Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Richard Lyman Bushman
768 pp., 34.18
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp
Who's That on the $50 Bill?
Joseph Smith, Jr., is suddenly everywhere. Two centuries after his birth in 1805, the first prophet of the Mormon faith is experiencing a renaissance of national publicity. The anniversary year just ending represented not only an opportunity for believers to resuscitate the scholarly respectability of their leader but also an economic boon for those who profit from the growing public thirst for things Mormon. Major university presses such as Oxford and Columbia published significant works in Mormon Studies, and venues from Claremont Graduate School on the West Coast to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., sponsored academic conferences highlighting the contributions of Smith's legacy to American history and the study of religion. Now Richard Lyman Bushman, a respected American historian and a believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has produced what must surely be regarded as the crowning achievement of this year of celebration and reflection: an exhaustively researched and beautifully written biography of Mormonism's enigmatic founder.
Bushman, equally at home within the university and the Mormon tabernacle, has three essential goals in this work. First, he seeks to explore faithfully the story of Joseph Smith's life. He attempts, in his words, "to think as Smith thought" in an effort to explain his actions and the development of the Mormon movement between 1820 and 1844. Second, Bushman strives to present an apologia to a secular (and most often hostile) world. Thus, he labors to convey the reasonableness, coherence, and historicity of Smith's doctrinal world. Finally, Bushman wants to legitimate Smith's importance beyond the Mormon world by situating him within a pantheon of American icons, as well as within broader intellectual currents of Western civilization. Bushman wants to make Joseph Smith more than Mormon.
Bushman clearly succeeds on the first front. He seeks the middle ground between a hagiographic portrait of Smith and an exposé of his more colorful exploits. The Smith that emerges here gets angry, sometimes impetuously and violently so. He agonizes over his family situation. He runs up debts and runs away from the law. But Bushman provides social and cultural context that renders many of the prophet's reactions understandable, if not always laudable. Bushman gamely tackles the most controversial elements of Smith's life: the early visions, the translation of the Book of Mormon, the failures of the community in Kirtland and in Missouri, and the intra-communal tensions surrounding the revelation on plural marriage. Believing Mormons, particularly those who regard the humanity of Smith in the face of revelatory bombardment as one of his more endearing attributes, will surely appreciate this sympathetic interpretation of his life.
From an academic perspective, however, Bushman's is a rosy rendering. In order to depict how Joseph Smith himself thought, Bushman has to make quite a few assumptions along the way. Almost invariably, he assumes that Joseph (unlike most mortals) had only the best motives and intentions. For example, when creditors begin to catch up with early church leaders in Kirtland after Smith had encouraged heavy investment in the church bank, Bushman chalks up the resulting turmoil to the leader's natural enthusiasm amidst the infectious climate of Western boosterism. While this may be true, it would also be useful to consider alternative explanationseven if they do not shed as flattering a light on the prophet. Bushman judges Smith by a different standard than his compatriotsespecially those who disagree with the young visionary. Smith's friend Sidney Rigdon is depicted as having a temperament that "ran to excess," and Smith's detractor Ezra Booth is "bitter and disillusioned." Conversely, when Smith lashes out at his critics, Bushman consistently provides a good reason: "He had to be tough. He was just a twenty-six-year-old, learning on the job."
Sometimes Bushman's favoritism is simply a matter of emphasis. When Smith is surrounded by angry and hostile people in his final days in Nauvoo, Bushman comments that Joseph "never thought of himself as a lawbreaker," despite the fact that Smith had just participated in the desecration of a printing press. To his credit, Bushman provides abundant evidence of divergent interpretations in his rich footnotes. But his account would have been more convincing if at times he had felt less a need to sympathize with Joseph and more a desire to illustrate the many points of friction in his life. In this sense, the "rough stone" has had its edges smoothed down.
Bushman's loyalties also lead him to inconsistent approaches to his textual sources. His readings of the early sources on Joseph's life, especially the biography penned by Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, are curiously flat. Bushman seems to take for granted that Mormon writers always say what they mean and mean what they say, with little regard for audience or subtleties of presentation. We are led to imagine that Smith's feelings, at many points, pour directly out of his heart and onto the page. The author's abundant references to the stories in the Book of Mormon as analogues for Smith's life (choices better suited to the reading expertise of his Mormon audience than to nonbelievers) are also presented with a critical innocence. "The Book thinks like the Bible," he notes, an odd notion that runs up against decades of literary critical thinking.
When we reach the rockier terrain of the controversy over plural marriage, however, Bushman switches into a more postmodern hermeneutical mode. In part, as he claims, this is because Smith's diary entries had slowed to a trickle between 1836 and 1838, his thoughts becoming correspondingly harder to track. When Bushman describes the scandal involving Fanny Alger, who would become Smith's first plural wife, Bushman notices "how differently the various parties understood events." Upon accusations of an indiscretion, Joseph did not deny having a relationship with the young woman but said he had not had sexual relations with her. Putting an optimistic spin on this evasion, the author notes that "presumably, [Smith] felt innocent because he had married Alger." He also notes that later writers who confirmed that a plural marriage had occurred "had strong reason to take sides."
