A Student of History

December 7, 2007

Hitchens on Mormonism

Filed under: Early America,The past that is still with us — John Maass @ 5:43 pm


At Slate, Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist to be sure, provides a narrative of what Mitt Romney holds to be true.   The tone of the piece is, to be sure, not what one would call “pro-Mormon,” as this excerpt demonstrates:

In March 1826 a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a twenty-one-year-old man of being “a disorderly person and an impostor.” That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or “necromantic” powers. However, within four years he was back in the local newspapers (all of which one may still read) as the discoverer of the “Book of Mormon.” He had two huge local advantages which most mountebanks and charlatans do not possess. First, he was operating in the same hectically pious district that gave us the Shakers and several other self-proclaimed American prophets. So notorious did this local tendency become that the region became known as the “Burned-Over District,” in honor of the way in which it had surrendered to one religious craze after another. Second, he was operating in an area which, unlike large tracts of the newly opening North America, did possess the signs of an ancient history.

One of the interesting comments made by Hitchens is that for historians, the actual story of Joseph Smith’s shenanagins “is almost embarrassing to read, and almost embarrassingly easy to uncover.”  The records for the most part are all there, in court documents and newspaper reports.  


  1. I wonder what’s so embarrassing about Mormon origins for historians? What do historians have to be embarrassed about? If Hitchens knew much about the court documents that he claims to “uncover,” he’d know that it isn’t as simple as he claims.

    Comment by David Grua — December 7, 2007 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

  2. I think what he meant (and I cannot be totally sure of course) is that for historians willing to bother to look at the documents its very easy to see JS’s “colorful” background, and thus it would be easy to see how shaky the basis of his cult was.

    Comment by John Maass — December 7, 2007 @ 11:50 pm | Reply

  3. I didn’t know that it was the historian’s job (or within his/her ability) to determine the validity of faith claims. I’m sure glad Mr. Hitchins knows enough about the historian’s craft to make an informed comment here.

    Comment by David Grua — December 7, 2007 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

    • Actually, historians only uncover facts..determining validity is what the readers do (including peer groups). If people are offended by what the author has uncovered disclosed, or determined, then they accuse the author of things they don’t like.

      Comment by mark ferguson — September 26, 2014 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

  4. for historians willing to bother to look at the documents its very easy to see JS’s “colorful” background, and thus it would be easy to see how shaky the basis of his cult was.

    I guess Mr. Hitchens is not aware that historians have been doing this for years. Some have, as you put it, seen “how shaky the basis of his cult was.” Others have come to much different conclusions, and a large number have found the history to be neither “embarrassing to read” nor Joseph Smith’s “shenanagins” “almost embarrassingly easy to uncover.”

    Comment by Christopher — December 8, 2007 @ 12:08 am | Reply

  5. Although not accepting Mormonism’s faith claims, John L. Brooke certainly did not think that the basis for JS’s “cult” was shaky, but rather a complex amalgamation of hermetical and radical thought.

    Comment by David Grua — December 8, 2007 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  6. David you are correct about Brooke’s take on things in The Refiner’s Fire [http://www.cambridge.org/us/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521565646]–however, you perhaps miss the point that I think CH is making, which is to say that with regard to Smith’s story in the 1800s, it must be seen in relation to his shady past, etc. That doesn’t mean what he was doing is not rooted in the distant past, even if he did not know it. And of course it is not the historian’s job to determine the validity of faith claims–again here I think you miss the point. CH isn’t evaluating theology, he’s stating the rather clear point that based on Smith’s record, the claims he made, the NUMEROUS inconsistencies he made, etc., a historian can make an evaluation as to Mormonism’s rise and growth since Smith’s doings–which I definitely see as suspect. I do not know if CH has explored the historiography on Mormonism’s genesis (pun intended), and I kind of think that in the Slate piece, he is not really being a historian, but more of a critic. Cordially, JM

    Comment by John Maass — December 8, 2007 @ 12:20 am | Reply

  7. […] Filed under: Early America, The world today — John Maass @ 2:11 pm A follow up to my previous post entitled Hitchens on Mormonism.  It should be noted that Hitchens is absolutely no friend of […]

    Pingback by More on History & Mormonism « A Student of History — December 12, 2007 @ 2:11 pm | Reply

  8. Not only does mormonism lack credibility, christianity is very questionable as well

    Paulkovich concludes:

    When I consider those 126 writers, all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not – and Paul and Marcion and Athenagoras and Matthew with a tetralogy of opposing Christs, the silence from Qumram and Nazareth and Bethlehem, conflicting Bible stories, and so many other mysteries and omissions – I must conclude that Christ is a mythical character.

    Comment by mark ferguson — September 26, 2014 @ 2:40 pm | Reply

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