By July 24, 2017
This is the eighth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
It was purely serendipitous that my scheduled review of Chapter 8 happened to land on July 24, and very appropriately so. This is Pioneer Day, in the style of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who treats the years of Mormon overland migration from 1847 to 1850 much in the same way that she approaches other common Mormon narratives. She takes a story that is relatively well-known to Mormon history audiences, at least on a surface level, and reconstructs it with the details, nuance, context and sharpness that deepens and enlivens those events. And she does it in a way that reminds you that you’ve never heard the story that way before, while also leaving with you with the feeling that you must have always heard it that way. And central to her telling are the experiences of Mormon women, told from the perspective of her reliable female diarists, Patty Sessions, Eliza R. Snow, Leonora Taylor, and Caroline Barnes Crosby, along with her roster of helpful and colorful male diarists, Wilford Woodruff, Hosea Stout, and Perregrine Sessions, among others.
Ulrich actually begins with the famed entrance of Brigham Young into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, when he “may well have said something” about the salty desert where Mormons would make their home. She then steps back from that one iconic and mythical moment, by weaving her usual web of characters surrounding and intersecting with that event. Samuel Brannan, for example, had sailed on the Brooklyn, landed in California, and encountered members of the Mormon Battalion during the same weeks that Mormons first entered Utah. Brigham himself returned immediately back to Winter Quarters in the Fall of 1847, not even participating in that first winter of building Salt Lake City. By the spring of 1848, twenty-two hundred saints left Winter Quarters for Utah, while Wilford and Phebe Woodruff were on their way to Boston to set up the the Church’s “headquarters” in the East. Famously, the first company of Saints into the Salt Lake Valley included three women (Harriet Decker Young, her daughter Clara, and Ellen Saunders, who was actually ‘Aagaat Yseinsdatter Bakka,’ one of Heber C. Kimball’s wives), it was not until 1848 and 1849 that Mormonism’s most famous early women came pioneering: Patty, Eliza, and Leonora, of course, but also Mary Isabella Horne, Zina D.H. Young, Bathsheba W. Smith, Margaret Smoot, and Mercy Thompson, among so many others.
Ulrich focuses on three main sub-narratives of women’s pioneering experiences. The first is telling the overland migration through women’s eyes, including descriptions of terrain, weather, and food preparation, to childbirth, interactions with Indian women, the selling of Indian children to Mormon families, spiritual experiences, and how women sometimes had to step up to fill in where male leaders fell short. Ulrich expands women’s “pioneering” into the actual building of Salt Lake City, in that women were central to the construction of the fort and log homes, the delivery of babies, planting of orchards and crops, and establishing or reestablishing in Salt Lake City the close female networks that had begun in Nauvoo and persisted in Winter Quarters.
The second sub-narrative surrounds the travels, family, and ministering of Wilford and Phebe Woodruff in their calling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1848 to 1850, where Wilford was effectively overseeing branches of converts throughout New England and New York. As she does with so many male-centric Mormon stories, Ulrich seemlessly weaves Phebe’s more behind-the-scenes experiences into Wilford’s public leadership role. Ulrich covers Phebe’s crippling grief at the loss and burial of her children, hers and Wilford’s attempts to bring her family members into the fold of the Church, the caring for her widowed father, her sharing in Wilford’s ministering in New England, and their final return overland to Salt Lake City in 1850. Readers will find Phebe’s and Wilford’s saga imminently useful for understanding how the early polygamists of the 1840s were transitioning into the expectations and lived experiences of plural marriage. These are not the unabashed, proud polygamists of the 1860s through the 1880s; no, these are youthful rookies, proceeding cautiously and secretively (even in their diaries, as Wilford almost never mentions his second wife, Mary Ann Jackson, and their son, James), tiptoeing through the “principle” with fits and starts, and reluctance and caution along the way.
