This is the seventh 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
• Part 4: Chapters 7-9
• Part 5: Chapters 10-12
• Part 6: Chapters 13-15
• Next week (Part 8): Chapters 19-21
Sparse comments last week suggest some understandable mid-book fatigue (it IS hefty, after all, and it IS the busy part of the summer for most of us), but never fear – just jump right back in. Chapters 16-18 form, in many ways, the emotional heart of Bushman’s biography and a microcosm of the thorny problems inherent in writing a finely textured history of a figure as iconic and enigmatic as Joseph Smith. They are Rough Stone Rolling itself, writ small.
One can almost hear the relief and excitement in Bushman’s narrative voice upon turning to Joseph Smith’s journal from September 1835 to April 1836: it is the “most extensive, comprehensive, and revealing” of his extent journals – with almost daily entries in Joseph Smith’s voice, sometimes even in his own hand. To have such a source to work with is the biographer’s fondest dream, and Bushman revels in it for two whole chapters. Chapter sixteen focuses on the close relationships in Smith’s household and community of Kirtland, particularly on tensions and frictions arising in these months among the quorums and interconnected families, while chapter seventeen describes some of the “happiest times” to be found in Smith’s chronology as the Kirtland Temple was finished and dedicated, ushering in an intense period of fecund ritual creation and holy celebration. Both Smith and Bushman seem almost spent by the end of chapter seventeen.
Kirtland’s church councils became embroiled in “small quarrels, domestic disturbances, and squabbles” throughout the fall of 1835, with Smith right in the fray. A tumble of unsavory episodes falls out of the pages of Smith’s journal and the minutes of the Kirtland High Council: reproof, resentment, rumor, accusations, forced apologies, brooding, weeping, and even curses and outright fisticuffs. For explanation, Bushman gestures at Smith’s own temperament (sensitive and short-fused), as well as to the Smith family’s fierce “clannishness” and to a broader “culture of honor” stopping just short of dueling (295). As counterbalance, Bushman is mindful of how this will look to his readers: while “to modern eyes, Joseph’s impulsiveness looks raw, but he was also vivid and strong. The expression of feelings bound people to him” (302). Joseph’s unexpectedly heartfelt blessing pronounced upon the friends who cut his winter’s wood ends the section about rancorous conflict on a note of transcendent benediction (303).
Kingdom-building in the abstract (the idealized Zion) loomed large for the Kirtland members, whose efforts to establish and maintain holy community comprised a series of all-too-human failures and restarts. Nonetheless they fleetingly glimpsed the “order of heaven” in sociality, feasting, weddings, building a temple, and educating themselves in Greek, Hebrew and theology.
Much of chapter seventeen concerns the invention of elaborate pomp within the men’s priesthood quorums: ceremonial voting, blessings, washings and anointing with oil for ritual purification, meetings that lasted all night. One wonders what Kirtland’s wives and sisters thought of all this nocturnal fraternal exuberance; Bushman acknowledges women’s absence from and invisibility within the Kirtland “order of heaven” without comment (310).
Arguably the book’s climax is found in the section on the Kirtland temple dedication, the “zenith of the Saints’ ecstatic experience” (319). The prayers, recorded visions, and outpouring of spiritual gifts constituted a revelatory experience in themselves, the sought-for endowment, as Joseph’s journal recorded on March 30, 1836:
“The Saviour made his appearance to some, while angels ministered unto others, and it was a penticost and enduement indeed, long to be remembered…” (318).
Both this use of the word “endowment” – years before the formalization of the Nauvoo ceremony as precursor to today’s temple endowment – and the almost afterthought quality with which the subsequent Kirtland temple vision of Jesus Christ was recorded, may strike faithful Church members as important revisions to widely-held contemporary understandings of these events. It is instructive to note that Joseph thought of the “endowment” (first) as a process of divine outpouring following on months of spiritual preparation and personal sanctification, not as the scripted initiation ceremony it would later become. And it borders on the inexplicable that the shared April 1836 vision of Christ in the flesh—accompanied, according to Warren Cowdery, by the additional heavenly visitors Moses, Elias and Elijah—was apparently neither widely shared nor even recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants editions published during Smith’s lifetime. Bushman notes: “Joseph never mentioned the event in his other writings. There is no evidence he told the Kirtland Saints” (320). I find it fascinating that this purported visionary event has since assumed gigantic significance in our own time as oft-cited evidence of “restoration of keys and authority,” significance that it simply did not possess in Joseph’s own era or thinking.
The end of chapter seventeen shifts abruptly in mood from ebullient to somber and foreboding. Bushman hints of the disquiet to come as “an air of mystery and reticence rises around the Prophet” (321). Revelation stilled; Joseph’s voice dropped out of his journal almost entirely; and a series of almost insurmountable setbacks plagued the Saints in both Kirtland and Missouri. Chapter eighteen braids together several parallel storylines about these troubled times: accusations and tangled chronology surrounding Joseph’s first (and very young) plural wife, Fanny Alger; forced withdrawal of the Mormons from Clay County, Missouri; huge debts exacerbated by the doomed Kirtland Safety Society (anti)bank and the resulting financial fallout in a town without any functioning currency or capital; and factional dissent leading to open schism and apostasy of numerous prominent church leaders.
Amid all these downward-trending prospects, since Joseph falls silent, Bushman turns to other primary source interlocutors, especially to Wilford Woodruff’s steady daily diary as sort of Kirtland’s “everyman,” and the letters of Mary Fielding, which provide pedestrian perspective on the turmoil surrounding the beleaguered Joseph. The chapter ends with a midnight ride outta town in January 1838, destination uncertain.
Questions for Discussion:
Bushman’s overriding concern is always foremost with Joseph Smith’s interiority, his mind; like any good biographer he seems delighted when the sources grant access to that mind, and frustrated when it’s screened from his view. In this section, we see most clearly that Bushman has to construct his narrative from very different native materials, so to speak. It makes for both an interpretive and a writerly problem – how has he handled both so far?
Chapter seventeen introduces polygamy without fixing either the genesis of any revelation on the subject or an exact date for the initiation of the Alger alliance (and do the dates matter?). Bushman raises controversies (the nature and timing of the relationship, what the contemporaries did and did not agree upon) without weighing in as a final authority. He de-sensationalizes the episode on the one hand, but leaves it unresolved on the other, and does not foreshadow the book’s later discussions of plural marriage. Would closure be needed (or possible) here? Or is simple acknowledgement sufficient?
Does a coherent portrait emerge of Joseph Smith from these chapters? Even Bushman raises the possibility that at times we almost have to wonder if this is the same person (323, 341) with his mercurial changeability, especially as refracted through others’ memories. Is your reading bringing you to a more historically grounded understanding of the man and his times, or is it just generating more questions for you? (PS – as I tell my own students, the place of having more questions than answers is not necessarily a bad one!)
These chapters raise – and to some extent, debunk myths about – “warts and all” portrayals of Joseph Smith’s life and personality. Bushman is quite unapologetic about a number of unsavory episodes. I would argue he’s modeling good history here – i.e. tough questions lead historians iteratively back to the sources, to find and report what the sources actually say. Would you agree?