Richard Bushman’s Reflection on RSR

By August 10, 2015

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.

Richard Bushman

Richard Bushman

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!

 

Installments:

  • 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
  • Part 9: Chapters 22-24
  • Part 10: Chapters 25-26
  • Part 11: Chapters 27-28
  • Part 12: Chapter 29 and Epilogue

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks, Dr. Bushman, for taking the time to respond to the roundtable and offer some reflections. Reading through Rough Stone Rolling this summer has reminded me what an incredible accomplishment it is. While I’m sure some future biographer will take up the subject of JS’s life anew someday, my impression is that your book will hold up quite well for the foreseeable future.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2015 @ 9:26 am

  2. That really is the case Christopher. In many ways it was a pretty significant turning point in LDS history in that it was a book that was taken as faithful and embraced by even so-called true blue Mormons but also taken seriously by non-Mormon academics. One thing we’ve not discussed enough is the influence both on readers and writers of LDS history. I think Bushman has to be considered to have a place of influence at least as significant as Arrington.

    Comment by Clark Goble — August 10, 2015 @ 9:33 am

  3. I agree. From what I understand, J.B. Haws is currently at work one a project that attempts to assess, among other things, Bushman’s impact on the field.

    Comment by Christopher — August 10, 2015 @ 9:41 am

  4. Thanks to Dr. Bushman! What a treat.

    I look forward to JB’s work on RSR and Bushman’s influence!

    Comment by J Stuart — August 10, 2015 @ 10:55 am

  5. Thanks for this, Professor Bushman.

    Comment by Max — August 10, 2015 @ 11:51 am

  6. Thanks for the warmth and candor here. It is the mark of both a gracious and wise historian (which RB is both, in spades) to welcome–expect–invite future revision. I’ve met enough ego-driven scholars to know that yours is certainly not the universal attitude in the field. It’s just refreshing that even someone who is such a senior scholar (RB: that’s an HONORARY TITLE not a comment on your actual age) remains so open to having his own work reconsidered and reinterpreted. What a cool drink of water.

    Speaking for myself I have really appreciated visiting RSR again this summer, and I found that I brought to it a very different sensibility than I did in 2005. And we’re so grateful you weighed in with your thoughts as we wrapped up our conversation!

    Comment by Tona H — August 10, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

  7. For me, Dr. Bushman’s treatment of Joseph Smith’s polygamy was not perfect — I would have liked a paragraph at least for each wife — but what book is perfect? Mine certainly aren’t. However, there was lots that was good and remarkable about Bushman’s treatment of Joseph’s polygamy. First of all, his book reached a wide audience of conservative Mormons that most Mormon history books don’t have. For many of these conservative Mormons with no background in sophisticated, “academic” (for lack of a better word) LDS history, RSR’s treatment of Joseph’s plural marriages was shocking and very difficult. I’ve talked to a number of conservative Mormons who’ve said that those polygamy sections were the most difficult part in the book by far. Second, RSR spent more time on Joseph Smith’s “polyandrous” marriages than I would have expected. Third, Bushman cited books by known liberals, such as myself and Dan Vogel, in his footnotes. So he pointed the readers to places where you can read more about problem areas in Joseph’s life. One of RSR’s great strengths is that it is in some ways a meeting place, a synthesis, of conservative and liberal. For example, though Dr. Bushman would completely disagree with Vogel’s presuppositions and conclusions, he sees value and validity in his writing and research.

    Comment by Todd Compton — August 11, 2015 @ 12:13 am

  8. Does anybody know what the gold plates volume is that Dr Bushman referred to?

    Comment by James — August 11, 2015 @ 1:37 am

  9. James – he’s working on a book about the gold plates as sort of “material culture in absentia”: that is, even without their physical presence, they have had a rich career both in the 19th century and in our own. See eg here: http://juvenileinstructor.org/jmh50-roundtable-bushman/

    Comment by Tona H — August 11, 2015 @ 3:21 am

  10. Todd, well said. I’d just add that a book doesn’t need to be all things to all people. Hopefully those introduced to a topic by Rough Stone Rolling then move to books dealing with those topics.

    Comment by Clark Goble — August 11, 2015 @ 9:53 am

  11. What a great post. Prof. Bushman’s thoughtful comments, and Todd Compton’s insightful response about the polygamy chapters. Kudos to JI!

    Comment by Hunter — August 11, 2015 @ 11:56 pm

  12. I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Bushman several times in various forums and media when RSR came out and he is every bit as gracious and forthcoming in conversation as he is here. I waited for RSR (or a book like it) my entire life. Of course, there is more to be said and Todd Compton’s comment is accurate. I encourage people to pick up his “On The Road With Joseph Smith”, Kofford Books, 2007. I’ve read it several times and especially appreciate his inner strength tempered by humility.

    I also want to thank JI for this reading experience, and especially all who posted and then the comments. I echo those who said they were rewarded anew by going back ten years later. Hopefully, we can do it again some time.

    Comment by Terry H — August 17, 2015 @ 3:59 pm


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