about the 2 hour 1 minute mark. But to add a bit to that, first, Joseph Smith himself called Eliza Snow “Zion’s Poetess.” She was hardly an “old maid” at age 38. This is simply wishful thinking.

As for being Joseph’s lover, this is hardly a stretch. Fawn Brodie speaks of the “persistent tradition” that Eliza Snow conceived a child by Joseph Smith (which resulted in a miscarriage) which Brodie claimed was told to her “as a fact” by Eliza’s nephew, Leroi C. Snow. You can’t have a child without consummating the marriage. (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, pg. 470) More importantly, Eliza R. Snow and Joseph Smith got “married” long before Joseph had any kind of written “revelation” to do so. Eliza R. Snow’s own brother testified at the Temple Lot Suit that this would indeed be adultery, as did Orson Pratt (at a General Conference) and others. (I will have more on this in another Essay).

It may be lost on the Hales, but Eliza Snow was the same age as Emma Smith, who gave birth to David Hyrum Smith two years after Snow became his Spiritual Wife. Are we to assume that Emma was some kind of “old maid” that didn’t appeal to him anymore? The birth of David Hyrum kind of destroys that argument.

Another of the sources (Mormon Enigma) that Alex Beam cites claims,

This [a claimed miscarriage] does not mean that Eliza was not Joseph’s wife “in very deed,” however. …Eliza testified that other women also were “the bona fide wives of Pres. Joseph Smith,” implying that they were physically intimate with Joseph and enjoyed full conjugal rights.

This same letter (to Daniel Munns) is the “evidence” that Laura Hales mentions above that they claim make it difficult to determine if the marriage between Eliza and Joseph was consummated. Hales quotes this letter on his website, but only what I have attributed to him below. The material he leaves out makes the letter appear to say something totally different. Hales employs this tactic with numerous “primary” sources.

The letter in question reads (As per Hales),

You ask (referring to Pres. Smith), “Did he authorize or practice spiritual wifery? Were you a spiritual wife?’ I certainly shall not acknowledge myself of having been a carnal one” . . . . I am personally and intimately acquainted with several ladies now living in Utah who accepted the pure and sacred doctrine of plural marriage, and were the bona fide wives of Pres. Joseph Smith.” (Eliza R. Snow, Letter to Daniel Munns, May 30, 1877, Community of Christ Archives)

It is important to note Hales ellipses. What did Snow mean by “a carnal one”? That she didn’t have sex with Joseph Smith? This is what the Hales would have us believe but this contradicts another statement attributed to Eliza Snow that Hales tries to cast doubt on,

He [Joseph Smith III] said, “I am informed that Eliza Snow was a virgin at the time of her death.” I in turn said, “Brother Heber C. Kimball, I am informed, asked her the question if she was not a virgin although married to Joseph Smith and afterwards to Brigham Young, when she replied in a private gathering, ‘I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that.’” (Angus Cannon, Statement, in 1905 interview with Joseph Smith III, LDS Church History Library.)

So what’s the deal here? Simply that Eliza R. Snow did not like the term “spiritual wifery”. Why? Because she thought it implied the system attributed to John C. Bennett that was unspiritual or carnal. If one simply reads the 1828 definition of the word carnal, this becomes clear:

1. Pertaining to flesh; fleshly; sensual; opposed to spiritual; as carnal pleasure. (1828 Webster’s Dictionary)

Snow was not denying that she ever had sex with Smith or even being ambiguous, but that the relationship was carnal, or unspiritual. That is why she adds that she is “personally and intimately acquainted with several ladies now living in Utah who accepted the pure and sacred doctrine of plural marriage, and were the bona fide wives of Pres. Joseph Smith.” They were bona fide wives the same as Eliza herself was.

“Pure and Sacred” doctrine (or spiritual), verses “spiritual wifery” (carnal). Bona fide wives, not simply sex partners as in Bennett’s system.

These are the kinds of examples that the article by Foster and Hales are full of. It is easy to bandy about the term defamation, but a lot harder to prove it in relation to Joseph Smith’s polygamy.

