JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 4: Chapters 7-9

By June 1, 2015

This is the fourth 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.



Chapter 7, “The Kirtland Visionaries: January-June 1831”

Chapter 8, “Zion: July-December 1831” and Chapter 9, “The Burden of Zion: 1832”

This week, we will take a closer look at Bushman’s analysis of the early days of Mormonism in Kirtland, Ohio, the introduction of Missouri into the Mormon mindset, and the 1831-1832 travails of the Smith families. These chapters explore the ways in which Joseph Smith policed the boundaries of his religious authority–and how he adapted to the challenges of his church’s growth.

Rather than re-hash everything you have already read, I’d like to spend some time looking at the ways that Bushman engages with both Mormons and non-Mormons in Rough Stone Rolling. I’d like to call special attention to his treatment of the introduction of the “endowment from on high,” the Melchizidek priesthood. For Mormons, Bushman addresses the difficulty and necessity of “containing excesses” by several early converts when Joseph Smith’s “own revelatory powers excited the desire for spiritual gifts.” (151) He shows that Smith managed to assert himself as prophet while allowing others to use and display their own spiritual gits. He also suggests that Joseph Smith did not speak about the restoration of the “endowment from on high” (Melchizidek priesthood) for the same reasons that he did not generally speak about the First Vision. For his academic audience, Bushman situates the dispersal of priesthood authority into contemporary associations of priesthood with Roman Catholicism and Protestant anti-priestly tendencies of the Jacksonian Era.

Another example of the two-pronged approach to writing is the tarring and feathering of Joseph Smith in 1832 by a mob at least partially comprised of former Mormons. When addressing the mob violence, Bushman speaks to the personal tragedies in the Smith household including the death of a child, the humiliation of having to leave the Johnson home, and the ensuing rejection from the Whitney home. Latter-day Saints can read this section and empathize with a very human prophet who did the best he could while struggling to provide for his family. For those interested more broadly in American history, the Bancroft-winning author focuses on the politics of masculinity within the mob’s attack on the Mormon Prophet.



One artist’s rendering of the mob attack on Joseph Smith in 1832

Finally, in this week’s reading I also noticed that Bushman’s writing specifically addresses Fawn Brodie’s arguments in her groundbreaking 1945 treatment of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. (You can also read some thoughts from Ben P on Brodie and Bushman here.) Bushman specifically criticizes Brodie for writing that Smith named the higher priesthood after the little-known biblical figure “Melchizidel” after reading about him in a book (and thereby discounting Smith’s revelations as a source of Smith’s notion). He also addresses the unlikely assertion that an attempt at castrating the Mormon prophet during his tarring and feathering in 1832 came as a result of one of Smith’s earliest plural marriages. Through calling attention to the less charitable assertions and inaccuracies in Brodie’s book, he can simultaneously assure Mormon and non-Mormon readers that some of No Man Knows My History’s speculations are ill founded, or at least unlikely. Such an approach allows him to combat Brodie’s well-known views of Smith for both audiences. Bushman corrects Brodie for a believing audience that may have grown up with horror stories of the contents of No Man Knows My History. He also challenges Brodie’s historiographical views for an academic audience that generally relied on Brodie’s readable biography for six decades by 2005, when Rough Stone Rolling was published.

The two approaches aren’t necessarily at odds with one another. Readers from either audience undoubtedly benefit from each approach, although they may be interested in one approach much more than the other. In his (I believe) admirable desire to shoot straight down the middle and reach both audiences, Bushman may not reach either audience as well as he could if he had chosen to only speak to one group alone.


This week’s questions for discussion:

What are the positive and negative aspects of writing a history that appeals to multiple audiences?

How do you view Smith’s dispersal of priesthood authority? What do you make of this quote from page 175: “”In an inexplicable contradiction, Joseph was designated as the Lord’s prophet, and yet every man was to voice scripture, everyone to see God.” Does this read too much into Joseph Smith’s mind? (Readers may be interested in this paper of Bushman’s, on the “routinization” of Joseph Smith?s charismatic authority before his death.) 

Was it troubling to you that Bushman did not focus on the racialization of the outbursts of “spiritual gifts” in Kirtland? (Many of the enthusiastic participants in such events were pretending to be Lamanites [a term used by early Mormons for Native Americans].)

What has been your favorite part of the book so far?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Wow, I didn’t know a lot of people being charismatic were acting as Lamanites. Why on earth would they even conceive of doing that? I assumed it was just the same as the practice in other faiths at the time until the idea of the “language of Adam” picked up. (And even that isn’t *that* original) Any good references for that?