The third and final sub-narrative is the most compelling of this chapter, and the most feminist in scope. Early women pioneers, argues Ulrich, kept alive their female networking, socializing, and expressions of spiritual authority that had begun and Nauvoo and blossomed at Winter Quarters. This is not a new history of Mormon women, per se; rather, it is new in that Ulrich brings female authority to the front of the story, even during a period that lacked the formal skeleton of (re)constituted Relief Societies (yet). These started out as organized gatherings and parties. Indeed, even in mixed-gender settings in Salt Lake City, women exerted their feminine authority in unique ways that both supported male leadership as well as challenged it. Women often ‘presided’ at their own meetings, even when men were present, and a woman might ‘delegate’ her authority to other women in the presiding woman’s absence. Of course women also healed other women, in that they “anointed and layed hands.” (p. 196) But they also gave speeches in tongues and interpreted them, taking very literally Patty Sessions’s belief that “it was the sisters’ right to “claim for all that we bestow either spiritually & temporally.” (p. 195)
Ulrich finds completion where she began this story of pioneering, on July 24th itself, in the formal “Pioneer Day” celebrations, now iconic and ubiquitous throughout modern Mormonism. First inaugurated in 1849, Pioneer Day celebrations very quickly eclipsed July 4th in fanfare and attention for early Mormons. In fact, modern super-patriotic LDS might be surprised to note that July 4th in Utah usually passed without any notice at all. But, as Ulrich acclaims, “After their experiences in Missouri and Illinois, they had little reason to celebrate the Fourth of July.” The 24th was different, because, as Patty Sessions explained, “This is the beginning of a new era with us.” (p. 204)
Ulrich finds great gendered meaning in these new refined celebrations marking Mormons’ celebrations of their religious freedom in the West. In the very first parade, the “young men carried swords and copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Young women held a Bible in one hand and a Book of Mormon in the other. Apparently, men were defenders of liberty, women custodians of faith.” (p. 206) In this display, Mormons quite possibly held the “first public event that used both male and female participants in a symbolic performance.” (p. 206). But even more noteworthy was that these young people boasted the symbols of both their theology and their nation– their hopes of what might be possible in America. Ulrich sees no contradictions in the favoring of the 24th over the 4th, while still embracing American political symbolism. As she states, “the exiled Mormons declared their own independence, embracing the ideals of the American Revolution without acknowledging allegiance to the nation they believed had abandoned them.” (p. 204) In fact, they even carried banners “affirming the union of secular and religious authority in the person of their Prophet.” (p. 206) July 24th invited no pretense of false honor to American political authority; rather, Mormons unabashedly celebrated theocracy, and Brigham Young as “The Lion of the Lord” and “Hail to our Chief.” (p. 206)
Without any spoilers, I am excited for you to read how Laurel ends this chapter by linking her sub-narratives into one symbolic moment in July of 1851, with a newborn baby girl, a Pioneer Day parade, and a poem celebrating women’s eternal liberty. Indeed, she finds meaning in the intersection of seemingly unrelated historical moments, as only Laurel can. She also shows how Mormonism’s two July holidays emerged with very complicated and contradictory beginnings, thus allowing us today to continue to think about their very complex historical importance for a people who, even now, want to simultaneously celebrate their religious separateness and their nationalistic assimilation.
By July 17, 2017
This is the seventh entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor, written this week by Charlotte Hansen Terry. Charlotte earned her BA and MA from the University of Utah and will begin her PhD at UC-Davis this fall. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
While chapter six of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females depicts a people in motion, chapter seven looks at a people in place. Ulrich mainly uses the writings of three people (Hosea Stout, Mary Richards, and Patty Sessions) to unpack the winter of 1847 in Winter Quarters. What is especially interesting about Ulrich’s work in this chapter is how she weaves together the diaries and autobiographies composed by these authors. Since autobiographies are a product of the moment in which they are written, “they are not only windows into [the author’s] early lives but reflections of their minds as they endured the winter of 1847 in a refugee camp.” (160) The experiences of these writers in Winter Quarters shaped how they wrote about earlier periods of their lives at the same time that looking back helped these writers find meaning in their current situation.
Both Hosea Stout and Mary Richards worked on their diaries and autobiographies simultaneously while in Winter Quarters. Ulrich uses their writings to show the different ways that Winter Quarters was experienced, even by those moving in the same circles. She brings both of these historical figures to life by masterfully weaving together their reminiscent and daily accounts. Their actions in Winter Quarters are made all the more compelling since they are placed in context with their previous experiences. Mary Richards emerges as a particularly wonderful character, especially with her sharp wit.