None of this is to say that Bushman's is not an excellent study, well-researched and adroitly narrated. But it did leave me wondering whether it is even possible to write a biography of Joseph Smith, Jr., that is persuasive to both believers and nonbelievers. Bushman edges about as close to the divide as he possibly can. Given the history of bifurcated writing about the first Mormon prophet, that in itself is a remarkable achievement. I am surely as sympathetic a nonbeliever as they come. But I often found that Bushman, rather than finding an intellectual meeting point for the Mormon faithful and the children of the secular Enlightenment (if not the evangelical setbut that may be asking far too much), wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted both inspiration and rational discourse.
Nothing illuminates this intellectual divide more clearly than the treatment of Smith's agency. Bushman acknowledges this as a "rhetorical problem" in his introduction: Should he say that Joseph "imagined" all of his revelations, or that God revealed them to him? Did Smith translate the Book of Mormon, or did he write it? While Bushman is admirably cognizant of the differing audiences for this book, he chooses not to hedge the issue. Because, as he asserts, Joseph Smith felt himself to be guided by revelation, and Bushman is portraying this from Joseph's point of view, he does not issue disclaimers every time he describes a revelation.
This lack is not simply a rhetorical vexation. It reflects a yawning epistemological divide that has separated sacred history from its secular counterpart for over a century.1 Sacred historians look to the past to see evidence of divine agency in the world, in order to discern the patterns in God's activities. For such church histories, Smith's importance as a biographical subject is determined by his service as a vessel of divine communication. Conversely, secular historians may look to the past for moral edification, but they proceed generally from the assumption that persuasive interpretations should be based on observable and verifiable evidence. At best, they remain agnostic about the workings of God in history. In this rendering, Smith's revelations would need to be explained materially as a product of his cultural or physical environment.
Bushman argues for both perspectives. He credits Smith with having a "remarkable power to make religion" and a spiritual imagination akin to the mysticism of William Blake. Smith is portrayed as inventive and adaptable to his material environment when he utilizes and transforms Masonic rituals to serve higher purposes. He is given credit for founding an extraordinary religious organization. Yet at many other moments his personal agency vanishes, subsumed by the power of God revealing sacred purposes through the young prophet. In these moments, rituals are not invented but are disclosed, and human imagination has very little to do with it. The sections on Smith's experiments with plural marriage portray a Joseph who is completely ambushed byand anguished aboutthe demands that God makes of him to take more wives. He apparently has no say in it, nor any ability to inventively satisfy both Emma's insistence on monogamy and God's demands. Bushman would, I suspect, say that Smith was both a genius and divinely inspired, and was engaged in different revelatory modes from pure revelation to milder inspiration. But I see no evidence to support Bushman's distinctions.
Where Bushman does succeed beautifully is in his ability to articulate the appeal and coherence of Mormon cosmology and ecclesiology for the uninitiated. I'm not convinced that Joseph understood the totality of his teachings in as lucid a manner as Bushman describes them, since Bushman also says they came to Smith unsystematically, in scattered "flashes and bursts." But the author explicates clearly the intellectual and social appeal of the movement. Drawing on a number of excellent studies of early Mormonism and American culture in the early Republic, Bushman makes a strong case for the appeal of a family-based, priesthood-centered theology open to ongoing revelation. Despite the tendencies of anti-Mormons both then and now to make Mormon cosmology sound bizarre and even silly, Bushman persuasively connects Mormon beliefs to longstanding debates and issues in Christian theology. And he places the Mormons politically as well, noting the differences between their "kingdom talk" and the republican rhetoric of their neighbors. Many will take issue with Bushman's assertion that women occupy the most central and important role in the Mormon system, or his claim that the Book of Mormon is a transgressive text that champions the "native point of view." A number of these points sound more like 21st- century apologetics than illumination of Smith's 19th-century setting. But Bushman's interpretation is provocative and worth debating. Indeed, his book offers a much-needed corrective to the tendency to isolate the Mormon faith from its intellectual milieu.
And that brings us back to Bushman's final purpose: not merely to make Smith sympathetic to a wider audience, or to confirm the intellectual legitimacy of his thought, but to rewrite the national script, to carve out a place in the American story for Joseph Smith. Smith himself might find this ironic, given the treatment he and his followers received from the U.S. government. But for contemporary Mormons it is a vital concern. Believers relished the symbolism of a conference about their founder being held in the Library of Congress in May 2005, representing as it did a form of both intellectual and political arrival. In like manner, Bushman places Smith in the national center, juxtaposing him in these pages to luminaries such as John Winthrop, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
More intriguing still is the connection Bushman urges between the historical plight of African Americans and the history of Smith's Mormon community. Repeatedly, he invokes the specter of the oppressed slave as a moral analogue to the Mormon. Both are despised, and both are on the outside looking in. Comparing Joseph's rhetorical style to that of Frederick Douglass, Bushman points out that "neither slaves nor Mormons benefited from the nation's freedom." One might well question the ethical valence of the comparison. But if Bushman's bold effort is any indication, Mormons today may well write themselves into a more prominent and congenial place in the American story.
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The author of Religion and Society in Frontier California (Yale Univ. Press), she is currently completing a book project entitled African-American Communal Narratives: Religion, Race, and Memory in Nineteenth-Century America.
1. On the development of the "science" of history, see Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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