JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 2: Chapters Three and Four

By May 18, 2015

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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.

Bushman then begins chapter three by arguing,

By the fall of 1827, Joseph Smith stood on the line dividing visionary supernaturalism from rational Christianity—one of the many boundaries between the traditional and modern world in early-nineteenth-century America. He was difficult to place in relation to that line because he faced in both directions. Joseph looked backward toward folk beliefs in divine power communicated through stone, visions, dreams, and angels. At the same time, he turned away from the money-diggers’ passion for treasure and reached for higher, spiritual ends. The gold plates and angels scandalized rational Christians, while the religious impulse confused the money-diggers (57).

Here Bushman again noted the importance of Smith’s “magical” activities but argued that Smith was transitioning away from such. Yet it was not a complete transition since he was not leaving behind “beliefs in divine power communicated through stone, visions, dreams, and angels.” Smith instead was leaving treasure digging behind, but not a number of other beliefs. For Bushman, this meant that “Smith stood on the line dividing visionary supernaturalism from rational Christianity” and that “he was difficult to place.”

What needs to be unpacked here is what Bushman means by juxtaposing “visionary supernatural” and “rational Christianity.” Bushman doesn’t go into detail, but there really was a long struggle of these issues early modern Christianity. At the heart of this struggle is what scholars call “disenchantment” (based on a term that Max Weber coined) or the idea that as modernity approached, many of society’s intellectual elites insisted more and more that that the world was less and less infused with the supernatural. Such began in the late Middle Ages, really took off in the Reformation (whose leaders generally insisted that miracles and ceased) and became even more prominent in the Enlightenment (whose major thinkers rejected what they saw as false and foolish beliefs and practices by calling such “magic” and “superstition.”) Plenty of people resisted disenchantment, like Joseph Smith and his followers, but the battle line between disenchantment and supernaturalism (the belief in the supernatural) is a good way to give context to Bushman’s divide between “visionary supernatural” and “rational Christianity.”

This is not to say that disenchantment really was “rational,” but only those arguing for disenchantment claimed that they were being rational. That is, scholars need to make distinctions between etic (categories the scholar uses) and emic (categories the scholar’s subject uses) categories when using terms like “rational.” What is “rational” is very much in the eye of the beholder and different worldviews all are based on some sort of rationale. The historian’s task is to piece together and explore different worldviews and rationales of peoples of the past not to give stamps of approval of which we like the best. Bushman himself notes the difficulties of parsing out these issues.

I would also note here that the term “magic” itself ought to be treated as an emic rather than an etic category because the lines between religion, science, and magic have also been in the eye of the beholder throughout history. Therefore, instead of trying to figure out what was “religion” and what was “magic” in the Smith family’s practices, it’s better, I would argue, to try to understand how the Smiths themselves understood and categorized what they were doing. Bushman himself played a major role in advancing this understanding for the academy and for church members, but in light of recent scholarship on the topic, statements like, “magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” can obscure the issues.

That is, I would argue that Smith did not stand between these two camps in 1827 but instead always remained firmly in the “visionary supernatural” camp. Though Bushman is correct to note that Smith came to have qualms about some of the actions involved in treasure digging, it is a mistake to imply that “rational Christianity” was “spiritual” and that “visionary supernaturalism” was about “passion for treasure.” In reality, the tension between serving God and mammon is found in most (if not all) worldviews. One could desire greater spirituality and still be firmly entrenched in the “visionary supernatural” worldview.

What Smith did do was to remove and mention to many of the things deemed “magical” or “superstitious” from his telling of the founding events. That is, he mentions treasure digging in his 1839 account but leaves out the seer stone and any other supernatural references. Indeed almost all the details of Smith’s treasure digging and seer stones come from other people: Lucy Mack Smith, Martin Harris, the Knights, and a host of other treasure-digging associates.

The tension between the disenchanting and supernatural worldviews was likely a major reason why Smith was reticent to talk about any practices he engaged in that would have been deemed superstitious. In the words of Wouter Hanegraaff, “Enlightenment thinkers hardly bothered to refute ‘superstitious’ beliefs. They had discovered a simple and much more effective tool to rid the world of invisible spirits: ridicule.”[1] Smith’s two trials for being a money-digger coupled with the Hurlbut affidavits were more than enough to convince Smith to leave activities deemed “superstitious” out of his accounts.

