This is the tenth 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
- Part 8: Chapters 19-21
- Part 9: Chapters 22-24
- Next Week: Chapters 27-28
Of all the chapters of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Chapter 25 is perhaps where Richard Bushman delivers most fully on his introductory promise to take seriously Joseph Smith’s religious ideas (xxi). Scholars writing previously about Smith had been more intrigued by his psychology than his theology, and had left the elaborate cosmological world that he created largely unexplored. Bushman, by contrast, is here determined to map out and to appraise some of the major themes that characterized Smith’s expansive teachings; the result is a rich and perceptive picture of how Joseph Smith came to tell what Bushman calls “Stories of Eternity,” narratives that defined the Mormon cosmos. When it was published ten years ago, Bushman’s account was one of the first legitimate attempts to explore and to appreciate the theological depth and “boundless” scope of Smith’s religious enterprise.
The plurality of “stories” in the title of this chapter is apt because, as Bushman demonstrates, Joseph Smith pursued the cosmos from a multitude of different angles—through ritualistic practices, through the formation of institutions and the production of scripture, and through revelations that reframed and transgressed conventional Christian orthodoxy. Many of these different stories about sacred time and space emerged and intersected during the Nauvoo period, when something coherent began to appear. Within the chapter, Bushman is most interested in three of these initiatives: the theological standing of women and polygamy or “plural marriage,” the temple endowment liturgy, and the scriptural ‘translation’ of papyrus manuscripts that Smith called the Book of Abraham.
In his account of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, Bushman gives us a prophet upon whom polygamy was imposed by command from without. Noting that Smith himself said little to nothing that survives on the topic, Bushman draws in the observations of people around him and largely lets the revelations speak on Joseph’s behalf. “To Joseph’s mind,” he suggests, “revelation functioned like law,” a law which superseded and overrode all others (442). Thus from these sources the profile of Smith that emerges is apprehensive, concerned, and “torn” by a divine command to execute plural marriage. Bushman tells us that Smith was simultaneously unequivocal about the authenticity of the revelation on polygamy, and yet he felt the sting of accusations that he was guilty of adultery. The account spares no details on the extent and the nature of Smith’s marital relationships, including those that were polyandrous. But like Fawn Brodie before him, Bushman rejects the image of Joseph Smith as a “careless libertine” unconcerned with divine law and moral restraint. He likewise subverts the idea that the primary impetus that drove Smith toward plural marriage was libidinous. Rather he suggests, in one of the most memorable phrases of the book, that Joseph “did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin” (440). Smith’s plural marriages, Bushman contends, were ultimately less about their interpersonal content than about their relational form. These marriages not chiefly romantic or conjugal unions, they were mechanisms of spiritual bonding which linked families and individuals together in what other scholars have called a “dynastic” order.  Bushman also relates these issues to another contemporary developments—e.g. the formation of the Relief Society, the induction of women into endowment ceremonies—and points out how these developments collectively brought women into somewhat greater theological focus.
Like his account of Smith’s polygamy, Bushman’s treatments of both the endowment and the Book of Abraham also recreate Joseph Smith’s inner world and the ideas that drove him. Here, as elsewhere “the book attempts to think as Smith thought and to reconstruct the beliefs of his followers as they understood them” (xxii). Crucially, we’re reminded that the “endowment” as it appeared in Nauvoo was the ultimate expression of Smith’s longstanding drive to bring his people to theophany, to bring them directly into God’s presence. Unlike the endowment of Kirtland, however, this became a symbolic procedure. Ritual, not visionary or ecstatic experience, was the means by which human beings could enter God’s presence; the hierophanic register shifted from ecstasy to liturgical drama. These endowment rituals, Bushman acknowledges, clearly owed some of their formal characteristics to the ubiquitous freemasonry that had recently entered Nauvoo. Yet he also notes the ways in which Smith’s rituals differed substantially in spirit, in significance, and in intent from popular fraternal rituals. Following the lead of Lance Owens, he notes the striking parallels between Joseph’s Nauvoo endowment and the Jewish mystical tradition of Kaballah.
On the Book of Abraham Bushman gives us some of his most abstracted thinking, bringing the astronomical content of the book into the comparison with Copernican and Ptolemaic theories and demonstrating how it embodies astronomical wisdom that seems both ancient and modern. Smith’s cosmology as it appeared in the Book of Abraham was highly transgressive, he notes, revising longstanding Christian ideas about matter, about the identity of God and the nature of creation. If he was aware of this, however, Joseph did not show it—his “storytelling was oracular rather than argumentative” (458). Bushman largely steers clear of the long-fraught questions of authenticity and historicity of the book, offering only the intimation that the Book of Abraham seems to exhibit Joseph in “his pure revelatory mode” (453). Across all of Smith’s “stories of eternity,” Bushman captures a sense of the melting away of traditional barriers and boundaries. “No other nineteenth-century religious imagination filled time and space with stories like these,” he insists. And Joseph’s stories were not stories from a long time ago in a land far away: they irrupted into the world of the sacred, bringing heaven and earth together.