    As to the tension between individual, corporate, and “out of the wilderness prophetic” revelation my concern wasn’t that there was a contradiction. Maybe there’s a tension, but perhaps a healthy one. But I do worry he was reading too much of Joseph’s later ideas into this period.

    On the other hand there’s always the issue of the Book of Mormon. For the believer of course Joseph could be completely ignorant of the Book of Mormon so it’s ideas aren’t necessarily a guide to Joseph’s mind. For others that’s a harder distinction to make. And in the Book of Mormon seeing God seems emphasized a lot. Lehi and then Nephi & Jacob see him. Alma does. All that forms a context for the beatitudes given in 3 Nephi 12:8 where the pure in heart see God.

    Finally D&C 67 arises from this period and promises that people will see God. (vs 10-13) So while it’s not quite the place of Joseph’s later thought, I think the general idea is defensible. I just think we still have to be careful about reading later ideas into 1831. At best they’re vague in that year. And D&C 67 seems to deal with those tensions you mentioned.

    Comment by Clark — June 1, 2015 @ 8:49 pm

  2. Thanks, J. This is a very interesting part of the book and fundamental for understanding the next several years of JS and Mormonism. I have some issues with Bushman’s take on some of the 1831 happenings, which I won’t go into here, they’re mainly terminological, but that has significant downstream effects. I really think his point about the Nov. 1 revelation (DC 68) is very important, and in a sense it replays some of what happened on Sept. 1830 with Page-Cowdery. Trying to think about this for an Oxford book. It turns out to be fundamental to Mormon preaching and its status among believers. Anyway, I really like this project. Fun stuff!

    Comment by WVS — June 2, 2015 @ 12:49 am

  3. Clark: Thanks for the comments! I’m sitting in the airport right now, but I’ll add some sources in a later comment. I agree that the tension is probably a healthy one–at least Rodney Stark thinks some of that tension is good for new religious movements. Of course Stark was talking about tension with the culture, but I see tension between Smith and early Mormons as an impetus for growth.

    WVS, I’d love to hear more about your 1831 disagreements in person. I absolutely agree that we need to be more careful with our terminology and not use it anachronistically (Clark made a similar point as well).

    Comment by J Stuart — June 2, 2015 @ 4:09 am

  4. Thanks, Joey. Like WVS indicates, this was a foundational period for the development of the Zion project and, by implication, how Kirtland would fit into the emerging picture.

    It is noteworthy that Bushman didn’t do much with the racial elements of the Kirtland charismatic expressions. Perhaps this was because of the number of topics that he was balancing in the chapters, but it’s also possible that he didn’t have good secondary literature to guide him. Chris Smith’s MHA paper last year on this racialized performative aspects of the Kirtland visionaries (which as I understand it is a chapter from his dissertation) will help with this, I think.

    Comment by David G. — June 2, 2015 @ 9:29 am

  5. Good stuff, Joey. It’s interesting to consider the ways Bushman directly takes on Brodie, though that question seems so much less relevant to me now than it did 10 years ago when RSR was first published. NMKMH simply doesn’t seem as important as it did then, which probably speaks to what Bushman accomplished. It will be interesting to see what future biographies of JS look like, as they will largely be responding to Bushman instead of Brodie.

    Comment by Christopher — June 2, 2015 @ 11:01 am

  6. Relevant to Christopher’s point, in my dissertation (which my committee members called an intellectual biography of JS) I only used Brodie in a couple of historiographical footnotes. It was all about Bushman.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 2, 2015 @ 11:46 am

  7. David, is that paper available on the internet anywhere? I confess I’m always fascinated by Mormon spiritual engagement with Lamanites. Usually the folk tales I hear are Lamanite Warriors protecting someone. (Usually against some of “supernatural” foe) This idea of channeling them is very interesting to me.

    The whole trajectory of channeling within Mormonism is quite interesting to me. It’s easy to establish in the Godbeite era where you had an influx of converts bringing their spiritualist conceptions with them. I’m just not as aware of as much of this in the Joseph period beyond some weak claims (such as purported Kabbalistic interpretations of things like the spirit of Elijah to be more platonic conceptions of souls that participate platonically in many people – much like the form of hoarseness participates in any particular horse)

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

  8. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 7: Chapters 16-18 — June 22, 2015 @ 8:51 am

  9. […] Part 4: Chapters 7-9 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 8: Chapters 19-21 — July 6, 2015 @ 7:00 am


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