Yet Smith’s reticence left later Mormons with the problem of trying to make sense of such practices and their relation to Mormonism since Smith did not explain it. As a result, it was left to later thinkers like Bushman to help us make sense of it all.

Many may balk that they want more than simply an academic view of Joseph Smith’s world, particularly if one is religiously invested in Joseph Smith’s claims. What about actual reality? This is natural, and to address that issue I would once again go back to Bushman’s dividing line: Joseph Smith strongly believed in an enchanted worldview and strongly rejected Protestantism’s disenchanting tendencies. Mormons tend to be sympathetic to Smith on this point (“have miracles ceased?”) and thus may be able to sympathize with different aspects of enchanted worldviews.

Therefore, in the unusual stories that Bushman discusses for the remainder of Chapter 3—from finding the gold plates in the ground, to keeping them hidden from other seers, to translating them with a seer stone—it is useful for the historian to keep all these dynamics in mind.

Chapter Four, The Book of Mormon, is a pretty familiar a topic. Feel free to leave comments about this and other topics, but it’s not the purpose of this series to argue about the Book of Mormon’s validity.

[1] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 163-64.

Article filed under Biography Book and Journal Reviews Book History Categories of Periodization: Origins Miscellaneous Summer Book Club Theology


  1. Thanks, Steve. I’m curious: how did early Mormon converts react to JS’s background in treasure-digging, angelic visions, etc. It seems to me that it DREW converts rather than scared them away.

    I would also like to ask you: did JS and early Mormons use the same definition of “rational” that we do today? For instance, Parley P. Pratt titles his book “Key to the Science of Theology,” which seems like he is trying to say that Mormon doctrine is as rational as it is faith-based.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 18, 2015 @ 7:50 am

  2. As a Protestant, Bushman’s description of Smith’s treasure digging as preparing him to become the Prophet has always made me a little uneasy. I always read it as Bushman implicitly assigning a motive to God. As someone who believes in an ineffable God, it seemed a little presumptuous. On this second reading, though, I realized that I may have been reading too much into that section. How did others read it? I am also beginning to realize that my discomfort may also be unique to 21st C Liberal Protestants. Earlier Protestants spoke quite readily of providence.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 18, 2015 @ 8:02 am

  3. Steve, thanks for pointing out Bushman’s reduction of the role of “magic” in Joseph Smith’s life. Even if none of Joseph’s practices from 1827 onward clearly bespoke a magical influence—and several of them do—to claim that “magic had served its purpose in his life” by that time directs the reader to disregard the later influence of magic, or even to imagine that Joseph’s early magical activities were only “preparatory” to events up until 1827.

    In that sense, Amanda, I think we may agree that Bushman’s rhetoric at some of the most interesting points in the biography seems to obfuscate in the service of an unstated providential claim. Similarly on pp. 92-93 of chapter four, in contrasting “critics” and “proponents” of the Book of Mormon, Bushman pigeonholes Book of Mormon criticism, and suggests by his oppositional framing that responsible Book of Mormon scholarship should be attributed to Book of Mormon “proponents” but not to “critics.”

    Comment by Ryan B — May 18, 2015 @ 8:30 am

  4. J, that strikes me as a complicated question. Some of JS’s earliest followers had been treasure-digging associates, but treasure digging wasn’t used in early Mormon proselytizing, it came from critics. Modern miracles was a major aspect in early Mormon proselytizing and conversion, but I’m not aware of anyone saying that they converted because they viewed JS’s treasure digging in that light. So it probably varied. In answering the charges of critics, JS would admit that he was involved but he also sort of downplayed it and he never talked about it’s supernatural aspects.

    In terms of how JS defined “rational” that would be a good thing to study. I do know that JS often accused “sectarians” (ie Protestants) of being “superstitious,” or the opposite of rational. To me that suggests how fluid these terms were and how everyone wanted to use them for their own purposes.

