By Richard Lyman Bushman
Reviewed by Eric Johnson
To order this book directly from Amazon.com, go to Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Over the years a number of books have been written about Joseph Smith. Some of my favorites include Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, and Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. (OK, I realize the last book is supposed to be about Smith’s wife, but it might as well be about Smith himself as the authors focused on the fallout of Emma because of her husband’s .)
There’s one book that was written about a decade ago that I think also should be read: Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Written by a faithful Latter-day Saint historian, Bushman reports the facts generally as we would expect a faithful Latter-day Saint to do. And because he does this while not serving in an official capacity of the church, I think the book ought to be considered an important choice.
Don’t get me wrong, as I do believe that Bushman could have been more critical with the traditional story we routinely get from the LDS Church. For example, the inside jacket reads, “Joseph Smith, American’s preeminent visionary and prophet, rose from a modest background to found the largest indigenous Christian church in American history.” I would certainly dicker with the use of “Christian church, substituting “American religion” instead.
In addition, he apparently takes the 1820 “First Vision” account at face value, even though it would have been impossible for this event to have taken place that year because the revival so important to this story didn’t take place until 1824. (See here.) Bushman apparently accepts that the gold plates of the Book of Mormon must have weighed only 40-50 pounds (p. 60). However, if these plate really were made of gold, they would have weighed closer to 200 pounds. Emma Smith is even quoted as saying that the plates “would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb” (p. 70), even though gold would not have made a metallic sound. He even makes it appear that the witnesses saw the gold plates with their own eyes, even though it is clear that they only saw the plates in a vision. (Check this article out.)
And there are other items that only a Latter-day Saint historian would have written. I guess I shouldn’t expect a Mormon to move too far away from the status quo, but the reader should know this bias upfront and compare other resource material.
Yet Bushman doesn’t hide some important yet pertinent facts that might make the faithful cringe, including:
- “Joseph Jr. never repudiated the stones or denied their power to find treasure. Remnants of the magical culture stayed with him to the end.” (p. 51)
- “Under (court) examination, the twenty-year-old Joseph said that he had looked for ‘hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth’ and had helped Stowell several times.” (p. 52)
- “In opposition to universal salvation, the Book of Mormon envisioned the afterlife as heaven or hell. In a perplexing reversal, a revelation received in the very month the Book of Mormon was published contradicted the book’s firm stand. The revelation that “Endless” was a name of God, and “endless punishment” meant God’s punishment. Torment for sins would be temporary, just as the Universalists taught. ” (p. 200)
- “In a similar lapse, Joseph failed to record the date of the visit by Peter, James, and John to restore the apostleship, nor did he include the event in the first edition of his revelations. For years, priesthood appeared only dimly in his thinking.” (p. 202)
- “When he could not have his way, Joseph sometimes rained down curses on his opponents.” (p. 299)
- “There is evidence that Joseph was a polygamist by 1835.” (p. 323)
- “In the next two and a half years, Joseph married about thirty additional women, ten of them already married to other men. . . .nothing indicates that sexual relations were left out of plural marriages.” (p. 437, 439)
- “What about the heart of his tender wife?” (p. 441)
Though it’s over 700 pages, I think most who are interested in this topic will find it moves along quickly and is very understandable. All in all, this book ought to be read and compared to other books on the topic.