JI Summer Book Club: Richard Lyman Bushman?s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Prologue + Chapters 1-2)

By May 11, 2015

This post kicks off the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks from now through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings. We begin today with the Prologue, which sets the tone in several important respects for the rest of the book, and Chapters 1 (“The Joseph Smith Family: To 1816”) and 2 (“The First Visions: 1816-1827”). We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions.  


RSR ImageI first read Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) when it was first released in 2005. I was an undergraduate history major at the time, a recently-returned Mormon missionary, and an avid if novice and somewhat naïve student of Mormon history. Bushman’s biography was not my introduction to the scholarly study of Joseph Smith or Mormon history, but it still threw me for something of a loop, challenging many of the assumptions of my faith-promoting worldview. Nevertheless, I pushed through and finished the book. I next read it three years later, in a reading seminar in BYU’s now-defunct MA program in history. My familiarity with both Mormon and American religious history more broadly was deeper by then, and reading the book alongside both an experienced historian and several budding young scholars made the book both more familiar and yet so foreign from my initial reading. That a book reads differently to the same individual at different stages in her life is a truism of nearly all books, but it is especially true in reading Rough Stone Rolling.

I’ve referred back to RSR repeatedly in my own research in subsequent years, but this is the first time I’ve sat down to read the book cover to cover since 2008, and upon reading through the first several chapters over the last week or two, I was struck by a couple of things: First, Richard Bushman is incredibly underrated as a writer. The book’s prologue is a model of how to open a scholarly monograph or biography — the anecdote about Joseph Smith’s May 1844 meeting with Josiah Quincy, Jr. and Charles Francis Adams in Nauvoo grabs the reader’s attention and introduces readers to the man who, just over a month later, was killed by a mob while being held in Carthage Jail, approximately 20 miles southeast of Nauvoo. Perhaps more importantly, it points to one of the book’s recurring themes — the appeal of Joseph Smith to the thousands of individuals who joined the church he established, shaped both by the culture in which they were raised and lived and by the personality and prophetic claims of Smith himself. Bushman thus closes the prologue by nodding to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famed 1838 Harvard Divinity School address on “the need … of new revelation” and the glowing assessment of Mormon convert William Clayton (“an educated Englishman”), who spoke of the “abundance of proofs” offered by Joseph Smith’s ministry of the reality of the new revelation he offered (6).

Among the “thousands of … unsophisticated Christians, who longed for visions, visitations, inspired dreams, revelations, and every other outpouring of the Spirit”–those “seekers” who “were Joseph’s natural constituency” were Joseph Smith’s family, as well as the immediate generations of Smiths and Macks who preceded them (6). It is to that family that Bushman turns his attention in RSR’s first chapter, entitled appropriately “The Joseph Smith Family: To 1816.”

Bushman introduces readers, in successive order, to Solomon and Lydia Macks (JS’s maternal grandparents), Asael and Mary Smith (his paternal grandparents), and Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith (his parents). We learn of their character, their religious wanderings (all of them fit broadly under the umbrella of seekers), and their socioeconomic status (generally middling, though prone to the fluctuations of the often unstable early American economy and political landscape). The chapter closes with a nod to the Joseph and Lucy Smith family’s many migrations throughout New England and upstate New York, constantly in search of stability, socially, economically, and religiously. Many of the hallmarks of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism were thus presaged by the experiences of his parents and grandparents.

The next chapter (“The First Visions: 1816-27”) continues the narration of the Smith family’s migrations, bringing us to the vicinity of Sharon, Vermont,  where in December 1805, Joseph Smith, Jr. was born, and onto the village of Palmyra, New York, where JS spent most of his childhood. The search for stability and security continued throughout JS’s childhood and teenage years; even as the family finally slowed their migratory habits, their movement in and out of churches continued, even after their son Joseph began reporting visionary experiences of heavenly beings. Bushman skillfully guides readers through each of JS’s reported visions (and briefly discusses the contemporaneous visions of his father) and their several narrations in the years and decades to come, and does so without getting bogged down in tired pseudo-scholarly debates over either the visions’ timing or their reality. Significantly, Bushman notes that whatever controversy Smith’s first vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ caused in and around the community were “not because of the strangeness of Joseph’s story but because of its familiarity” (41). Evangelicals throughout the early American republic and beyond regularly reported seeing visions of heavenly beings, often times after a period of intense introspection sparked by religious revivals, just as Joseph’s were. Concern for forgiveness of one’s sins were often times tied to questions concerning which church one should join, just as Joseph’s were. But if JS initially “understood the experience in terms of the familiar” and framed it as a more or less standard evangelical conversion narrative, in came in time to become less about “personal forgiveness” and more about “the apostasy of the churches” (40).

