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On June 27, 1844, a mob stormed the jail in the dusty frontier town of Carthage, Illinois. Clamorous and angry, they were hunting down a man they saw as a grave threat to their otherwise quiet lives: the founding prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. They wanted blood.
At thirty-nine years old, Smith had already lived an outsized life. In addition to starting his own religion and creating his own "Golden Bible" -- the Book of Mormon -- he had worked as a water-dowser and treasure hunter. He'd led his people to Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois, where he founded a city larger than fledgling Chicago. He was running for president. And, secretly, he had married more than thirty women.
In American Crucifixion, Alex Beam tells how Smith went from charismatic leader to public enemy: How his most seismic revelation -- the doctrine of polygamy -- created a rift among his people; how that schism turned to violence; and how, ultimately, Smith could not escape the consequences of his ambition and pride.
Mormonism is America's largest and most enduring native religion, and the "martyrdom" of Joseph Smith is one of its transformational events. Smith's brutal assassination propelled the Mormons to colonize the American West and claim their place in the mainstream of American history. American Crucifixion is a gripping story of scandal and violence, with deep roots in our national identity.
Aside from the fact that Mormonism's founder Joseph Smith was assassinated in jail by gunfire, not nailed to a cross as the title indicates, Beam's tale brings alive a cast of early 1840s characters as strange, flawed, and significant as any in American history. Beam (Gracefully Insane) presents Smith as an inventive, narcissistic visionary hounded for beliefs that ran counter to those of most Americans. If his new bible, The Book of Mormon, wasn't enough to condemn him, his belief in plural gods and practice of polygamy surely would. But in Beam's balanced telling of Smith's tumultuous final years, it was the prejudice and intolerance of others as much as Smith's strangeness that condemned him to early death and his new religion to enduring battles. Few Mormons and "Gentiles" get off lightly here, and Beam makes a strong case that they shouldn't. That may not endear the book to all readers, whatever their beliefs, but it reveals how the fight over Mormonism, one built both on its distinctive claims and its enemies' intolerance, extends into our day. Better, Beam implies in this lively telling, to try to understand its sad and violent origins than to condemn or praise it outright. Illus.