Ep 1 – Introduction to Joseph Smith and Naked Mormonism Podcast
On this episode, we begin with a very brief introduction to the purpose and focus of this podcast. After that, we take some time to discuss the history of Joseph Smith from birth to his early public life. Various details of the Smith family are revealed by neighbors as well as Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother. We also get a very simplistic understanding of magic and occult traditions followed by the Smith family and Joseph specifically. The episode ends with a short introduction to the host, Bryce Blankenagel, as well as a directory to the backlog of the podcast.
This edition of Episode 1 was recorded after the end of the “Road to Carthage” series which marked the end of Joseph Smith’s life.
Show notes of entire historical timeline: http://scripts.nakedmormonismpodcast.com/
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Naked-Mormonism/370003839816311Patreon http://patreon.com/nakedmormonismMusic by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Welcome to Naked Mormonism, the serial Mormon history podcast. I’m your host, Bryce Blankenagel; I’m a history communicator and I really appreciate you taking some time to give this podcast a listen. This show is a chronological history of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today boasts a membership of over 16 million people and is the wealthiest and most politically powerful religion in America. The religion started by Joseph Smith, originally called the Church of Christ, eventually became The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has over 400 child sects as of the early 21st century. Mormonism, for many, is more than just a religion, but an identity. Mormons pride themselves as being a peculiar people. A peculiar people obviously carry a peculiar history and the focus of this podcast is to demystify and secularize the history of Mormonism. I’ve done my best to make the chronology of early Mormonism interesting and accessible even to those with absolutely no background or personal attachment to the religion or culture. Believe it or not, Mormon history is interesting enough that even those who’ve never been a member can find it just as fascinating as those who believe the supernatural claims made by the various leaders of the various sects. My hope is that, regardless of your personal beliefs, you find the field of Mormon history fascinating and the characters within it compelling, flawed, and most importantly, human.
At the end of today’s episode, I’ll give a brief introduction to myself as well as a directory for the backlog of the podcast. With that introduction out of the way, let’s begin with the history of early Mormonism in the only place we can, the founder himself, Joseph Smith.
Jo was born in Sharon, Vermont on December 23, 1805. Brief sidenote, if you don’t like Joseph Smith being called “Jo,” this may not be the podcast for you, but I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and keep listening.
The Smith family were exceptionally destitute, forcing the members of the family to seek nearly any source of income to keep themselves fed. Most of what we know about Jo’s early life comes from his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, when she dictated her personal history of the Smith family and Joseph Smith in 1845 after Jo was assassinated while running for President of the United States. Sources of Jo’s early life outside Lucy’s Biographical Sketches don’t emerge until the early to mid-1820s when Jo began to enter the public sphere and make a name for himself.
Joseph’s parents are fascinating people, Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. Joseph Sr. didn’t seem to be much for religion, instead engaging in more spiritual and magical pursuits, which we’ll discuss momentarily. Lucy, on the other hand, was much more inclined toward organized religion. She remembers:
while we were yet living in the Town of Tunbridge I was very seriously impressed the subject of religion occasioned probably by my singular experience while sick at Randolf and I endeavored to persuade my husband to attend the methodist meeting with me he went a few times to gratify me for he had so little faith in the doctrines taught by them that my feelings were the only inducement for him to go—But as soon as his Father and brother Jesse heard that we were attending Methodist meeting they were much displeased and his father came to the door one day and threw Tom Pains age of reason into the house and angrily bade him read that untill he believed it24 [p.292]they also told him thou [sic] he ought not to let his wife go to the meetings and it would be far better for him to stop going ~~this gave me very~~ accordingly my husband requested me not to go as it gave our friends such disagreeable feelings he thought it was hardly worth our while
While Joseph Sr. was chastised by his in-laws to read the quintessential pamphlet of deism by Thomas Paine, Lucy began her own quest for spiritual enlightenment. Lucy went into “a grove of handsome wild cherry trees and prayed to the Lord that he <would> so influence the heart of my husband that he would be induced to receive the gospel”. Lucy didn’t receive her enlightenment in the woods that day, but instead went home “depressed in spirits”. However, as she was falling asleep that night, a vision opened to her where she “gazed upon [beautiful trees] with wonder and admiration, and after beholding them a short time, I saw one of them was surrounded with a bright belt, that shone like burnished gold, but far more brilliantly.” As she viewed these trees with a fairy ring about their base, she noticed the trees were blowing in the wind and seemed “lively and animated” in appearance, which conveyed “the utmost joy and happiness.” A dancing sunbeam shone down on everything in her vision that night and Lucy “wondered… What can be the meaning of all this? And the interpretation given me was, that the personated my husband and his oldest brother, Jesse Smith; that the stubborn and unyielding tree was like Jesse; that the other, more pliant and flexible, was like Joseph, my husband; that the breath of heaven, which passed over them, was the pure and undefiled Gospel of the Son of God, which Gospel Jesse would always resist, but which Joseph, when he was more advanced in life, would hear and receive with his whole heart, and rejoice therein”.
