Mormonism Unvailed


Eber D. Howe was a activist and investigative journalists dedicated to uncovering the truth about Joseph Smith and his controversial new religion. His exposé is a valuable primary source in understanding the growth of Mormonism.

April 2015

SKU: 978-1-56085-231-5 Categories: , Tags: , , , Author: Dan VogelProduct ID: 1432


Any Latter-day Saint who has ever defended his or her beliefs has likely addressed issues first raised by Eber D. Howe in 1834. Howe’s famous exposé was the first of its kind, with information woven together from previous news articles and some thirty affidavits he and others collected. He lived and worked in Painesville, Ohio, where, in 1829, he had published about Joseph Smith’s discovery of a “golden bible.” Smith’s decision to relocate in nearby Kirtland sparked Howe’s attention. Of even more concern was that Howe’s wife and other family members had joined the Mormon faith. Howe immediately began investigating the new Church and formed a coalition of like-minded reporters and detractors. By 1834, Howe had collected a large body of investigative material, including affidavits from Smith’s former neighbors in New York and from Smith’s father-in-law in Pennsylvania. Howe learned about Smith’s early interest in pirate gold and use of a seer stone in treasure seeking and heard theories from Smith’s friends, followers, and family members about the Book of Mormon’s origin. Indulging in literary criticism, Howe joked that Smith, “evidently a man of learning,” was a student of “barrenness of style and expression.” Despite its critical tone, Howe’s exposé is valued by historians for its primary source material and account of the growth of Mormonism in northeastern Ohio.

Eber Dudley Howe (1798-1885) was born in Clifton Park, New York. A newspaperman, he launched the Telegraph in Painesville, Ohio, in 1822. An abolitionist, Howe used his home as a refuge for runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. In 1878 he published his memoir, Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer.

Dan Vogel is editor of the award-winning, five-volume documentary series, Early Mormon Documents. He is also the editor of two anthologies, American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (coeditor) and The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, as well as the author of Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon: Religious Solutions from Columbus to Joseph Smith, Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism, and Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. The latter won Best Book Awards from both the John Whitmer Historical Association and Mormon History Association, as did his five-volume series in the category for documentary editing.

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5 reviews for Mormonism Unvailed

  1. Richard L. Bushman

    Eber D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed was the single most influential critical book on Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century. Howe was the primary source for scores of writers who followed him. No one is better prepared than Dan Vogel to put this work into its historical context. His preface and notes illuminate the debate about Joseph Smith’s character that has raged since before the church was organized.

  2. Ann Taves

    Mormonism Unvailed has long deserved a critical edition, which this new volume handsomely supplies. Howe provides the raw stuff of history: affidavits, letters, newspaper accounts, and revelations from both Mormon sources and Smith family neighbors. Vogel adds an impressive set of scholarly notes and cross references that will aid modern readers as they weigh these controversial historical texts. Thanks to Signature Books for supplying historians with a new edition of this important work.

  3. Jan Shipps

    espite an obvious bias, Eber D. Howe provided a service to historians the way he gathered eyewitness accounts and primary documents, for which he was never properly recognized. He was the first to publish some of Joseph Smith’s revelations, and he preserved the contents of vital early correspondence. Now Dan Vogel has done his usual exceptional work of editing and annotating this indispensable historical source. His placing of Howe’s documents in context and analyzing their value will allow for the construction of enhanced explanations of Mormon origins.

  4. Greg Seppi, Association of Mormon Letters

    Signature Books and Dan Vogel have collaborated to produce an excellent, annotated edition of Eber D. Howe’s “Mormonism Unvailed.” The book itself is uncommon today, though parts of it were used in practically every anti-Mormon publication produced in the 19th century, and probably up to today. This review is divided into two portions. First, I consider the value of Howe’s book; second, I will comment on the annotations, introduction, appendices, and other material produced to support this new edition. Note that all page references refer to the text under review. Additionally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was known as the Church of Christ from 1830-1834, and the name was changed to the Church of Latter Day Saints in May 1834. The Church of Latter Day Saints is the organization I am referring to when I use the term “Mormon” in this review.

    Though significant opposition to Joseph Smith’s publication of the Book of Mormon and his claims to revelation began even before the Book of Mormon was finished in 1830, the first organized attack on “Mormon” theology was made by Alexander Campbell in 1831 in his newspaper the Millennial Harbinger. However, the most notable book aimed at discrediting Joseph Smith and the church he organized was Howe’s *Mormonism Unvailed*. The book marked several significant advances in the anti-Mormon narrative (note that I am not using the term in a modern pejorative sense; Howe was actually an anti-Mormon). Howe first encountered the Mormons in Kirtland when they arrived in 1830. His wife soon joined the church, and Howe immediately began investigating the budding Church of Christ at that time. He was in communication with a number of early adversaries of Joseph Smith, including Abner Cole, who printed portions of the Book of Mormon in the Palmyra Reflector in 1829 and was highly critical of Smith and his family (p. ix).

    Of course, it is essential to note that much of the material published in the book was actually collected by Doctor Hurlbut (note that Doctor was his first name, not a title), who was excommunicated from the Church of Christ (as it was then known) in 1833. Hurlbut received funds from a number of prominent Kirtland citizens to be used to investigate the roots of Mormonism. On his return, he first gathered evidence about the Spalding theory (which I discuss very briefly below) and then went on to Palmyra, where he took a number of sworn statements describing the general untrustworthiness of the Smiths. Their major sins appear to have been alcohol and treasure-seeking. Joseph Smith and his father come off the worst, but the whole family is described as superstitious and untrustworthy (c.f. p. 325-378).

