An Evangelical Review of “Rough Stone Rolling”

I recently finished reading “Rough Stone Rolling” most likely the most extensive biography of Joseph Smith. It joined “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” as the two biographies I completed last year. I don’t typically read biographies, but I enjoyed both. I don’t intend this to be a comprehensive review of “Rough Stone Rolling” as I’m sure that’s been done elsewhere much better than I could hope to accomplish. Instead this is just a passing glance at my impression of the book and Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith

I couldn’t help but feel the wild ride of Smith’s life. At times I wondered how he took a breath in between his travels, his legal issues, his persecutions, his parenting, his marriage(s) and his civic, religious, masonic and military leadership. He was never a business success and it’s easy to see why, I’m not sure when he found time to provide for his family.
Bluntly stated Smith has always been a charlatan in my eyes. But I couldn’t help but gain sympathy for him in the death of his children. As an adoptive parent I was touched by the death of his newborn twins and his adoption the next day of newborn twins whose mother passed away in child birth.
I also felt for him in the failure to obtain justice in Jackson County Missouri and then the continued difficulties in Far West. It’s clear that Smith and the Mormons made mistakes in Missouri but doubly clear that they were treated unjustly and without the protection of law. As the march back to Kirkland began I could sympathize with the disappointment and injustice of the defeat in Zion.
As far as the foundations of Mormonism I think my impressions of Joseph Smith can be summed up in this passage from the book:

According to the description, the temples would serve as a “houses of worship, schools, etc.” One can imagine a town hall, a courthouse, and a perhaps stores among the “temples,” much like the public buildings around the green in a New England town. But the names assigned to the temples do not support this simple reading. The temples were grouped into threes and assigned to priesthood “quorums,” the organizations of the various levels of priesthood. One group was to be called “House of the Lord for the presidency of the High and most holy priesthood after the order of Melchizadek, which was after the order of the Son of God.” . . . .(page 220)

After reading that I was really struck by the impression that Joseph was really making this stuff up as he went and doing his best to make everything sound as polished and regal as he could. With that, and the various councils and quorums formed in the Kirkland temple with overlapping leadership and responsibilities which lacked any obvious structure, I got the distinct impression that he was trying too hard. He really wanted to make something grand and give himself and everyone around him distinction.

It’s commonly pointed out that Smith grabbed religious inspiration wherever he could find it. I think just a strong a case can be made for his constant tinkering. I’m not sure how Smith would describe his communications from God, but they seemed loose enough for him to amend and revise at will. I recently heard John Larsen say that he’s not sure if there’s a smoking gun against Mormonism but if there is one it might be the differences between the “Book of Commandments” and “The Doctrine and Covenants.” I now see his point.

It has been obvious to me that the modern LDS church is not in the least bit patterned after the primitive Christian church, But now it’s obvious to me that it’s only loosely similar to the LDS church as it functioned during the life of Joseph Smith. A theme I think Bushman exposed was that Smith wasn’t out just to create a religion, but instead a society based on religion. It’s no wonder that the Nauvoo Bishopric is the more obvious choice to succeed Joseph Smith than the Quorum of the Twelve. Smith was out to build the City of God, not the Church of God. The persecutions of Mormons and the murder of Smith probably would have been avoided if Smith hadn’t been calling everyone to “come to Zion.”

Rough Stone Rolling

I was generally impressed with the work Bushman did in this biography. He pointed out discrepancies between the faith-promoting versions of Smith’s life and what the historical record actually shows. Many times he acknowledged where Smith was breaking the law or how he was evading it. Not something Mormon historians have been known to do in the past. Bushman found a way that made sense to weave in themes and tidbits that didn’t necessarily follow the overarching narrative and still keep the story moving.

