Famous Book on Mormonism Republished 175 Years Later
Now with explanatory notes and commentary
June 1, 2015.
Salt Lake City—The most famous early critical look at the Mormon faith was the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed. The odd spelling of “unvailed” was considered proper at the time of the book’s publication. The author, Eber D. Howe, was a fiery Ohio newspaper editor, good with words and unusually knowledgeable about Mormonism. With good reason, too, because his wife and sister were among the earliest converts to the movement. Prominent Mormon historian Richard Bushman has called Mormonism Unvailed “the single most influential critical book on Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century.”
This month Signature Books is releasing a new edition of the book with critical comments from award-winning historian Dan Vogel. In his commentary, Vogel takes a fresh look at the evidence Howe assembled and analyzes its credulity, sometimes finding it accurate and sometimes not. Vogel added explanatory appendices and an index. Until now, readers have had to rely on messy photocopies or consult rare surviving copies of the book in library archives. The new edition has been re-typeset and released as both a print volume and e-book.
And what a read it is!
Howe began writing about the new religion in upstate New York already in 1829 for the Painesville Telegraph, its offices located, by coincidence, about ten miles from the soon-to-be headquarters of the Mormon Church in Kirtland, Ohio. He wrote some of the earliest public accounts of the alleged discovery of a “golden bible” by Joseph Smith. When Sidney Rigdon, the charismatic Ohio preacher, joined the Mormon faith and brought along his congregation, Howe grew increasingly interested, especially when Smith ordered his New York converts to Kirtland. Howe began corresponding extensively with reporters in New York and with former members, Smith family neighbors, and critics.
In Mormonism Unvailed, Howe reprinted documents that are now seen as essential sources for scholars of early Mormonism—letters from disaffected member Ezra Booth, affidavits from Smith neighbors in New York, and important internal documents that disaffected members smuggled into his hands. At the time, the Mormon Church was secretive. Non-members were not allowed to attend services. The administrative deliberations were conducted behind closed doors. Even some of the revelations later included in the Doctrine and Covenants were shared only with church members.
If nothing else, Howe shows us what mainstream America thought of the young faith and its prophet, especially the dim view Joseph Smith’s in-laws and other former associates held of him. There are also acclimations of faith, confessions of disillusionment, and factual accounts of such events as Zion’s Camp, the Mormon militia that marched to aid besieged Latter-day Saints in Missouri.
Despite Howe’s dismissive tone, his information is expansive and has been repeatedly shown to be more accurate than some later narratives. His information from eye witnesses about how the Book of Mormon was dictated by means of a seer stone placed in a hat, has since been substantiated. The consensus is that Mormonism Unvailed demands a place on the shelf of every serious student of early Mormonism.
“Dan Vogel has done an exceptional work of editing and annotating this indispensable historical source,” says well-known Mormon historian Jan Shipps. “Mormonism Unvailed has long deserved a critical edition, which this new volume handsomely supplies.” Ann Taves, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara writes, “Vogel adds an impressive set of scholarly notes and cross references that will aid modern readers as they weigh these controversial historical texts. Thanks to Signature Books for supplying historians with a new edition of this important work.”