JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 3: Chapters 5 – 6

By May 26, 2015

This is the third 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.

Installments:

__________________________

Chapter 5, “The Church of Christ: 1830,” and Chapter 6, “Joseph, Moses, and Enoch: 1830”

Before I talk about the chapters I want to talk about book clubs. But even before that I direct your attention to Ardis Parshall’s proposed She Shall Be an Ensign project. There is a Facebook page and, sometime today, a Kickstarter campaign should go live.

Now back to clubs: the clubs in which I have participated seem to have attracted people who either wanted to gush/rant about how much they liked/disliked the book and those who wanted to analyze it. I couldn’t decide which I wanted to do, so I’m just going to bounce between idiosyncratic personal response and actual thoughts.

Chapter 5 covers Joseph Smith’s formation of a church and the early gatherings of church members. Chapter 6 discusses Smith’s assumption of a prophetic role and how he imagined that role, including how he was influenced by his understandings of Moses and Enoch.

The thing that stood out to me in these chapters the first time I read RSR was that there were more than six people present at the organization of the church. I had never really thought about the question in serious detail and, at that point, had never taken a university History course, but my nascent historian’s spidey-sense told me that something was off in the simplified version I had heard growing up. It turns out that the number “six” (I don’t know about the maleness) was specified by New York law and if the law had called for a larger number, there were “forty or fifty” other people at the organization meeting who might have agreed to sign the paper.

This autobiographical tidbit tells you very little about ten-years-ago me and nothing about Rough Stone Rolling or Joseph Smith, but it does illustrate, I think, something of the challenge in writing a book that people will actually read. As soon as I arrived at the two sentences that deal with the number of attendees, I got greedy and wanted much more information and more detailed information about how each of them came to be there and what they thought and whether they were more or less committed than the actual signers, and so on. Bushman did not give me what I wanted. He—wisely, no doubt—moved on to describing in general terms the organization and characteristics of the church as social movement and church as legal institution, bending each back toward an understanding of Smith rather than of the church. To have done differently would have made a long book never-ending.

On the other hand, ruthless concision covers a multitude of controversies. Even with six-hundred pages, I often felt in these chapters that Bushman was conveniently avoiding the harder questions. For example, Bushman says that “Where his [Smith’s] gifts came from will probably never be explained to everyone’s satisfaction” (128). It is a great book, but I wish Bushman would have tried harder to at least lay out the possibilities in more detail.

Now, having whined a little about Bushman’s brevity, let me be a little surprised at how long he went on about Moses and Enoch. In chapters five and six he goes on multi-page riffs describing and quoting from each prophet. He explains that Smith’s conception of those two figures’ prophetic roles shaped Smith’s own and that understanding them helps conceptualize much of Smith’s behavior throughout the remainder of his prophetic career. Reading this time I was surprised at how much attention Bushman gave these two prophets. I don’t recall how prominent they are in the rest of the book; it will be interesting to see how often Bushman refers back to them to account for Smith’s choices.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. What surprises me is how little treatment has been given to the baptism of Joseph Smith Sr. Joseph’s emotional reaction to this event is one of the most important documented moments of his history, in my opinion.

    Bushman quotes Joseph Knight: [Joseph Smith Jr.] “bast out with greaf and joy and seamed as tho the whole world could not hold him.” He “went out into the Lot and wanted to git out of site of every body and would sob and crie and seamed to be so full that he could not live…He was the most wrot upon that I ever saw any man…”

    I have told the author on a couple of occasions that I think this is one of the most compelling moments in the entire book, as it hints at 1) how Joseph viewed that baptismal ordinance, and 2) how he viewed his father, a humble man who struggled with his own human frailties and had very little to show for the hard work that characterized his life.

    Comment by Dan E. — May 26, 2015 @ 5:45 am

  2. That’s a great point about Moses and Enoch. Enoch in particular I think is a type for how Joseph sees his mission. It also likely highlights the frustrations Joseph must have felt. Enoch built the city of Enoch whereas every Zion Joseph attempts to build crumbles in key ways.

