I was fortunate to read an advanced readers copy of the highly anticipated Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman.
Put simply, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Bushman has a great deal to be proud of. In my estimation, his book exceeds all previous biographical attempts, including Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith: The First Mormon. Hill may have the upper hand in terms of prose (she is a marvelous writer), but she can’t match Bushman for his knowledge of history. Further, Hill’s book reads more like a general history of the Church from 1805–1844, while Bushman, as I discuss later, does more than any previous biographer to reveal *who* Joseph Smith was.
While some of the earlier chapters lift liberally from Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, there’s plenty of new material here as well. Bushman devotes more time to Joseph Smith and magic, explaining its role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. He plays apologist more often — and he does it well. He doesn’t shy away from any issues, but he offers plausible explanations for certain dilemmas. For example, while pointing out that the priesthood restoration wasn’t even mentioned by Joseph for five years after the event (which naturally leads to questions about the events authenticity) Bushman points out that if Joseph were embellishing and creating new experiences to bolster his prophetic claims, why then does he make only passing references to the priesthood restoration? He doesn’t sound the event with a trumpet, but instead with a passing whisper. It’s a good point that doesn’t attempt to solve the problem, but provides a reasonable explanation.
Bushman, more so than any other biographer of Joseph, gives us insight into who Joseph was. He delves deeper into the “prophet puzzle” than previous biographers. This might seem ironic, considering that psycho-biographies by Fawn Brodie, Robert Anderson, and William Morain seek to explain Joseph’s motivation. Yet those who seek to explain Joseph — whether as a prophet or a fraud — always remain distant. They are too interested in explaining why their perspective is right, instead of showing us who the real Joseph Smith may have been. Bushman reveals Joseph as deeply unsettled by his own sins, short on temper when criticized, prone perhaps to retribution, fearful of loneliness and needy of others company, yet through it all Joseph is convinced he is led by the hand of God.
Bushman also looks into Joseph’s thought more than previous biographers — a stated goal in his introduction. It makes for a fascinating look at the subject and helps in unmasking the real Joseph Smith, but I couldn’t help but wonder how some Church members will react to this approach. Bushman often appears to be attributing Mormon doctrine to Joseph’s mind and personal motivations. For example, Bushman suggests that when Joseph preached that families should be buried near each other, so they can rise during the resurrection and be with each other, this may have been to alleviate his own intense feelings of loneliness, because “he feared being left alone” (492). Although Bushman interchangeably attributes revelations to God or Joseph, he often quotes revelations and then suggests the development is Joseph’s.
This approach certainly doesn’t have the effect of trying to explain away Mormon claims of the supernatural; this is far from Bushman’s intent. But I can’t help but wonder how some Mormons, who typically believe that revelations on issues like Zion, for example, come straight from God to Joseph Smith, will react when they see these revelations used to explain Joseph Smith’s own thoughts, dreams, and desires. The obvious apologetic answer is that these were Joseph’s thoughts and desires because they were God’s thoughts and desires. This is far too simplistic and naÃ¯ve, in my estimation, and I think astute readers will need to do better if they want to find the real Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling is loaded with history, and in this regard, it blows all other biographies out of the water. Bushman compares and contrasts Joseph’s life and thought with other religious and civic leaders. He cites numerous other histories and it is clear that he has a tremendous grasp on the time period — something no other biographer has been able to offer. The result is that we can see what was unique to Joseph Smith, and what was not so different about him. It places him in his time and place; for example, Bushman explains the concept of the frontier gentleman and his honor, and ties this into why Joseph could be so nasty when criticized, even going so far as to bring up members on charges for saying things about him he didn’t like. It reveals a Joseph Smith who was clearly flawed, but given the context, was not a maniacal tyrant, so insecure he couldn’t handle any critique. Instead, he was an American frontiersman, easily offended and willing to use physical violence and punishment to retain his honor.