Now, Brian Hales has access to the entire letter written to Daniel Munns, but he doesn’t quote the whole letter, or at least the portion between his ellipses. Brian Hales has posted much of his polygamy research online, and among those items is the complete letter from Eliza R. Snow to Daniel Munns. I post it here:Eliza R. Snow to Daniel Munns 1

Eliza R. Snow to Daniel Munns 2

The entire letter makes it perfectly clear what Eliza R. Snow was getting at when she was asked about being a “spiritual wife”. She writes,

You ask (referring to Pres. Smith), Did he authorize or practice spiritual wifery? Were you a spiritual wife?’ I certainly shall not acknowledge myself of having been a carnal one.

Here is where Brian Hales employs the ellipses. Here is what he left out which totally explains Eliza R. Snow’s context:

It would be rather difficult to measure the amount of spirituality, I was in possession of, so as to make an estimate[.] I candidly confess “spiritual wifery” I know nothing of [–]only as the term was used as an epithet with which to stigmatize those of us who valiantly moved forward in obedience to the commands of God, in establishing the practice of plurality.

I am personally and intimately acquainted with several ladies now living in Utah who accepted the pure and sacred doctrine of plural marriage, and were the bona fide wives of Pres. Joseph Smith — noble and intelligent woman, who live to honor him, and who revere his memory and anticipate holding the same endearing relationship with him in eternity — having been connected to him by the same power and authority which Christ conferred on the Apostle Peter, by which “whatsoever he bound on earth should be bound in heaven” &c.

What is also interesting here (and what you don’t see Hales quote) is that Eliza Snow expressly claims that she was,

…married to Joseph Smith, the Prophet, more than two years previous to his death — not by a hireling Priest with usurped authority, but by a man of God who has been legally authorized to preform the sacred ordinance of marriage, An ordinance which unites for time and for eternity.

Snow claims that she was married in an ordinance that unites for time and eternity. The letter above shows that Snow considered the term “spiritual wife” repulsive and that it was only used as an epithet to stigmatize (disgrace) those who moved forward in obedience in establishing the practice of plurality. But you would not know this from the selective way that Brian Hales quotes the letter. So much for transparency.

These are not the words of someone who was simply “sealed” to Joseph Smith. This strongly implies the marriage was for time and consummated. This is what the sources that Alex Beam cites convey.

Using this letter to try and claim that the evidence is conflicting about sexuality in the marriage is quite simply disingenuous of Brian and Laura Hales.

If we couple that letter with the comments made by Angus Cannon we get a clear picture of the relationship between Eliza Snow and Joseph Smith. She was his wife and lover. Technically this is correct, since there wasn’t a legal marriage between Joseph Smith and Eliza R. Snow and there could not have been, according to the Times and Seasons:

The saints of the last days have witnessed the outgoings and incomings of so many apostates that nothing but truth has any effect upon them. In the present instance, after the sham quotations of Sidney and his clique, from the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants, to skulk off, under the “dreadful splendor” of “spiritual wifery,” which is brought into the account as graciously as if the law of the land allowed a man a plurality of wives, is fiendish, and like the rest of Sidney’s revelation, just because he wanted “to go to Pittsburg [Pittsburgh] and live.” Wo to the man or men who will thus wilfully [willfully] lie to injure an innocent people! The law of the land and the rules of the church do not allow one man to have more than one wife alive at once, but if any man’s wife die, he has a right to marry another, and to be sealed to both for eternity; to the living and the dead! there is no law of God or man against it! This is all the spiritual wife system that ever was tolerated in the church, and they know it. (Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, Nov. 15, 1844, p. 715, emphasis mine).

Conclusion

This is only one example of the many problems with the apologetic approach of those like Brian Hales. There are many, many more that I have documented and will be presenting in the near future with Jeremy Runnells. Though there are some problems with some of what Alex Beam presents in American Crucifixion, I think overall, he got it right.