Sunday, January 18, 2009

One Year After The Paradigm Shift--"Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling"

*Just over one year ago I finished reading a landmark book that shifted my paradigm of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling is a book I recommend even more highly now than when I first finished reading it. For me it was a watershed in terms of more fully understanding Joseph and early Church history. In simple commemoration I'd like to re-post it here in full:

One thing that I've been doing recently is trying to see Latter-day Saints from the perspective of others. This has been an eye-opening experience. I've become a lot more sympathetic to those not of our faith, or at least more aware of how we may be portraying ourselves for better or for worse. The days are over that we can simply dismiss our quirkiness as being because we are a "peculiar people". We can do better than that to articulate our beliefs and to build bridges to others willing to venture into conversation about religion.

Here's a quote that's especially applicable now that it's somehow become a national pastime to disparage and/or criticize Mormons simply because one of them is running for President and it puts the Church in the spotlight:

“We may never become accustomed to untrue and unjust criticism of us but we ought not to be immobilized by it.”
-Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Something that has actually helped to "mobilize" me recently is to face some of those criticisms head on. I figure we ought to know more about our history (and doctrine for that matter) than our critics. Looking back on it now, reading Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman was a perfect platform on which to do this. For those who haven't read it yet, let me fill you in by quoting from a Times and Seasons blog that reviewed the book and then interviewed the author (who I happened to meet on his doorstep, but that's another story):

"Rough Stone Rolling is the definitive biography of Joseph Smith for this generation. Bushman does an able, if not artful, job of telling the prophet’s story. His reading of Joseph’s use of seer stones, of his troubled relationship with his financially unsuccessful father, of the Book of Mormon’s countercultural take on Native Americans, and of the changing place of women and blacks in unfolding LDS theology are gems. But Joseph Smith, in this book, is not a majestic, triumphant, haloed, barely-mortal dispensation head. He is, by Bushman’s portrait, a flawed man—one making many mistakes and subject to many weaknesses. His straightforward style might be a little jarring to those used to sanitized Church history, but this book is and will be the benchmark biography of the founding prophet for a long time." (

I happen to agree with this review, except for the word "troubled" to describe Joseph's relationship with his father. However, I could certainly use the word "troubled" to describe Joseph and Emma's relationship as a result of the murky plural marriage picture. That could very well be added into the review. I don't say this to dwell on controversial topics (although I'm certainly not afraid of them.) On the contrary, I invite questioning because out of questioning come answers, growth, and revelation. It can also prompt valuable discussion. And this book does just that. So I thought I'd share some thoughts I have about my experience with Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling, and how it has shifted my paradigm of Joseph Smith.

First off, here's where I now stand with my paradigm: Joseph was a man who did incredible things in his life. Some of the things he did bug me. Most of the things he did amaze me. This I know: Through it all, he was a prophet called to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ and build the foundation for God's kingdom in the last dispensation of the world. Perfection was never required to be a prophet. So while my testimony has never been stronger of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, I'm no longer under any false impression about Joseph Smith the man being nearly without fault, which is the impression that sometimes has been given in Sunday School or on those BYU-TV commercials trying to sell you something about "the Life and Times of the Prophet Joseph Smith." Nor does this take away from my testimony of the greatness of the restored gospel. In fact, I think it actually adds to it.

My testimony has never been linked to whether Joseph was impeccable or not. It's also certainly not linked to whether the Church is perfect, for it certainly isn't. My testimony is linked to the power of the Book of Mormon to bring me to Christ. Because the Book of Mormon brings me closer to my Lord, Savior, and Redeemer-Jesus Christ-I find value in it and the effort Joseph made to bring it about--imperfect man he was notwithstanding. He himself admitted that he had many rough edges. Such as loosing his temper or getting angry. I can relate to that. I like the image of a forceful prophet. I can see some of that in myself. So knowing the truth not only makes you free, but it gives you hope because you realize that the Lord still can make something great out of your life even if you're not presently the most "Christ-like" person.