Those who have their own pet subjects (usually something controversial) will see that their issue is addressed but may be disappointed in the time dedicated to a particular topic. Fortunately, Bushman doesn’t get bogged down in these issues that, in my estimation, cannot explain the life of someone as remarkable as Joseph Smith. They might make for interesting articles and discussions, but they don’t go to the heart of Joseph’s life and what motivated him. Bushman addresses Joseph Smith Sr.’s drinking, Joseph’s drinking, magic and the occult, failed prophecies and revelations, Book of Mormon dilemmas — the witnesses, Zelph, etc., the Kinderhook plates, counterfeiting and the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society, and of course, polygamy. Even though polygamy is a major theme in the last third of the book, I remain unsure of how I feel about Bushman’s treatment. On the one hand, I admire his approach of largely explaining the circumstances and letting readers judge for themselves, only stopping to point out that he feels the evidence is that Joseph felt he was doing what God wanted. On the other hand, as Joseph’s biographer, I would have liked to have seen a deeper look at the motivation and the obvious sticky issues raised by polygamy. But then, this is my pet issue, perhaps it’s not Bushman’s.
Bushman’s prose is overall very good and moves the story along. At times it can be a bit slow, but largely he’s a great writer. Of the June 1831 conference, Bushman writes
In a log schoolhouse on a hill in a forested countryside, plain people of little education and much zeal sit before him [Joseph Smith] on slab benches. He is one of them, an ordinary man among ordinary men. He speaks of his visions and their possibilities, trying to invest them with power and intelligence beyond his capacity to describe. They listen transfixed, puzzled, and sometimes fearful. . . . Can they break mountains and divide the seas? Can they put the armies of nations at defiance? Sometimes they are uncertain. Sometimes they burn with perfect certainty. They feel their lives are being elevated, their persons empowered. The concerns of farms, shops, and families drop away, and they dedicate their lives to the work. (161)
This is one of many passages that is beautifully written and evokes a wonderful scene from the past. It’s as if Bushman is pulling back a curtain and allows us to gaze at his subject.
Like all books, I have a few minor quibbles. In the early chapters Bushman, like so many authors before him, seems too unquestioning of Lucy Mack Smith as the primary source of early Mormonism. Lucy was a proud woman, deeply concerned about social status and appearance. Her memoir was dictated decades after Joseph’s birth and seems obviously self-serving. In Lucy’s memoir, the Smith’s are forever swindled, cheated, and victimized through zero fault of their own. Bushman does have moments of suggesting Lucy’s memory may not be reliable at all times, but I think more could have been devoted to this problem, though I understand the natural inclination to accept what she says, since without her we have nothing at all.
I find Dan Vogel’s interpretation of Lucy’s memoir to be quite refreshing. He suggests Lucy suffered from depression and resented Joseph Sr. during these years because of his drinking and inability to provide for the family. Vogel is doing some interpretive guesswork, to be sure, and he could be wrong about Lucy, but I admire his efforts at examining her as a source.
One puzzling moment for me in Rough Stone Rolling is Bushman’s passing mention of Porter Rockwell’s innocence in the assassination attempt of Governor Lilburn Boggs. Bushman writes, “Not until Rockwell was arrested, tried, and acquitted a year later would his innocence be proven” (473). Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, but acquittal and innocence seem far from being the same thing. From my own limited reading of other biographies of Joseph and of Porter Rockwell’s biography by Hal Schindler, Rockwell seems to remain the prime suspect. Bushman is correct to note the evidence for Rockwell is all circumstantial, and again my main issue is with the phrase “innocence be proven.”
Finally, returning to the polygamy theme, I was a bit disappointed in Bushman’s approach to the Sarah Pratt issue (again, a pet issue of mine — hardly fair to expect Bushman to give it the attention I think it deserves, but I’ll complain anyway). Bushman doesn’t use (or at least, doesn’t cite in either the footnotes or bibliography) Gary Bergera’s fine work on the Orson Pratt, Sarah Pratt, Joseph Smith controversy, Conflict in the Quorum. I personally think Bushman tries to paint a picture that suggests either Joseph was lying or Sarah Pratt was lying about his proposition to her, and the scales are evenly balanced; both stories are equally plausible. Put bluntly, I think this is hard to believe. Although we are talking about an event over 150 years ago, and history being what it is, we can never know for certain, I find the scales far more tipped to Sarah’s version: Joseph proposed to her, when she refused, he threatened her. He publicly called her a whore and seems to have supported the demonstrably false lies of others that Sarah had an affair with John C. Bennett.
These minor quibbles aside, I think this book will stand as the definitive single-volume work on Joseph Smith’s life. I hardly think work is done, however, and anxiously await different interpretations from Dan Vogel, and the three-volume work by Martha Sonntag Bradley, Richard Van Wagoner, and Scott Kenney, among the many other books that are sure to be written about the prophet. But when I read Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, I can’t help but feel like this is the Joseph Smith that makes the most sense to me.