We concluded the inaugural JI Summer Book Club last week. The author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Lyman Bushman, kindly agreed to reflect on the writing of RSR, its reception, and what he would change if he were to write the book again. His response is below.
I am pleased to know your group is working away at RSR. I am sure you will find many questions worth exploring. In my opinion you are preparing for the future. Sometime down the line another biography will be written, and your inquiries are finding the spaces where there is more to say and another perspective to be presented.
I was very fortunate in the timing of the publication. I was working toward the bicentennial year 2005, but that turned out to be less significant than the readiness of many members for a candid portrait. When the book was received so warmly I was at first complimented; people liked what I wrote. But then I realized I had struck a note in our culture that resonated. People wanted to hear the story in plain, everyday language rather than the sanctuary language we frequently use in Church.
Many Saints were stunned by book. Some told me they read for fifty pages and put it down. It was too much for them. They could not abide a plain Joseph Smith, stumbling along through life. They wanted a prophet worthy of the name. Others were thrilled that a prophet could be discerned in a plain, stumbling man. He became real rather than hallowed.
We are going through a sometimes painful transition from one view of our history to another. Those who want the plain facts sometimes find themselves at odds with people who prefer an exalted story. For a while the church felt it had to stick with the older version to protect traditional believers. Now church leaders have recognized that we have to be realistic and are incorporating that perspective into the Smith Papers and the CES curriculum. It is incredible how far we have come in the last ten years. RSR came along near the beginning of that change and benefited from the need many people felt.
How would I do it differently now? I would give more space to plural marriage. I thought if I gave two or three examples of Joseph’s courtships and marriages to other women it would stand in for the whole. Among that number I should have included is Helen Mar Kimball, the fourteen-year-old bride. My aim was to deal with all the controversial points, and I had underestimated how much that case troubled people. The same for Marinda Johnson Hyde, Orson Hyde’s wife, whom Joseph married while Orson was on a mission. I should also have said more about how the married women fared. How did it work to be married to two men at once? I did not want to rationalize plural marriage, but I did want to tell the story. These women certainly deserved more attention.
Perhaps also I would think through the early years more. In my rush to complete the manuscript on time, I pretty much carried over the text of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, save for the Book of Mormon chapter. Those early years deserved rethinking. As they stand I don’t think they are wrong. But I might see more if I worked through the material again. Some new views will see the light of day in my gold plates volume.
Thank you, Dr. Bushman!