By Dustin | Who was Joseph Smith, really? This is the basic question Richard Lyman Bushman attempts to answer in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, a “cultural biography” of the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The answer Mr. Bushman—a member of the Church* and an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University here in New York—gives is, in many respects, rather simple. Mr. Bushman paints a portrait of an honest, straightforward man who earnestly strove to fulfill the mission that he believed God had called him to complete.
It is hard for the reader not to sympathize with Mr. Bushman’s Joseph Smith. Any reports or anecdotes that would bring into question the Prophet’s character, especially from his early life in western New York, were, at best, misunderstandings. At worst, they were slanderous rumors calculated and perpetuated to defame a man that his detractors feared perhaps really was a prophet of God. Indeed, Mr. Bushman is able to twist some of the most persistent accusations against Joseph into proofs that Joseph’s divine call was executed in a manner that early-nineteenth-century frontier Americans—including Joseph himself—were looking for. He was a golddigger? Of course he was! But treasure hunting was practically a pastime for early Americans, who fully believed treasure and records, including religious texts, left by the continent’s ancient inhabitants, would be found in the ground. Finding such a record—on valuable gold plates, to boot—was perhaps vital to Joseph’s acceptance of his own prophetic mission. And Joseph used a couple of rocks to translate that record? Of course he did! But many early Americans also believed that divine communication would be received via a physical medium. Perhaps the only way God could get Joseph to listen to divine communication at first was to provide a medium, a receiver for that communication, a crutch he gradually gave up as he grew more accustomed to divine revelation via the inaudible whisperings of the Holy Ghost to mind and spirit. Any misperceptions of Joseph Smith’s character or behavior as a prophet, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, priesthood and Church organization, or temple ordinances and other practices and doctrines, can all be explained, Mr. Bushman would seem to have the reader believe, so easily that the answers are practically obvious. While at times Rough Stone Rolling feels like an apologist’s defense—see the proofs Mr. Bushman offers on why Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have written the Book of Mormon himself—at other times it feels like a treatise on common sense.
But simple does not mean flat. All humans are full of contradictions, and this Joseph Smith is no exception. He was a rough-hewn frontiersman who swore on occasion, but he was not vulgar—he was, after all, from Puritan New England. He promulgated the Word of Wisdom—Mormonism’s prohibition on alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea—yet he was known to have an occasional glass of wine with dinner throughout his life. He masterfully built—indeed, was obsessed with—an enduring ecclesiastical organization, but he lacked business acumen and died a debtor. He believed he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ and was visited by angels and received continual revelation, yet he was always unsure of his standing before God.
And there is perhaps no greater contradiction in the character and work of Joseph Smith than the issue of plural marriage, which Mr. Bushman finally gets around to discussing in depth in the final chapters of the book (even though the book is largely chronological, and there is evidence Joseph himself began practicing plural marriage as early as 1835). Joseph’s lifetime work was to build a religion not just of doctrine and ritual but one that embodied an entire code of high morals—high enough to elevate all of human society. Yet he introduced a practice that was so contrary to the morals of the day—even the seemingly loose morals of the rough-and-tumble inhabitants of the wild frontier in Missouri—that his followers then were severely persecuted. And his followers today generally profess to be repulsed by this practice. Emma, his wife, whom he appeared to love deeply and who was ever loyal to Joseph and supportive of his work, was of course furious when she learned of the first of Joseph’s plural wives; he hid his later plural marriages from her. And, yes, it does appear that at least some of these marriages had a sexual element to them, despite Emma’s descendants’ attempts in the late nineteenth century to prove that they were merely “spiritual” marriages. The result is that after reading some 450 pages about this thoroughly earnest follower of Jesus Christ—and even those who don’t believe Joseph was a prophet would surely find themselves on the verge of admiring him at this point in the book—the reader is left feeling confused, almost betrayed by this examination of Joseph’s doctrine of plural marriage. One can’t help but wonder if he had started to lose it by the end of his prophetic ministry. Even a believing reader may pause to ask if perhaps his martyrdom on 27 June 1844 was, in part, God’s way of cutting Joseph off in the dangerous path he had started down.
Rough Stone Rolling is an impressive, thoroughly-researched volume—see the 155 pages of endnotes and works cited at the end of the book. There is the occasional editing lapse in typography or grammar, but that’s to be expected in a tome of 561 pages. Mr. Bushman’s writing is sharp and compelling, and I don’t know that I’ve read another writer who is better at offering a true concluding sentence for each individual paragraph. On the whole, the believing reader comes away with a deeper understanding of the Prophet Joseph Smith, if not a deeper testimony. Reading Rough Stone Rolling is an intellectual experience, not a spiritual one. The rough stone that was Joseph Smith has his sharp edges worn off—except for the plural-marriage issue—as he rolls from New York and Pennsylvania to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, even if he never becomes a polished piece. Perhaps Mr. Bushman’s larger message is not that greatness is possible in spite of weaknesses and foibles but that occasionally an individual achieves greatness because of his imperfections.
*Earlier this year Dustin saw Brother Bushman in the baptistry of the Manhattan temple, where he was serving as a witness while Dustin assisted missionaries in our branch in taking some recent converts to the temple for the first time.