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.