My story starts when a friend turns to me and says, “Are you a Mormon? BOY, do I have a good story to tell you.” He spent the next several hours telling me how Joseph Smith and followers of Handsome Lake created Mormonism as a religion blending old and new worlds.
More about that later.
This story LIT me up. I put ALL of my energy into looking for answers.
I didn’t find what I wanted in Mormon history. When the Church History Dept turned western New York upside down in the late 20th century, they didn’t pay much attention to whole CATEGORIES of sources.
So, I sent MYSELF to western New York for a decade.
My scholarly background is in vernacular culture and narrative, so I often move beyond a pattern of facts to the MEANINGS people make of them. The way facts stretch to fit assumptions of the time. The stories people tell ABOUT the stories.
This is why I find forgeries interesting. The fake that sounds true fits our expected pattern. Someone found a thread in our POSSIBLE, spun it into a document that seemed PLAUSIBLE, and wove it into a context that made it appear PROBABLE. > So it sounds true.
This fascination with meaning people make is ALSO why I did my doctoral fieldwork with the militia / breakaway church, The True and Living Church (of Manti). They found one thread of possibility that fit their anti-government stance. The Iroquois Confederacy issued passports, they believed the Delaware were members of the Confederacy, and they met someone who claimed to be Delaware who was going to help them join. They were even teaching themselves to speak the Delaware language. There are quite a few reasons that was never going to help them, but finding objective truth wasn’t my point. Learning what sounds true to THEM was my point. Hearing stories that tied their imagined Mormon past and future into an American Indian past and future was my point.
The core of my article in this book is the story told by my friend, who heard it at a sundance > from a guy who heard it in New York.
The story claims that Joseph Smith knew Iroquois farmhands as a young man, that he listened to their stories, and that their stories became the SEEDS from which he grew his stories, including the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith, so it goes, was influenced by Handsome Lake, the Seneca prophet.
I did hardcore historical research and analysis to test the POSSIBILITY, PLAUSIBILITY, and PROBABILITY of this story. To me, THIS is the historical research I had hoped to find. I did a lot of document research, and I talked to Seneca and other Haudenosaunee people about HOW and IF this story fit their reality.
Here’s the thing. At this point, 2021, I know exactly where the story came from. I’m fairly circumspect in published writing, as I think we all should be, but TRAINING in narrative and PRACTICE in PR tells me: when all versions of a story can be traced back to a POINT, you have your source.
Madbear Anderson told the man who told my friend. He also told my professors, John Mohawk and Oren Lyons. Oren said, “Oh, yeah. I heard Madbear tell that story.” Then he told me the story of Madbear telling him the story. Madbear is the TRICKSTER in this story. He is the character whose imagination took a thread and wove a story that caught MY attention a generation later.
Just like forgeries or cults, Madbear’s globe-hopping storytelling reveals a lot about HIM and about the context of the expectations of his time, from the 1940s to 1980s. It does NOT necessarily tell me anything about 1816 or 1831.
THIS is where we arrive at what I hope will be your big takeaway.
I can tell that some people who have read my article have only caught the headline: connection between Handsome Lake and Joseph Smith. They skip me showing how the claims are outside probability. Even outside plausibility. And they run with it.
I’m here to say: > don’t do that.
One person dropped my work right into the middle of his book, “tracing the lines of my original scholarship to make them bolder.” Then, he was interviewed saying there was “momentum in research into the topic.” We have me, then him reading my work, then Thomas Murphy. That’s three.
“And that is what I find most interesting about the story of Handsome Lake and Joseph Smith at this point: the story left. . . [my] context. . . to flow through a story of many American gods and a story of open scriptural canon. Those are INTERESTING stories, and AS stories they function not as history but as most stories do. They fulfill the wishes and needs of the TELLERS and of the LISTENERS and READERS. They sound true.”
But let me be CLEAR: “To say that Joseph Smith drew from Handsome Lake is wishful thinking.”