Historian John Lewis Gaddis has written about the “landscape of history.” I can think of no better metaphor for history, the foggy vista of the past that unfolds before (or behind!) the historian. In a sense, there is only one historical landscape–the past as it really happened–but this landscape exists on a plane far beyond our ability to recover. Instead, we stand on a hill and peer at the past, study it, scrutinize it, but can never perfectly replicate it. The historical landscapes we paint are our version of that perfect Platonic landscape, and each one differs from the next: you see light, I see shade; you see peaks, I see troughs.
A new landscape of Joseph Smith has been painted. Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) is the must-have Mormon history of our generation (see John Hatch’s BCC review here, and the T&S symposium here). Bushman’s landscape of Joseph has more light than shade, but it is certainly not the Crayola-creation of Correlation.
It is an interesting exercise to compare two landscapes of Joseph Smith side-by-side. RSR invites comparison with that other seminal landscape of Joseph, Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. One event will suffice for this comparison: the First Vision, which contemporary Mormons herald as the singular event of the Restoration, when God and Jesus visited the boy Joseph in 1820.
The 1820s are Mormonism’s murkiest decade. Despite being foundational to the Joseph story, it can be surprising to learn that so little is known. Brodie and Bushman are, of course, painting second-hand landscapes: they do not see the vista with their own eyes but rely on the histories that Joseph and others left behind. Unfortunately, for the First Vision, Joseph’s own landscape is chaotic and fragmentary.
Joseph first wrote of the First Vision in 1832 in terms of a personal conversion, not a call to be a new prophet of God. The modern Church claims that, “Joseph Smith’s first vision stands today as the greatest event in world history since the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Certainly Joseph did not think in such grand terms at the time, and the different versions of the First Vision he described show a struggle to define what exactly had happened to him. In the 1832 account he saw the Lord (Jesus) and was forgiven of his sins; in 1835, an Adversary was present, as was a second divine personage and angels; in 1838 we are given the canonical version familiar to all Mormons, one focused on the apostasy of Christendom and the hope of a Restoration. (Download Dean Jesse’s article on the early First Vision accounts here.)
From history to history, Joseph’s own historical landscape changed, and events took on new meanings. Joseph’s 1820s landscape is well-understood by Mormons today: to the south we see the First Vision, to the north is Moroni, to the east are the gold plates, to the west is the restoration of the priesthood. But it didn’t always look like this. The First Vision, for example, is never clearly described in the 1820s, and as we have seen, its 1830s versions change somewhat from telling to telling. This can be troubling to the believer. Certainly, we ought to be sympathetic to a changing historical landscape (my own history would change from telling to telling as I saw new meaning in it; this does not make me a liar), but Joseph claimed to see God with his own eyes. Can one really remember such a profound event in different ways. And why wait years to tell the story?
As historians, Bushman and Brodie have to make sense of this. For Brodie, the solution is simple:
If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph’s home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of the members of his own family.
The awesome vision he described in later years was probably the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in the neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging. Dream images came easily to this youth, whose imagination was as untrammeled as the whole West (p.25).
Bushman is more sympathetic to the difficult evolution of the First Vision and it is indicative of his position on Joseph as a whole. He reminds us (p.39) that Joseph did not at the time know that he was having the “First Vision” (with the ramifications we now attach to it). He quotes Joseph (p.39): “the angel of the Lord says that we must be careful not to proclaim these things or to mention them abroad.” He also suggests (p.40) that the “natural reticence of a teenage boy” was a factor in Joseph’s silence on the Vision (most early converts probably never heard of it). According to Bushman, “he was not interested in notoriety” (p.40).
Only when “Joseph became confident” did more details come out (p.40). Once Joseph had understood his role as the restorer of the Church, the First Vision naturally evolved from a conversion narrative to representing his call as a prophet. That is the First Vision of modern Mormonism, the reason why tens of thousands visit the Sacred Grove every year.
RSR is thus sympathetic to Joseph but also decidedly naturalistic: to understand the First Vision accounts (or lack thereof) we must examine the circumstances Joseph found himself in. The teenage boy felt reluctant to describe the profundity of his experience and only quietly began to glimpse what the First Vision had meant. It was only the mature prophet who felt confident enough to describe the event in all its glory.
So, for Bushman the varying First Vision accounts are not a case (contra Brodie) of Joseph remembering his “half-remembered dream” differently as time went on, and it never really enters Bushman’s history that Joseph did not have the First Vision, that he simply invented and then embellished the “event” as his confidence grew. Instead, Bushman’s Joseph is simply a hesitant prophet in his early years. Brodie, of course, is less sanguine: Joseph is a dreamer at best, a fraud at worst.
That is the fundamental difference between the two histories, and in the hazy landscape of history I suppose either could be “true” from a certain standpoint. They are paintings of a landscape, not the landscape itself (which is irretrievably lost outside of some kind of Cosmic History Book). I heartily recommend RSR, but urge the reader to also give Brodie (and Hill, and Vogel et. al.) a look: for anyone who desires the full historical panorama of Joseph Smith, an honest acceptance of the ambiguities of history requires it. RSR is the new seminal Joseph Smith history. However, it is not, and never could be, definitive. History doesn’t work that way.
1. For Bushman what is important is the fact that Joseph believed it: “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” (p.xxi).
2. A “book” which, in fact, many Mormons believe is open to them (to some degree) through what Terryl Givens calls “dialogic revelation.”