Soon after Lucy had her vision, Joseph Sr. had a series of 7 similar visions which also included descriptions of him eating plants that were likely psychedelic, and seeing wealthy people in a great and spacious building. Elements within these visions would resurface in Jo’s own writings within the pages of the Book of Mormon and Book of Moses with the visions of Lehi, Nephi, and Enoch. It’s also worth noting that the visions Lucy reported she and her husband had were only ever written down in her memoir, dictated in 1845, 15 years after the Book of Mormon was published and the church was founded by her son, Joseph Jr. The direction of influence of these visions remains a subject of controversy among historians today. What is undisputed, however, is that the Smith family in the 1800-20s were seekers, rarely siding with any specific religious creed in lieu of wandering the world of non-denominational spiritualism. This helps us to understand the magic worldview of the Smith family and other aspects of their story we’ll discuss in a few minutes.
Before that, a few stories from Jo’s early childhood are worth mentioning. The Smith children were stricken with an epidemic of typhoid. Jo’s eldest sister, Sophronia, lay catatonic for nearly 3 months and was presumed dead before she recovered. Young Joseph also took ill and recovered, but not without long-term consequences. A growth emerged on his shoulder which was lanced, but the infection remained. It eventually migrated to his leg and he was unable to walk for weeks. Finally, a surgeon resolved to amputate young Jo’s leg. Amputation in the 19th-century was a condemnation to a life of vagrancy, and Lucy wanted better for her son. Lucy recalls the conversation with the surgeon:
“amputation is absolutely necessary in order to save his life.” This was like a thunderbolt to me. I appealed to the principal surgeon, saying, “Dr. Stone, can you not make another trial? Can you not, by cutting around the bone, take out the diseased part, and perhaps that which is sound will heal over, and by this means you will save his leg? You will not, you must not, take off his leg, until you try once more. I will not consent to let you enter his room until you make me this promise.”
According to Lucy, the surgeon agreed to cut out the infected portion of bone instead of amputating. The operation ended up succeeding, but it left unseen scars in the mind of the young boy. He apparently refused to be bound to the table with cords and refused any alcohol to mitigate the pain. Mormons are taught in Sunday school that this is evidence of Jo’s temperance and is often taught in conjunction with the health code prohibiting alcohol, the Word of Wisdom. However, the story is best understood when we attribute Jo’s aversion to alcohol as a result of his father’s bouts of debauchery. Joseph Sr. was a noted drunk around town and even excused his conduct in a patriarchal blessing to his son who was always helping the Smith family while Joseph Sr. was “out of the way with wine”. Young Jo had his entire childhood of seeing what alcohol did to his father and how his mother reacted to Joseph Sr. often being drunk and likely refused on those bases. Once again, however, we only know this story from Lucy remembering it nearly 3 decades after it happened so we have to take the story with a grain of salt. During his recovery period from this surgery, Jo’s older brothers, Hyrum and Alvin, cared for the young boy, often carrying him around when he became tired from walking on crutches.
The Smith family eventually moved from Vermont to Palmyra, New York in search of livelihood following the summer without sun. This summer without sun was the result of a volcanic eruption which created an atmospheric blanket and starved crops for the year of 1816. The Smiths made their living largely from menial labor and by running a “cake and beer” shop. This cake and beer would be made by Lucy and distributed around town, particularly in the summer, by the children and Joseph Sr. Lucy also painted rugs and did palm readings to help make ends meet. They also harvested and made maple sugar during the winters to sell, Lucy claims they made upwards of 1000 lbs per year.
