Jeffrey Needle has an advance review of Richard Bushman's long awaited Joseph Smith biography, Rough Stone Rolling. Jeffrey is a non-Mormon who has long been interested in Mormon scholarship and literature. He's written many fine book reviews for AML and has kindly allowed me to reproduce this one here.
Title: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Author: Richard Lyman Bushman
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Year Published: 2005 (September)
Number of Pages: 784 pages
Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle
When my review copy of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling arrived, I was very happy. There has been much chatter about this book, a great deal of expectation. Bushman's reputation for solid scholarship and tireless research promised an exciting and satisfying read. I was not disappointed.
There have been so many biographies of Smith, one wonders why another is needed. What is there to say that hasn't already been said? This review will suggest why this book is special.
The subtitle "Rough Stone Rolling" is a quote from the Prophet himself:
I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women--all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty, who will give me dominion over all and every one of them, when their refuge of lies shall fail, and their hiding place shall be destroyed, while these smooth-polished stones with which I come in contact become marred" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 304).
This book does a superb job of describing that process of turning Joseph into a "polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty." It should be added that some of this polishing process comes, not as a result of enemy encroachment, but rather the natural consequence of one's own human failings.
Bushman, author of a previous, and well-received, biography of the Prophet, devoted years to expanding and updating that book ("Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism"). He and his wife Claudia are well-known in the Mormon community for both their writing and their public speaking.
The challenge he faces has more to do with his heart than with his head. As a self-professed "believing Mormon," he runs the risk of favoring faithful history over the evidential testimony. Often this is a matter of sifting through the available evidence, deciding some points are more relevant than others, and constructing an apologetic that does not reflect the larger picture. On the other hand, enemies of the church can likewise sift and sort, producing a very different picture of the Mormon institution and its leadership
Bushman takes a modified middle road -- that is, he makes an effort to acknowledge the controversial aspects of the life of this very controversial figure, and placing them alongside the more positive aspects, nearly always coming down on the side of the faithfully supportive.
This, of course, is to be expected -- this is what faithful writers do. But I give him great credit in that he presents the story in all its richness -- warts and all -- rather than pretend that the warts aren't there. By doing so, he adds the veneer of credibility to his writing.
The result is a long read that will ultimately satisfy neither extreme in the Mormon spectrum. Between the deification and the vilification of Joseph Smith there exists a vast expanse of history, mythology and speculation. Bushman travels this territory well. If Fawn Brodie/Dan Vogel and Francis Gibbons occupy the end zones of the Mormon football field, Bushman occupies a place just to the right of 50-yard line.
Bushman begins his book with an observation on why Joseph Smith fascinates us so much:
Smith is interesting for what he was as well as for what he did. He was the closest America has come to producing a biblical-style prophet -- one who spoke for God with the authority of Moses or Isaiah...He spoke in God's voice in revelations he compiled and published. (xx)
Indeed, the idea of a restored prophetic office fascinated some and repelled others. Not that there weren't other prophets making themselves known -- Ellen White, prophetess of the Seventh-day Adventist church, for example, would come along just a few years after Joseph's death -- but it was Joseph Smith who placed his revelations on the level of scripture, an idea that would infuriate the religious world of his time.
Bushman does not avoid the controversial aspects of the Prophet's life. He discusses at some length Joseph's money-digging activities, placing them in context with the widespread practices of his time. Water dousing and other esoteric forms of benign necromancy were common practices among Joseph's contemporaries.
As Joseph Smith matured in both his understanding of his prophetic role and his awareness of the impact of his public image, these early esoteric activities would recede from his lifework, but the specter of supernaturalism would remain throughout his life:
By the fall of 1827, Joseph Smith stood on the line dividing visionary supernaturalism from rational Christianity -- one of the many boundaries between the traditional and modern world in early-nineteenth-century America. He was difficult to place along that line because he faced in both directions. Joseph looked backward toward traditional society's faith in divine power communicated through stones, visions, dreams, and angels. At the same time, he turned away from the money-diggers' passion for treasure and reached for higher, spiritual ends. The gold plates and angels scandalized rational Christians, while the religious impulse confused the money diggers. (58)
This helps us understand why Joseph Smith was, and continues to be, such a confusing figure. He's very hard to pin down, unless you strip from the Smith story the humanizing elements of his life. Hagiography thus performs a disservice to the Mormon community. It tries to fit a complex, and sometimes perplexing, figure into a neat mold; in my opinion, such efforts inevitably fail.
