From Mission to Madness
Valeen Tippets Avery
University of Illinois Press , 1998. Paperback:
Suggested retail price: $ (US)
I bought this book because I respect the author, a professional historian from Arizona who coauthored the seminal biography of the widow of the founding prophet of Mormonism, Emma Hale Smith Bidamon. I finished this book because the story was one of the most compelling I've read in over a decade. I would recommend this biography above any in Mormon Studies except perhaps Arrington's Brigham and Avery and Newell's Emma, and frankly I find this character more interesting than those other, more prominent figures.
The subject is David Hyrum Smith, the posthumous child of the lynched Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. According to reliable sources, David's father informed his intimates as he left for the jail that would see his murder that his last son, to be born several months after his death, would rise up to lead the Lord's people. Though similar pronouncements had applied to Hyrum Smith, the prophet's brother, and Joseph III, the prophet's firstborn son, David was slated to be a leader of the Mormon Church.
David started life in the chaos of Nauvoo, Illinois, a town approximately the size of Chicago at the time (11,000-15,000 in the early 1840s). He knew it only after its abandonment (at gunpoint) by the main body of the Mormon Church, who fled to Utah under the direction of Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, Jr.'s spiritual and theological heir and the ultimate winner of the succession crisis that ensued on the Prophet's death.
David grew up in the shadow of his powerful but loving mother, Emma Hale Smith, who-judging from the rhetoric of the so-called Brighamite LDS Church-was the greatest threat to Brigham Young's hold on the main body of Mormon believers. While she has long been vilified by Young's followers as a domineering and deceitful woman who manipulated her children into denying their prophetic birthright, the picture we gather from David's description (corroborated by Avery and Newell's excellent biography) is of a strong-willed but kind woman who endured a long and difficult life that would leave the majority of us pleading for a quick death. After Joseph Smith's death, Emma married a prominent Nauvoo immigrant, "Major" Lewis Bidamon, who ultimately offered her the counterpoint to Mormon polygamy: he sired a child with a mistress, a boy whom Emma welcomed into her home to raise as a grandson.
David, a sensitive soul with a penchant for florid poetry, rapidly found his place in the church his older brother finally chose to lead, the so-called Reorganization or Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS). His role, self-described, was as a "wanderer, outward bound," while he was known by his RLDS colleagues (and Utah LDS relatives) as a poet, painter, lyricist and orator. He spent his brief adult life of sanity in the mission field, seeking converts from the main body of Mormonism and strengthening the RLDS community. Though he was lonely on these missions, he was more content than at home, where his spotty work as a portrait painter did little to meet the economic necessities of life on the Illinois frontier.
The second half of David's life is lost in the swirling mists of insanity, a condition that came into sharp focus as he collapsed on a mission to Utah at age 32. His family, including his devoted wife Clara, his older brother Joseph, and his abiding mother Emma, were unable to keep him at home as he became progressively more agitated and confused. The great poet of the RLDS church lapsed into the mad mutterings of a lapsed prophet, and his brother institutionalized him with considerable reluctance.
As a physician, a tantalizing project for me, appropriately avoided by Avery, is to diagnose David in contemporary terms. The details we have are that he suffered from "brain fever" which was associated with a "nervous breakdown" that evolved into "chronic mania," requiring his institutionalization at the Elgin Asylum for the Insane in Elgin, Illinois, the original hometown of Borden's condensed milk factory. Avery provides helpful hints in the form of David's correspondence while at the institution, which are more useful than the terse, uninformative notes from the Asylum's staff. His behavior-delusions; intermittent delirium; forced, repetitive, often nonsensical writing-suggest a psychotic disorder, either schizophrenia or psychotic depression. Schizophrenia is more consistent with his unremitting course, though the relatively late age of onset, and his history of moderately successful life prior to it argue against the diagnosis. Aspects of his behavior toward his f!amily and his correspondence remind me of patients who have had severe frontal lobe or limbic damage, such as can occur with herpes or other viral encephalitis. If it is true that he had high temperature at the time of his initial mental collapse, it might suggest that he suffered from encephalitis, though it is also possible, given his prior history of depression, difficulty forming intimate relationships, and his histrionic writings, that he simply had a bout of e.g. influenza at the time that his psychotic disorder reached the threshold of disability. I believe that if we could examine David today, we would have a diagnosis within a week, and I suspect it would be schizophrenia. As it is, we will likely never know. The hints we have of his eventual demise, diabetes and "Bright's disease," (an obsolete term unlikely to reflect his actual condition) suggest a miserable, slow death from kidney failure or diabetic coma, the two most likely conditions, though I am specula!ting here, and he could easily have died painlessly from an infarction(heart attack or stroke).
