The life of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, although short, was full of faith and controversy. In his cultural biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Lyman Bushman approaches Joseph Smith’s life for all it was, without apology.
Bushman does not omit controversy from Joseph’s life; rather, controversy surrounding Joseph is carefully researched in the context of early 1800s America. As a fellow believer in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), I readily enjoyed what I felt was a balanced examination a person I consider a prophet in his era. While Bushman’s account is certainly biased toward Joseph Smith as a prophet, I felt it was a fair look at both man and prophet.
Joseph Smith’s World
In his May 2005 lecture at “The Worlds of Joseph Smith” conference at The U.S. Library of Congress, Richard Bushman examined the various histories given to Joseph Smith:
The context in which [Joseph Smith] is placed effects how one sees the prophet. It colors everything about him.
In his biography, Bushman attempts to put Joseph Smith in the cultural context that helped form him in to the man and prophet that he was: the subtitle is “A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder.”I think he did an excellent job.
The Life (and Controversy) of Joseph Smith
Because Joseph Smith only kept a personal journal for six months, much of what we know is from other’s journals, public reports, and the cultural context of his life. Though he only lived 39 years, Joseph Smith profoundly believed in the revelations he had received. He also lived with an abundance of persecution. (More about Joseph Smith here.)
Revelation and Faith
Joseph Smith was a teenager when, following a personal prayer, he had a vision. Years later, he was led to an ancient record and given the power to translate it, which resulted in the Book of Mormon.
While for Joseph these experiences were calls from God for him to lead, he seldom talked about his visions: he instead emphasized baptism and repentance, among other things. He had boundless hope for personal salvation. One facet of the Mormon religion is the fact that each person is able to receive personal revelation to help them through their lives.
Joseph Smith’s life was formed by what seems to be miraculous religious experiences, and as he said on many occasions,
I don’t blame you for not believing my history[;] had I not experienced it [I] could not believe it myself. (page 551)
He certainly believed he had these experiences: he never doubted himself. Reading his history shows me his optimistic hope.
Persecution for Religion and Politics
When Joseph first discussed his miraculous vision with local church leaders as a teenager, he was scorned and told his vision was of the devil. Thus began a lifetime of persecution, for young Joseph was certain his vision was from God. His family and followers were driven from New York State and later Ohio. In Missouri, Mormons were driven out by mobs. Ultimately, he was murdered in Illinois and the remaining Mormons were driven from the state.
Surprisingly, much of the persecution stemmed from politics. For example, in Ohio, a failed economic cooperative angered the locals; in Missouri, Mormons were northerners settling in a slave state. In Illinois, Mormons sought redress from various political parties, rewarding loyalty to any leader supporting them. Joseph Smith, frustrated by the government’s lack of any redress for the violence against his followers, decided to run for president himself. The cultural background for persecution was fascinating to discover.
Some persecution was religious discrimination. I also found the cultural rationales for this discrimination interesting.
The Mormons in 1843 Nauvoo, Illinois, could not imagine living in a polygamous society. Bushman did a marvelous job at expressing the shock that this doctrine had on the small community of Mormons. Joseph had doctrinal reasons for instituting the practice, and divine inspiration convinced him it was of God. Personal revelation allowed others to likewise feel divinely inspired, as Bushman showed. Bushman does not apologize for the practice but rather provides a fascinating look at the cultural context.
(While I do believe that Joseph Smith was inspired, I also believe that polygamy practiced today is not; I personally cannot explain why it was necessary to be practiced in Nauvoo in the 1840s. For the church position on polygamy in the past and today, visit the LDS.org Newsroom.)
Unbiased or Not?
Is it possible to provide an unbiased account of a man many consider to be a prophet? Bushman is an expert of Puritan and early United States history as well as a practicing Mormon. In his introduction, he discusses the challenges to writing Joseph Smith’s biography:
… To protect their own deepest commitments, believers want to shield their prophet’s reputation. On the other hand, people who have broken away from Mormonism … have to justify their decision to leave. … For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws. … (page xix)
To get inside the movement, we have to think of Smith as the early Mormons thought of him and as he thought of himself – as a revelator. (page xxi)
The Bottom Line
Bushman is a believer in Joseph Smith as a prophet, as am I. Is his history of Joseph Smith biased? Yes, of course. But his history would also be biased if he didn’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. As it was, I loved Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, and I learned about a man who was certainly not perfect. I appreciate Joseph Smith and his life’s work and sacrifice all the more knowing he’s imperfect.