Bushman’s central points are clear: each of the several recountings of JS’s first vision spoke to the time and place in which it was given. And the first vision was not, in either JS’s mind or of those in whom he confided, the most significant of his first visions. That honor belongs to his repeated encounters with an angelic being later identified as Moroni, which began three years after his encounter with God the Father and Jesus and continued until 1827, when the buried book of ancient writings of which the angel spoke were finally delivered to the now 21 year old Smith.If JS’s first vision of God was shaped by the evangelicalism in which he dabbled, the visions of a heavenly being by the name of Moroni that followed were informed by both the Smith family’s ever-insecure financial state and (relatedly) JS’s involvement in treasure seeking and seer stones. From the beginning, Moroni warned JS that the buried book of prophetic writings and other ancient relics that he spoke of were not to be used for temporal gain. Unlike his visionary conversion experience three years earlier, the visitations from Moroni that began in 1823 and continued through 1827 were decidedly material in nature.In contextualizing Smith’s practice of treasure seeking and digging, Bushman rightly points to both the widespread culture of folk magic in the area and the attendant politics of respectability that caused many, including Smith, to downplay their own very real involvement in it. Although “remnants of the magical culture stayed with [JS] to the end” (of his life?), Bushman maintains that “after 1823, [Smith] began to orient himself away from the treasure and toward translation” (51). On one of his final treasure hunting expeditions, Smith was introduced to Emma Hale, the daughter of a prosperous and respectable landowner who strongly disapproved of JS. The two eloped in January 1827. In an effort to repair relations with his in-laws, Smith promised Isaac Hale that he had no plans to continue any longer as a treasure seeker. If JS’s immediate family were the willing first converts their son and brother enticed with his tellings of angelic visitations and new revelations, his folk magic associates—including Josiah Stowell, for whom JS was working when he met Emma—were also attracted to the church and movement he would later launch.

If the politics of respectability and the pressures of marriage played a role in the gradual shift away from Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking background, so too did the delivery as last of the golden plates, which Moroni led Smith to and finally permitted him to take, in September 1827. In the coming months and years, JS would come to be consumed with the project of translation. It is to that project that Bushman turns his attention in Chapter 3 and 4, which we will discuss next week.

Some questions to get the conversation going this week:

?Bushman subtitles his book  “a cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder.” What does that mean? Does it accurately define Bushman’s approach to Smith?

?How does the experience of Joseph Smith’s parents and grandparents help contextualize JS’s own religious wanderings and the revelations he eventually produced?

?Do you find Bushman’s discussion of JS’s first visions satisfying? Does his explanation for the changing emphases of each recital make sense??What about his discussion of Smith’s involvement in treasure seeking?

Article filed under Announcements and Events Biography Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues Summer Book Club


  1. Thanks, Christopher. I’d love to discuss the third question you raise. Bushman writes about how JS’s treasure digging may have, in part, helped his family to accept what he was doing. I find this point fascinating. I’m sure it helped with his family, but it also shows that Smith was still very much figuring out how to “be” a prophet or religious leader. He did what he knew how to do. When he received the plates, he “translated” them using similar folksy means.

    At any rate, I think Bushman puts the reader into JS’s shoes quite well.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 11, 2015 @ 6:42 am

  2. Bushman subtitles his book ?a cultural biography of Mormonism?s founder.? What does that mean? Does it accurately define Bushman?s approach to Smith?