Avery has a readable, unobtrusive style that does an able job of letting the story speak for itself. She obviously feels great affection for this man, and it leads her to an apparent infatuation with his early, frankly awkward poetry, with praise out of proportion to literary merit. I found his poems most useful for establishing his histrionic, colorful character before his visible mental illness, and I think the book would have been better with fewer examples of his early writing. Poor David was an amateurish poet whose poems do not stand on their own, despite his having a volume of them published by the RLDS press.
The power and beauty of the life and its biography are David's dashed hopes and expectations, the loss of his heroic destiny. He was the Sonnenkind, the last son of the Mormon Prophet, who wandered through Utah considering whether he could seize control (through his brother and his RLDS organization) of Young's vast empire, while he was both jealous of and intimidated by the Lion of the Lord. Then, when he is finally making some headway (and experimenting with spiritualism as he discovers that Emma has lied to him about his father's sexual/marital habits), he loses his sanity, becoming little more than a curio installed in an Illinois asylum, the object of occasional voyeuristic visits by LDS and RLDS alike, trying to confirm the perdition of the Prophet's special son.
David's is not the only tragic life in this book. His wife Clara waited almost thirty years for the return of her husband, whose paranoid delusions led him to accuse her of infidelity and betrayal. Crushed by overwhelming poverty, she spent his healthy life fighting for her portion of the few dollars he managed to send home during his missionary tours and his diseased life waiting for him to be recover his sanity. We know her sadness only peripherally, in David's confusing and haunting letters and the pastoral counsel from her brother-in-law and Prophet, Joseph III.
In another strain, David's closest friend, Charles "Charley" Jensen, appears to have suffered the lonely celibacy of a religious homosexual in a traditional church. Avery deals with this complex topic tastefully, and it is a testament to David's premorbid kindness that he maintained their intimate relationship over decades. Charley remained devoted to him through the end, even trying once to care for him, though, unfortunately that episode passed without documentation, and we can only imagine the heartbreak he experienced at seeing his friend so disabled mentally.
Beyond the moving human drama, Avery's biography provides an anecdotal suggestion of what can happen when leadership succession within a church is hereditary. The Utah Mormons gloated for over a decade that David was made a counselor in the First Presidency of the RLDS Church about the time he lost his mind. His older brother, Joseph III, ever hopeful, did not release him for twelve years. (The Utah LDS would do well to remember that the policy of no retirement for the top echelon of leaders has resulted in leaders governing from hospital rooms, to weak to stand before a congregation of believers.) Reading this book has confirmed, for me, that dynastic church governance is not an optimal approach, a fact-along with Joseph Smith's polygamy-the RLDS (now Communities of Christ) have recently acknowledged as they move further toward the Protestant mainstream.
As a Utah Mormon (and grandson of Brigham Young), I am sad that we do not have more of a tradition of respect for and knowledge of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s children. The LDS church has not evolved much from prior accusations that Emma and Joseph III either imprisoned David for admitting that the Mormon Prophet practiced polygamy or that they caused his insanity by their lies about his behavior and theology. We have done little to remember the sad plight of our founding prophet's children. Avery's excellent biography takes us one step closer to understanding their fates and embracing our shared heritage.
Sam Brown December 8, 2003
© 2003 Sam Brown