At the age of 14, a fascinating occurrence happened to Joseph Smith. Once again, this comes from Lucy who believed her beloved son, Joseph, could do no wrong, which makes the occurrence that much more remarkable.
At the age of fourteen, an incident occurred which alarmed us much, as we knew not the cause of it. Joseph being a remarkably quiet, well disposed child, we did not suspect that any one had aught against him. He was out one evening on an errand, and, on returning home, as he was passing through the door yard a gun was fired across his pathway, with the evident intention of shooting him. He sprang to the door much frightened. We immediately went in search of the assassin, but could find no trace of him that evening.2 The next morning we found his tracks under a waggon, where he lay when he fired; and the following day we found the balls which were discharged from the gun, lodged in the head and neck of a cow that was standing opposite the waggon, in a dark corner. We have not as yet discovered the man who made this attempt at murder, neither can we discover the cause thereof.
At the age of 14, somebody tried to murder the young boy. The circumstances and identity of this attempt are still unknown, leaving the details purely speculative. Speculation without being informed, however, is just dreaming. To understand what might motivate somebody to kill Joseph Smith at age 14, we need to understand how he and the rest of the Smith men were making money at this time. Let’s begin with how the Smiths became incredibly destitute to begin with.
Jo’s parents, Lucy and Joseph Sr. were married in 1796. According to Lucy’s family history, her brother Stephen gave her a wedding gift of $1,000. But, as a harbinger of future events, Joseph Sr. lost the entire amount when he got suckered in an investment scam. He spent the family’s savings buying ginseng, and then arranged to export it to China where the investment would return a healthy sum. His business partner, a Mr. Stevens, ran off to Canada with the entire proceeds of the deal, leaving Joseph Sr. with $1800 in debt, shouldered by the entire Smith family. They sold their farm, which was worth $1500, for just $800 to cover a portion of the debt. The other $1000 came out of Lucy’s wedding gift, leaving the newlyweds with nothing. The impacts of this situation are far-reaching because, I would speculate, the lesson little Jo took from his dad getting scammed was that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who cheat, and those who get cheated.
Lucy’s father let the newlyweds rent part of his Vermont farmland for a while until they got back on their feet. In order to finance the move to New York, Lucy had to sell everything they owned in order to pay their debts before they left, and Joseph Sr. had to borrow more money to pay for a wagon to carry them there. Lucy’s family history says she arrived in Palmyra with two cents in cash.
Their first year in New York they apparently did alright, mostly because Lucy started a successful business to decorate furniture with painted oilcloth, a source of income for nearly her entire life. Joseph Sr. and his sons built a cabin and cleared some farmland by felling trees on a small plot. But the second year they barely made their mortgage payment. Lucy says they were “destitute of money, property, or acquaintance.” The only reason they kept the farm was because the eldest son Alvin worked himself to the bone as a hired hand earning money to pay the mortgage. Alvin managed to stabilize his parents’ finances and started building them a nicer house by 1824, but then he got sick and died, leaving the family without its primary provider. Alvin’s death is a story for future episode.
The Smiths remained largely destitute. They started selling cake and beer, but unfortunately, Jo Sr. dabbled a little too deep into company stock. Neighbors said that Joseph Sr. was a “noted drunkard.” Neighbor Lorenzo Saunders even told a story about Joseph Sr. getting drunk at the pub and bragging about how big his dick was. Apparently the other drunks tried to measure it and pushed a ruler through the seat of his pants. At one point, Joseph Sr. attended a turkey shoot and was so wasted he tried to curse the other men’s guns so they’d miss every shot. Joseph Sr. was never a stable support for the family and we can understand the influences a father figure like this would have on young Joseph throughout his impressionable childhood and teenage years.
The Smith men mostly did odd jobs and didn’t have a very stable income or a great reputation in the neighborhood. One of the odd jobs they did was money-digging. This requires a bit of a treatment because it informs many of Jo’s religious praxis throughout his entire life and ministry. The Smith family believed the world was moved and shaped by magic. Lucy deals with criticisms the Smith family experienced relative to these magic practices in her memoir.
I shall change my theme for the present but let not my reader suppose that because I shall pursue another topic for a season that we stopt our labor and went <at> trying to win the faculty of Abrac drawing Magic circles or sooth saying to the neglect of all kinds of buisness we never during our lives suffered one important interest to swallow up every other obligation but whilst we worked with our hands we endeavored to remmember the service of & the welfare of our souls.