Bushman's fourth chapter, "A New Bible," is an excellent survey of the nature of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, a frank view of its contents, and an interesting account of how it was received by Joseph's contemporaries. The author assumes Book of Mormon's historicity, as would be expected from a believing writer.
Bushman's discussion of the Zion's Camp episode is a good example of his attempt to present an historical episode honestly while drawing some good from what he terms a "major failure."
The expedition to Missouri in 1834 has been called Joseph Smith's first major failure. Nothing that Joseph aimed to accomplish came about. Several hundred men spent three months walking two thousand miles; fourteen of them never came home. Nothing the camp did improved the situation in Jackson County...
Was Zion's Camp a catastrophe? Perhaps, but it was not the unmitigated disaster that it appears to be. Most camp members felt more loyal to Joseph than ever, bonded by their hardships. The future leadership of the Church came from this group. Nine of the Church's original Twelve Apostles, all seven presidents of the Seventy, and sixty-three other member of the Seventy marched in Zion's Camp. (248)
Zion's Camp was not the only "failure," if we define "failure" as the inability to realize one's goals immediately. We follow Joseph's attempts to establish the Church in one area after another, only to be driven out by hostile militias and vigilantes. It was only natural that the Saints would rise up to defend themselves. Bushman acknowledges that, at times, Mormon attempts at self-defense spilled over into more offensive, rather than defensive, activity:
...Joseph must take responsibility for the Mormon raids on their Daviess County enemies. His angry rhetoric stirred the blood of more militant men. After the Daviess raids, [Porter] Rockwell wrote his father that "the prophet has unsheathed his sword and in the name of Jesus declares that it shall not be sheathed again untill [sic] he can go into any county or state in safety and in peace." Words like that licensed Lyman Wight's desperate plans. Joseph's approval of Rigdon's salt sermon with its strong threats against dissenters had justified the Danites' expulsion of the Whitmers, Cowdery, and Phelps. Later Joseph repudiated the Danites, speaking of "many false and pernicious things which were calculated to lead the saints far astray," wrongly "taught by Dr. Avard as coming from the Presidency." Had the Presidency known of these corruptions, Joseph insisted, "they would have spurned them and their authors from them as they would the gates of hell." But by giving them places of honor at the July 4 celebration, he acknowledged their legitimacy. (375)
I have no doubt that some readers will offended by Bushman's seeming depiction of Joseph Smith, the prophet, as unaware of what was happening among some of his most trusted associates. Others will scoff at the idea that Joseph didn't know what was going on. Bushman once again walks the middle road -- Joseph may not have known the details of the Danites' activities, but he must ultimately take responsibility for their actions.
The polygamy issue looms large throughout the book, with a good discussion of the Fanny Alger episode. Once again, his discussion of Alger will likely satisfy no one on the extremes. He acknowledges a relationship, but comes short of calling it adultery. Chapter 25, "Stories of Eternity," discusses the marriage revelation at some length, probing the difficulties and challenges facing Joseph Smith and the leadership of the Church as this practice became more public. The whole issue would vex Joseph greatly:
Joseph never wrote his personal feelings about plural marriage. Save for the revelation given in the voice of God, everything on the subject comes from the people around him. But surely he realized that plural marriage would inflict terrible damage, that he ran the risk of wrecking his marriage and alienating his followers. How could the faithful Emma, to whom he pledged his love in every letter, accept additional wives? His followers would see the revelation as an unforgivable breach of the moral law or and [sic] reject it altogether, or even worse, use it as a license for free love. Either way, their reactions would jeopardize the Zion project. As for the world at large, plural marriage would confirm all their worst fears. Sexual excess was considered the all too common fruit of pretended revelation. Joseph's enemies would delight in one more evidence of a revelator's antinomian transgressions. (443)
I could cite so many examples; I'll spare you the burden of reading a review that is already too long.
One disappointing part of the book deals with his treatment of the Council of Fifty. Although several pages are devoted to the theme at the end of the chapter titled "City and Kingdom," the Council appears more benign than the actual history would suggest. True, Bushman alludes to a militaristic aspect of the Council, but stops sort of reporting the stories of acts of violence and revenge. I believe he should have filled this out a little better.
