This is the ninth 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
- Part 7: Chapters 16-18
- Part 8: Chapters 19-21
- Next Week: Chapters 25-27
Richard Bushman begins Chapter 23 by saying, “Eighteen Forty may have been the happiest year of Joseph Smith’s life” (403). This was because it was basically a honeymoon period between the tragedy of Missouri and the rising tensions in Illinois. In these three chapters we meet a triumphant Joseph Smith—a Joseph Smith who pled his case to the President of the United States, earned the respect of intellectual observers, built a bustling city, and flirted with Christian heresies—and is notably couched in a triumphalist narrative. You could feel that it was in these years, 1839-1841, that Joseph Smith became a national figure worthy of more than mere parochial attention. Bushman compares the pro- and anti-Mormon literature of the previous few years that rarely mentioned Smith to the growth of pamphlets that now identified, engaged, denounced, and praised the Prophet. “Joseph Smith was at last given a name and a role in print as the searching youth to whom God and angels appeared,” he explains (402). Smith was finally a figure with which to be reckoned.
Chapter 22 starts with Smith’s trip to Washington DC to plead the Saints’ cause before America’s elected officials, yet the actual politics are almost an afterthought. The Mormons’ appeal before the President and congress only get a few paragraphs compared to the extended commentary on the people who observed Smith during the trip. While Smith’s conversation with President Martin Van Buren is brushed aside in a matter of sentences—and the political ramifications of these debates relegated to an extended endnote—Smith’s appearance in Philadelphia, as described by casual and enlightened observer Matthew Davis, receives a couple pages. Bushman obviously liked Davis because he, unlike Van Buren, took Joseph Smith seriously and fit the narrative of the Mormon Prophet coming out of obscurity into popularity. Similar extended attention is given to polemicist Origen Bachelor, who published an anti-Mormon work that attacked the Mormon faith. Bachelor was hardly new at the game. But what made him significant for this tale is his background: he was not intimately involved with Mormonism at all—no relatives had joined the Church, no neighbors established a Mormon branch in his community, and he was seemingly far from threatened by the growing sect. So this feeds into Bushman’s core question: “why was Mormonism…so threatening?” (400) Bushman’s implied answer was that they were now a national movement worthy of disinterested observation. Smith’s trip to Washington is mostly symbolic for the book: nothing tangible takes place, yet it represents that Smith was now on a national stage.
The next chapter moves on to the settlement of the Mormon city on the banks of the Mississippi River: Nauvoo. Though noting the problems building a city introduced—for instance, the fact that very few converts, especially those from Britain, were equipped to, you know, build a city and farm the land—Bushman focuses on the triumphant and positively optimistic mindset of Smith and his fellow leaders. Most importantly, Nauvoo was to be the tangible evidence of Smith’s grand plans: “an international religious capital,” Bushman calls it (405). The chapter spends several pages on Orson Hyde’s symbolic mission to Palestine, an interpretive choice that may seem quixotic at first but in the end is representative: it was a mission of grand schemes and symbolic value (Hyde was originally meant to direct the gathering of all Jews to Israel, and then later to Nauvoo) but with limited actual results (he returned with zero converts, connections, or impacts). You see, cultural symbolism matters to Bushman. Smith and his followers aimed high, even when they came up short. Bushman argues that this mindset changed their theology as well. “From being heavily negative,” he explained, “the appeal of Zion had become almost entirely positive” (415). Rather than a refuge from a doomed world, Nauvoo was to be a gem in a developing civilization. Even the Second Coming and its concomitant apocalyptic doom was pushed off to “more than 40 years.”
With all these new duties, importance, and outlooks, Joseph Smith also crafted new relationships. Opportunistic men, most notably John C. Bennett, Isaac Galland, and Stephen A. Douglas, saw in the Mormons a chance to further their own agendas. Bushman is quick to point out how Smith had difficulty judging the character of these types of men. He lucked out with Douglas who, at least for the next decade, helped the Mormons pass through difficult legal matters. He seemed to luck out at first with Bennett, who helped craft Nauvoo’s charter and government, before later trying to tear it all down. And the ordeal with Galland proved to lead to a quicksand of debt as the Iowa real estate they purchased from him turned out to be fraudulent. What exacerbated those land problems was the fact that the real estate investors who were (probably) legitimate dealers and sold him much of the Nauvoo land became frustrated when Smith and the Mormons couldn’t make their interest payments. Bushman does the workman’s deed of tracking and explaining all the legal and fiscal mess in which Smith found himself during these years which led him to try and declare bankruptcy. (His complicated property holdings made this difficult, but the action allowed him to push off payment to external creditors for the rest of his life.)