    I recall Bushman speaking at the 2005 JWHA conference, not long after RSR appeared, and discussing what he meant by “cultural biography.” Bushman invoked a tapestry, with threads stretching throughout the design. Writing a “cultural biography,” for Bushman, meant showing how JS fit within the broader tapestry of American history. What threads did he connect to? I think this week’s chapters demonstrate the value of that approach by showing how the Smith and Mack families fit within broader patterns of religious, economic, and geographic dislocation in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Comment by David G. — May 11, 2015 @ 7:08 am

  3. Nice write-up, Christopher. What do you think of Bushman’s argument about the emphasis on the apostasy in his treatment of the First Vision? It seems that JS really stressed the apostasy in his 1832 account: “by Searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith” etc. We used that in an article we wrote if I recall :).

    For your question about parents’ and grandparents’ influence, I argue in my dissertation for JS Sr. being really influential on JS’s religiosity. So I push that argument considerably further than Bushman does. (118-28, also I’d be interested in your thoughts on my treatment of the First Vision, 141-58).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 11, 2015 @ 8:50 am

  4. Setting aside the historicity of plates, when I learned that, as time went on, Joseph often dictated without even using the plates or the Urim and Thummim, I wondered, why even have the plates at all? Stuart’s comment in #1 spurs some thinking on the matter. What if Joseph Smith had not been poor and interested in treasure seeking? Would there have been a different, more meaningful object from which inspiration might spring?

    Comment by Joanne — May 11, 2015 @ 10:27 am

  5. Joanne, that is a really interesting question, and one that will be revisited when the Egyptian papyri show up in Kirtland, later on in RSR. Bushman will have more to say about JS’s process of translation, which was not “conventional” translation from another language in any sense.

    I’ll just second Christopher’s hurrah for Bushman’s preface as a model. I note that he used another book as his model, W. Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson (and now that makes me want to read that book). JS was hardly a “man of letters” in the way Johnson was, though, and it strikes me that Bushman’s biographical task was complicated not only by the war of opinions over JS the man, but also by the fact that JS’s written record is uneven – some of the records are in his own voice and by his own hand, but much of it is not, and that makes the work of a scholarly biographer that much more delicate.

    Bushman might himself contest the “cultural biography” label, since in the preface (p. xxi) he says that what is new in RSR is the attempt to grapple, even somewhat systematically, with JS’s religious thought, to take him seriously as a thinker. In that sense, Bushman’s project is more akin to intellectual history than cultural history. But I think he’s using “cultural” here simply as shorthand for “casting the net widely into the context of JS’s historical era,” as David G says above.

    Comment by Tona H — May 11, 2015 @ 10:49 am

  6. Thanks, guys.

    Joey: “it also shows that Smith was still very much figuring out how to ?be? a prophet or religious leader.”

    Right, and that becomes a recurring theme throughout the book, and also speaks, I think, to what Bushman means by “cultural biography.”

    Thanks, David. That makes sense and confirms what I suspected. I do wonder how framing it as a cultural biography speaks to/is received by its dual audiences (the Mormon community on the one hand and the scholarly on the other).

    Thanks, Steve. Bushman does note that concerns over Christian apostasy are present in all accounts of the FV, but maintains that “even twelve years after the event, the First Vision’s personal significance for him still overshadowed its place in the divine plan for restoring a church” (39), which I think is right. Moreover, Bushman makes clear that the two questions in JS’s mind–can I be forgiven for my sins and what church should I join–are intimately linked (a point I expanded on in my article on the first vision and Methodist conversion narratives). But any discussion of the event as a conversion experience is entirely gone in the 1838 narrative, and the twin themes of apostasy and restoration take over.

    Comment by Christopher — May 11, 2015 @ 10:55 am

  7. That’s a good hypothetical question, Joanne, though obviously not one we can answer definitively. My guess would be that the answer is “yes,” and hopefully we can return to that question (as Tona notes) in future installments of this series.

    Thanks, Tona. Really, really good thoughts concerning RSR as an intellectual versus cultural biography.

    Comment by Christopher — May 11, 2015 @ 10:58 am

  8. I’d argue that it’s a mistake to say that apostasy “took over,” as though it were somehow in tension with sinfulness. JS is happy to link the two in his 1832 account. Yes sinfulness is gone in 1839 but I’d argue that it isn’t because of the apostasy narrative. (Again, I’d be interested in your thoughts on how I lay this out).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 11, 2015 @ 11:25 am

  9. “Took over” is my summary of Bushman’s general point; those aren’t his words exactly. But it does seem obvious to me that as JS’s narrative of the first vision develops over time, it becomes less about personal forgiveness of sins and more about “the rise and progress of the Church of Latter day Saints,” which necessarily includes some nod to apostasy and restoration.