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling has been widely received in academic circles. I imagine that anyone interested in a well-researched cultural biography of Joseph Smith and the founding of Mormonism would probably appreciate Bushman’s biography. It’s the only one of its kind.
It probably doesn’t exist, but I’m now looking for a balanced biography of Brigham Young. Any recommendations?
If you have reviewed Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling on your blog, please leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.
Technically, temple polygamy still exists in the modern LDS church. If a man divorces or is widowed, and his first temple marriage is still intact, he is allowed to be sealed to another woman. He will be polygamously married in the afterlife. I know people who have done this. So polygamy is no longer practiced in legal terms, but it is with regards to the temple. The doctrine is still considered sacred today.
I’m not trying to say anything bad about your beliefs – please don’t misunderstand me – but that’s what I was taught as a member of the LDS church.
Amanda, I completely agree: That is my understanding of what the “doctrine” of polygamy is. It doesn’t offend me at all. I don’t understand the need for it among living people, however.
I’ve heard a lot of controversy about this book. I am former LDS, and thus still have many friends who are LDS. I’ve heard many people who say one shouldn’t read this book because it can (sometimes they say ‘will’) shake testimonies. I’ve known some people who’ve read it out of historical curiosity about their church, only to be told by other members that they were “wrong” to read it. Do you feel like the book is so contraversial that members shouldn’t read it? I got the impression that most people think this book is anti-LDS, but i didn’t get that impression from your review.
Amanda, I didn’t think it was controversial at all, in terms of faith! Bushman is a very prominent LDS himself, emeritus professor of Columbia. This is a book dealing with fact, looking at any resources written at the time, every resource he can find, anti or not. If anything, I think Bushman remains more sympathetic with assuming Joseph Smith was a prophet rather than trying to find dirt on him. (But then, I wouldn’t want to read a book of “dirt” on someone I respect so much.)
I believe there was only one perfect person to ever live: Jesus. I don’t worship Joseph Smith; I worship Jesus Christ. Prophets are human; they make mistakes. I have to say anyone who’s faith is shaken by looking at history of the Church (any church, for that matter) probably doesn’t know very much about history (and, for that matter, needs to rethink what they actually have faith in, but maybe that’s being mean…).
I should add that I have read a number of books completely “anti-Mormon” and they haven’t affected my faith: just reinforced what I do believe.
I think the controversy is perhaps because the book makes the statement that Smith was not perfect. Personally, I find that makes him much more relateable, rather than the other way around, but I suppose some people want to believe that the prophets never do anything wrong at all. I don’t think THEY would agree with that. I read one quote – I can’t remember which one it was from – that said the idea of having to live up to perfection was terrifying, and he was glad he didn’t have to.
I have read several books lately about the history of the LDS church. Fern Brody’s biography of Joseph Smith is on my nightstand now. I will add this one to my TBR shelf as well.
My interest was raised after reading *The 19th Wife* (with fictionalized histories). This looks like a good book to give me some more historical knowlege of Smith. Thanks for the well-analyzed review.
Rose City Reader, I’ve never read Fawn Brodie’s biography but Bushman does refer to it.
Dawn, it’s definitely historical — keep in mind that it’s 500+ pages; while I haven’t read 19th Wife, I guarantee it’s certainly more dense!
I’m reading The 19th Wife at the moment and was looking to read more about Joseph Smith. I’ll probably check this one out.
Jupiter, it’s a great place to start if your interested in Joseph Smith’s life and the context for it!
Bushman is my favorite historian to read of Joseph Smith’s. If it’s biased, it’s as little biased as it can be based on the fact that Bushman is LDS.
The Book of Mormon, yes, I believe I mentioned that in the post. Thanks for stopping by!
Jay Haldeman » Thank you for your insight. I suggest maybe you submit your essay to your own blog.