And not only temporal blessings were bestowed upon us, but also spiritual were administered. The Scripture, which saith, “Your old men shall dream dreams,” was fulfilled in the case of my husband, for, about this time, he had another vision, which I shall here relate;
After which she relates the sixth of seven visions Joseph Sr. experienced. I don’t want that phrase to get lost in the passage “trying to win the faculty of Abrac” is an important phrase. The faculty of Abrac is a magical invocation, a protection spell if you will. Abrac here could mean the spirit which moves and shapes the magic that flows through all life and throughout the universe or it could refer more explicitly to a specific spirit with more definite properties. These magical spirits shouldn’t be construed to be satanic or evil as the beliefs in magic are perfectly consistent with Christian theology. The faculty of Abrac wasn’t a deity to worship, it was merely a spirit by which the almighty god administered his will on the real world. In the mind of the Smiths, magic was what caused the grass to grow, the earth to turn, and the sun to shine. Achievements or good fortune are the blessings of god, misfortune and illness are curses from evil or familiar spirits. This world of occult traditions, and by occult I mean the ye olde definition of occultare which means to hide, conceal, secrete, or cover over, was the mechanism by which to understand the mind of god. The magic worldview may seem foreign to us today, but people sleep with crystals under their pillows and pray 5 times a day to their deity, some of those people face mecca, others speak the same exact prayers with the same words, same inflection, same tone of voice, same everything so as to not offend the almighty spirit. Natural disasters, pandemics, all forms of human suffering can be explained through the will and power of god within the magic worldview by people without the scientific underpinnings to understand what is really going on. Magic thinking takes on all forms and there are plenty of people alive today who engage in the exact occult practices the Smith family did for all sorts of purposes.
Part of this occult practice is coding information in stories. For example, Lucy Mack Smith recounts 5 of Joseph Sr.’s 7 dreams more than 30 years after he had them; it seems she was coding information in those visions for only those who know the world of magic and occult to have the spiritual eyes to decipher the stories. What that coded information is, well… that’s a story for another time.
How these magic and occult practices manifested in the Smith family came about in different ways. They would use divining rods, sticks made from metal or witch hazel sticks, to locate water or buried treasure. Modern prophets are called Prophets, seers, and revelators in the church, but the term seer has a rich tradition in occultism. A seer was a person who could literally see things that others couldn’t. They would use their spiritual eyes to locate what others desired. Think of it like gazing at a crystal ball, but less to do with prophesying future events and more to see objects or events that are existing or happening in some location that physical or natural eyes can’t see. Joseph Smith was a seer long before he became a Prophet or revelator and a magic rock viewed in a dark location was his magic implement of choice. There are many implements magic users will employ to understand the forces of god’s creation. Some will hold up a cane in the middle of a circle and wherever the cane falls will answer their question. Some will hold sticks and wait for the stick to twitch in their hands. Some will open the Bible to a random page and point to a random passage seeking an answer to a question they have. For some it’s astrology or numerology; all of these practices and magic tools operate in the world of the occult. The hidden world which underpins the physical world around us. Each of these tools reveal the unseen world, and therefore the mind and will of god.
These magic practices also create an economy. A person who can see things others can’t claims a skill other people don’t have, and can therefore charge money for it. To make ends meet, at night the Smiths would go out and dig for Indian springs, old Spanish mines, or chests of pirate gold and other treasures. This may seem insane to us, but there was a whole treasure digging culture in New York, and a whole genre of stories about treasures guarded by spirits and ghosts. The common practice of treasure diggers was to hire a diviner or seer to locate the treasure, and a conjuror or necromancer to bind the spirit so they could get the treasure before the binding spell broke and the guardian spirit secreted the treasure in another location or further underground. But if you committed some error in the ritual, like speaking out of turn, placing the iron or witch-hazel rods in the wrong place on the ground, speaking the incantation incorrectly, performing the spell under the wrong governing planet, or myriad other errors, the spirit would whisk away the treasure and cause it to sink. The Ground Gnomes are so very elusive. Understandably, the treasure-digging group almost always committed some error or didn’t account for some variable and the treasure would be lost before it could be unearthed. Usually the conjuror still managed to walk away with a little pocket money from the person who hired them to begin with. The diggers themselves were probably comprised of some folks who understood it was all a con, and others who truly believed they’d eventually get the money located by the seer or diviner. However, other aspects of treasure digging were unabashedly a con.
