JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 5: Chapters 10-12

By June 8, 2015

This is the fifth 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.

Installments:

Chapter ten opens in February 1832, with a new revelation. Where previous revelations had mainly dealt with earthly matters,[1] “The Vision” focused on life after death, introducing the idea of exaltation to the Mormon community and moving the concept of salvation beyond reconciliation with God to the receiving of His glory. Bushman describes this revelation as an answer to a “classic post-Calvinist” question that dealt with the tension between God’s stark judgment of humanity and His loving nature (196). This revelation answered the question by positing three kingdoms of glory, and one without, building on 1 Cor. 15:40-42. Between the telestial, terrestrial, and celestial kingdom, all would find their place in the afterlife. The revelation flipped the question: at stake was not eternal hellfire, but one’s proximity to God. Reception of this new doctrine was mixed: though not strictly universalist, for some it went too far, while “other members found it thrilling” (200).

Bushman writes about two other revelations as well. The September 1832 revelation brought the idea of priesthood to the forefront of Smith’s mind, as the “greater” and “lesser” priesthoods of Melchizedek and Aaron linked Mormon males into “an ancient divine order” that went all the way back to Adam (203) and sowed further seeds for the development of temple rituals. A third revelation (December 1832) revealed “a cohesive compound of cosmology and eschatology united by the attempt to link the quotidian world of the now to the world beyond” (206), and would lead to the doctrine of ‘free intelligence,’ invoking Enlightenment ideals of reason and autonomy. Chapter ten ends with a discussion of the School of the Prophets, where elders might receive training prior to missionary work. Bushman stresses that this was “a holy work … There seemed to have been no limit on the knowledge needed to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth” (211). This knowledge concerned both the physical and the spiritual, and the Word of Wisdom came to be in its first incarnation, in part influenced by the temperance and food reform movements that flourished in the US during that time.

In chapter eleven, Bushman describes Smith’s dream of an “all-purpose Church building,” the Kirtland temple (217), with biblical antecedents that illustrated Smith’s rejection of much of Christian tradition. Bushman argues that Smith had no specific use in mind for temples, and characterizes them as “an empty form, awaiting content” (217). The Kirtland temple would house worship services, the School of the Prophets, and administrative offices. It would also be a holy space, and Smith hoped for an unprecedented reveal of God’s power. Though too costly for the Saints’ meagre resources, groundbreaking begun in 1833 nonetheless, and plans were sent to Missouri for a similar building, along with a plat for the City of Zion that included twenty-four temples dedicated for the use of various priesthood quorums.

But then the Mormons are expelled from Jackson County. Bushman describes the conflict, tension, and violence stemming from Mormon political overbearance and “religious fanaticism” (224); a tension that came to a head in 1833 and resulted in expulsion and the failure of American democracy. Smith wrote to the Missouri leaders in anguish, not understanding why “the grand plan for Zion, the heart of the whole restoration movement had been set back” but offering some practical suggestions nonetheless (225). Bushman emphasizes a shift in perception here: wanting governmental support and protection, the Saints reframed their story as one of persecution as much as revelation, and themselves as one religion among many, not the One True Church. The loss of Zion-in-Missouri was eventually explained as a result of Zion’s sins, and the Saints internalized the idea that “the mobs were the people and the people were the government,” and Mormons were enemies of sorts of both. Bushman traces the development of Mormon militarism back to this moment, and “[e]vents of the year initiated a spiral of suspicion, resistance, and persecution that resulted a decade later in Joseph’s death” (230).

In chapter twelve, “The Character of a Prophet,” Bushman writes about the reception of Joseph Smith, and the different personalities and characters he was assigned by those inside and outside of the movement, and Smith’s own perceptions as recorded in his diaries and writings. In 1834, we see a confident and assertive Joseph Smith, who “raised men for Jackson County,” prepared to rely on violence as a last recourse (236). Zion’s Camp left Kirtland on May 1st, though the camp struggled to retain military order and discipline. Believing they were under heavenly protection, events on the trail were interpreted within a divine framework. Ultimately, however, Zion’s camp was not a success. The negotiations with the Missourians did not fall out into the Mormons’ favor. The men of Zion’s Camp were struck by disease, and Joseph could not heal them. Zion’s Camp had been conceived as a heroic effort, but was not able to achieve any of its aims. Bushman does warn his readers not to read too much into this failure: “Most camp members felt more loyal to Joseph than ever … The future leadership of the Church came from this group” (247).

