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.
Chapter ten opens in February 1832, with a new revelation. Where previous revelations had mainly dealt with earthly matters, “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.
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?