Historian Dan Vogel in his biography of Joseph Smith has laid out convincingly how these seers and spirit conjurors basically were con artists preying on naive farmers by leading them on with the promise of treasure. Jo got pretty good at this hustle, a business he likely picked up from Joseph Sr. or myriad other magic mentors in his life like Samuel Lawrence, Sally Chase, Joseph Knight, or Luman Walters. Jo developed a reputation in the Palmyra and Manchester neighborhood for being a powerful seer. About 1823 he started telling stories about a golden book that was buried somewhere in the neighborhood-- an ancient record written on gold plates. While Alvin’s death is a story for another day, one of the last things that Alvin said to him before he died was “Do everything that lies in your power to obtain the record,” referring to the gold plates. With Alvin gone, Joseph Sr. drunk half the time, and Lucy at home trying desperately to support ten kids and make ends meet by painting rugs, Jo’s treasure-digging con offered a potential way to feed the family. Here’s one example, from a neighbor named William Stafford. According to Stafford, the Smiths
devised a scheme, by which they might satiate their hunger, with the mutton of one of my sheep. They had seen in my flock of sheep, a large, fat, black weather. Old Joseph and one of the boys came to me one day, and said that Joseph Jr. had discovered some very remarkable and valuable treasures, which could be procured only in one way. That way, was as follows: -- That a black sheep should be taken on to the ground where the treasures were concealed -- that after cutting its throat, it should be led around a circle while bleeding. This being done, the wrath of the evil spirit would be appeased: the treasures could then be obtained, and my share of them was to be four fold. To gratify my curiosity, I let them have a large fat sheep. They afterwards informed me, that the sheep was killed pursuant to commandment; but as there was some mistake in the process, it did not have the desired effect. This, I believe, is the only time they ever made money-digging a profitable business.
This language Stafford used here is super important. “Pursuant to commandment” and the weather being black particularly are both important ingredients to Christian occult magic. The lamb was to be used as the scapegoat for cleansing the diggers of any sins. They’d cast their sins into the weather, sacrifice it and spread its blood in a circle around the location of buried treasure, thus binding the treasure and its spirit guardian to the location long enough for them to unearth it and cast the guardian spirit off from the treasure. This is deeply rooted in Israelite Torah tradition of sacrificial offerings; they likely burned the lamb as offering once it had been bled out and then consumed the kosher meat.
D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View deals with this synthesis of Christian beliefs and occult traditions.
No known denunciation of the family ever used the phrase “faculty of Abrac,” even though Lucy Mack smith did. Neighbors accused Joseph Jr. and Sr. of practicing certain treasure-digging ceremonies, and it was Lucy Smith who used the phrase linking these accusations to ritual magic. Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman observed that thereby Lucy “revealed a knowledge of magic formulas and rituals.” One Palmyra resident reported that the prophet’s mother also performed various forms of magic divination, including palmistry… Marvin S. Hill has concluded: “In her mind magic circles, sooth saying, and other magical arts were one with her religious activities.”
Even the dagger they likely used in slitting the throat of the lamb had magical significance. “the Hyrum Smith family has preserved as an heirloom the kind of dagger necessary for ritual magic.” which Quinn prints pictures of in his book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Today’s perspective of the occult being tied to satanism and evil spirits is a modern perspective. The division between white and black magic was closely observed by Jo and the family in order to be shown the gift and power of god in all their endeavors. As we’ll see in coming episodes, it becomes possible to come to all sorts of conclusions about what god thinks is righteous or sinful when a person’s world view is shaped by this kind of thinking.
For a lot of people, the question then becomes, did Jo really believe in this magic or was it all a con? I think that’s a false dichotomy because both can be true. He made his meager living from clearly conning people with the hopes that one day the treasure they finally acquired would get him rich. Enough failed digs, however, will produce more deliberate cons to pay the bills. Produce enough deliberate cons and eventually they must evolve, expand, and adapt to changing circumstances and wider audiences; and thus, we see the blueprints of any religion right before our natural eyes.
