In American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, Alex Beam goes into great detail describing the events leading up to and following the murder of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons, in June 1844.
Beam, a Boston-based columnist, aims to set the stage for and explain why Joseph Smith -- who, by the time he was killed, had assumed the title "King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on the Earth" -- was murdered by "Mormon-haters" while in the custody of Hancock County officials, in Carthage, Ill.
Beam also covers, in less detail, the trial of Smith's accused killers, the battle for control of the church after Smith's death (which some Mormon-haters prematurely hailed as the end of the LDS Church), and the Mormons' migration to Utah, which is the base for the church that flourishes worldwide to this day.
American Crucifixion follows Smith and his Mormon flock from the founding of the church in upstate New York in 1830, to Ohio in 1831, onward to Missouri in 1838 (following the failure of a Mormon bank in Ohio) and finally to Illinois and the establishment of the LDS community, Nauvoo, in 1839, after hostilities in Missouri that saw Smith imprisoned for several months and 17 Mormons massacred by anti-Mormon Missourians.
While it would be easy to say religious differences were the cause of the enmity between the Mormons and their non-Mormon neighbours, Beam provides evidence that money, Smith and his flock's tendency to live by their own laws and the political power of the block-voting Latter-day Saints were also major factors in the rise of hostilities in Hancock County.
Beam offers a subjective presentation of Smith's church and its teachings, steering clear of sharing his own thoughts on the church, but sharing those of the church's critics, such as those who labelled Smith a paranoid, delusional charlatan.
He also documents the criticism of Smith's ever-evolving doctrines, especially that of polygamy -- which Smith initially kept on the lowdown, but which caused rifts among some of the highest ranks of Smith's supporters, and led to dissention and fallings-out within the church.
The cast of characters, maps, list of place names, chronology and glossary included in American Crucifixion contribute greatly to the comprehensive nature of the book. As the meat of the story occurs over a relatively short period of time, it includes a vast array of characters, antiquated terms and settings in parts of the U.S. with which readers may not be not familiar.
While somewhat heavy on detail, American Crucifixion achieves its goal of describing the events surrounding, and explaining what led to, the assassination of the founder of a religion that has among its adherents prominent people in politics, business, sports and entertainment, boasting millions of members around the world.
For a more extensive and more critical analysis of the history of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, readers would do well to pick up a copy of John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.
Gilbert Gregory is a Free Press copy editor.