Just A Man

Libbie Grant
8 min readJul 22, 2022

The Challenge of Representing a Revered Historical Figure in Fiction

In mid-December of 2013, in my tiny apartment outside Seattle, I was baking dozens of holiday cookies and struggling to find space to cool them all when I heard a knock at my door. A glance through the peep hole revealed two young men in white shirts and black ties, telltale nametags fastened to their breast pockets. Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ordinarily, I would have kept quiet and allowed the Elders to believe I wasn’t home. Few Americans rejoice to find LDS missionaries at their door, though these young men are always polite, never pushy.

I have perhaps more reason than most to avoid a visit from the missionaries. I was raised in a traditional Latter-day Saint family — one that joined the church in Kirtland, Ohio in 1831, when fervor for the new religion was at its most vertiginous peak. Some of my ancestors are important figures in LDS history, including Thomas Ricks, who founded my hometown of Rexburg, Idaho and the college now known as BYU-Idaho.

Yet in my early 20s, some ten years before the missionaries came knocking at my door, I realized I had no belief in a higher power, let alone a personal testimony for the LDS faith, and I left the church that had defined my family’s identity for six generations.

I’m not sure why I opened the door and invited the missionaries in. Maybe because it was almost Christmas and I knew those young men must be missing their families even more than they usually did. Maybe because the church had been on my mind a lot lately. I was still quite early in my career as a novelist, but that winter, I’d been gripped by a powerful idea for a new book — an idea that felt almost like a compulsion. I was going to write a novel about the early history of the Mormon faith.

I led the missionaries into my cramped apartment, settled them as best I could on my shabby loveseat, and offered them all the warm cookies and milk they wanted. They seemed grateful, and more than a little surprised. Missionaries count themselves lucky to receive a polite “No thank you.” A chance to sit down in a welcoming home is a rarity.

I perched on a rickety wooden stool and chatted with them while they ate, keeping the conversation light, skirting the subject of religion for as long as I could. All the while, I avoided looking at the stack of books on my coffee table: histories and biographies touching on the foundation of the LDS church, my first efforts at researching the novel I felt called to write. Atop that stack sat Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith — a biography so scandalous, its author was excommunicated for having written it, though Brodie had been a faithful member of the church.

Eventually, casual chat petered out. An expectant silence fell. I decided it would be best if I spoke first.

“It’s only fair to tell you guys,” I said gently, “you’re going to have a hard time with me. I’m an atheist… and an apostate.”

Apostasy is a tricky subject to broach with Latter-day Saints. In the church, we were taught that leaving the religion was almost the worst thing anyone could do, second only to murder.

As soon as I said that dreadful word — apostate — one of my guest’s eyes flashed to the stack of books. There was no mistaking the image of Joseph Smith, Jr., founder and first prophet of the religion, on the cover of Brodie’s controversial volume.

I’ll never forget the look of pain and confusion that crossed the Elder’s features in that moment. I felt as if I’d slugged him in the stomach. I had a sudden awareness of how young these missionaries were — hardly more than boys — while I was thirty-three, with an ample span of adult life behind me. I’d spent years reading the scriptures and pondering the deepest questions of life. I’d undertaken a long journey to develop my own ideas about spirituality, to free myself from the cultural expectation that I must believe what my ancestors had believed, that I must go on being LDS because LDS was what I was. These boys hadn’t had time for such self-reflection.

The other Elder asked uncertainly, “So you don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet? You think he was just… lying?”

The first missionary — the one who’d noticed my books — didn’t say anything. He looked pale and frightened, as if he’d suddenly found himself in a pit of vipers.

“I don’t think Smith was lying,” I said quickly. “I don’t think he was a bad guy. I think he had the best intentions, but he got a lot of things wrong. He was only human, and no one’s perfect. Not even Joseph Smith.”

My guests perked up a little after that. The fact that I wasn’t about to slander their prophet seemed to put them at ease. We had a lively yet friendly debate. The Elders raised many points about church history and doctrine. I had a ready refutation for each one. It was clear to them that I’d studied the history and the scriptures as much as they had, and once they realized I wasn’t going to infect them with my apostasy, I think they enjoyed the conversation just as much as I was enjoying it.