Understandably, these cons eventually exhaust themselves for want of more credulous minds. If any con artist operates in a single location for long enough, their reputation will eventually precede them and business dries up because people talk to each other. As a result, the Smiths gained a pretty low reputation in New York while hunting for buried treasure under the cover of night.
There is no evidence that they actually found any treasure, making it pretty obvious, at least to educated people, that this whole thing was at worst a con, and at best a totally unproductive hobby. Notably as well, although there isn’t any solid evidence of this occurring with the Smith treasure diggers, buried treasure was a great way to launder counterfeit money. An habitually destitute person walks into the local shop with a bag of gold coins, people are going to be skeptical as to where it came from. Found it while digging in the woods is a satisfying explanation for a while and it may even motivate more folks to join the group and fund treasure digs of their own. When those digs came up dry, the conjuration was performed incorrectly and the dupe walks away with their pockets lighter and the Smiths have a few meals paid for. Accusations of counterfeit plagued Joseph Jr. for much of his public life and contributed to his assassination in Carthage Jail in 1844.
Hard-working people who take the slow, hard way to wealth have always looked at people who chase get-rich-quick schemes as lazy. Laziness became a common description of Jo and other members of the Smith family. A New York neighbor of the Smiths, Parley Chase, said in a sworn affidavit dated December 13, 1833 “that not one of the male members of the Smith family were entitled to any credit, whatsoever. They were lazy, intemperate and worthless men, very much addicted to lying. In this they frequently boasted of their skill. Digging for money was their principal employment.” A March 20, 1834 affidavit signed by 11 New York neighbors similarly said that the Smiths “were not only a lazy, indolent set of men, but also intemperate; and their word was not to be depended upon; and that we are truly glad to dispense with their society.” Henry Harris’s affidavit, signed December 9, 1833, said the Smiths “were regarded by the community in which they lived, as a lying and indolent set of men and no confidence could be placed in them. William Riley Hine said in an affidavit in the 1880s that he “heard a man say who was a neighbor to the Mormon Smith family, in Palmyra, N.Y., that they were thieves, indolent, the lowest and meanest family he ever saw or heard of.”
A mail carrier who regularly passed through Palmyra on his way back and forth from Canada to Kansas said in article published in the June 7, 1855 Texas Ranger, “[I] well remember of hearing frequently of the pranks of ‘Lazy Joe.’” Even Lorenzo Saunders, who liked Jo and defended him in a court of law and said the Smiths were great sugar makers, also said in a November 12, 1884 interview that “Joseph Smith never did work. They claim there in that book that Jo. Smith was a great worker. he was a lazy dog, I tell you the truth.”
Indolence, intemperance, laziness, not to be depended upon, addicted to lying. These are not resounding endorsements of Jo and the Smith family. I would balance these accusations with other quotes from people around the Smiths that state they were good people, temperate, kind, religious, devout, anything… but those don’t exist. In fact, almost anybody connected to the Smith family in the late 1810s into the late 1820s had nothing but bad to say about Jo and the Smiths. I’m always happy to be proven wrong and make corrections but after studying Jo’s early life quite a bit, the dearth of public statements that had anything nice to say about Jo is stark evidence of his character itself.
What follows this episode is a historical timeline in an attempt to construct a narrative of Joseph Smith’s life with the documents we have available to us. I want to commend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the incredible amount of work they’ve done digitizing documents from the Joseph Smith period of church history through their Joseph Smith Paper’s project. If not for the availability of these documents online, the job of collecting, analyzing, and collating them into a coherent timeline would have been a significantly more difficult endeavor.
That’s a brief introduction to the early life and history of Joseph Smith. What follows in the backlog of this podcast is a progression of the timeline from this point forward. Each episode is a scripted essay researched, written, recorded, and produced by yours truly. To explain what you’ll hear as you progress through the episodes, permit me a few minutes to tell you a little about myself.
I grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah. I checked all the boxes of a young man born of goodly parents in the church. Baptized at 8, priesthood at 12, patriarchal blessing at 14, home teaching, passing sacrament, eagle scout, priesthood callings, the whole gamut. I never much liked going to church but I had a solid testimony that the church is true. At about the age of 15, my lethargy for the high-demand church began to really sink in. A little after I turned 16, I told my parents I didn’t want to go to church anymore and they were okay with it. I have an older sister who’d stopped going to church before me so my parents learned from her that it was best to let me walk my own path, for which I’m forever grateful.