Since Patty Sessions did not write an autobiographical account in Winter Quarters, Ulrich uses the writings of her son Perregrine Sessions to make sense of certain references in Patty’s diary to her earlier life. Patty emerges as a woman who is deeply concerned for her family. Ulrich uses Patty as way to explore the powerful spiritual manifestations that occurred among a certain group of women during this period. Since Patty was generally quite limited in her descriptions of her life, her longer entries on the “religious rhapsody” of the “visionary sisterhood” become all the more powerful and significant. (162) Eliza R. Snow’s diary is also used to provide more information on these gatherings where women employed the spiritual gifts of healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. Patty’s diary entries show the importance of familial relationships in these spiritual gatherings, and encouragement of these gifts in younger generations. I was left wanting more analysis of these spiritual gatherings, as well as the networks of women coordinated by the matrons of the community that are touched on in this chapter.  By placing the descriptions of these spiritual manifestations alongside the writings of others in Winter Quarters who never hint at these occurrences, I wondered how widespread this “visionary sisterhood” was.
Here are some questions to consider while reading this chapter. How can we better approach autobiographies in our own research projects? How can this chapter serve as a model for weaving together the various writings from historical characters in our own work? How do we balance the accounts of experiences in a certain place, particularly when our sources describe overlapping worlds but with such different details?
 Another important piece to read on this period is Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, “Women in Winter Quarters,” in Eliza and Her Sisters (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1991), 75-97.
By July 10, 2017
This is the sixth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
Chapter Six of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females details the crossing of Iowa and depicts a people in motion, both physically and emotionally. While many histories detail the environmental and emotional challenges of the exodus from Nauvoo, Ulrich adds depth to the story of the Mormon migration and complicates our thinking about it. Like biblical sojourners, who understand that they stand at a turning point in their story, A House Full of Females describes how some diarists began new journals just before leaving the city, while other new diarists appear on the stage.
Ulrich notes that Mormon diaries share many similarities with other Oregon trail journals including records of weather and difficulties with animals. However, she also claims that the Mormon migration of 1846 was unique, highlighting the fact that Mormons leaving Nauvoo were refugees who “had a bit in common with the displaced Potawatomi and Omaha people, on whose lands they took temporary refuge once they reached the Missouri River.”(138). Chapter six fully describes the emotional and physical disorder of the Nauvoo exodus, which made it different from later waves of Mormon migration. Finally, Ulrich also points to the pressures of ideal sainthood that had mounted during the final weeks in Nauvoo, “how much they had to learn about pioneering, and how little they knew about the demands of establishing God’s kingdom.”(139). A House Full of Females paints a visceral picture of a people both moving forward and mired in mud. Men, women and children up to their waists in mud, snakes slithering out of the muck and wagons needing to be extricated from swamps all portray the challenges of a physical journey that dragged on and the need to face new emotional challenges as a radical new family structure took shape during extreme circumstances.
Ulrich deftly illustrates that the earliest Mormon migration should not be understood simply as a move west, an exodus or a displacement. It also needs to be understood as the site of changing domestic and marital identities. In the face of birth, death, disease, separation, and domestic contention, A House Full of Females tells the story of both creating and dissolving families and community. The reality of aging parents, the death of children, changing marital structure as well as conflicts about succession within the church, ubiquitous disease and the physical demands of the journey culminate in Ulrich’s conclusion of the chapter which pushes the reader beyond hagiographic depictions of the Nauvoo exodus noting that, “The Saints had struggled through the mud of Iowa only to reach a worse misery. In their would-be Zion, there was never enough of anything to go around, never enough food or shelter, never enough respect or love or charity. The harder they tried to live by the dictates of their religion, the more they exposed their own lack of perfection.”(155)
By June 26, 2017
This is the fourth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
The introduction of polygamy during Nauvoo has received plenty of attention. Starting with Fawn Brodie’s exploration of Joseph Smith’s dozens of wives, scholars ranging from Todd Compton, Richard Bushman, George Smith, Brian Hales, Martha Bradley-Evans, Lawrence Foster, and Merina Smith have offered interpretations of the complex topic. The paucity of solid contemporary documents and proliferation of problematic reminiscences–not to mention the presence of teenage brides and polyandrous unions–make it a briar patch for writers. However, a common theme has dominated much of the general narrative: Joseph Smith, either divinely appointed of personally driven, sought to extend his sacerdotal connections through plural marriages. Fellow male leaders, eager to please their prophet and capitalize on his teachings, entered their own polygamous marriages. This secretive practice drew outside ire whenever rumors leaked, but internally it caused solidarity and strengthened loyalty. In this traditional framework, Nauvoo polygamy revolved around power and confidence.