But as the evening progressed, I found myself thinking carefully about the novel I planned to write. The book would be a greater challenge than I’d originally supposed. I would have to think hard about how I represented key figures of early church history — Joseph Smith in particular. Having grown up LDS, I knew first-hand what reverence members have for their original prophet. I’d often felt the same way about Smith when I’d still been a believer. Joseph Smith occupies a special place in the hearts and testimonies of Latter-day Saints, and it wasn’t my goal to deliberately offend anyone with my portrayal of such an important cultural figure.

Several times throughout my conversation with the missionaries, I asked myself whether I really wanted to proceed with this idea. Yet each time, the answer was a resounding yes. After all, LDS history is my history, too. The church may have no affection for people who’ve left the religion, but like it or not, we’re still a part the culture — part of the ever-unfolding narrative of the Latter-day Saints.

“First Vision” by artist Paul Forster, one of my favorite representations of Mormon lore.

By the time our conversation wore itself out, I felt more compelled than ever before to write about the history of the Mormon church. My chat with those missionaries helped me understand that I wanted to portray all the key figures of early LDS history — especially Smith — as entirely human, without the accessory glow of supernatural experience. I wanted to explore the founders of the church as ordinary people, capable of sin, corruption, and failure alongside their great capacity for warmth, love, charity, and inspiration. That’s who I believed they truly were — Joseph Smith included.

I shook hands with the missionaries with real gratitude and sent them back into the December night with a few more cookies apiece and a genuine wish for good luck. Then I opened my laptop and began furiously typing the first notes that would eventually become my novel, The Prophet’s Wife, which was published this spring by William Morrow — more than eight years after I began work on the book.

Between December 2013 and early 2020, when I finished writing The Prophet’s Wife, I wrote and published several other novels. My writing career flourished. But I continued to approach The Prophet’s Wife sporadically, working with great care, for I felt as if I were walking a tightrope every time sat down with the manuscript and my reams of notes. The look on that young missionary’s face was never far from my mind. Representing Joseph Smith fairly (and his first wife, Emma Hale Smith — who eventually became the true focus of the novel) proved to be a delicate task that demanded much more time and deliberation than I was used to expending.

My intention was to offer a view of Smith — through the eyes of his first wife, Emma, the person who knew him best in all the world — as the complex man he surely was: full of warmth and enthusiasm, captivating in his charisma, yet susceptible to error as everyone is, and just as sympathetic in his failures as any human would be.

The more I researched the history of the church, the more I came to empathize with Joseph and Emma. I believe Joseph’s experiment with creating his own religion grew faster than he ever imagined it could, leaving him to fight for control of the narrative as best he could. His religion became a living thing of its own, growing in directions Joseph surely never anticipated, leaving him with greater responsibilities than he bargained for — including responsibility for the lost lives of many of his followers.

The strange poignancy of Joseph’s predicament startled me. He must have been overwhelmed by the vast current which he’d unwittingly set in motion, and as I studied biographies and historical documents, I could see how he struggled to steer the vessel of his own life, fighting to hold onto his humanity while his church increased its demands that Joseph fill a role closer to a god than to a mere preacher.

In the weeks leading up to the publication of The Prophet’s Wife, one of my friends asked me whether I expected any backlash from the church.

I told her I really had no idea what to expect. I’d done my best to represent both Joseph and Emma as neutral parties — often opposed to one another’s designs and desires, but ultimately, neither of them objectively good or evil.

“Joseph isn’t a bad man in my novel,” I said. “He’s just a man.”

Of course, the very fact that I represented him as just a man could elicit a negative response from some members of the faith. I too was raised to revere Smith as a holy figure, the very reason why humankind has a restored gospel and a greater understanding of God. As a child, I was taught to consider Smith as more than just a man — but I’d grown into a person who didn’t believe in the infallibility of any human, not even alleged prophets. The LDS faith may be my culture of origin, but I can’t deny that my worldviews have broadened beyond the boundaries of the church’s preferred narrative.

Throughout the years, as I worked on The Prophet’s Wife, I still felt every bit as compelled to write the book as I’d felt that night in 2013 when I welcomed the missionaries into my home.

But I knew I needed to tell the story in the way that felt truest to me.

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Libbie Grant

Libbie Grant is a writer from the PNW. Her most recent novel is The Prophet’s Wife, a literary exploration of the founding of the Mormon faith. libbiegrant.com