As expansively as he envisioned the coming worlds, however, Joseph Smith could not escape a rising tide of this-worldly difficulties. Chapter 26 thus deals with the multitude of “perils” that increasingly beset the prophet in the later years of his life. During the latter part of 1842 covered in this chapter, his troubles were already becoming more dense and inextricable, darkening into the “thickets” that become the theme of the chapter that follows, and finally exploding into the “confrontations” that bring the book to its close. Hence even as his religious system grew more elaborate during this period, Joseph’s own situation became increasingly tense and precarious. Bushman’s narrative evokes this mounting tension and gradually leads us toward the explosive end.
Some have critiqued Bushman for not giving polygamy its due in RSR—for underplaying the significance and the pervasive influence of what was clearly a major factor in Joseph Smith’s later life. Certainly there are ways that this critique might be justified. Yet I was reminded while reading this portion of the book that Bushman is quite clear about way that polygamy galvanized opposition to Smith and made his situation hopelessly complicated. As the chapter demonstrates, polygamy lay behind most of the major entanglements of Joseph’s late life: his “disastrous” association with John C. Bennett, which catapulted polygamy into public view and threatened to obliterate any principled distinctions between plural marriage and mere seduction; the alienation of faithful members who were suddenly embroiled in the conflict, such as Orson Pratt; the “subterfuge and deception” necessary to keep peace with his wife Emma, and on and on. Bushman gives special attention to Bennett and his flamboyant book of this year, History of the Saints; or, an Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism. Though noting that serious journalists even then could not believe it, Bushman points out that this did not stop the book from having real effects. Bennett’s volume “performed a notable cultural work in antebellum America: it dehumanized Joseph Smith” (465). Dehumanization in the public mind, Bushman implies, was a step toward later violence and murder.
The other major peril in 1842 was the danger that continued to emanate from Missouri. That summer someone attempted to kill the ex-governor Lilburn W. Boggs by shooting him in the head at point blank range, and (largely thanks to Bennett) Joseph Smith was soon implicated as a conspirator. The second half of chapter 26 surveys the details of Joseph’s summer on the run from legal authorities, including the somber mood that grew out of his extended exile in the homes of protective church members, the continual threat of extradition, his strategies of evasion, and the fatigue of continual vigilance. Bushman, with his longstanding interest in psychohistory, uses the occasion to make some observations about Joseph’s personality. All these adverse factors combined to render Smith, Bushman suggests, “vulnerable, and a little emotional.” Assessing Joseph’s writings at the time, Bushman speculates that Joseph “may have been a lonely man who needed people around him every moment” (472-73). He explains how Smith found some solace in reflecting on the kindnesses that his true friends had shown him, and in creating an enduring record of their loyalty and love.
Despite the heaviness of the season, Chapter 26 leaves Joseph Smith and the saints once again optimistic—indeed “jubilant.” In early 1843, Missouri’s extradition efforts finally came to an end when the Illinois State Supreme Court turned them aside as unconstitutional. (The alleged Mormon assassin Orrin Porter Rockwell was tried and acquitted a year later.) Smith’s most immediate and menacing difficulty thus evaporated, and seemed to wrap up a long season of discontent. He felt liberated, and celebrated his vindication with his fellow saints. As it turned out, however, the multitude of his other perils never did pass away.
A few potential points of discussion (mostly drawn from Ch. 25):
- I’m particularly fascinated by Bushman’s argument that the liturgy of the Nauvoo endowment (and presumably other emergent rituals) served to “stabliz[e] and perpetuat[e] the original enthusiastic endowment”—that is, to preserve some of the ecstatic elements that were abundant in Mormonism’s first years. Bushman relies here on the theorization of religion offered by Ann Taves and others. This strikes me as a compelling argument and highly compatible with Bushman’s other arguments about Joseph Smith and the “routinization of charisma.” [See the development of this line of thought in Richard Lyman Bushman, “Joseph Smith and Power,” in A Firm Foundation: Church Organization and Administration, ed. David J. Whittaker and Arnold K. Garr (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 1–13.] Do others find this plausible?
- In a previous installment last week, Ben P. described an “ever-present gender problem” in RSR. Bushman seems in parts Ch. 25 to be attempting to remedy some of this by turning to the way that developments initiatives in 1842 increasingly moved women from “the shadows [of] Joseph Smith’s theology” to the “center” (444). Bushman is, at the same time, straightforward about the Victorian limits of this centralization, and he observes that women were integrated “in partnership, not as individuals” (445). How do these arguments, if at all, speak to the question of gender in the book?
- In his discussion of Smith’s polygamy, Bushman identifies what he calls “the emergence of family theology,” in which marriage and procreation were elevated to a preeminent place. This is, according to Bushman, the origin of the Mormon emphasis upon the family as “the primary social organization” (445). He advances this argument, however, more implicitly than not, and it remains somewhat unclear how far Joseph’s teachings in the period extent established and formalized what is now Mormon orthodoxy. How extensively did Joseph Smith define this vital element of Mormon theology?
Have thoughts? Do share.
 See Todd M. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books), 12, 347, 497. For parallel analysis, see J. Spencer Fluhman, “A Subject That Can Bear Investigation”: Anguish, Faith, and Joseph Smith’s Youngest Plural Wife,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring 2010), 41-59.