This is the fourth 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
- Next week (Part 5): Chapters 10-12
Chapter 7, “The Kirtland Visionaries: January-June 1831”
Chapter 8, “Zion: July-December 1831” and Chapter 9, “The Burden of Zion: 1832”
This week, we will take a closer look at Bushman’s analysis of the early days of Mormonism in Kirtland, Ohio, the introduction of Missouri into the Mormon mindset, and the 1831-1832 travails of the Smith families. These chapters explore the ways in which Joseph Smith policed the boundaries of his religious authority—and how he adapted to the challenges of his church’s growth.
Rather than re-hash everything you have already read, I’d like to spend some time looking at the ways that Bushman engages with both Mormons and non-Mormons in Rough Stone Rolling. I’d like to call special attention to his treatment of the introduction of the “endowment from on high,” the Melchizidek priesthood. For Mormons, Bushman addresses the difficulty and necessity of “containing excesses” by several early converts when Joseph Smith’s “own revelatory powers excited the desire for spiritual gifts.” (151) He shows that Smith managed to assert himself as prophet while allowing others to use and display their own spiritual gits. He also suggests that Joseph Smith did not speak about the restoration of the “endowment from on high” (Melchizidek priesthood) for the same reasons that he did not generally speak about the First Vision. For his academic audience, Bushman situates the dispersal of priesthood authority into contemporary associations of priesthood with Roman Catholicism and Protestant anti-priestly tendencies of the Jacksonian Era.
Another example of the two-pronged approach to writing is the tarring and feathering of Joseph Smith in 1832 by a mob at least partially comprised of former Mormons. When addressing the mob violence, Bushman speaks to the personal tragedies in the Smith household including the death of a child, the humiliation of having to leave the Johnson home, and the ensuing rejection from the Whitney home. Latter-day Saints can read this section and empathize with a very human prophet who did the best he could while struggling to provide for his family. For those interested more broadly in American history, the Bancroft-winning author focuses on the politics of masculinity within the mob’s attack on the Mormon Prophet.
Finally, in this week’s reading I also noticed that Bushman’s writing specifically addresses Fawn Brodie’s arguments in her groundbreaking 1945 treatment of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. (You can also read some thoughts from Ben P on Brodie and Bushman here.) Bushman specifically criticizes Brodie for writing that Smith named the higher priesthood after the little-known biblical figure “Melchizidek” after reading about him in a book (and thereby discounting Smith’s revelations as a source of Smith’s notion). He also addresses the unlikely assertion that an attempt at castrating the Mormon prophet during his tarring and feathering in 1832 came as a result of one of Smith’s earliest plural marriages. Through calling attention to the less charitable assertions and inaccuracies in Brodie’s book, he can simultaneously assure Mormon and non-Mormon readers that No Man Knows My History’s speculations are ill founded, or at least unlikely. Such an approach allows him to combat Brodie’s skeptical, but well-known, views of Smith for both audiences. Bushman corrects Brodie for a believing audience that may have grown up with horror stories of the contents of No Man Knows My History. He also challenges Brodie’s historiographical views for an academic audience that generally relied on Brodie’s readable but skeptical biography for six decades by 2005, when Rough Stone Rolling was published.
The two approaches aren’t necessarily at odds with one another. Readers from either audience undoubtedly benefit from each approach—although they may be interested in one approach much more than the other. In his (I believe) admirable desire to shoot straight down the middle and reach both audiences, Bushman may not reach either audience as well as he could if he had chosen to only speak to one group alone.
This week’s questions for discussion:
What are the positive and negative aspects of writing a history that appeals to multiple audiences?
How do you view Smith’s dispersal of priesthood authority? What do you make of this quote from page 175: “”In an inexplicable contradiction, Joseph was designated as the Lord’s prophet, and yet every man was to voice scripture, everyone to see God.” Does this read too much into Joseph Smith’s mind? (Readers may be interested in this paper of Bushman’s, on the “routinization” of Joseph Smith’s charismatic authority before his death.)
Was it troubling to you that Bushman did not focus on the racialization of the outbursts of “spiritual gifts” in Kirtland? (Many of the enthusiastic participants in such events were pretending to be Lamanites [a term used by early Mormons for Native Americans].)
What has been your favorite part of the book so far?