WIVES OF THE PROPHET
Have no faith in history, look upon it as a mass of fabrications,
concocted, like modern newspapers, not with any regard to truth,
or the interests oh humanity, but to deceive the multitude.
JAMES BRONTERRE O'BRIEN
Sidney Bell's book, Wives of the Prophets makes use of all the imagery which has been created in the course of historical anti-Mormonism, particularly highlighting the alleged prurience of Mormons. It is an offensive treatment of Mormonism in general and Joseph Smith in particular.
The book contains all the charges ever made against Smith, Latter-day Saint leaders and members and offers explanations of the origin of the Book of Mormon not found in other works. It was published in 1936 and is the source of much offensive innuendo and historical inaccuracy still common to writers whose imaginations exceed their capacity for research.
The book's cover shows Joseph Smith in a classic devotional pose against a backdrop of Nauvoo. His wife, Emma, is caressing a young girl. Two other females are pictured. Both are naked from the waist up, one with her forearms resting atop of her head exposing her breasts, the other prostrate on the ground.
The jacket note reads:
Mormonism is a fascinating subject, and here we read of the early beginnings of the new religion which built the famous Salt Lake City and spread its tentacles throughout the world. Joe Smith hypnotised the gentle Emma into marriage and subsequent misery, and how he blazed across a continent calling upon the people to become devotees of Mormonism, is told by an extremely talented author who has superb mastery of his theme.
But to Joe, half-fanatic, half-charlatan, fame brought a sense of power which led him to mania. Under the guise of wedding maidens to his church, what was easier than the practice of seduction on a grand scale? So he roared his way through life, leaving a trail of misery and heart-break behind him until Nemesis overtook him and he died a hideous but just death...
Before the book is opened, before the evidence is presented, Smith is tried and condemned. A note inside the book proclaims:
COLOSSAL EGOTIST, RIBALD WIT, HANDSOME GIANT, RUTHLESS enemy, loud-mouthed braggart, magnificent villain, eloquent orator, organizing genius, religious charlatan, great administrator, master politician, cheap exhibitionist - Joe Smith, the Prophet of the Mormon Church, worshipped as a martyred saint by half a million souls in the United States to-day, was all of these. He is probably the most spectacular personality in the whole of American history. He created a great private empire in the Middle West. He ruled his tens of thousands of converts like an Oriental despot. And when his gigantic lust demanded more and more women, he successfully promulgated among his devout, strait-laced, puritanical followers a new moral code embracing polygamy. In this brilliant novel, Sydney Bell has authoritatively created the life and times of Joe Smith, vividly picturing for the reader the ecstasy, the heart-break, the exaltation, and the disillusion of the women whose lives he dominated. The stories of Emma, Felicity, and Susa are deeply moving and unforgettable. Wives of the Prophet should appeal to all those interested in the dramatic reproduction of American history, as well as those who enjoy a significant human story well told.
Perhaps in an afterthought having read the publishing editor's exaggerated claims, Bell makes a feeble attempt to distance himself from the statement that the book contains a "dramatic reproduction of American History" by adding a simple note after the close of the book's authored text to the effect that it is not strictly accurate. However, by the time this apology is read the damage has been done.
Throughout the book the character of Joseph Smith and his family are referred to in the most negative terms. Joseph is portrayed as being involved with:
"the occult...blood sacrifices...seeking hidden treasure."
Bell writes of:
"[Joseph's] necromancy...a menace...destructive...pollute[ing] the morals of our people...[carrying out] practices of the devil...[preying] upon the daughter of a defenceless widow ,.. witchcraft...sacrilege...taking the hard-earned money of poor.[Joseph is]...an iniquitous son of Satan,.[a] defiler of women, indolent and idle, a vagabond by nature.
Bell resorts to the discredited art of physiognomy to emphasise the overall evil of Smith:
"The aquiline nose suggested intractable pride; the chin, petulant wilfulness; the full lips of the somewhat crooked mouth, sensuousness and arrogance."
Not content with redefining Joseph Smith's features, Bell also redefines his family:
"...a crazy mother and father, a worthless family" and blames Lucy, Joseph's mother, for her son's "morbid pathology and errant sense of destiny", continuing to describe the family in emotionally negative terms; for instance Lucy's children as "young animals...Ma Smith [as] high-strung.", and he even creates a negative image for the Smith's tree! "a charred and blackened giant pine raised aloft two burned arms as if to curse its brutal enemies."