    Dan that’s a really good observation. If Moses and Enoch are the archetypes Joseph can’t live up to (and like Moses never sees his promised land) I think his father is a type for the type of failures yet faith within them that he also experiences.

    Comment by Clark — May 26, 2015 @ 10:09 am

  3. Thanks, Edje. These are important things to think about. I also wonder why he doesn’t spend nearly as much time on Abraham as he does with Enoch.

    Dan E.: I think that’s a really important moment as well. The patriarchal priesthood, ordaining his father a patriarch, etc. says a lot about JS and his relationship with his father.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 26, 2015 @ 10:13 am

  4. I think it is pretty clear that Moses and Enoch appear in JS’s mind and explicitly in his revelations as archetypes. Susan Staker once wrote about Abraham as an archetype for JS, and I understand that she is back at work on Moses.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 26, 2015 @ 10:39 am

  5. I need to find that Staker article, J!

    Comment by J Stuart — May 26, 2015 @ 11:21 am

  6. Clark, that’s an interesting connection between Joseph Sr. and Moses. In my dissertation, I stress Enoch as the archetype; the perfect city was the goal. Not seeing the promised land was not the goal (but good point on that being how it turned out).

    I’d disagree with Bushman interpretation of JS’s exclamation at his father’s baptism. I argue that JS sr had a major influence on JS, so I’d see the exclamation as having more to do with JS feeling joy over his father’s endorsement than as JS feeling that he had redeemed his father.

    Thanks for the write up Edje. All those issues that display a religious/secular divide can be difficult to write about. My guess is that after discussing those kinds of issues in more detail in earlier chapters, in these chapters he simply noted the divide and moved on.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 26, 2015 @ 11:25 am

  7. Yes it’s sometimes interesting to me that Brigham is so often called the American Moses instead of Joseph. I understand why that is, but Brigham often struck me as more the group after Moses who have to synthesize everything and get things working. Joseph instead seems the Moses type both as a model he sees for himself but also just in terms of shaking things up.

    Comment by Clark — May 26, 2015 @ 11:54 am

  8. Great comments, all. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 26, 2015 @ 1:11 pm

  9. Thanks, Edje.

    I think it’s also important to remember that JS was working on these early bible revisions in late 1830, while Oliver Cowdery and the other missionaries were seeking the location of the city of Zion, which the early Saints believed would be “among the Lamanites.” The Enoch and Melchizedek passages were past examples of what JS hoped would occur in the New Jerusalem, as Mark Ashurst-McGee discusses in his dissertation.

    Comment by David G. — May 26, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

  10. In these chapters I was most struck by the crazily coincidental/miraculous way (depending on your view) in which the first converts came into the church.

    The earliest advocates were a few large families – the Smith family (Joseph’s own), the Knight family (who had heard about his abilities as a seer from Josiah Stowell), and the Whitmer family (who had heard about it through David Whitmer’s friend, Oliver Cowdery) – as well as a couple of individuals – Martin Harris (a Palmyra native who had employed Joseph), and Oliver Cowdery (who heard about Joseph while boarding with the Smiths). This was the primary core at the time of the publication of the Book of Mormon and the organization of the church. Most others in the area scoffed or were hostile toward the Book of Mormon and Joseph’s claims.

    From here, the movement could have easily fizzled out or turned in a different direction (and perhaps almost did with the warm dispute on D&C 20:37 between Joseph and Oliver and the Whitmers, who had taken Oliver’s side). Serious opposition was mounting and initial missionary efforts by Samuel did not appear successful.

    Then, one Parley Pratt happens upon the Book of Mormon while he was on a missionary journey for the Campbellite movement (which happened to also be a restorationist movement), to which he had recently converted. Pratt is immediately converted after reading the Book of Mormon and shares what he has found with his highly polished and influential Campbellite minister, Sydney Rigdon. Sydney Rigdon is soon converted and brings over a hundred of his own followers with him. Not only did this bring in two of the most influential early Mormons and a strong membership base, it also happened to be in the Kirtland area, which will soon become the base of gathering after all of the New York/PA locations (Palmyra/Manchester, Fayette, Colesville, and Harmony) became inhospitable.

