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.
- Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
- Part 2: Chapters 3-4
- This week (Part 3): Chapters 5-6
- Next week (Part 4): Chapters 7-9
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.