Laurel Ulrich’s treatment of polygamy in her new book, A House Full of Females, bucks this trend.
By May 14, 2017
Though it’s not in this chapter, If I were to pull a sentence from Ulrich’s book that I feel summarizes her project, it’s this: “Well before plural marriage became a recognized practice in the Church, these women had learned to value bonds of faith over biological or regional connections.” (xv)
When Phebe Carter Woodruff sent her husband Wilford off to serve a mission in the British Isles, she secured a small poem in his luggage. “While onward he his footsteps bend / May he find Mothers, and kind friends,” the lines ran. (38)
By May 7, 2017
This is the first in a series of sixteen posts in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism. Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook
“Light snow obscured the view of the mountains on January 13, 1870 as masses of Mormon women crowded in to the old peaked-roof Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The pine benches were hard, the potbellied stoves inadequate against the cold. No matter. They would warm themselves with indignation.”
So begins Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s latest book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, in which she analyzes the twin growth of the institution of polygamy within the LDS Church and the place of Mormon women in the broader struggle for women’s rights.[i] Many readers, like the newspaper writers that wrote about Mormonism, may be skeptical that plural marriage created and fostered women-centric organizations and social networks. Ulrich acknowledges their skepticism and asks, “How could women simultaneously support a national campaign for political and economic rights while defending marital practices that to most people seemed relentlessly patriarchal?”
By April 4, 2017
At a recent gathering in Cambridge, MA, Richard Bushman introduced Laurel Thatcher Ulrich to her hometown crowd as Mormonism’s most “distinguished and decorated scholar.” Her Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize, and many other awards speak to her mastery of the historian’s craft in the broader academy. She is not only Mormonism’s most distinguished and decorated scholars, she is one of the most distinguished and decorated scholars alive today. Ulrich’s research and writing abilities made A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 a natural choice for JI’s Third Annual Summer Book Club. Hundreds of readers have followed along with our book club in the past few years—we hope to read with even more of you this summer!
By July 18, 2016
Click here for part one, two, three, four, five, and six of this year’s summer book club.
This week’s chapters address Emma’s experiences in Nauvoo after the population of Nauvoo became thoroughly non-Mormon (Ch 19: “Change in Nauvoo,” 1850-1860) and as her sons (and Joseph Smith, the prophet’s sons) became established as adults and potentially key figures within Mormonism (Ch 20: “Emma’s Sons, Lewis’s Son,” 1860-1870).
By July 11, 2016
Click here for part one, two, three, four, and five of this year’s summer book club.
This week’s chapters address the transitions in Emma Smith’s life from Winter 1845-1846 through the removal of the Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo in 1846 to the Elect Lady’s marriage to Lewis Bidamon and his travels throughout 1849. Brilliantly, the authors open these chapters with a letter forged by James Bennet and/or associates of his, published in the New York Sun. In the fraudulent letter, someone impersonating Emma claims that the current governing leaders of the Mormon Church were “tyrants” and that she planned to raise her children in another faith. Furthermore, the letter-writer claimed to have never believed her husband’s revelations or his religious innovations.
By June 27, 2016
J. Stapley brings us the next installment of the Summer Book Club. Click here for part one, two, and three.
Ben mentioned last week that Mormon Enigma was one of the best treatments of Nauvoo polygamy available. The topic is a morass, and to be honest I have started more than one book on the topic, only to set it down never to pick it back up after a chapter or two. I’ve read a lot of the primary documents, and some of the prominent secondary literature. And it is true, that the chapters in Mormon Enigma are some of the most readable and insightful, even while laboring under the constraints of time.
By June 20, 2016
[This is the third installment of the Summer Book Club, this year focusing on Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. You can read the first two installments here and here. This part focuses on chapters 7-9, which cover the introduction of polygamy, formation of the Relief Society, and Emma’s quest to help her husband during extradition attempts. Buckle up.]
