Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman
Joseph Smith is the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a member of the LDS church, I join with my fellow Mormon’s in revering Joseph as a Prophet and reverencing Joseph as a martyr. Now that I have read Richard Bushman’s detailed and scholarly “warts-and-all” masterwork on the life of Joseph, I feel like I know him now better than I did before and I can appreciate his accomplishments with a much more educated and understanding perspective.
Joseph’s accomplishments are well known to members of the LDS church. With less than two years of formal schooling and born into a poor New England farming family and zero social status, he founded a religion that was bigger than him. In the authors words: “In the fourteen years he headed [The Church], Joseph created a religious culture that survived his death, flourished in the most desolate regions of the United States, and continues to grow worldwide after more than a century and a half. In 1830 at the age of twenty-four, he published the Book of Mormon, the only person in American history to produce . . . . an entirely new revealed work to stand beside the traditional scriptures. He built cities and temples and gathered thousands of followers before he was killed at age thirty-eight.”
But, there is much that most members of The Church don’t know about Joseph, and the goal of Rough Stone Rolling is to allow interested persons the chance to learn all sides. The challenge in this has always been that Joseph was such a polarizing figure. Few of the surviving historical records come from unbiased sources. The mountains of data available including diaries, newspapers, notes of sermons, minutes of meetings, etc., where either written by people who loved Joseph and esteemed him as a Prophet or by people who hated Joseph and reviled him as a charlatan and a liar. How can you gain an accurate view of such an individual?
This is just what Bushman has tried to do. Bushman attempts to remove bias from the history, and when bias is unavoidable he is careful to ensure both pictures of Joseph are represented. In this way, Rough Stone Rolling paints a picture of Joseph the man. He was honest, faithful, deeply spiritual, and sincerely convinced he spoke for God as a modern Prophet. He was also indecisive, quick to take offense, paranoid, and prone to exaggeration. For me, the great lesson is that Joseph was just a regular guy, and he learned his role over time—not all at once.
I first came across Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling while perusing the library for interesting reads back in 2007. I was intrigued, so checked it out and started reading. The book was impressive, but I only made it through the first few chapters before the due date. It went back to the library. In 2010 I bought the eBook edition with the sincere intention of starting over and reading it through. Again I was impressed while reading but felt bogged down by its scholarly nature, so I set it aside for lighter reading. I resolved I would read through to the end one day, and kept the book in my mind—pulled in opposite directions by the desire to read because I wanted to know but not wanting to feel like I was reading a textbook. It took two more years for my literary interests to become broad enough to consider reading such an intellectual work “fun” . . . . But I’m thrilled to say that finally—5 years later—I have finished. I picked it up again 4 weeks ago, committed to see it through. In words that Joseph himself might have used, I feel like saying: “Halleluiah, it is done! My white whale can torment me no more.” (I know, I know. Moby Dick wasn’t published until the 1850’s. Just humor me, okay?)
Author Richard Bushman is an American Historian with a PhD from Harvard and taught at Harvard, BYU, Boston University, the University of Delaware, and Columbia University. With such an esteemed educational pedigree, you might imagine the kind of book he would write. Rough Stone Rolling occasionally feels like you are reading a text book and is full of quotes, facts, and the author’s scholarly interpretation of how the popular thinking, culture, politics, and religious climate of the time influenced Joseph, his experiences, and his decisions. For me, the book was simultaneously boring and extremely fascinating.
The book gets really “deep”—this is not light reading for a lazy afternoon. But I consider the knowledge I’ve gained and the perspective I now have personally valuable. I am very glad that I pushed through to the end. One note for eBook readers—the book actually ends at 69%. Everything after that is a detailed section of notes and works cited.
I recommend Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling to anyone interested in a better understanding of the life and person of Joseph Smith. 5 stars for the things I learned, 4 stares for being so scholarly and occasionally boring!