I graduated high school, went to a year of university at Weber State, go Wildcats, and dropped out to enter the workforce. I moved out on my own at the first possible moment and didn’t think much about religion or belief in god. I had listened to enough George Carlin that I considered all religions to be wrong and atheist was the best way to describe me. I eventually got a job driving a truck around Northern Utah which resulted in an epiphany, a story you’ll hear on the show eventually. From it, I learned to enjoy everything. It didn’t matter what I was doing, I could find joy in it; a philosophy to which I abide today.
While driving a truck for 10 hours a day, podcasts eventually supplanted Chelsea Grin and White Chapel on repeat and I truly began to examine faith, belief, and what motivates people to do what they do. After hundreds of hours of debates, thousands of hours of podcasts during work and leisure time, atheism became a badge I wore with pride instead of a convenient label. During this journey of learning many faith traditions and arguments for and against them, my own childhood faith remained relatively untouched. I regarded Mormonism as the same nonsense as any other religion, even though it was the religion in which I was raised.
Eventually, I stumbled on a few podcasts that talked about Mormon history, which piqued my interest more than other similar deep-dives into histories of other faiths. I looked for a podcast that was just Mormon history, and there wasn’t one. This was 2011-2012, podcasting was in an even more infantile state than it is in 2020 as I’m recording this revised pilot episode. No podcast contained the information I sought so I went the old-fashioned way of reading books, something I never did for leisure my entire life prior to that point.
The more I read, the more I realized that Mormon history is wonderfully fascinating. We don’t have documents about the foundations of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or basically any other religion rooted in ancient antiquity, but I was raised in a modern religion with extensive documents written by its founding members. Mormon history became a rabid fascination and I continued my search for the perfect Mormon history podcast. It still didn’t exist. By autumn of 2014, I decided to make the podcast I was looking for; my motivations were complex but also simplistic compared with what continues to drive me today; and that point brings us to what you can expect should you continue through the backlog, dear listener.
When I started this podcast, I was in the process of learning about Mormon culture and history at an exponential pace while dealing with my own personal religious trauma. That fire raged in my heart, kept me reading, writing, recording, and producing until late in the night while simultaneously driving a truck for a living. I did my best to conceal my personal biases and motivations in the first few episodes, but the more I learned the more modern Mormon abuse came into focus and I couldn’t discuss the history without discussing the culture and its impact on myself and my loved ones. I began to see Mormons as victims of an abusive and religiously coercive system from lowliest ward clerk to the highest echelons of the Quorum of Apostles. I held absolutely nothing back. To hold back those thoughts and commentary would be leaving a part of me out of my work, my passion, my greatest creative endeavor.
As I continued to learn more, read more, absorb more, and eventually attend Mormon history conferences like Sunstone, the John Whitmer Historical Association, the Mormon History Association, the more I met my academic heroes who write all the books and articles I voraciously consume. Simply put, I matured. The firebrand, the anger, the trauma, the wrongs by which I felt personally slighted, subsided. The fire that once propelled me through 16-hour workdays and microwave meals evolved to fascination.
I extended a plea to my listeners. I wanted them to hire me so my day-job could become Mormon history instead of staring at the inside of a windshield. They delivered. I’m so lucky to have the listeners I do because I’m among the few people who gets to turn their passion into their occupation. The episodes from that point forward reflect an evolution of my writing and presentation style from angry ex-Mormon to a history communicator with a massive body of academic literature from which to create the serial Mormon history podcast. I also conducted lots of interviews, met incredible people, attended and presented at enlightening conferences across the nation, and honed my skills of research and writing.
I’ve thrown around how much I want to rerecord all the early episodes, but if I did, it would sanitize the experience I just described; removing what’s made my journey through Mormon history what it is. The evolution from angry ex-Mormon to polished researcher and presenter would be lost and that’s a cost I’m not willing to sacrifice. This podcast has been therapeutic to me and my inbox tells me it has been for many others; I can’t deprive us all of what that cathartic journey contains.