I loved my experience reading this book because it is enlightening and it was right up my ally with a mixture of historical, biographical, and religious reading that still is causing me to ponder. I recommend it as excellent reading, at the least to join in the conversation. However, this isn't a book for those members of the Church that rely solely on a sanitized version of Church history. Nor is it for those who teach that Joseph and Emma had a model relationship, or for those who cling to the belief that Joseph Smith was almost "barely-mortal". His human mistakes and frailties come out. But I like that, because it helps me relate better to all people in history who also faced struggles and problems--just like us. We can learn from both the good and the bad, the majestic and the not so majestic.

Just because there are some uncomfortable aspects in our Latter-day Saint history (and there are) doesn't mean we shouldn't face up to them or pretend they're not there. Our critics certainly won't ignore them, and they won't allow you to plead ignorance either.

So even for that reason alone, I am grateful that I read Joseph Smith-Rough Stone Rolling. It was a great, unique, one-of-a-kind experience. I certainly now have more knowledge. And knowledge truly is empowering. I also have a deeper appreciation. But I didn't feel a sense of conclusion immediately after finishing the book. I felt like I needed to ask the author something. I wanted to know essentially: Where do I go from here? What do I make of some of the disturbing facts that I hadn't previously fit into my neat little paradigm? What should my new paradigm be now? Part of my answer came by the Spirit through teaching the Elders Quorum lesson one Sunday on The Prophet Joseph Smith out of the Spencer W. Kimball manual. That was a sacred experience that hit me at exactly the right time. The other part of my answer came when I stumbled upon the following question and answer that I'm now sharing with you because it's the very question I would have wanted to ask the author after I finished reading the book:

Question: "By way of prefacing the book you write: 'For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws. Covering up errors makes no sense in any case.' This is, obviously, not the approach of official, correlated Church history. What are the benefits and drawbacks of your approach—and what would you say to a Church member whose faith has been jarred by the disconnect between what s/he learned about Joseph Smith in Sunday School and what s/he learned from reading your book?

Answer: "I believe the disconnect can damage young Latter-day Saints who learn later in life they have not been given the whole story on Church history. They are tempted to doubt the credibility of their former teachers; what else are they hiding, the shocked young people want to know? On the other hand, are we obligated to talk about Joseph’s character defects in Sunday School class, or his thirty wives? That may defeat the purpose of Sunday School or Institute. I am hoping that a book like mine will help to introduce all aspects of Joseph’s life into common lore about the Prophet the way most people know he had a seerstone. These now disturbing facts will become one more thing you accept along with visitation of angels and gold plates. People will wonder, question, and eventually assimilate."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I'm also a huge fan of RSR and am actually rereading it right now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post on this interesting book. I picked up a copy when it first came out. Then, a family member gave me another copy for Christmas. However, when I went to read it, I was disappointed simply because it is a "cultural biography". Consequently, I have read very few pages since this approach did not seem to throw any new light on the Prophet's life.

In stark contrast, and I'm sure this is just because of my background and interests, I find great meaning in works such as The Words of Joseph Smith and the Joseph Smith Papers series.

I have found throughout the years that there are always bits and pieces of the Prophet's life that I didn't know before that help me see and appreciate this great man who was called to found the final and last dispensation of the gospel on the earth. As I've learned these things, my appreciation for him has only grown.

So, for me at least, while I appreciate the fact that there is an audience for RSR, I found it very difficult to read.

Unknown said...

John f, thanks for your comment. I'm finding it even more enjoyable the second time around.

Greg, give it a chance despite the title of "cultural biography". It most certainly sheds new light(s) on the Prophet's life, and also, like I mentioned, early Church history. Bushman is a master at adding context to Joseph's life experiences and work; even those things that most people feel familiar with already, as well as things that are lesser known yet very significant.

Like you, I too look forward to the "Joseph Smith Papers" series.

Anonymous said...

Hi Clean Cut,

Very good post on the book.

I've had many questions throughout my activity in the church and this book addressed many of them.

I would say that I too had a pardigm shift about the prophet and this book helped me feel o.k. for not having a view that the prophet was infallible. For years I haven't agreed with certain things about the prophet and I felt guilty for it. However, I can't deny what you testified about as well and that is that the Book of Mormon has indeed brought me closer to Jesus and for that alone I'm grateful to the prophet for.