A few years ago I attended a sunstone conference where Linda King Newell, co-author of the book under discussion, spoke on her experience writing, publishing, and defending Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. She gave lots of good details, and reinforced how tense the whole ordeal was: the fight to get access to archival sources, the attempted censorship on the part of the Church, and the many people who helped them along the way. But the anecdote that stood out to me the most concerned the writing process—and the process of writing about polygamy, to be exact. (Following words are paraphrased from memory.) “I remember Val [Avery] calling me one day,” Newell explained, “and she said she was working on the polygamy chapter and had to lie down.” Valeen paused for a bit, then added, “one of the wives was fourteen. Fourteen. I have a daughter that age.”
By June 13, 2016
Welcome to week 2 of this Summer’s Book Club. We’re reading Mormon Enigma, and this week’s post focuses on four chapters: “Gathering in Ohio, 1830-1834,” “‘Seas of Tribulation,’ 1834-1838,” “Strife in Missouri, 1838-1839,” and “Sanctuary in a Swamp, 1839-1841.” For the first two chapters, see Robin’s helpful post for week 1.
The next four chapters of Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippett Avery’s Mormon Enigma focus on Emma Smith’s experience throughout the 1830s. Emma’s life during this time period was marked by transition: she trekked over one thousand miles, lived in at least seven different households (that’s after I started counting), birthed six children (and adopted three more), hosted countless “boarders” who passed through her homes, and earned money from home economics, to trade, to real estate. And she was faithfully married to a religious prophet who polarized nearly everyone he came into contact with. In spite of Emma Smith’s many accomplishments and fortitude, her inner life is hard to get to. Sources are simply scarce, and seeing Emma Smith the individual becomes murky through the refracted and power-laden narratives that constitute Joseph Smith’s history. I read these chapters with these thoughts in mind, and this post will survey and suggest some ways into Emma Smith’s life.
By June 6, 2016
For this Summer’s Book Club, we will be reading Mormon Enigma by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery. This week’s post focuses on the first two chapters, “Emma and Joseph, 1825-1827” and “The “Elect Lady” 1827-1830.”
Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery published Mormon Enigma, the biography of Emma Smith, in 1984 at the height of the Hofmann era (any guesses how many Hofmann sources are quoted in the first two chapters of the first edition?). Their work went a long way in bringing Emma Smith out of the antagonistic rhetoric so often used by members of the LDS Church. Today, the work still serves as a corrective to a surprising amount of Mormon scholarship, despite the fact that it does show signs of its age.
By July 6, 2015
This is the eighth installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering small chunks of the book in successive weeks through the summer, with new posts appearing Monday mornings. We invite anyone and everyone interested to read along and to use the comment sections on each post to share your own reflections and questions. There are discussion questions below.
- Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
- Part 2: Chapters 3-4
- Part 3: Chapters 5-6
- Part 4: Chapters 7-9
- Part 5: Chapters 10-12
- Part 6: Chapters 13-15
- Part 7: Chapters 16-18
- Next week (Part 9): Chapters 22-24
In the previous installment of the summer book club, Tona brought us through early January 1838, when, acting on a revelation, Joseph Smith (JS) fled Kirtland, Ohio, and reestablished the church’s headquarters in Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri. As chapter 19 begins, Bushman lays out JS’s vision of the burgeoning Mormon settlement in northwestern Missouri and the palpable optimism that the Saints felt regarding Far West’s prospects. However, as 1838 progressed, that optimism would fade in the face of internal dissension and external opposition, ultimately resulting in the violent deaths of perhaps forty church members, the government-sanctioned expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from the state, and JS himself incarcerated on charges of treason and other crimes. Sifting through an uneven historical record, Bushman seeks to evaluate JS’s role and responsibility in these difficulties.
The internal dissent that had plagued JS and the church in Kirtland in 1837 followed him to Missouri. In February 1838, church members voted to remove David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and John Whitmer as the presidency of the Missouri church, based on charges of mishandling church funds and properties. In March and April, church courts excommunicated the Whitmers, Phelps, and Oliver Cowdery, another church leader. These men had been among JS’s earliest and staunchest supporters, but by 1838 they had become estranged from the prophet. Cowdery had objected to what he saw as un-republican ecclesiastical interference in personal affairs. Bushman uses Cowdery’s trial as “a reminder of the complex ideological environment of Mormons in the 1830s. Most of the time they spoke Kingdom of God language, using words like ‘faith,’ ‘righteousness,’ ‘Zion,[’] ‘gathering,’ ‘priesthood,’ and ‘temple.’ At the same time, as American citizens, they knew the political language of rights and freedom” (348). Although JS himself used republican language when declaring that the Mormons would not submit to mob violence, he was less enthusiastic when his followers used it to undermine Latter-day Saint beliefs in consecration and unity.
