Sunday, March 30, 2014

#23 Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone RollingJoseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith is a very long book for a casual (and slow) reader like me. It took me nearly a year to get through, but it was a journey worth pursuing.

Bushman is a faithful, believing Mormon, but he is also a historian committed to academic integrity. Probably because of this Rough Stone Rolling holds appeal for Mormons and (I hear) non-Mormons alike. But Bushman admits from the beginning that he has a personal stake in Joseph Smith having actually been a prophet. So, his book is not only a history but also an apology. ("Apology" here means "defense" or "justifying argument.") Bushman's apologetics show throughout the book, but for the most part it's honest, unstrained apologetics. Here's an example (from pg 379 if you're following along): Bushman quotes John Corrill (a contemporary of Joseph Smith) on his stated reasons for leaving the faith

When I retrace our track, and view the doings of the church for six years past, I can see nothing that convinces me that God has been our leader; calculation after calculation has failed, and plan after plan has been overthrown, and our prophet seemed not to know the event till too late. If he said go up and prosper, still we did not prosper; but have labored and toiled, and waded through trials, difficulties, and temptations, of various kinds, in hope of deliverance. But no deliverance came.

Bushman follows this up with "Everything Corrill said was true. The great work had met defeat after defeat." Bushman doesn't find it necessary to dismiss the facts of history to bolster his faith or validate his argument.

I don't see eye-to-eye with Bushman on all points*. For instance he has a particular argument for Joseph Smith's participation in folk magic being a prerequisite to The Restoration. I personally have no problem with Joseph Smith's folk magic**, but I'm not sure I buy Bushman's interpretation of it, and a couple of times his pushing it seemed to get in the way of the flow of the biography.

There are at least a couple of topics where I was surprised by Bushman's brevity. For instance the Kinderhook plates get only 3 paragraphs total. Perhaps for that particular example the brevity is fitting. Perhaps, (despite the controversy they've caused) those plates don't really matter that much biographically speaking.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in Mormonism.

*I'm no historian, so I'm by no means challenging his academics.

**I know that folk magic in Mormon origins is a sticking point for many Mormons, but it never has been for me, maybe because I've known about at least some of it from a young age; or because folk magic has left marks on my own family's legacy--my grandma used to tell about her dad's magical ceremony to cure warts; or both.

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