Amidst all these temporal developments, Smith also outlined novel theological ideas. But even these were now in a new format. “Instead of formal, dictated revelations,” Bushman explains, “the later teachers were delivered in sermons, conversations, or letters” (419). Smith was no longer the conduit of God’s word but the guide for God’s truth. Chapter 24 specifically focuses on Smith’s developing materialism, and compares his belief in eternal matter to Unitarian philosopher Joseph Priestly. Many of these religious ideas would culminate in the Nauvoo Temple, whose announcement and foundation ceremony get attention as well. And finally, the origins of Smith’s debates with neighboring towns, especially Warsaw editor Thomas Sharp, are introduced, setting the stage for later conflict. Yet even that growing difficulty can’t dampen the optimistic tenor of these chapters. “One would think that the incessant drumming of opposition and business would have drowned out Joseph’s revelations,” Bushman closes chapter 24 with, “but his was a strange prophethood” (435). Indeed.
I have three general issues on which I’d love to hear others’ thoughts. First, I wonder what everyone else thought about the “optimism” framing for these few chapters. Although these three chapters were assigned mostly assigned by chance and convenience, this grouping served a pretty gripping narrative arc: Joseph emerges from Liberty Jail ready to conquer the world anew, builds on that momentum to establish a city, and then laid the seeds for later conflict. After reading these three chapters I felt ready for an intermission followed by a second act. Biography is naturally a literary art, so this is to be expected, but it does raise questions concerning framing. Most importantly, rather than couching Smith’s actions as “optimistic,” what if we approached them the same way Bushman approached Bennett, Galland, and Douglas: “opportunistic”? Bushman is imminently charitable when dealing with Smith’s lack of a business acumen—or, to put it bluntly, his business ineptness—which naturally paints his actions in a very sympathetic hue. Smith’s inability to deal with real estate investors was rooted more in his misunderstanding of “the nineteenth-century rhetoric of financial obligations,” for instance (431). But what if these bold statements and puzzling decisions come from a position of anxiety rather than confidence, from more self-interest than communal empathy? This goes, of course, against Bushman’s statement in his introduction which explicity stated he was taking Smith at his word, but these countering ideas should be considered for a fuller understanding of this period and its events. Do you similarly see this as a pitfall of his approach, or a necessary byproduct?
Second, as much as I, someone interested in intellectual history, enjoy Bushman’s musings on Smith’s developing theology, I wish they were a bit more grounded in its social context. When talking about Smith’s materialism, Bushman notes how, “One senses in these teachings a concern about nothingness” (420), to which I want to scream in response, “Of course! They were just nearly annihalated in Missouri!” Bushman is so anxious to couch these new revelatory insights into a framework of human optimism and humanistic progression that he overlooks their connection to human tragedy. That is, he is so earnest to cultivate a platform for “Nauvoo Mormonism” that he overlooks their Missouri roots. This is typical in Mormon history—we are quite strict in our periodizations, after all—but I think that it ignores the social environment and cultural roots found in these teachings. Do you sense this is the case with most of Bushman’s treatment of theology—that it is rooted more in an attempt to capture Smith’s psyche than to explain social dynamics—or do you think he frames these discussions in appropriate cultural ways?
And finally, there’s the ever-present gender issue. Put simply, women, especially Emma, are mostly absent in these chapters. The evolving dynamics of Smith’s mind are more important than the domestic realities of Smith’s home. Emma is only present when Joseph is writing her letters explaining his disappointment in political failure; that is, she’s only useful as a conduit for his own internal angst. More, Smith’s religious thought is not connected to the other doctrinal development in the period: polygamy. When Bushman states, in the context of explaining Smith’s materialism, that “Joseph had little sense of flesh being base” (420), he overlooks the natural connection to Smith’s evolving sexual views. Polygamy is reserved for later chapters, I acknowledge, but limiting the topic to two brief sections (never more than a handful of pages) undersells how absolutely engrossing gendered matters were in Smith’s final years. Do you think it would have been possible to include these elements in these chapters, or am I grasping at straws?