I had heard Christopher Smith make the claim that Bushman does some apologetics work in the biography and I have to agree. Some of it was maddening. Probably what bothered me most were the times that Bushman chose to speculate. It’s totally fine with me if a historian has to speculate. But Bushman’s speculations always left out the more obvious and more secular perspective (namely that Smith was probably making it up in the moment). This frustrated me more than once particularly when the speculations were quite far reaching.

I also think it’s a must to read the footnotes endnotes at the end of every chapter. It might have been a good idea to read them at each notation, but there are so many it would have made the book quite difficult to read. I read all of the endnotes when I finished the book and it would have been much better to read them chapter by chapter. Some of the more juicy tidbits of Smith’s life are found in the endnotes and many of them help you understand how Bushman came to his perspective of the event.

I enjoyed the book and have a much richer understanding of Joseph Smith thanks to “Rough Stone Rolling”. If you’ve got the time and don’t mind carrying around a 1.75″ thick paperback book, I recommend it.


26 thoughts on “An Evangelical Review of “Rough Stone Rolling”

  1. A good review, Tim! I’m reading through RSR right now, and I have the same perspective of the book as a whole. Very impressive, very detailed, much more balanced than the more hagiographical bent that accompanies more popular LDS treatments of Joseph Smith (and understandably so), but still with an occasional apologetic bent that can get irritating when alternatives aren’t so much as considered. I’m hoping to sometime soon begin a chapter-by-chapter review/summary over at my blog. I’ll have to make sure to pay closer attention to the endnotes than I have been. When on earth will publishers learn to use footnotes instead?

  2. I’ll look forward to your chapter by chapter review. I could tell that to do a full review I needed to be taking notes, but had no capacity to do so.

    Your right about footnotes over endnotes.

  3. Tim, given what you know of me and my christian pilgrimage do you think I should read RSR or pass?Of course it would be nice to say I have it, but that in itself is not sufficient. I am having a major problem now with the sectariness of christian denominations. It seems to be so unnecessary in my view.

    in christian love

    jeff allen

    ps, I am so impressed that you read it. Bishop Holloway of Long beach 10th said I should read it. He has not but at least he was aware of it and I know one member whose father is a doctor that had read it.

  4. I’m planning to read “Rough Stone Rolling” and “Jonathan Edwards: A Life” by Marsden this year (should I add “Bonhoeffer” to my list, Tim?), but I won’t be carrying around any 1.75″ thick books due to my favorite toy: my Amazon Kindle. 🙂

  5. Interesting, Tim.
    I’m up to page 48 of the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, who as you probably know was one of the original twelve apostles.
    So far, the book has usually been hard to put down. Like Joseph, he also had an eventful and exciting life with persecutions and other hardships. He meets Joseph Smith now and then.
    The Foreword says he was imprisoned longer than Joseph, he crossed the plains to the Great Salt Lake Valley (can’t wait for that part!), and the polygamy he practiced was his undoing—stabbed to death by a wife’s ex. The Foreword also calls it one of the great classics of Mormon literature.
    It’s also well written.
    I was irritated during an early chapter by his defense of some Mormon falsehoods, but most of it so far has been an account of his travels, etc.

  6. Tim I think the irritation at the apologetics comes mainly from the fact that you operate from the foregone conclusion that Joseph Smith made the whole thing up.

    Bushman refuses to draw these conclusions. He claims to present Joseph Smith the way Joseph Smith saw himself – and how those around him saw him. That’s the story he claims to tell.

    He is not going to take the usual academic approach and claim that the miraculous was “made-up” simply because “miracles don’t happen.”

    That’s nothing more than begging the question.

  7. Except that there are times when he does present the skeptics perspective. Just not consistently and not about the most critcal events with open ended questions.

  8. >>He claims to present Joseph Smith the way Joseph Smith saw himself – and how those around him saw him. That’s the story he claims to tell.

    The problem is that believers and skeptics are as disagreed about how Joseph saw himself as they are about whether he was a true prophet or not. For example, did he knowingly make things up? Did he deliberately deceive and manipulate people? Did he pass a “prop” off as golden plates? Telling Joseph’s story “as he saw himself” still leaves one with the responsibility to answer such sticky questions.