Tom D said...

I too loved the book, though it is not perfect. For me it put a much more human face on the prophet and his family. I was particularly intrigued by his interpretation of Joseph Smith Senior's business failure and the impact of folk magic.

On the other hand Bushman bent over backward trying to be objective/scholarly. I don't think this worked very well. Joseph Smith and his divine mission as a prophet are very polarizing. I think everyone reading or writing about him must choose to believe Joseph or not. Bushman tried to straddle the fence as an academic. It was a valiant effort, but it seemed to reduce the spiritual impact of the book. I'd like to have a copy of the History of Joseph Smith By His Mother on the shelf next to it.

Faithful said...

The only time I myself have heard people talking about this book they say it made them not believe in the propher or the church, so it's good to hear a recommendation from someone who is strong and faithful. Now that I've heard it from you, I am definitely putting this book on my list of books to read. You may be hearing from me in the future if I have questions. You seem like a reliable source for help with church questions.

Clean Cut said...

Thanks for the comments, ya’ll. (I can say ya’ll cause I live in Texas). ☺ Ama, nice to see again.

Tom, I actually agree with you about how Richard Bushman “straddles the fence”. But I actually don’t fault him for this, precisely because Joseph is very polarizing in his own right. I wouldn’t want an author/biographer taking an extreme stance—leave it to the readers to decide for themselves. I think Bushman was very fair. But you’re right—the book is not so much “spiritual” (that wasn’t the aim) as it is “historical”. And while I enjoyed the biographies of Gordon B. Hinckley and Ezra Taft Benson (by Sheri Dew) immensely, or of Neal A. Maxwell (by Bruce C. Hafen), etc—there is a definite difference in Bushman’s approach.

I personally found it advantageous to be “told like it was” (although Bushman admits that pure objectivity is impossible) rather than merely reading the so called “faith promoting.” Bushman wouldn't have been taken seriously had he over-idealized Joseph Smith.

There is a wide variety of reactions depending on how much one already knows or has assimilated into their faith paradigm. Certain facts may cause some to question or test their faith at first, but I feel that ultimately my faith is much deeper and more grounded as a result of having read this book. I've "assimilated" my faith and the facts, and that's a very good thing.

Faithful Girl, I look forward to hearing from you in the future concerning your thoughts/questions as you read the book. I really enjoy discussing things with others and I’m sure it would be mutually beneficial. I hope I can live up to your judgment of being a “reliable source for help with church questions”. I most certainly strive to be faithful, and if I’m not helpful, I can always point you to several other fantastic sources that I personally have found beneficial. I’d love to re-read and discuss the book with others.

Clean Cut said...

Interesting comments at this post about reactions to the book: The Bushman Diaries

Seth R. said...

Thanks for the post. I've been feeling the Neal A. Maxwell quote keenly for some time now - but am happy to find he has put it to words so succinctly and effectively.

I very much feel that we, as a people have gotten in the bad habit of reflexively cringing away from the uncomfortable truth about our past.

Bushman's approach is a breath of fresh air.

Yeah, Joseph Smith did treasure-hunting and mysticism and maybe there is a freemasonry connection out there, etc, etc.

And we don't have to apologize for that stuff! These things we've been hiding from all these years are not the demons we thought they were. They just aren't a big deal. It's like being under threat all day, and suddenly discovering the gun was never loaded to begin with.

I'm tired of apologizing, in a world of messed-up people, for the quirks and oddities of my own people.

Clean Cut said...

Seth, I absolutely LOVE your comment. Amen to that.

To paraphrase Bushman himself, the quicker that "all aspects of Joseph’s life [are introduced] into common lore about the Prophet the way most people know he had a seerstone", etc., the quicker we can then realize that they're really not a big deal after all. As Bushman himself said, "these now disturbing facts will become one more thing you accept along with visitation of angels and gold plates. People will wonder, question, and eventually assimilate."

So here's to the assimilating! Indeed it's refreshing not to have to be apologizing. After all, in any religious tradition, if you go back far enough, you're bound to find some "odd" things, but that still doesn't change the "truth".

I always enjoy your perspective.