No detail of Smith's life escapes the soaring imagination of Bell's 'masterly portrait'.
No innuendo remains unused which can be employed to explain how Joseph became the man Bell represents him as being. Smith's interest in treasure is explained by his copy of "Adventures of Captain Kidd", as 'mutilated' as the family Bible, which are found in the Smith's tumble-down home. These provided images make connections in the reader's mind with allegations that Smith dug for Captain Kidd's treasure, and that this activity suggested to him the story of the gold plates.
The 'mutilated' Bible conveys the idea of Smith's carelessness in spiritual matters, which idea is useful to discount Latter-day Saint claims of Smith's intrinsic religious character. Allusions to superstition suffuse the book as Bell informs his readers of the contribution he considers superstition to have made in forming the Latter-day Saint Gospel.
The publishers inform the reader that Bell has authoritatively recreated the life and times of Joe Smith. But Bell himself refuted this overstated claim. However, when the claim has been believed it has been accepted as the countenance of truth in a form difficult to counter. Bell's novel casts its images in concrete and its damage may well be irrecoverable.
The spurious addition of "Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah" by the imaginative and fact-famished Sydney Bell to Joseph's baptismal name leads the reader to the idea that the Prophet's mother had urged her son towards prophethood because of her own religiose superstition.
Smith's lineage is reinvented to provide him with non-existent Irish progenitors, possibly to capitalise on the British fear of and prejudice towards Irish Catholic immigration which was also prevalent in nineteenth century America of. Joseph is also supplied with a non-existent history of epilepsy. Likewise the Smith family's alleged "immoralities" are introduced as is the claim that they were an
untrustworthy, illiterate and irreligious clan, entirely destitute of moral character".
This last phrase is lifted directly from the Hurlburt affidavit published a hundred and two years earlier in Howe's "Mormonism Unvailed". Howe provides statements from the Smiths' former Palmyra neighbours which describe them as "entirely destitute of moral character". Accounts of their religious affiliations are incorrect, and it is difficult to imagine what purpose this is intended to serve.
Bell ignores the importance of social and religious experiences common in early nineteenth century frontier America. Other families have ordinary devotional meetings but the Smiths have
weird religious gatherings. [They] believed in fairies, ghosts, witches, and hobgoblins. [Lucy Smith was] neurotic, her head was hatchet-shaped...[with] a vacant stare, [and] hands...like claws, [the repository of] abysmal ignorance and primitive fanaticism.
Bell considers Joseph Smith Sr.., the prophet's father to be "meek and indolent", which makes him of no further interest. To justify his wildly imaginative portrayal of his subject, Joseph Jr. Bell describes him as being:
much given to lying and the telling of wild, incredible stories...with a fatal fascination for certain sisters ... a vagabond, dead-beat, ignoramus, illiterate dunce, numb-skull, blustering rake, fanatic, lying, charlatan, scheming imposter, wife-beater, crazy diviner, conjuror, devil exorcist, instrument of hell, and [a] seducer of young girls.
These florid extracts by no means exhaust Bell's descriptiive powers through which he fictionises his subject in a manner which leave no room for any conclusion other than the Smiths were true to the images he has been careful to construct. His attempt to distance himself from the excesses of his own imagination is too little and too late when, in what seems to be an uncharacteristic flurry of conscience, he pens his final words,
No character in this story has been drawn with literal historical accuracy. S.B.
He can say that again!
The power of fiction lies in its ability to convert the writers ideas into the reader's reality. History appears to confirm the proposition that Bell's efforts to gather all anti-Mormonism’s imagery into one work has made its mark in contributions of many later anti-Mormon writers down to the present time, and the issues he deals with remain a potent force in anti-Mormon persecution. Bell's book may account for many unaccredited and unreferenced charges against Mormonism which appear in later publications.
Bell's theory of the origin of the Book of Mormon is that Smith and Sidney Rigdon met three years before the book was published, after Rigdon had stolen the "Spaulding manuscript" from Patterson's printing shop where he was employed. Brinkerhoff alone agrees with this claim.
According to Bell, Joseph covered a brick with cloth to fool people into believing that he had some gold plates. He has "Mrs Tunk" [obviously Martin Harris' wife] take the characters to Professor Anthon who declared them to be "a mixture of New Testament and romantic fiction", which may be a reading back to the "Walters Theory" of the origin of the Book of Mormon.