  9. Tim (or Seth R., for that matter) — Have you read Fawn Brodie’s biography of Smith? If so, how would you compare the two books in how they claim to present what was going on in Smith’s head?

    I’ll comment more on the original post later today if I can get the work done I hope to get done.

  10. Christopher, no bio can be all things to all people.

    We’ve got more than enough writings out there baldly asserting that Joseph’s story was unbelievable (mostly through argument by mere assertion). There was very little need for a new one.

  11. Seth, in your opinion, what effect would it have had on the quality of RSR if, at certain controversial junctures (those at which non-LDS readers of the edition as it stands are likely to perceive Bushman’s treatment as apologetic in bent), Bushman had added at least a mention – without necessarily developing it further or altering his conclusions, but also without engaging in efforts to debunk it and leave the reader with no option but one conducive to LDS claims – of the possibility of more critical explanations?

  12. Cal, yeah, I absolutely love my Kindle. I would highly recommend one to anybody who does a lot of reading. You should poke around in the Kindle store first to see if the kind of books you are interested in are easy or hard to find there. Nothing disappoints me more than to find a book I really want to read isn’t available as an eBook.

  13. I think it would have distracted from the narrative to no particular purpose JB.

    Readers aren’t babies. They can figure this stuff out for themselves.

  14. If the goal was to write a biography without discussions that might for some ‘distract from the narrative’, then Bushman certainly failed. There were a number of instances in which he picked up a given issue for further evaluation. Do you really think it would have been so frightful if, on the instances in which he did so, he had so much as mentioned perspectives other than his own?

  15. Seth said:
    Readers aren’t babies. They can figure this stuff out for themselves.

    I think that’s exactly the point. A number of times his speculations were a huge distraction because I was left scratching my head and wondering “Really, those are the only two explanations you can come up with? Really?!?”

    No one made him speculate on Smith’s motivations. He could have chosen not speculate at all. It would have been nothing to say something like “critics took this event as an opportunity to call into question Joseph’s legitimacy.”

    Instead of acknowledging that an event was a challenge to Smith’s credibility I was left to wonder about Bushman’s. The book was a fine piece of historical scholarship. It could have been all things to all people with just a few more nods to the doubter thrown in here and there (specifically on key events).

    I have not read Brodie’s book, but Bushman gives her several positive acknowledgments.

  16. Hi Jeff,

    I think the book and its contents may be more frustrating to you than its worth. If you enjoy reading and have got the time for it I’d love to send it back to you. But if it’s a chore for you to read it I don’t think you would enjoy it at all. From our conversations I think you might be better off not dwelling on the short comings on Joseph Smith any more.

    Sorry to hear about your frustrations with sectarianism. We Protestants continue to pay the bill on our sin in that respect. We can certainly stand to be more charitable to one another. My advice is to find a community of believers who don’t behave like that. You might try “The Garden” in downtown LBC. They are a church plant from ROCKHARBOR and since we’re non-denominational we tend to be a little more open to various points of view.

  17. It has been obvious to me that the modern LDS church is not in the least bit patterned after the primitive Christian church, But now it’s obvious to me that it’s only loosely similar to the LDS church as it functioned during the life of Joseph Smith. A theme I think Bushman exposed was that Smith wasn’t out just to create a religion, but instead a society based on religion. It’s no wonder that the Nauvoo Bishopric is the more obvious choice to succeed Joseph Smith than the Quorum of the Twelve. Smith was out to build the City of God, not the Church of God.

    Some things along that line are what I got out of the book too.

