Ten years ago, Richard Bushman published Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling with Knopf. Bushman’s biography of Mormonism’s founder garnered widespread praise and provoked a number of conversations within the Mormon Studies community. Jan Shipps argued in the Journal of American History that Bushman’s biography represented a new chapter in the study of Mormonism. She wrote that Rough Stone Rolling is “a work of new American history that forces readers to recognize that religion is as much of our past as anything else.”[i] Through doing so, she argued that Mormon history would soon function be used as a lens to understand broader topics in American history and American religion rather than for exclusively Mormon purposes to Mormon audiences.[ii]
Shipps’ review appears to have been, well, prophetic. The past decade has witnessed an explosion of scholarship on Mormonism that historians and religious studies scholars must take seriously. Books by Spencer Fluhman, Patrick Mason, John Turner, Christine Talbot, the Joseph Smith Papers Project Team, Paul Reeve, Jared Farmer, Steve Taysom, Sam Brown, as well as many journal authors, have produced work useable in university classrooms.[iii]
However, Bushman, as a Bancroft Winner and long-held position in Columbia University’s History Department, is still the most recognizable name in the study of Mormonism. Whenever American religious historians discover that I study Mormonism, they almost always mention that they own a copy of Rough Stone Rolling. Most of them then confess to never having more than chapter or two from Bushman’s “cultural biography” of Mormonism’s founder.
To those interested in American religious history, American history, religious studies, and other related fields, but have never picked up the book, I have GREAT news for you. We at the Juvenile Instructor are hosting a summer book club, wherein our bloggers will summarize, offer critiques, and address questions that often arise from reading the book. To anyone who teaches Mormonism in their class, this is the opportunity to ask academics who have taught and addressed Mormonism in either university classrooms or more informal settings. The book is nearly 600 pages long and its first few chapters are perhaps the thickest to understand. This book club will help you get over the hump and read an award-winning biography of Mormonism’s founder. If you need to read ONE book on Mormon history, THIS is the one.
It’s pretty simple, really. We will read 2-3 chapters each week and post our summaries, perhaps some discussion points, and some questions of our own to spark other discussion. If you miss a week’s reading, the post will be there from the week before to summarize what you miss. You will also be able to read invaluable questions and answers in the comments sections—questions and answers that will help you better teach both Mormonism and American religious history more effectively. All that for the price of walking to your local library or book store!
Our first post will come Monday, May 11th. On that date, readers should have read the prologue and the first two chapters. In this short section, you will be introduced to the religious heritage of the Smith family and the historical context of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision.” Won’t you join us?
[i] Jan Shipps, “Richard Lyman Bushman, the Story of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, and the New Mormon History,” Journal of American History 94, no. 2 (September 2007): 516. Read the entire article, pages 498-516, as well as Bushman’s response, which immediately follows. Richard Lyman Bushman, “What’s New in Mormon History: A Response to Jan Shipps,” Journal of American History 94, no. 2 (September 2007): 517-521.
[ii] She also wrote that there would continue to be battles within Mormonism as to how and what should be said and how it should be said. Once more, Shipps was prophetic.
[iii] I apologize if I missed your favorite author—I’m sure I’ve left out far too many people. Please leave anyone I missed in the comments!