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Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard…

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005)

by Richard L. Bushman

Other authors: Jed Woodworth (Contributor)

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4741233,925 (4.48)15
Joseph Smith, America’s preeminent visionary and prophet, rose from a modest background to found the largest indigenous Christian church in American history. Without the benefit of wealth, education, or social position, he published the 584-page Book of Mormon when he was twenty-three; organized a church when he was twenty-four; and founded cities, built temples, and attracted thousands of followers before his violent death at age thirty-eight. Rather than perishing with him, Mormonism migrated to the Rocky Mountains, flourished there, and now claims millions of followers worldwide. In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman, an esteemed American cultural historian and a practicing Mormon, tells how Smith formed a new religion from the ground up. Moving beyond the popular stereotype of Smith as a colorful fraud, the book explores the inner workings of his personality–his personal piety, his temper, his affection for family and friends, and his incredible determination. It describes how he received revelations and why his followers believed them. Smith was a builder of cities. He sought to form egalitarian, just, and open communities under God and laid out a plan for ideal cities, which he hoped would fill the world. Adopted as the model for hundreds of Mormon settlements in the West, Smith’s urban vision may have left a more lasting imprint on the landscape than that of any other American. He was controversial from his earliest years. His followers honored him as a man who spoke for God and restored biblical religion. His enemies maligned him as a dangerous religious fanatic, an American Mohammad, and drove the Mormons from every place in which they settled. Smith’s ultimate assassination by an armed mob raises the question of whether American democracy can tolerate visionaries. The book gives more attention to Joseph Smith’s innovative religious thought than any previous biography. As Bushman writes, “His followers derived their energy and purpose from the religious world he brought into being.” Some of the teachings were controversial, such as property redistribution and plural marriage, but Smith’s revelations also delved into cosmology and the history of God. They spoke of the origins of the human personality and the purpose of life. While thoroughly Christian, Smith radically reconceived the relationship between humans and God. The book evaluates the Mormon prophet’s bold contributions to Christian theology and situates him culturally in the modern world. Published on the two hundredth anniversary of Smith’s birth, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling is an in-depth portrayal of the mysterious figure behind one of the world’s fastest growing faiths.… (more)



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Bushman is a respected historian and a devout Mormon. The blend didn’t work for me when Bushman got into commentary on Smith’s revelations. The rest of the history is interesting, and you definitely get a sense almost despite Bushman of how frustrating it was to deal with Smith, but Bushman repeatedly insists that, given Smith’s limited education and poor upbringing, it’s hard to imagine how he could have come up with such elaborate stories, especially ones that have some correspondences with other Biblical apocrypha, absent divine inspiration. I have a couple of things to say about that. (1) Humans are really inventive and creative, even ones from bad circumstances! It’s kind of our thing. Bushman sounds like a Shakespeare truther when he insists that such a lowly creature couldn’t have created an elaborate cosmology. (2) Bushman acknowledges that prophets of Smith’s type were thick on the ground in the US and England in this period, as part of the Christian revival that was ongoing, but he neglects the resulting base-rate problem: even if we accept that producing an elaborate, successful set of revelations was unlikely for any given prophet, people do win lotteries! Bushman is of course free to believe, but I wish he hadn’t neglected the idea of survivor bias if he was going to opine on the unlikelihood of non-divine revelations. (3) As for correspondences, the corollary of human inventiveness is our tendency towards tropes. I’m actually not shocked that both Smith and earlier apocrypha independently produced a story of Abraham’s father worshiping idols in Abraham’s pre-Yahweh youth—are you? ( )
  rivkat | May 8, 2018 |
This is a fascinating book that really brings Joseph Smith's character to life. He becomes a real person and it is interesting to ponder what it may have been like to be in his shoes. I loved how it showed that he learned line upon line and learned more of his purpose each day. Sometimes it is easy to think that a prophet as amazing as he was began that way and knew everything from the beginning. But that was not the case, he had to learn bit by bit just like everyone else. I also like how Bushman delved into lots of controversial topics without bias and just told it like it was. ( )
  mtunquist | Nov 29, 2015 |
This is a fascinating book that really brings Joseph Smith's character to life. He becomes a real person and it is interesting to ponder what it may have been like to be in his shoes. I loved how it showed that he learned line upon line and learned more of his purpose each day. Sometimes it is easy to think that a prophet as amazing as he was began that way and knew everything from the beginning. But that was not the case, he had to learn bit by bit just like everyone else. I also like how Bushman delved into lots of controversial topics without bias and just told it like it was. ( )
  mtunquist | Nov 29, 2015 |
One of the best books on Mormonism and Joseph Smith. Essential reading. ( )
  fredheid | Sep 10, 2015 |
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 |
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Richard L. Bushmanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Woodworth, JedContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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