Guest Post: Rough Stone Rolling Book Club

A guest post from J Stuart, of Juvenile Instructor (The BCC Farm Team)

Summer Book Club: Read Rough Stone Rolling with Historians of Mormonism

As a Mormon and historian of American religion, I’ve had a lot of people ask me what book they should read to begin their study of Mormon history. Unequivocally, my answer is Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Weighing in at 561 pages, it is longer than the Book of Mormon—which is perhaps why so few have read Bushman’s tome from cover to cover. The book itself can be physically and intellectually intimidating to historians and non-historians alike. Many Mormons and non-Mormons have read and digested the book in order to see Joseph Smith’s place in the history of antebellum America, American religious history, or just to learn more about Mormonism’s founder.

I argue that it’s much more important for Mormons to read Rough Stone Rolling than it is for historians of American religion (although they should also read it!). Many people have purchased the book, or seen the book in their parent’s homes, or at their local libraries, or see it on their “You May Also Be Interested In” lists on Amazon, based on their purchase history. But, for whatever reason, they have not yet begun Bushman’s behemoth—most likely because of its size and the difficulty of reading through the first (thick) couple of chapters.

I suspect that many BCC readers, like me, have received distraught phone calls, e-mails, and Facebook conversations with friends or family members that have urgent questions about Joseph Smith’s life or teachings. When others raise questions arise about Joseph Smith, I inevitably ask whether they have read Rough Stone Rolling. The answer is almost always a sheepish “no,” although many people tell me that they have a copy sitting on their shelf. Some have even said that they were nervous to read church history without someone telling them what can be trusted. After talking through the issues for any sort of historical context or relevant information about Joseph Smith, I’ll ask them to read relevant portions of Rough Stone Rolling for us to discuss later.

Every church leader, teacher, and mentor in the church should read the book, if only to answer others’ questions. If you have not yet had questions about Joseph Smith’s teachings that can’t necessarily be readily found in a Sunday School manual, you will. I guarantee it (or I’ll happily return the money you paid to read this blog post).

To help those looking for a reason, whatever the reason, to read or re-read Rough Stone Rolling, we at the Juvenile Instructor are hosting a summer book club. Starting May 10th, we will read a few chapters a week, provide readable analysis, and answer questions in the comments. So if you’ve wanted to read or re-read the definitive biography of Joseph Smith, but didn’t have a reading partner or historians to provide helpful contexts and relevant information, THIS is your chance.

Those who are interested can receive updates via their RSS feeds, following the JI Facebook Page, or the Facebook page created just for the book club.


  1. Cool. I’m in. I wish JI taught my SS classes.

  2. This is a very good idea.

  3. Nice!

  4. The PangWitch says:

    why isn’t something like Rough Stone Rolling used in sunday school and elders quorum? would it be allowed? is it officially sanctioned to the point that a teacher would be allowed to use it as a material for their class?

  5. J Stuart says:

    I use RSR in my early-morning seminary class, PangWitch. The kids do really well with it.

  6. Using RSR in our HP class would almost certainly cause a huge disruption. Nearly every week there are things taught that are simply not true. Last Sunday, it was taught that the stone in the hat story was just that – an anti-mormon story.

    I didn’t say anything because I have been spoken to in the past.

  7. MDearest says:

    I’m in. I never finished this book and I regret it. My Mother’s Day gift to myself will be to join y’all and remedy that. I’m happy to let you “hold my hand” and I don’t feel pathetic in the least.

  8. It’s also way more fun to read things like this when others (especially with actual related professional experience) can share their insights.

    I’m in.

  9. Count me among those who didn’t get past the first few chapters. They were absolutely fascinating (I loved reading about Joseph’s Universalist heritage), but then I got distracted by another book. So I’m looking forward to tackling it again!

  10. FarSide: I empathize with your point about an “infantilization,” but that doesn’t mean that this sort of thing helps a variety of people learn more about Mormonism/Joseph Smith. If you see my last comment, you’ll see I use this in seminary with no problem. When I talk about this with people my parent’s age (50’s), they don’t do nearly as well. If you want to call helping people understand their religious history “hand-holding” than so be it. But I call it “learning as a community” so as to help the most people read and understand RSR (for their own sakes and for those that they interact with).

  11. ‘Again’ might not be the right word there. Is there a word for “trying to read something which one has failed to finish reading at least once before?” Tolstoying? Or when applied to a sacred text, perhaps Leviticussing?

  12. I should also say that we are hosting the book club for historians of American religion (we at JI seek to connect Mormonism to broader historical movements, arguments, etc.). There will be something for everyone–and the comments allow for anyone to engage however they wish.

  13. Our old man would be so proud of this!

  14. I read it and finished once before my mission. But I have not read it since. I’ll try to follow this, although I’ll need to get a copy of the book. This is a great idea. Reading RSR helped me to understand and appreciate Joseph Smith in a way I had never been able to do when all I knew was hagiographical.

  15. Oh yeah! Someone notify the Ensign-lets take this church wide:)

    Seriously though, I’ve been wishing for years that my friends would pick up this book. Would’ve been so helpful for the questions!

  16. I’m a fan of RSR too, but I’m surprised that it is considered such a milestone in Mormon history writing when Donna Hill covered much of the same territory (albeit without many of the resources that were available to Bushman years later) in Joseph Smith – The First Mormon.

  17. J Stuart says:

    larryco_: It’s significant, not only for the documents, but that Bushman wrote it. He’s a revered historian of early America. Brodie, Hill, and others made significant contributions, but Bushman’s stature and sources make RSR a very important book for Mormons and non-Mormons. I hope you’ll read along with us!

  18. I’m in and will announce it.

  19. LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book. I was given the book as a gift but didn’t open it until my MIL “warned” me about it. She made it sound like I was going to see sides of Joseph that would absolutely shock me. So I read it, and I kept looking for that “thing” that she was surely talking about it, never found it. Yes it was long, but I found myself not wanting to finish it, sadly I already knew the ending.
    I am not smart, I am not a scholar, if I can read it, anyone can. I highly recommend it.

  20. Eddie Edmunds says:

    Interesting opinion on RSR. I liked the book and have read it cover to cover. However, I completely disagree with Rough Stone Rolling being a testimony builder. I think it is more of a testimony “tester” and have received the same feedback from some of my other friends.

    For me, the tone is not written with the intent to build a person’s testimony and the amount of doctrine and historical information in it could squelch someone’s belief or burgeoning faith.
    Why is it that we always have to equate knowledge and factual, candid information as tools for conversion.
    I am not suggesting that the book doesn’t have merit. It does. I just dont see it as a book for the spiritual novice who wants to gain a testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet.

  21. J Stuart says:

    Great comment, Eddie. We aren’t looking specifically to build anyone’s testimonies. I’ve heard of RSR helping in that regard, but mostly we are trying to help people read the book. People who find information from good sources are better equipped to help others who don’t find information from good sources. Above all, we are trying to help people learn more about the life of Joseph Smith. People will make their own conclusion but we want them to have good information.

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