Bushman ends the chapter with a characterization of Smith as fierce, warm-hearted, but also quick to anger and quick to anguish over past, present, and future. Contrary to faith-promoting narratives that portray Smith in a singular light, Bushman allows for a complicated rendering of Joseph, in which success and sorrow co-exist. I look forward to seeing the rest of Joseph’s story unfold under Bushman’s hands.

—————————————————————
[1] As Bushman writes, “The revelations promised an inheritance on earth with little mention of a reward in heaven” (195).
If you’d like to join the discussion, but aren’t sure where to start, here are some possible points for discussion: 
1. Towards the end of my MA program in American Studies, I was awarded a fellowship in a one-year honor’s program in theology and religious studies. In many ways, it crystallized my interests in religion and led to the dissertation topic I have today. I bring this up for several reasons: first, negotiating a study of theology at a Catholic university while I myself am firmly Protestant premediated my later experience of studying Mormonism from the outside and proved a fruitful training ground. Second: my favorite class was systematic theology. Thus I was struck by Bushman’s characterization of Joseph Smith’s revelations as “tangled and spontaneous … They stand alone, energetic and illuminating, disorderly” (196). I’m interested in this idea of Smith’s revelations standing solitary in inspiration and the influence it might have had on the later development of Mormonism, in both a theological and organizational sense (or any sense you want to talk about).

2. Bushman argues that “the School of the Prophets tells more about the desired texture of Joseph’s holy society than anything he had done thus far” (211). What did that society look like? Can we imagine the place of women in this society, as “women were conspicuously absent” (202) from the School?

3. What elements of Smith’s life and character were people picking up on in their view of Smith, and how did they construct their representations of Joseph-the-Prophet?
4.  From indolent treasure-seeker to a restless and anguished seeker of truth, from fraud to prophet, from energetic to melancholy: of all the Smiths Bushman has described so far, which one have you found most compelling and/or interesting?

Article filed under Miscellaneous Summer Book Club


Comments

  1. I was struck by his claim that the temple was an empty form. That is that Joseph didn’t even have any vague ideas about it. That just seems a bit strong a claim. As Bushman notes kings and priests are a significant part of The Vision. While it’s fair to say that might be taken purely symbolically such as most protestantism does, I think it’s erroneous to assume that Joseph wasn’t already moving out of low church ritual that was common in the protestantism he was exposed to.

    Exactly when and to what degree the change was taking place is of course more difficult to establish. The mere fact he already had been exposed to the ideas of masonry and some parts of catholicism means we should be careful of reading him purely through a lens of protestantism at this time. Bushman raises Catholicism at various times in these chapters but always with a strong caveat. i.e

    —quote
    “Joseph had unknowingly tapped into the centuries-old Catholic theology of the “beatific vision,” the ultimate reward of the faithful and the height of human desire. In Catholic thought, the face-to-face vision required the aid of the “light of glory,” and was reserved almost exclusively for the redeemed in their final state. For unknown reasons, Joseph took it upon himself to bring his people into the presence of God here and now, taking his cue from Moses and Exodus.”
    —endquote

    Notice the “unknowingly” element. I think Bushman is just ascribing inappropriately the level of Joseph’s ignorance at this point. That is he sees the elements as there to allow the later theological shifts, but assumes Joseph not only was ignorant of this in his own thinking but had no exposure to how other groups dealt with this. Especially with regards to the latter that seems dubious.

    Comment by Clark — June 8, 2015 @ 10:30 am

  2. Thanks for this Saskia. I am enjoying this series very much. I am very interested in the School of Prophets, as Brigham Young reintroduced it in the late 1860s. I have read he introduced partly as a reaction to the influx of Gentiles to the area and as a way to enact differentiation (also an emphasis on words of wisdom). So it is interesting to read about Bushman’s take on Joseph Smith’s original iteration of it and how it connected to larger social trends at the time. Yet, another part of Mormon history that deserves so much more research!

