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.
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.