So what do we have here? Bushman has produced an amazingly fluid and readable life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Rich in detail and beautifully written, long-familiar accounts come alive with new depth and nuance. In fact, Joseph Smith himself becomes, in a sense, more human, more approachable.
The task of integrating true belief with the work of an honest historian is always a challenge. As Bushman states in his preface:
A believing historian like myself cannot hope to rise above these battles [between believing and critical scholars] or pretend nothing personal is at stake. 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, not ducking any of the problems. Covering up flaws makes no sense in any case. Most readers do not believe in, nor are they interested in, perfection. Flawless characters are neither attractive nor useful. [xx]
May I add my hearty "amen" to that.
It is very possible that Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling will become the definitive biography of Joseph Smith for this generation. It richly deserves your attention and a place on your bookshelf.
Thanks for posting this thoughful review, Clark. This looks to be another must-read book.
Yes. Clark, thanks.
It is too bad that the council of the fifty and the quorum of the anointed aren't dealt with more, since they are key to both the succession crisis as well as event in late Nauvoo. I'm curious to read it and see how much I agree with this review.
But of course no review can cover everything.
I just thought he might have not choosen to review the quorom. If Bushman did not, it would be a serious flaw in the book.
I have read the Advanced Readers Copy, and although Needle's review is fair and generous, I think he is off-base on a few points.
First, he says Rough Stone "does a superb job of describing that process of turning Joseph into a 'polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.'"--in other words, how Smith went from rough to polished. I don't see Bushman doing this at all. In my recollection the line about becoming polished is never cited; neither is the big fat TPJS quote at the top of Needle's review (an expansion by a later clerk--and TPJS is not cited in the bibliography). Certainly the idea of Smith eclipsing his unrefined rural upbringing is not a major theme. Bushman is more interested in how Smith came to see himself as a prophet, not in how he actually became a polished shaft, whatever that means. Elsewhere Bushman is on record as saying Smith did not care about gentility. The overall feel of the book is that Smith thought of himself, from start to finish, as rough material, though called of God to perform a religious mission.
Second, Needle says Bushman "assumes Book of Mormon's historicity, as would be expected from a believing writer." Here I think Needle is reading back Bushman's Mormon practice onto the writing itself. In fact Bushman analyzes the Book of Mormon as it presents itself, that is, as an ancient text. He does not present a case for the historicity of the book so much as he shows how the book eludes its nineteenth-century setting on several key points. That is an act of sympathetic textual reading more than an act of personal belief. The two probably cannot be extrictated, a far cry from Needle's gloss.
Third, Needle's point about Bushman stopping "short of reporting the stories of acts of [Council of 50] violence and revenge" is uninformed. There are no such instances of Council of 50 depridations from March-June 1844, the period in question. Needle apparently confuses the Council of 50 with earlier Danite excesses or rumors of Danites in Nauvoo. By saying Bushman "stops short of reporting," Needle seems to be implying that Bushman witheld information when really there is no good reason to assume that. At one point Bushman says because the Council of 50 records are "restricted from researchers" it is difficult to determine exactly the nature of the organization. Evidently Bushman did not see the records himself (there is no citation to suggest that he has seen them). Throughout Rough Stone Bushman reveals unflattering details many Mormon writers would otherwise withold; his witholding in this instance does not fit the mold he casts throughout.
Finally, to answer J. Stapley, Rough Stone does talk about the Quorum of the Anointed.
Note that Common Consent has a review of Bushman as well.
I have looked forward to Bushman's newest book on Joseph Smith for quite some time. Needle's review makes me even more anxious to read the book. After 35 years of reading and studying history I have learned that there is no such thing as truly objective historical reporting. Honest people try to be fair but in the end their interpretations are just that - their interpretation. How we view the historical events is always clouded by our own personal beliefs and life experiences. Using historical records and second hand reporting to prove whether or not Joseph Smith was truly called of God is an exercise in futility. It makes for fascinating reading and provides fuel to satisfy peoples notions regarding Joseph Smith but I doubt that many are persuaded to belive or not to believe based upon such books. To me it is very significant that 200 years after his birth we are still speaking and writing about Joseph Smith. Joseph said that an angel from God once told him that his name would be both good and evil spoken of by mankind the world over. I believe that to be one thing that Joseph said that most honest people can agree upon.