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.
I’ve referred back to RSR repeatedly in my own research in subsequent years, but this is the first time I’ve sat down to read the book cover to cover since 2008, and upon reading through the first several chapters over the last week or two, I was struck by a couple of things: First, Richard Bushman is incredibly underrated as a writer. The book’s prologue is a model of how to open a scholarly monograph or biography — the anecdote about Joseph Smith’s May 1844 meeting with Josiah Quincy, Jr. and Charles Francis Adams in Nauvoo grabs the reader’s attention and introduces readers to the man who, just over a month later, was killed by a mob while being held in Carthage Jail, approximately 20 miles southeast of Nauvoo. Perhaps more importantly, it points to one of the book’s recurring themes — the appeal of Joseph Smith to the thousands of individuals who joined the church he established, shaped both by the culture in which they were raised and lived and by the personality and prophetic claims of Smith himself. Bushman thus closes the prologue by nodding to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famed 1838 Harvard Divinity School address on “the need … of new revelation” and the glowing assessment of Mormon convert William Clayton (“an educated Englishman”), who spoke of the “abundance of proofs” offered by Joseph Smith’s ministry of the reality of the new revelation he offered (6).
Among the “thousands of … unsophisticated Christians, who longed for visions, visitations, inspired dreams, revelations, and every other outpouring of the Spirit”–those “seekers” who “were Joseph’s natural constituency” were Joseph Smith’s family, as well as the immediate generations of Smiths and Macks who preceded them (6). It is to that family that Bushman turns his attention in RSR’s first chapter, entitled appropriately “The Joseph Smith Family: To 1816.”
Bushman introduces readers, in successive order, to Solomon and Lydia Macks (JS’s maternal grandparents), Asael and Mary Smith (his paternal grandparents), and Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith (his parents). We learn of their character, their religious wanderings (all of them fit broadly under the umbrella of seekers), and their socioeconomic status (generally middling, though prone to the fluctuations of the often unstable early American economy and political landscape). The chapter closes with a nod to the Joseph and Lucy Smith family’s many migrations throughout New England and upstate New York, constantly in search of stability, socially, economically, and religiously. Many of the hallmarks of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism were thus presaged by the experiences of his parents and grandparents.
The next chapter (“The First Visions: 1816-27”) continues the narration of the Smith family’s migrations, bringing us to the vicinity of Sharon, Vermont, where in December 1805, Joseph Smith, Jr. was born, and onto the village of Palmyra, New York, where JS spent most of his childhood. The search for stability and security continued throughout JS’s childhood and teenage years; even as the family finally slowed their migratory habits, their movement in and out of churches continued, even after their son Joseph began reporting visionary experiences of heavenly beings. Bushman skillfully guides readers through each of JS’s reported visions (and briefly discusses the contemporaneous visions of his father) and their several narrations in the years and decades to come, and does so without getting bogged down in tired pseudo-scholarly debates over either the visions’ timing or their reality. Significantly, Bushman notes that whatever controversy Smith’s first vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ caused in and around the community were “not because of the strangeness of Joseph’s story but because of its familiarity” (41). Evangelicals throughout the early American republic and beyond regularly reported seeing visions of heavenly beings, often times after a period of intense introspection sparked by religious revivals, just as Joseph’s were. Concern for forgiveness of one’s sins were often times tied to questions concerning which church one should join, just as Joseph’s were. But if JS initially “understood the experience in terms of the familiar” and framed it as a more or less standard evangelical conversion narrative, in came in time to become less about “personal forgiveness” and more about “the apostasy of the churches” (40).
If the politics of respectability and the pressures of marriage played a role in the gradual shift away from Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking background, so too did the delivery as last of the golden plates, which Moroni led Smith to and finally permitted him to take, in September 1827. In the coming months and years, JS would come to be consumed with the project of translation. It is to that project that Bushman turns his attention in Chapter 3 and 4, which we will discuss next week.
Some questions to get the conversation going this week:
•Bushman subtitles his book “a cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder.” What does that mean? Does it accurately define Bushman’s approach to Smith?
•How does the experience of Joseph Smith’s parents and grandparents help contextualize JS’s own religious wanderings and the revelations he eventually produced?