    Separately, one of the copies of the Book of Mormon that Samuel distributed was warmly accepted by Rhoda Greene, but prospects didn’t seem high in that household. However, over the next couple of years, this contact led to the conversion of her in-laws, the Youngs (including one Brigham).

    To me, these conversions were absolutely pivotal in the development of the church, especially the conversion of Parley Pratt (and subsequent conversion of Sydney Rigdon) in terms of immediate impact on the early church. Rigdon would bring in a large base for the church and provide it with a polished, educated, respectable, influential preacher. Pratt would be influential in the development of the church’s theology, turning sporadic written revelations into doctrines – things we now take for granted.

    Before Pratt’s conversion, the church was a small group of sympathetic families impressed with the gifts of a young man. Afterward, it was a genuine religious movement.

    In your view, which was the most influential of the early conversions?

    Comment by JT — May 26, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

  11. JT, I’d just point out that while Pratt’s conversion was very fortunate, early Mormonism was quite successful early on, particularly in western New York (the counties west of Palmyra). My guess is that Mormonism would still have grown without Pratt (though he was important in many ways).

    The earliest converts were part of the larger culture of western New York, many of which had religious views congenial to Mormonism: strong belief in the supernatural, craving modern revelation, antipathy toward many of the established churches. Alan Taylor’s “The Free Seekers: Religious Culture in Upstate New York, 1790-1835,” Journal of Mormon History 27, no 1 (2001), is probably the best thing on this. My “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism.” Church History 79, no. 1 (2008): 73-104, looks at these tendencies in a broader context.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 26, 2015 @ 5:09 pm

  12. Good questions Edje. I think Abraham overtakes the others in several senses.

    Comment by WVS — May 26, 2015 @ 11:02 pm

  13. Contrast the baptism of Joseph Smith, Sr. (baptized by Joseph, right after the Church was organized) with that of Emma Smith (baptized by Oliver Cowdery, not until late June, p. 119). And looking ahead a few years, Joseph Jr. waited until the death of Joseph Sr. to start practicing polygamy, despite having some sort of plan to initiate the practice for many years prior, perhaps out of respect for Joseph Sr.? Whereas, from the point of view of Joseph Jr., Emma was simply an obstacle to be maneuvered around vis-a-vis the practice of polygamy.

    So yes, I would agree that the Joseph Sr. baptism episode was significant and illustrates Joseph’s high regard for Joseph Sr., although Joseph Sr. does not really play a prominent role in the life of the Church (or of Joseph) going forward.

    Comment by Dave — May 27, 2015 @ 10:10 am

  14. Well there was Fanny Algers & Lucinda Pendleton, Dave. Although admittedly with the latter it’s a 3rd hand late claim.

    Comment by Clark — May 28, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

  15. I have a memory of a CD I bought that had a fireside or something on it where Bushman goes into more detail about Joseph Smith Sr. and fleshes out the argument that in some ways JS jr.’s Restoration was a restoration of his own father as much as it was of a church. Anyone remember this? Bushman touches on it in RSR, but I recall listening to a recording about it.

    Comment by BHodges — May 28, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

  16. Blair: I believe it’s in a CD from Deseret Book where Bushman discusses writing RSR. I’ll ping you if I remember the title.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 28, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

  17. I’d argue that Bushman’s argument that Blair mentions is reading things through Lucy’s lens, and not JS Jr.’s. I argue in my diss that JS was much more lined up with his father’s religiosity than his mother: ie in his 1839 account of the First Vision he said he simply told his mother she was going to the wrong church (and implicitly suggested that his father had it right by going to none) and in his account of Moroni’s visit, he said he turned to his father for guidance (not his mother.) Such suggests that it was Lucy more than Joseph Sr. that needed to be redeemed.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 28, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

  18. […] • 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 • Next week (Part […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 7: Chapters 16-18 — June 22, 2015 @ 4:45 am

  19. […] Part 3: Chapters 5-6 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 8: Chapters 19-21 — July 6, 2015 @ 5:00 am


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