    Amanda, I think you’re right to see Bushman as theologizing at points. Bushman often does some hand-holding for Mormons through some of the harder issues and his suggestions about treasure digging and becoming a prophet would fit that tendency. And your right about the importance of providence throughout the history of Protestantism but Protestants still put a lot of boundaries on the propriety supernatural invocations, and many leaders would have seen JS’s claims as going way to far.

    Ryan, what I’m proposing (based on other scholarship) is to question and even eliminate the line between religion and magic. People have all different boundaries of what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate supernatural invocations. There’s a long history of civilizations calling what they do “religion” and what their enemies do “magic.” There’s also what Ion Lewis calls “the well documented process by which today’s religion (or ideology) reduced yesterday’s religion to the status of magic, each successive religious vogue marginalizing its predecessor.” Then there were lots of those who said that magic was simply religions higher form. Sir Walter Raleigh said in his History of the World (1614), “And, as Plato affirmeth, that the art of magic is an art of worshipping of God.” So the trick for the historian is to table one’s own definition of magic and try to figure out how people you are studying use it (ie the emic/etic distinction).

    In terms of how the things that JS practiced that were “deemed” magic influenced later Mormon developments, I argue in my dissertation that they were significant. There was a whole lot of Mormon ideas and similar practices that could be found in treasure digging and the grimoires (“magic” books.) For instance, see this post

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 18, 2015 @ 9:15 am

  5. Amanda, I think even with the perspectivist position Bushman adapts, attributing motives to God is problematic. However I do think we could say there’s an evolution for Joseph. Likewise even if we look at Joseph’s texts we have various quasi-“magical” items like the liahona or the stones touched by God’s fingers to light the barges. It also seems clear that what items Joseph uses shift, becoming less elaborate until they aren’t used at all except in very figurative ritualistic ways such as what ended up in the endowment.

    To me it’s problematic not because God’s ineffable (if only because I don’t think he is and clearly Joseph doesn’t think he is given his approval of the Lectures on Faith). Rather I think it’s problematic because Joseph never clearly gives a position of how God is teaching him along those lines. That’s much more theological reading back into the historic narratives. So I think it’s taking Bushman a little out of his stated methodology. (I should add I actually agree with Bushman in how he reads its, just that it seems at odds with his stated aims and methods)

    Comment by Clark — May 18, 2015 @ 10:23 am

  6. Ryan “even to imagine that Joseph’s early magical activities were only “preparatory” to events up until 1827”

    There’s also the problem of the diviner rod (which gets modified to “the gift of Aaron” with the revision of the Book of Commandments. I think this is around 1829 not 1827. Although the shift in the text definitely demonstrates a change in Joseph’s understanding relative to “magic” culture.

    J Stuart “I’m curious: how did early Mormon converts react to JS’s background in treasure-digging, angelic visions, etc. It seems to me that it DREW converts rather than scared them away.”

    It’s hard to say without knowing how many it did push away. I think early anti-Mormons had success in making Joseph look bad due to treasure digging claims. As Steve noted that wasn’t used in proselytizing but it’s possible some, who were already open to that sort of thing, were attracted. Whether there were more attracted than were repelled is difficult if not impossible to say.

    I do think we should be careful when we paint all of protestantism as pushing a closed heaven with just exegesis of the Bible being how God works. While that was a prominent position it was hardly the only one. And Joseph was hardly alone in claiming these sorts of visitations as Bushman notes in passing.

    Like Steve I also think the whole “magic world view” (to borrow Quinn’s horrible phrase) was still deeply influential in later Mormonism. Indeed I’d argue it continues well into the Utah period where the use of seer stones was fairly common up through the early 20th century. I’d go so far as to say a lot of these same traditions still form a strain of Mormonism – albeit one more popular in rural areas. (It’s not hard to find Mormons who still do water dowsing for instance)

    While the magic tendencies were arguably diluted with new converts, some new converts brought their own spiritualist tendencies. (For a great example of this in the early Utah period see Walker’s Wayward Saints.

