American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church

Alex Beam. PublicAffairs, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-61039-313-3

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. Agent: Inkwell Management. (Apr.)