This is the eleventh 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
- Part 10: Chapters 25-26
- Next Week: Chapters 29 – 30
We are nearing the end of Rough Stone Rolling adventure. Since this series is intended for non-academics, I have tried to keep my summaries short and free of academic jargon. I am sure I have failed to do so, and for that I apologize.
Richard Bushman begins this section by remarking upon the boisterousness of Joseph Smith. He describes him as a man who would frequently boast of his abilities, calling himself a lawyer or a doctor. The descriptions of Smith’s prophetic practice in the next second underscore the sense that Smith had become boastful and energetic. According to Bushman, Smith in this time period no longer only received revelation through a formal process in which he approached God with his queries and then received an answer. Instead, Smith dispersed doctrinal knowledge throughout his “sermons, letters, and comments.”
The next section focuses on polygamy. Bushman discusses Smith’s decision to be sealed to twelve different women in the first half of 1843 before detailing the difficulty that Emma Smith had accepting the practice. Much of this section focuses on Lucy Walker’s dismay when Smith proposed to her. Walker’s mother had died of malarial fever a few years earlier, and her father was serving a mission for the church. Although she was alone in Nauvoo and had few people to whom she could turn to support, she initially rejected Smith. Even after she married him, she admitted that her marriage to Smith had not been a “love matter.” Instead, she had agreed to be sealed to him out of duty.
A few questions arose for me at the end of this chapter:
- I found myself wanting an explanation of how Smith’s embrace of polygamy was related to the change in his prophetic practice. Bushman describes Smith as dispersing knowledge throughout his speech. I imagined an enthusiastic Smith in this section who was reaching for knowledge. How is polygamy related to this?
- In spite of Bushman’s descriptions of Smith as an affable man, I didn’t really like him – at least not in this portrayal of him. In real life, I am sure Smith was quite charismatic. I found myself sympathizing more with those who said this man can’t be a prophet than with Smith. I wonder where other’s sympathies lie in this chapter. Do you find Bushman’s Joseph Smith to be a sympathetic character? Is he someone that you can understand why people followed him? How Bushman’s portrayal of Smith different than other historians (Brodie is easy. What about Newell and Avery? Or Arrington?)
Bushman describes the second half of 1843 as the time period in which Smith tried to set up the Kingdom of God. Although Smith had asked followers to consecrate their goods to the church at various points in the past, Bushman points out in this section that the prophet was not as radical in terms of political economy as some of his contemporaries. Unlike Robert Owen or Orestes Brownson, Smith did not call for the abolition of capital. Instead, he frequently tried his hand at business and encouraged the development of industry in Nauvoo. He then recounts a failed attempt to arrest Smith and the failure of the Mormon community to negotiate Illinois politics. According to Bushman, the community’s decision to withdraw their support from a Whig candidate under threats of violence led to the vilification of Mormons in the press. Bushman also recounts Smith’s failed bid for the United States presidency, his desire to look West, and the creation of the Council of Fifty, which was designed to combine spiritual and political power within the Mormon community. The Mormon embrace of theocracy that this represented deepened the concern that many non-Mormons had about the growing community in Nauvoo.
Although this chapter is primarily leading up to Smith’s death, it did raise some questions for me:
- One thing that I found absent from Bushman’s analyses in this chapter was class. Nineteenth-century socialists based their arguments on social class. Many historians have pointed out the poverty of British converts. I wonder how the class background of other Mormon converts affected their response to Mormonism and to the other movements of the time. Were Mormons attracted to the arguments of someone like Brownson? How did Mormons distance themselves from other groups that advocated communalism?
- Women drop out of this chapter altogether. There has been a lot of excellent work done on the family and socialism. I wonder what role women played in Smith’s reimagined world. Are they simply domestic labor? Does Smith’s vision of what women can accomplish different from his contemporaries? From socialists?