    It’s interesting that Quinn’s work, for all of its flaws, started off a rather large subgenre not directly related to Mormonism which traces a lot of these magic ideas in many figures in the 19th century. I think despite some of the theoretical scaffolding problems with loose talk of esoterica or magic that these sorts of things had an outsized influence in general US history that often gets missed.

    I should also add that the line between magic and symbol is blurry. So Masonry, which I think we all agree was hugely influential in Mormonism, is part and parcel of all this even if typically the rites weren’t considered through a magic worldview in the 19th century. (Of course many did see it along those lines)

    Comment by Clark — May 18, 2015 @ 10:36 am

  7. Steve, I think I agree with your unsettling of the category of “magic.” (Thanks, by the way, for linking to your review of Dillinger.) I would agree that delineation between “magic” and “religion” is usually used primarily to valorize some metaphysical beliefs/practices over others.

    Similarly, I appreciate your point that Bushman does not always distinguish clearly between etic and emic categories. This ambivalence seems to me sometimes to facilitate the unstated providential claims that Amanda and I mentioned above, rather than merely reflecting the methodology of a “cultural biography.”

    Comment by Ryan B — May 18, 2015 @ 11:09 am

  8. Thanks for this, Steve. I’m still making my way through chapter 4, and appreciate your extended thoughts here.

    Comment by Christopher — May 18, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

  9. I’ll ask a few questions about chapter four, particularly about its methodology.

    To what extent did Joseph Smith and his followers “find themselves” in the Book of Mormon (p. 107)? Did Bushman consult and cite the range of primary records that illustrate how the early Saints and their prophet read, understood and interpreted the text?

    Did they see parallels between their own day, presumably close to the second coming of Christ, and the New World society in the decades before the Savior’s arrival in the Americas? Or were they casual readers who saw every antiquity as evidence of the book’s ancient’s origins and considered the Bible a better guide to the teachings of Jesus?

    Why does Bushman cite no scholars for much of that chapter (pp. 97-105), offering instead what appears to be his own interpretation of how passages from the book trenchantly critique the very society that some, including critics, say spawned it?

    Why does Bushman advance an almost fundamentalist interpretation of what the Book of Mormon says about the destiny of Native Americans (98-99, 105) without noting how some LDS leaders have contested the claim that Lamanites will be the dominant force of the church in the Latter-days?

    If Bushman argues the forms of government in the Book of Mormon are at odds with the democratic values and republic principles of the young American nation (pp. 102-103), why does he argue that book of scripture prepares us to understand why Joseph Smith would run for president of the United States (p. 107)?

    Comment by sterflu — May 18, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

  10. Thanks, Clark, Ryan, and Christopher. Ryan, I’d just note that making emic/etic distinctions is kind of a new method.

    sterflu, I can’t answer a lot of your questions but can only point out that on 107, Bushman phrases that as a question: “Did they find themselves in the book as Joseph did?” (I’d assume he meant 2 Ne 3 or something). So he’s saying he’s not sure how the early Mormons read it.

    In terms of other points, I’d assume that Bushman is confident to offer his own interpretation of the text independent of later statement by leaders. Bushman did some important scholarship on the Book of Mormon in the context of early nineteenth-century America.

    In terms of contradictions, yeah, this all gets tricky.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 18, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

  11. I too was sort of taken aback by a lot of Bushman’s interpretations of the text in Ch. 4. I think part of that is my own discomfort with our tendency within the church to “assign” a meaning to scriptures/scriptural stories because I think it makes us less open to alternative interpretations. I don’t claim to be a scholar, but several of his statements sort of left me scratching my head and wondering if the BoM really states things so clearly. In fact I’m planning a re-read of the BoM now with some of those themes in mind to see if I agree with him or not.

    Comment by Jen — May 19, 2015 @ 6:55 pm

  12. Jen–I would say that I agree with you. I think assigning one grand “interpretation” will always prove to be too narrow. We all read different texts at different times in different ways. I don’t see why JS wouldn’t have done the same thing. He continued to edit the Book of Mormon throughout his life all the way.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 19, 2015 @ 7:07 pm

  13. […] • 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 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 7: Chapters 16-18 — June 22, 2015 @ 4:44 am


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