This is the twelfth and final 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 have covered 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
- Part 11: Chapters 27-28
- Next Week: Response from Richard Bushman
This fall Journals, Volume 3, of the Joseph Smith Papers will be released. This is the last of Joseph Smith’s journals and covers the end of his life. It will be noted for its generous use of the Nauvoo Council of Fifty record books, a document of near mythological character (though soon to be banalized by availability). In the case of the Council of Fifty, the record may be the only significant new document to expand on Bushman’s overall project to become available since publication. J3 also includes the most frank disclosures about the Nauvoo Temple liturgy to be published by the LDS Church in more than a century. I thought about this as I read through the final chapters of Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith. It is the two associated ideas: theocracy and temple cosmology that saturate Smith’s final six months.
Bushman’s cool narration of 1844 flushes out the players and issues that culminate in the bloody death of Joseph Smith alongside his brother. We see the storm rise over the parched landscape, the lightning strike, and then the fields burn. It is hard to imagine any other conclusion to these months. Bushman carefully corrects the narrative of its most hyperbolic hagiographic conceits while appearing to simply narrate the events as they happen.
What I found simultaneously impressive and frustrating with RSR’s final chapters, was Bushman’s awareness of JS’s theocracy and temple cosmology, and their importance to every single sermon and every single crisis. The King Follett sermon and subsequent June 16, 1844 sermon were Smith’s most complete and public explication of the temple cosmology. Smith captured believers’ secret loyalty to the cosmology of polygamy, while simultaneously engaging in what those who could not believe certainly observed to be bawled prevarication. And like polygamy, his theocracy was based, at its core, in the temple.
I found this section impressive because Bushman was able to bring so many important and complicated features forward in a way that has also launched many other scholars’ great inquiries. God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all, and God the Father was a man as Jesus was in the flesh. Kings and Priests. Great Chain of Being. I found it frustrating, because Bushman is so dang subtle. The only non-logistical pointer to the temple in these chapters is a passing reference to the “dramatilurgical.” For something that was so polarizing and so essential, I wanted Bushman to be explicit. I wondered if the inevitability of Smith’s death wasn’t just situational. Was Smith’s cosmological dissonance with America ultimately deadly? Smith wanted “theocracy” in his own words.
After finishing this section, and agreeing with its author, I did want one more thing. I wanted to be able empathize more with Jane and William Law, Emma and Joseph Smith, and Mary Ann and Brigham Young. Accepting the fact of Smith’s polarization is the easy part.
Was Smith’s death inevitable?
Is it best described as a conflict between old settlers and new settlers? Remember that there was no Nauvoo Temple cosmology in Jackson. Zionism brought with it some hefty cosmology, but you didn’t have a Foster or Law in 1833 (partly because JS wasn’t around?). There were dissenters running up to the Missouri War, though. Also Danites.
Is my question about a cosmological inevitability just silly?