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Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard…
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Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005)

by Richard L. Bushman

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Can a biographer - Mormon or not - use words like "revelation" without quotation marks? As a "believing historian," what other choice can Richard Lyman Bushman make? Unlike Robert Remini, a non-Mormon author of a life of Joseph Smith, Mr. Bushman does not write about Smith's "alleged" visions. To do so would be to imply a degree of skepticism and refute the very idea that there can be such a figure as a "believing historian."
"Believing historian" may seem a contradiction in terms. History is not about belief but evidence. But biography is also about a specific person and his world, and thus the genre evokes events as the subject saw them. Joseph Smith understood that his story was incredible. If an angel had appeared to another man and provided golden plates which the man was instructed to translate, from the "reform Egyptian," into a new bible, "The Book of Mormon," Smith said he would not have believed it.
Smith was in his early 20s when he experienced his encounter with the angel Moroni. Poorly educated, he was nevertheless put in charge of sacred texts that no one else could touch - let alone read - on pain of death. So the angel admonished Joseph, as Mormons call him. Joseph, as Mr. Bushman also calls him, never claimed he was dictating to his amanuenses the literal word of God. He was doing the best he could.
Such is the Joseph Smith, rough as a rolling stone, that Mr. Bushman brilliantly portrays in "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (Alfred A. Knopf, 740 pages, $35). Often called a prophet, Joseph was, more properly speaking, a revelator. He simply told people what God and his angels said to him. To be sure, "The Book of Mormon" reflects Joseph's autobiography and the Second Great Awakening that Robert Remini explored so well as he situated Smith in the context of Jacksonian America.
Mr. Bushman is aware of cultural context, but his work builds on more than 18 other biographies - most importantly, Fawn Brodie's "No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith," published in 1945 and revised in 1970.While Brodie was not a believing historian, she made it difficult to dismiss Joseph Smith as delusional or a charlatan. In her careful analysis, "The Book of Mormon" could not be rejected as just a potpourri of pseudobiblical stories.
It is Mr. Bushman's treatment of "The Book of Mormon" that makes this biography a stunning accomplishment. Once again, he begins with Brodie, a Mormon who broke with her church. She saw the text differently from critics who called it "chloroform in print" (Mark Twain) and "a yeasty fermentation, formless, aimless and inconceivably absurd" (Bernard DeVoto). On the contrary, Brodie replied: "Its structure shows elaborate design, its narrative is spun coherently, and it demonstrates throughout a unity of purpose."
Mr. Bushman reports these various opinions, but provides his own captivating interpretation. He calls "The Book of Mormon" an "elaborate framed tale of Mormon telling about a succession of prophets telling about their encounters with God. Read in the twenty-first century, the book seems almost postmodern in its self-conscious attention to the production of the text." Such sentences seem aimed at English departments looking for a new text to mine. Certainly, Mr. Bushman feels that "The Book of Mormon" has never been accorded its rightful place in American literature. His aim is not 1179 2174 1293 2185to gain Mormon converts but to show how "The Book of Mormon" is in its own right a legitimate literary work in the same sense the Bible is: "Although the book is above all a religious history of prophesying, preaching, faithfulness, and apostasy, Mormon evokes an entire world."
Mr. Bushman acknowledges that proponents of the text "face an uphill battle in resisting this onslaught" of critics who have termed it fictitious and deemed any defense of the book's authenticity as hopeless. Yet he draws on the research of Mormons and non-Mormons alike to show that "The Book of Mormon" cannot be explained away as a novel masquerading as scripture.
Like the Bible, "The Book of Mormon" is a narrative, not a treatise, the biographer emphasizes. Careful reading shows that both early Mormons and their critics misunderstood the book, applying too many of its stories to an American setting. Mr. Bushman disperses these distortions when he writes that "The Book of Mormon" "deposited its people on some unknown shore - not even definitely identified as America - and had them live out their history in a remote place in a distant time, using names that had no connections to modern Indians. All modern readers had to go on was the reference to a 'narrow neck of land.' "
Although "The Book of Mormon" is often regarded as a text that explains the origins of American Indians as the lost tribes of Israel, Mr. Bushman finds very little evidence that this is so and concludes that the book "seems more focused on its own Christian message than on Indian anthropology. The book refuses to argue its own theory."
So why were Mormons persecuted? Why was Joseph Smith assassinated? Why does the church he founded not only endure but thrive? On the one hand, "The Book of Mormon" "challenges biblical authority" - even suggesting that the good book may contain errors. Smith's contemporaries viewed him as a spiritual and political threat (he ran for the presidency), with a fanatical church and a private army that menaced American institutions. On the other hand, "The Book of Mormon" as a new revelation, a reformist Christian text, attracted converts dissatisfied with conventional Christian denominations and longing for the return of revelation. Although Mr. Bushman does not quite put it this way, "The Book of Mormon" is a work of both affirmation and dissent.
More than that, "The Book of Mormon" has a universalist message; the "American story does not control the narrative," Mr. Bushman writes. It does not celebrate democracy, the biographer insists, but "endlessly expounds the master biblical narrative - the history of Israel." The text proposes, in Mr. Bushman's words, "a new purpose for America: becoming a realm of righteousness rather than an empire of liberty."
If I have focused on Mr. Bushman's interpretation of "The Book of Mormon," it is because he brings his discussion back to biography - its power and its limitations: Biographical analysis runs the risk of making creative works little more than a mirror of the author's life. As one critic puts it, "the book is far grander, much broader, and its internal logic and power go well beyond
the life of Joseph Smith."

