SALT LAKE CITY — To his critics, George D. Smith is a shadowy figure of considerable wealth bent on reshaping Mormonism by digging through its past. To colleagues, he's a shy man of principle in pursuit of truth.
So who is George Smith really?
As president of Signature Books, an independent publisher of Mormon-related history and literature, Smith says he is committed to unfettered historical inquiry.
"Whatever a historian overturns, if it's an actual document or a contemporary statement back in the 1800s that reveals something that's important, we will not shy away from publishing it if the author has done responsible historical research," he said.
"I'm willing to shake the tree, and perhaps others don't like to shake the tree because it's sacred."
That sentiment makes Smith the darling of like-minded scholars and the scourge of Mormon traditionalists whose mandate is to write "faithful history"--defined by Apostle Boyd K. Packer a decade ago as history that bolsters belief and avoids awkward or embarrassing detail.
Such polar views almost ensured that Salt Lake-based Signature Books would celebrate its 10th anniversary in the familiar shade of controversy.
Deseret Books, the publishing house and bookstore chain owned by the Mormon Church, this month pulled two of Signature's titles from its shelves. One of them, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined," by Rodger Anderson, had been named the Mormon History Assn.'s best first book. The other was "The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture."
At the same time, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University issued a "correction or clarification" after one of its reviewers called certain "Word of God" contributors "dishonest" and "hard-core anti-Latter-day Saints." The foundation said the statements were the reviewer's interpretation and not its own, and that no personal attack was intended.
"Give me 'Ex-Mormons for Jesus' or the Moody Bible Tract Society, who are at least honest about their anti-Mormon agenda, instead of Signature Books camouflaged as a 'Latter-day Saint' press. I prefer my anti-Mormons straight up," wrote the reviewer, Stephen E. Robinson, chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU.
Smith, 53, a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sees the sniping as "sort of silly" and says it emanates from an unwillingness to consider alternative viewpoints.
"What is relevant is the marketplace of ideas," Smith said from his Smith Capital Management offices in San Francisco. "I don't admit to being anti-anything except anti-anybody that limits the interchange of ideas."
Smith is reluctant to discuss his own background, his personal views or the source or extent of his wealth. Some who have worked with him say it must be well into the millions because of his ability to subsidize the publishing business.
Raised in New York and Los Angeles, Smith became enthralled with Mormon history while reading the multivolume "History of the Church" by its founding prophet, Joseph Smith. An MBA degree from New York University and later work with Citibank did nothing to curb his interest.
Signature's founding in 1981 grew out of the church's decision to cancel a planned 16-volume history of the faith and to muzzle its own historical department. Smith jumped at the chance to publish some of the rejected work.
Signature has never turned a profit, but the company is verging on the black as its number of titles in the highly competitive but narrow field of Mormon letters has grown to 12 to 15 a year.
Among them is a limited-edition series of journals of early Mormons. The latest, those of William Clayton, were edited by Smith and illustrate his no-holds-barred attitude toward publishing.
As Joseph Smith's personal secretary, Clayton had a unique view of early Mormon doctrines like plural marriage.
"Here's a guy," Smith says, "who's living in Nauvoo (Illinois) with a wife and three children and Joseph Smith comes over to his home and says, 'Listen, why don't you send for this woman in England you used to like (and make her a plural wife)?' "
In Smith's view, a "faithful" historian probably wouldn't include what might be "a socially unpopular view of the prophet trying to sell plural marriage to a happily married man. It just looks a little bit less than noble. But it's real stuff. It's personal. It happened . . . and Clayton was not offended. He wrote it as if this was important for him to learn and he eventually married many times."
But if the so-called "apologists" and "revisionists" are merely at odds on the field of Mormon history, they are locked in a relative death grip over what most church members see as the cornerstones of Mormon doctrine--Joseph Smith's prophetic mantle and the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
The church holds that the Book of Mormon is an ancient account of peoples who lived in North America and were visited by a resurrected Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the book from gold plates given him by an angel. Signature has published some works that call into question whether the Book of Morman is an actual ancient work or was written by Joseph Smith himself.
"I certainly am not opposed to telling the story of the Latter-day Saints with all of the faults and warts included," said Louis Midgley, a BYU political science professor and outspoken critic of the revisionists.
"The question that is crucial to me is the founding claims," he said. "Without them, you wind up with a different church."