Bell is uncharacteristically correct when he writes, "the orthodox clergy and a few newspaper editors raised the voice of warning". But he aims layer upon layer of negative impressions at his readers' minds.
Turning from Smith's general character to his sexuality, which Bell introduced earlier by a casual reference to his uncontrollable sexual appetite, he writes of "certain young women, secretly sure in intimate memories".
He cites Joseph Smith as an adulterer and presents many other grave charges towards him, including the responsibility for the suicide of a young girl. Allegations of sexual impropriety by Joseph are extended to Sidney Rigdon, who encounters
Frieda, now seventeen, who had grown into a ripe, voluptuously beautiful creature [whose] slow, rather heavy Nordic sensuousness stirred a flame in the breast of the ascetic Sidney [who] found Frieda stretched on his bed ...
The aposiopesis insinuates what Bell is too delicate to write. But he is not so reticent when he writes of Smith's adultery:
Joe's eyes saw her plainly. He took in her slender strength, her white skin, her full bosom against which hung two ropes of black hair, one over each breast...'I've come to claim my reward for a good day's work!' he laughed, coming close to her...she backed away from him, her crossed arms trying to cover her bare breasts...tonight he studied the woman in the candle-light with the appraising eye of one who knows horse-flesh and woman's equally well. Slipping the garment from her shoulders, his heavy, grasping hands felt her breasts, then ran down her sides and thighs ... she swayed towards the excited man, whose daring, aggressive hands explored her yielding, quivering body with practised touch...he took her roughly, viciously, giving full vent to the accumulated lust of a month's abstinence. It was no concern of his to know what happened to the woman whose body he ravaged ... finished with her, the Prophet flung himself on his back and was instantly asleep.
The Prophet Joseph Smith is described as being driven by uncontrollable sexual desires, claiming divine revelation to secure the body of any woman he chooses. Not only does Smith's "conduct [grow] steadily more flagrant", but so do his "shiftless, dissipating habits and obscene profanity". According to Bell he organises death-squads, authorises religious murders, practices Blood Atonement, a libel equivalent in falsity and horror to the anti-Semitic blood-libels, as
rumours circulated, laying arson and murder at the Prophet's door...rumours of fiendish, diabolical orgies of sinister abnormal practices. The Prophet is portrayed as "[raping] a child...of sacrificing a dog as part of his ministry...of having the Saints sing praises to him, instead of God...being "a false prophet who made seduction a religious ritual ... telling his people to "go and take" what they wanted...having a "roving eye...being lustful...committing adultery on his way to the Temple...reviving the Danites...pretending to miracles and spiritual gifts...keeping a rabbit's foot ... racism ... adultery ... drunkardness ... promulgating a doctrine [polygamy] that "[brings] pain and shame to once happy homes...having Apostles who consort with prostitutes ... pretending to revelations ... political machinations ... building himself a palace ... having the Spaulding manuscript, making "seduction holy"... being "a devil", and "a debauchee"... with "an uncanny natural genius for managing people"... being a "Seer, Magician, Devil, Prophet"... having the people pray "in the name of the Father, the Prophet and the Book of Mormon"... of being one whose "youthful peccadilloes had given way in later years to a safer and maturer scallawagery"... of choosing himself as first mayor of Nauvoo, and of being violent toward his enemies.
Bell also has the "Mormon leaders indicted for treason, murder, larceny and arson", and writes of "Mormon Rats", robbers, liars, cheats", misrepresents the Church's economic order and has Emma reject Joseph's prophetic calling which is a theme that pervades his work.
Only when he writes "frequently the mobs had been led by a clergyman" and, "there had arisen a steady and concerted anti-Mormon movement", does Bell speak the truth.
But he abandons accuracy, attributing anti-Mormonism to the "irresponsible and autocratic aggression of the Apostles," and in the latter years the "immoralities reputed prevalent" among "the higher authorities of the Church."
Although Bell is careful to say 'reputed' his book is written from the perspective that the charges are proven, Wives of the Prophet, has secured its place as a classic of anti-Mormon literature.
While it is neither history or an accurate or fair representation of Mormons and Mormonism, it nonetheless deserves some credit for being the extreme anti-Mormon book. Not one of the grave charges brought against the Church and its leaders over the course of its history is omitted and no opportunity lost to repeat falsehoods as often his manipulation of the narrative allows.
The images Bell constructs are powerful, compelling, and repulsive, but in the context of his book, and within the imaginary Mormon world created by hostile ministries, they are not only believable, but unforgettable.