    The time of Joseph Smith was a time of various social movements — and it’s no coincidence that he was a leader at around the same time and/or in the same region as various utopian movements, the start of spiritualism, key developments in the women’s suffrage movement, emancipation efforts and so on. I think he fancied himself as something of a social reformer more than the founder of a church per se. His platform for the brief time he was running for president is quite fascinating, and actually progressive in some ways for the times. There’s no telling what might have happened had he lived, and/or if there wasn’t the issue of polygamy to muddy the political and social waters.

    And I think that if somehow he were called to be president of the Church today, he’d be bored stiff and/or incredibly frustrated with the bureaucracy.

    Tim, you might enjoy reading Bushman’s short book “On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary.” He talks a bit about his approach to writing the book, what he might do differently if writing it again, and his surprise at the reaction to the book.

  18. Regarding the Brodie vs. Bushman question:

    I have read both books and was frankly shocked at how similar they are. Not shocked that two researchers would present similar stories of the same person, but that one got excommunicated while the other is held up as the paragon of “faithful scholarship.”

    Brodie is just a better writer, her prose is much more crisp and interesting. Bushman is a better historian, as his end notes show.

    As for their attitudes towards Mormons and Joseph Smith I would have to say that the books come off pretty equal. Neither book is hostile. In fact for the Missouri period Brodie paints both JS and the Mormons much more sympathetically than does Bushman. Vice-versa for other sections.

  19. For me the true weakness of the book is that Bushman is the least critical when 1) The evidence against Joseph Smith is the strongest and 2) When it would also do the most damage to the church. I can think of three specific examples.

    #1: The First Vision Account. Bushman inexplicably sticks with the official 1838 account as told in the LDS Pearl of Great Price. By all the canons of historical research he should have given much greater weight to the 1832 account penned by Joseph Smith himself. He also should have analyzed the differences between the four main first vision accounts. This is the equivalent of an historical Jesus scholar saying that the best way to learn about the historical Jesus is to just read Luke and skip the other 3 gospels. That scholar would be summarily dismissed as a total hack, and rightly so. From an apologetic standpoint this tactic is fine, from an historical standpoint it’s inexcusable.

    #2: The Book of Mormon. Bushman goes into some depth regarding the contents and some light apologetics for the veracity of the Book of Mormon. He basically follows the FARMS/NAMIRS line. By doing this he opens himself up to criticism that he should have gone over the myriad of evidences against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon (textual, anthropological, archaeological, historical, theological etc.). He should have either not gone into the contents of the Book of Mormon at all or he should have presented both sides. I think either approach would have been valid.

    #3: The Book or Abraham. The exact same problem as The Book of Mormon chapters. Though since I think the case against the authenticity of the Book of Abraham is even stronger (since we have the facsimiles and most likely the actual papyri). But, Bushman doesn’t go there. He should have either ignored the contents of the book (entirely valid since this is a biography and if he things that JS merely translated it, the actual contents should have no bearing on the life of JS) or presented both sides.

    It comes off looking like Bushman was much more interested in apologetics on these three crucial issues than he was in presenting the whole story.

  20. Whitmer and Harris get one paragraph each on how their versions of the events change over time on page 77 and then continuing to page 78. Harris’ account gets a little more circumspect over time (he didn’t see it with his physical eyes) while Whitmer’s gets more embellished over time (he says he saw the gold plates, the brass plates, the sword of Laban, the Liahona etc.).

    There is one thing that drives Mormons nuts about Brodie, she likes to psychologize. The flip side is that Bushman annoys ex and non Mormons through subtle apologetics and refusal to make conclusions. If you mentally filter out all of that, the books are remarkably similar.

  21. After reading that I was really struck by the impression that Joseph was really making this stuff up as he went and doing his best to make everything sound as polished and regal as he could.

    Ever read Exodus? How about Leviticus? Numbers? You must have concluded that Moses (or whomever) “was making this stuff up”. But then again, you probably jumped into the OT already assuming it was true.

  22. It wasn’t the outrageous claims as much as the internal inconsistencies and the superfluous language it was wrapped in.

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