By delineating the boundaries of biography so sensitively,Mr.Bushman has paradoxically enhanced its authority. ( )
  carl.rollyson | Oct 6, 2012 |
While this is a book with a bias (there's no such thing as unbiased opinions when it comes to religion or politics) and while Mr. Bushman, dubbed 'the Mormon explainer' is a believer, he examines the religious sect and its cultural influences with an unflinching eye. Whether you're a believer or a skeptic, there's a lot to learn from this book. Fully entrenched members will be forced to look at a history that is largely untaught, and perhaps ask themselves some tough questions, while skeptics should (at least I hope) come to a better understanding of a people and a culture steeped in folklore and misunderstanding. It's an interesting look at the forces that what went into the shaping of this country and the challenges placed upon the constitution during our nation's, and particularly the West's, formative years. At 740 pages, it took me a while to get through, and though I went into it with many questions, I came out with a broader understanding, but with many questions still remaining. For the curious, this is an intriguing read. ( )
  vrchristensen | Jan 10, 2012 |
A highly respected and respectable bio. My one query of Prof. Bushman's praiseworthy effort is this: Why ignore the Jan.4, 1833 letter which Joseph Smith sent to N. C. Saxton, the editor of the American Revivalist and Rochester Observer, part of which was published in that paper Feb. 2, 1833 and the remainder of which is preserved in the LDS Church Archives? In this letter Joseph accurately predicts the devastations of the Civil War which began 28 years later, the establishment of the Jews in Jerusalem which occurred 134 years later as well as the large-scale conversions and immigrations from Canada, Britain, and Scandinavia which took place throughout the rest of the 19th century, mostly after his martyrdom in 1844. Was the honored professor put off by the unlearned literary style of this letter or did he perhaps wish to portray Joseph Smith more as a forthteller than a foreteller? In my view Brother Joseph was both and deserves credit as both. ( )
  markbstephenson | Jun 2, 2010 |
This was an intriguing history of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I enjoyed learning as much as I did about him. I think Mr. Bushman was fair and showed both sides of the story. I plan to read more about Joseph Smith one day. ( )
  Anagarika | Nov 3, 2009 |
The life of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, although short, was full of faith and controversy. In his cultural biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Lyman Bushman approaches Joseph Smith’s life for all it was, without apology.

Bushman does not omit controversy from Joseph’s life; rather, controversy surrounding Joseph is carefully researched in the context of early 1800s America. As a fellow believer in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), I readily enjoyed what I felt was a balanced examination a person I consider a prophet in his era. While Bushman’s account is certainly biased toward Joseph Smith as a prophet, I felt it was a fair look at both man and prophet.

More detailed review on my blog
1 vote rebeccareid | Dec 1, 2008 |
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Presents the life of the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, from his hardscrabble early life in rural New York, to the visions that inspired The Book of Mormon, and his untimely death at the hands of a mob in 1844.

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