    I’ll admit both that I don’t have time right now to read your dissertation and that I’d prefer to keep comments focused on Bushman’s book. Can you briefly summarize what exactly you argue and how it builds on, diverges from, or otherwise relates to what Bushman lays out?

    Comment by Christopher — May 11, 2015 @ 11:42 am

  10. Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean that as an attempt at take over. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts when you do have time.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 11, 2015 @ 11:45 am

  11. Great opening post, Christopher. A few thoughts I had while re-reading these chapters this week:

    1. I was struck in the tone that Bushman strikes in the preface. When discussing why he doesn’t always use language like “Joseph Smith *purportedly* received a revelation,” he noted, “The most important [reason] is that Joseph Smith did not think that way…To get inside the movement, we have to think of Smith as the early Mormons thought of him and as he thought of himself—as a revelator” (xxi). This of course will raise a few eyebrows, as Bushman expected. Granted, there is a long and established tradition of invoking a phenemological approach like this, but it won’t satisfy all readers, especially those who conclude from the start that JS was a fraud. I think some may raise a legitimate critique that Bushman is making a pretty foundational assumption here that shapes the rest of his analysis; if one to assume there wasn’t a vision, there weren’t gold plates, the revelations weren’t divine, it would cast a very different picture of the Mormon prophet. To paraphrase how one distinguished academic once put it: repeating JS’s stories is all well and good, but at some point you need to stop hiding his discourse, put on your historian’s hat, and tell us, the readers, what really happened. I was once in a graduate student seminar where a student asked the instructor if s/he would assign RSR in a religious history class; s/he responed, “well, I guess I would to give the class a sense of how to write responsibly *from a believer’s perspective*.”

    There are plenty of responses to that criticism. But it is a serious methodological debate. And what I enjoyed about Bushman’s approach is he unapologetically presented a coherent framework in which to understand JS: “the book attempts to think as Smith thought and to reconstruct the beliefs of his followers as they understood them” (xxii). Too often, I think, historians try to reach too many sides of a debate and end up satisfying none of them. Whatever your critique is of Bushman’s approach—and I think there are legitimate critiques that can be raised even when granting the supposed reality of JS’s prophetic calling—you have to give him credit for choosing a frameworking, sophisticatedly sticking to it, and, as a result, presenting a much more coherent and consistent picture.

    2. Yet if RSR is to be praised for sticking to one particular approach, the preface also sets the tone for one of the book’s biggest issues: its failure to stick with an audience. I’d write more, but my fingers are tired for writing two overly-long paragraphs on point #1.

    3. I think Bushman’s background in colonial and early American farming culture, and its concomitant appeal to social respectibility, really shines through in reconstructing the Smith family’s history in New England and New York. Really top-notch stuff.

    Comment by Ben P — May 11, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

  12. The question of Joseph “needing” the plates if he wasn’t looking at them has been a recurring one lately. There is, however, another aspect that most people don’t appear to consider, namely, he couldn’t have translated *with* the plates in front of him any differently than *without* them.

    There were no grammars, lexicons, or chrestomathies of Middle (i.e. “Standard”) Egyptian or any other version of ancient Egyptian, let alone whatever language/script developed in the Book of Mormon. Champollion was just beginning to crack it.
    Staring at the plates, then, would have gotten him nowhere. In other words, even with the plates in front of him, he still would have been dependent upon, as he said “the spirit and power of God” as manifest through the “interpreters”/Urim&Thummim or seerstone/hat.

    Comment by Ben S — May 11, 2015 @ 1:10 pm

  13. I absolutely love the intro and prologue for the same reasons noted above.

    Near the end of chapter 2, Bushman discusses Joseph’s 1826 trial/hearing. Critics of Joseph Smith have long brought this up as evidence that he is a convicted fraud (e.g., Jon Krakauer in Under the Banner of Heaven). I found Bushman’s treatment of this very interesting, including his note that the legal definition of “disorderly person” included glass-looking for the purpose of finding treasure or valuables. I have several questions with regard to this trial/hearing for any who may know a little more about it:

    1. How much do we really know about this trial/hearing? Since no official legal records were kept for misdemeanors, it appears that all we have are surviving witness accounts. Of these surviving accounts, it seems like there are a lot of inconsistencies, including on very basic facts like what type of legal proceeding it was (trial? hearing?) and what the outcome was (convicted? acquitted? N/A?). Which accounts do you see as the most reliable?