With that context in mind, here’s a breakdown of the backlog. Joseph Smith’s early life is covered in episodes 1-16 roughly 1805-1829. The Book of Mormon is published and the church founded with the New York era spanning episodes 17-24 which is 1830. The most popular episode follows episode 24 which is a 7.5 hour treatment of the Book of Mormon. That is the longest episode but most episodes vary from 65-120 minutes. From there, the Kirtland era of the church spans episodes 25-39 which comprises 1831-37. The Missouri-Mormon War of 1838 is covered through episodes 40-50. Episodes 51-214 cover the five years of Nauvoo history 1839-44, which really exemplifies how much more rigid and thorough my own research practices have become over the 6 years of this podcast, as well as the exponential complexity of Nauvoo history. Finally, episodes 215-224 are titled “Road to Carthage,” which, oddly enough, is a great place to start listening to this podcast. Through that final 10-part series of the podcast, I cover stories discussed throughout the entire 214 episodes leading to the death of Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail with episode numbers. Think of the Road to Carthage series as essentially an index of the podcast, which may be more suitable to those of you who want a ton of Mormon history through 20 hours of 10 episodes instead of 250 hours of 224 episodes. Episode 223 is the Carthage gunfight itself if you want to Tarantino the podcast by starting with the end and then circling back to the start of it all. There are also some SpEdEp, or Special Edition Episodes, usually featuring interviews with great people. I also did a bit of advertising at various points, but realized that time is best devoted to patrons of the show at patreon.com/nakedmormonism. There’s a ton of extra content on that patreon feed. Most episodes after episode 100 have extra content at the end for patrons and there’s also early Mormon audiobooks with commentary like Mormonism Unvailed, History of the Saints, An Address to all Believers in Christ, Manuscript Story—Conneaut Creek, and a few others. So, if you want to help employ me and keep my objectivity in Mormon history communication, as well as find hours of extra content, that’s patreon.com/nakedmormonism. I also encourage you to search for other podcasts where I’ve done collaborations, Scathing Atheist, Cognitive Dissonance, Latter-day Lesbian, Mormon Stories, From Priesthood to Pretty, Wayward Willis, iFriends, The Thinking Atheist, and a litany of others. I owe a debt of gratitude to all these wonderful podcast hosts for helping me on this journey. I also cohost Glass Box Podcast doing deep dives on the Mormon angle of current events and I was brought on My Book of Mormon podcast to read through the Doctrine & Covenants, Mormon scripture, to help provide historical context for each revelation. If either of those topics interest you I’d encourage you to check them out as well.
A couple final notes, the podcast contains nicknames for the most prominent characters of Mormon history. This has served to be quite divisive, but in my mind it’s a necessary story-telling mechanism. If I asked you, what’s the difference between William Phelps, William Law, and William Smith, could you answer that question with a few data points about why they’re each important? But, if you ask a fan of the show the difference between Double-dub Phelps, William Judas Law, and Crazy Willey, they’ll instantly know who you’re talking about and why they’re each important to the timeline. Having a nickname helps us construct a mental image of the person and I’m excited for you to get acquainted with Not-So-Smarty-Marty, Pistol Packin’ Porter, Bloody Brigham, Professor Bill, Dibble Dabble, Piggy Bank Steve, Wreck-it Bennett, and so many other fascinating figures of Mormon history. Also, in the early episodes, I swear a lot. It’s a turnoff for a lot of people and around episode 106 I eventually cut it out so I hope it won’t dissuade you from continuing to hit the “next episode” button. In many ways, the evolution of my language around that point is a microcosm of the evolution of my research and writing style.
Final point and then I’ll let you go. As I’m recording this, I’m beginning a hiatus following the Road to Carthage series. That’s to devote some time to fulfilling the promise I made to my amazing supporters to put my research into a book and get it published. It’s my hope that by the time you’ve listened to the entire backlog, that book examining the influence of psychedelics in early Mormonism will be at some stage of completion, maybe it’ll even be on the shelves. Stick around and together we’ll find out how my seventh year of rest resulted.
Thank you so much for taking the time to give this podcast a listen. I know that was a lengthy introduction; you’ll soon understand that my style is thoroughness with very little consideration to how much time it requires. That’s my way of saying I’m an insufferable windbag. You can contact me, Bryce Blankenagel, through email at email@example.com or on all the social medias bearing Naked Mormonism. I hope to talk at you next time, here, on the NMPC.
Copyright Ground Gnomes LLC subject to fair use. Citation example: "Naked Mormonism Podcast (or NMP), Ep #, original air date 11/09/2014"