    Some of the most interesting statements were from Lucy Harris (wife of Martin Harris), Isaac Hale (Emma Smith’s father; Howe acquired his statement through letter; p. xxi), and Charles Anton (also acquired by Howe). A number of prominent citizens of Palmyra also contributed strongly-worded, detailed accounts of Martin Harris and the Smiths. To what extent their recollections can be relied upon is not entirely certain, but the overall picture presented by the statements is that Joseph Smith was a treasure-seeker, Martin Harris was a fool, and that the Book of Mormon was a fraud. The statements do agree on a number of points, but some are so vague and negative that it can be difficult to see their value—for example, a general statement signed by a number of citizens claims that “Joseph Smith, Senior, and his son Joseph, were in particular, considered entirely destitute of moral character, and addicted to vicious habits” (p. 366). On the other hand, many details can be corroborated by statements made by Joseph Smith, Martin Harris, or other supporters, and these are noted by Vogel throughout the text (p. xxv).

    Vogel’s annotations are particularly useful for providing bits of information about the affidavit writers. These not only point the reader to other sources on the authors, but also note where the statements agree with one another, allowing the reader to get a broader picture of the community that Joseph Smith grew up in, and his relationship to it. Howe’s purpose in publishing the affidavits, and Hurlbut’s purpose for gathering them, was to answer the witnesses who swore to the Book of Mormon’s authenticity (p. 325-326). Moreover, they document the perspectives of Joseph Smith’s neighbors, who voraciously attacked the Smith family’s character. In doing so, however, they also included a number of historically significant details about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s treasure-seeking practices that remain important to both Mormon and non-Mormon historians.

    This book is probably best known for being the first to publicize the “so-called Spalding (or Spaulding) theory,” a thoroughly discredited claim that Sidney Rigdon had acquired the manuscript for a book similar or identical to the Book of Mormon from early American writer Solomon Spalding, who died in 1816. Spalding’s wife recalled sending the manuscript for Spalding’s book to a publisher, Patterson & Lambdin, and the theory goes that Rigdon, while living in Pittsburgh from 1823-1826, acquired the manuscript from Lambdin, who happened to have the manuscript in his shop. (p. 390-408).

    Rigdon then supposedly encountered the Smith family in upstate New York, and plotted with them to create a new church based on the text of the manuscript, though such a connection has never been reasonably proven. Hurlbut actually did locate the Spalding manuscript, but as it completely lacked any resemblance to the Book of Mormon, he was unable to find a use for it. He sold it to Howe along with the rest of the material he gathered on Joseph Smith. Howe suggested that the text for the Book of Mormon was taken from a different Spalding manuscript, but all available evidence suggests there was only one manuscript, which can be found at Oberlin College today. It seems clear that Spalding, at least, was not the source for the Book of Mormon. For those interested, Vogel briefly includes some reasons why in the first appendix to this edition of the text, and the Joseph Smith Papers also discuss it briefly on their website (

    In addition to contributing the Spalding theory and the Palmyra affidavits, Howe spends most of the early chapters in the book criticizing the Book of Mormon, noting inconsistencies and problems with the text—paying special attention to portions that remind him of contemporary controversies. Howe probably used Alexander Campbell’s *Delusions* for this section of the book (p. xxiii). Howe also reprinted Ezra Booth’s letters on why he left the Mormons. These were initially published by the Ohio Star and reprinted by Howe’s newspaper, the Painesville Telegraph (p. xxiii). Howe also provided a detailed account of the Mormon migration to Missouri and the chaos that followed, ultimately resulting in the expulsion of the Mormons from Jackson County. Also included is his highly caustic account of Zion’s Camp, the 204-man Mormon unit that Joseph Smith led to try to take back the church members’ property in Missouri. He is somewhat sympathetic to the Mormons who were driven out of Missouri, but is mostly irritated that the Missourians made the Saints more sympathetic to the general public (p. 212-213).

    I feel highly conflicted about this book. The historian and storyteller in me loved it, but found the annotations to be a trifle lightweight at times. The active, churchgoing Mormon part of me was by turns chagrined, embarrassed, annoyed, disappointed, amused and enlightened. This is a difficult book to read for a thoughtful Latter-day Saint, and definitely requires a great deal of introspection to process. Of course, the text absolutely cannot be viewed as a “true” history of the Latter-day Saints, and certainly one might question the motives of the affidavit writers. At the same time, however, the text is a constant reminder that church members and leaders are human, products of their time and place, and sometimes incredibly dense. Thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers project, we have a much better array of information regarding the events in this book, and it is very important to remember that there are (at least) two sides to every story. Perhaps the most disappointing detail is that Martin Harris was probably a wife-beater (p. 357-358; 365).

    Whether the general public needs a book like this, I can’t say. I definitely recommend that anyone interested in Mormon Studies or antebellum American religion and history should be required to have a copy of this book on their bookshelf. As the basic text for anti-Mormon writers and the standard against which LDS supporters must rise, this is an important book to have access to. Dan Vogel’s annotations will be invaluable for those who are less well-read in Mormon studies. Given the unprecedented amount of information flowing out of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, there has never been a better time for the publication of this book, and I would not read one without at least considering the other.

  5. Mormon Heretic

    Overall, this new edition by Vogel is a wonderful addition for those seeking a deeper understanding of early Mormon history. While Howe’s antagonism is quite off-putting to Mormons both modern and early, it is interesting to see how far back some of the criticisms of the Book of Mormon anachronisms go. I was also astonished to see how long Howe’s book was. With Vogel’s footnotes and addendums, this book is 412 pages, with another 20 pages of early photographs. I also note that Vogel is adding an index (Howe’s book had no index), so that will be a wonderful addition that historians will find extremely useful.

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