    2. This appears to be a criminal trial, but it sounds like the complaint was filed by Josiah Stowell’s nephew. Is that correct? I find it interesting that his nephew is the one bringing the complaint. If this were a civil case, it doesn’t seem like he would have standing to bring the case before the court.

    3. Any knowledge on whether the Legal volumes of the JSP will shed any additional light on this event?

    Comment by JT — May 11, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

  14. By the way, I absolutely love this Summer Book Club idea. I first read RSR in 2005 when I was in law school. Much of what I read I was learning about for the first time. After a decade of learning considerably more about early church history, I find that I am getting so much more out of it as I am able to focus more on the details and nuances. In short, I am able to read it much more critically. Above all, I am finding it much more inspiring – perhaps as a product of not worrying about what new unknown detail would be revealed on the next page.

    Comment by JT — May 11, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

  15. The “Document Discovered” would be the best, if authentic, since it purports to be a transcript. That it jelled with the Bill of Costs in a number of ways suggests validity. The Purple account is a much later reminiscence, so the Document Discovered is much better. But I don’t have expertise on the technicalities you list (I use Owen Davies research on prosecution of the cunning-folk to situate the incident in my dissertation).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 11, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

  16. Gran contenido, sigue haciendolo de esta manera y cada vez llegará lo
    verá mas gente, como yo, que te he encontrado por internet y me has dejado impresionado =)

    Comment by masaje alicante — May 11, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

  17. Ben’s comment beat me to the punch about Bushman’s framing of his discussion– it is the crux of many a review and comment on the book. But even Daniel Howe used this tack in his magnum opus in discussing the Mormons, I think?

    I think this is a great project. I’m already looking forward to next year’s choice.

    Comment by WVS — May 11, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

  18. One of the things that stood out to me as I was reading this section was Bushman’s use of sources from 30 years later. I was surprised to see him mention the source problem only briefly and then use the sources as though they were a straightforward recollection of what had happened rather than a story that had been significantly influenced by what happened later. I always read Lucy’s reflections on her life and Joseph Smith’s history as arguments about the church, and I would have been uncomfortable using them to construct such a straightforward narrative like Bushman did.

    Comment by Amanda — May 11, 2015 @ 3:31 pm

  19. FYI: You incorrectly mention that JS was born in Palmyra, NY whereas it should be near Sharon, VT.

    Comment by Dallas — May 11, 2015 @ 5:17 pm

  20. Thanks, everyone, for the great comments. I hope to respond in more depth tomorrow, but just wanted to thank everyone who has commented thus far.

    And thanks, Dallas. I knew that. Brain fart. Now fixed.

    Comment by Christopher — May 11, 2015 @ 5:52 pm

  21. […] Juvenile Instructor Mormon history blog inaugurated a summer book club this week. The first title is Richard Bushman?s Rough Stone Rolling, a biography of Joseph […]

    Pingback by Mormon News, May 11?15 | Signature Books — May 15, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

  22. […] 3 Translation, 4 A New Bible (See part 1 here). […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 2: Chapters Three and Four — May 18, 2015 @ 7:29 am

  23. […] Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 4: Chapters 7-9 — June 1, 2015 @ 7:09 am

  24. […] ? Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2 ? Part 2: Chapters 3-4 ? Part 3: Chapters 5-6 ? Part 4: Chapters 7-9 ? Part 5: Chapters […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 6: Chapters 13-15 — June 15, 2015 @ 5:12 am

  25. […] ? Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2 ? Part 2: Chapters 3-4 ? Part 3: Chapters 5-6 ? Part 4: Chapters 7-9 ? Part 5: Chapters […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 7: Chapters 16-18 — June 22, 2015 @ 4:27 am


Recent Comments

wvs on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Looking forward to this. Thanks J.”

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”