    Comment by Natalie R — June 8, 2015 @ 10:36 am

  3. I’m really interested in the idea that none of Smith’s revelations were “tangled and spontaneous … They stand alone, energetic and illuminating, disorderly” (196). I think this is a totally underrated aspect of Mormon history–I don’t think that JS had a grand vision for the religion he founded for many years. What is more, I don’t think that many early Mormons were attracted by any sort of systematic theology, but by the idea that revelation and spiritual gifts ensured that there would always be change.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 8, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

  4. Thanks Saskia. These all seem like topics where there has been a fair amount of new scholarship in the last ten years. Thinking of things like Mark A-M’s diss on Zion and WVS’s stuff on priesthood. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold up well. It does, I think.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 8, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

  5. Say what you will about the puzzles of Joseph’s overall theology, but perhaps nothing is more perplexing than the development of the concept of priesthood. To be honest, it’s the least interesting element of LDS history to me personally, but Bushman breathes a little life into it by taking about the context in which the development occurred. WRT your question about the School of the Prophets and what sort of society it envisioned, it seems like learning, education, was at the heart of it on Bushman’s telling.

    Comment by BHodges — June 8, 2015 @ 6:18 pm

  6. Thanks for reading along, all.

    Comment by Saskia T — June 9, 2015 @ 8:49 am

  7. Clark, no surprise that I disagree with Bushman on JS as unknowing on these issues or that I argue that they’re Christian Platonic. The Beatific Vision itself was Platonic (seeing God and becoming defied) and I talk about context for that when I discuss the First Vision. So I argue that Smith was patterning School of the Prophets and the Kirtland Temple on descriptions of Alexandrian Christianity (Origen and Ammonius Saccas).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 9, 2015 @ 11:29 am

  8. I think the question, Steve, is how conscious of all this Joseph was. Bushman falls prey a bit I think to the false dichotomy set up by bad apologetics of decades ago. There people had this incentive to make Joseph so ignorant that his ideas were that much more amazing, especially because of the parallels. The other extreme were critics who had to make everything planned by Joseph by reference to whatever was available in a nearby library. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

    Normally Bushman’s so much more careful about avoiding those dichotomies. And to be fair he’s not that bad here compared to others. It was just a few passing statements that surprised me a bit. I don’t think it undermines the sections overall though.

    Comment by Clark — June 9, 2015 @ 10:21 pm

  9. I should add Steve that while I’m obviously very sympathetic to the neoPlatonic setting you bring up, I’m a bit more skeptical of how understanding of it he was. However clearly there were a lot of quasi-neoPlatonic ideas in the air of that era. (Witness Emerson, although obviously he was very well read)

    Comment by Clark — June 9, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

  10. Clark, I argue that JS seemed to have been aware of descriptions of Christian Platonists and Neoplatonists (or “latter Platonics” as they were called at the time) in available sources and seemed to have been looking up information on Origen in particular.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 10, 2015 @ 10:12 pm

  11. This is good stuff, Saskia. Thanks.

    Comment by WVS — June 11, 2015 @ 8:59 pm

  12. Are you revising your thesis for a more general publication?

    Comment by Clark — June 11, 2015 @ 9:25 pm

  13. Yes but I’m finishing another project first

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 12, 2015 @ 7:50 am

  14. Good luck. I look forward to it. Even if I might not agree with everything it’ll push this area of research forward significantly. (Of course gauging by our discussions here I’ll probably agree with most you say)

    Comment by Clark — June 12, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

  15. […] Part 5: Chapters 10-12 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 8: Chapters 19-21 — July 6, 2015 @ 7:12 am

  16. […] Part 5: Chapters 10-12 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 10: Chapters 25-26 — July 20, 2015 @ 5:26 am

  17. It seems that the “failed prophecy –> fanatic recommitment or angry disillusionment” framework fits the results of Zion’s camp quite well. Any good studies out there that elucidate the “recommitment” side of the framework for early mormon experiences, including Zion’s camp?

    Comment by Jacob H. — July 20, 2015 @ 5:04 pm


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