By June 15, 2015
This is the sixth installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering small chunks of the book in successive weeks through the summer, with new posts appearing Monday mornings. We invite anyone and everyone interested to read along and to use the comment sections on each post to share your own reflections and questions. There are discussion questions below.
• Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
• Part 2: Chapters 3-4
• Part 3: Chapters 5-6
• Part 4: Chapters 7-9
• Part 5: Chapters 10-12
• Next week (Part 7): Chapters 16-18
Chapter 13: Priesthood and Church Government
Chapter 14: Visitors
Chapter 15: Texts
By June 8, 2015
This is the fifth installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering small chunks of the book in successive weeks through the summer, with new posts appearing Monday mornings. We invite anyone and everyone interested to read along and to use the comment sections on each post to share your own reflections and questions. There are discussion questions below.
By May 18, 2015
This is the second installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings.We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions. This week Steve Fleming takes a closer look at Chapters 3 (“Translation: 1827-30”) and 4 (“A New Bible: 1830”).
Previous installments in the series:
•Part I: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
3 Translation, 4 A New Bible (See part 1 here).
Bushman ends Chapter Two and begins Chapter Three by discussing how to make sense of the possible connections between the Smiths’ “magical” treasure-digging activities and Mormonism’s foundational events: receiving and translating the golden plates. Such similarities include seer stones, special treasure in the ground, and treasure guardians.
Bushman concedes that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” (51) but he argues that by 1827, the year he married Emma and received the plates, “magic had served its purpose in his life. In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel. Treasure-seeking lore may have made it easier for his father to believe his son’s fabulous story about an angel and gold plates” (54). Thus treasure digging played a “preparatory” role in the beginnings of Mormons, argues Bushman, and the treasure-digging elements in the events related to the golden plates played the purposed of Smith gaining his treasure-digging father’s support.
By May 11, 2015
This post kicks off the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks from now through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings. We begin today with the Prologue, which sets the tone in several important respects for the rest of the book, and Chapters 1 (“The Joseph Smith Family: To 1816”) and 2 (“The First Visions: 1816-1827”). We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions.
I first read Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) when it was first released in 2005. I was an undergraduate history major at the time, a recently-returned Mormon missionary, and an avid if novice and somewhat naïve student of Mormon history. Bushman’s biography was not my introduction to the scholarly study of Joseph Smith or Mormon history, but it still threw me for something of a loop, challenging many of the assumptions of my faith-promoting worldview. Nevertheless, I pushed through and finished the book. I next read it three years later, in a reading seminar in BYU’s now-defunct MA program in history. My familiarity with both Mormon and American religious history more broadly was deeper by then, and reading the book alongside both an experienced historian and several budding young scholars made the book both more familiar and yet so foreign from my initial reading. That a book reads differently to the same individual at different stages in her life is a truism of nearly all books, but it is especially true in reading Rough Stone Rolling.
By April 27, 2015
Ten years ago, Richard Bushman published Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling with Knopf. Bushman’s biography of Mormonism’s founder garnered widespread praise and provoked a number of conversations within the Mormon Studies community. Jan Shipps argued in the Journal of American History that Bushman’s biography represented a new chapter in the study of Mormonism. She wrote that Rough Stone Rolling is “a work of new American history that forces readers to recognize that religion is as much of our past as anything else.”[i] Through doing so, she argued that Mormon history would soon function be used as a lens to understand broader topics in American history and American religion rather than for exclusively Mormon purposes to Mormon audiences.[ii]
Shipps’ review appears to have been, well, prophetic. The past decade has witnessed an explosion of scholarship on Mormonism that historians and religious studies scholars must take seriously. Books by Spencer Fluhman, Patrick Mason, John Turner, Christine Talbot, the Joseph Smith Papers Project Team, Paul Reeve, Jared Farmer, Steve Taysom, Sam Brown, as well as many journal authors, have produced work useable in university classrooms.[iii]