Richard Bushman has written a fabulous book, and in so doing he tells us a great deal about the limits and possibilities of Mormon studies. The first thing that struck me about Bushman’s book was how it rather explicitly invites comparison with Fawn Brodie’s earlier biography. This is a good place, I think, from which to understand the book’s significance. Both biographies were published by Alfred A. Knopf (no accident that), and both take quotations from Joseph Smith as their titles. Brodie’s title, of course, comes from Joseph’s King Follet discourse. “No man knows my history,” calls up a vision of secret, unknown stories, and Brodie’s book very much traded on this expose narrative. Not only did she have a wealth of largely unpublicized sources gathered by Dale Morgan, she also offered to take us inside the mind of Joseph Smith, purporting to tell us his very thoughts and motivations.
Bushman’s title — “Rough Stone Rolling” — is an image that Joseph used to describe himself. Both the adjective and the verb are important. The year before Joseph’s murder, Brigham Young, picking up on the image, said:
This is the Case with Joseph Smith. He never professed to be a dressed smooth polished stone but was a rough out of the mountain & has been rolling among the rocks & trees & has not hurt him at all. But he will be as smooth & polished in the end as any other stone, while many that were so very poliched & smooth in the beginning get badly defaced and spoiled while they are rolling about.
In contrast to Brodie’s narrative of secret revelations, Bushman offers us a picture of a rough and human Joseph, but one who is nevertheless becoming smooth and polished. Hence, he offers “warts and all” history, but it is not embedded in Brodie’s implicit framework of expose. Bushman is not ripping aside the veil of tradition to show the real and unvarnished Joseph Smith. Rather, he shows the real and unvarnished Joseph Smith within a context that nevertheless grants to him the possibility of progress, refinement, and prophecy.
And to be sure, Bushman’s Joseph Smith has warts enough. Rough Stone Rolling goes through the story of Joseph Smith Sr.’s financial and personal failures, the Smith family involvement in folk magic, Joseph’s early money-digging adventures and trials, his suspicious in-laws, feuds and petty arguments in Kirtland, financial mismanagement, early accusations of adultery, Joseph’s (peripheral) involvement with Danites in Missouri, the secret introduction of polygamy, polyandry (i.e. marriage to women already married to other men), and all the rest. No doubt many will take issue with the way that Bushman interprets these events, but nothing is swept under the rug. The same is true of other issues in Church history. For example, Bushman offers a summer of 1830 date for the visit of Peter, James, and John, which would suggest that the organization of the Church on April 6, 1830 occurred without the Melchizedek priesthood. More importantly, he acknowledges that priesthood — as opposed to generalized authority — does not appear as a concept in contemporary sources until the Kirtland period and that there were no ordinations to the “high priesthood” until the summer of 1831.
What is interesting about Bushman’s history, however, is that there are basically no startling new revelations in it. One will search these pages in vain for evidence that Bushman has found some new document that reshapes our vision of early Mormon history. I don’t mean to suggest that Bushman has not done an impressive amount of research in original sources for this book, nor am I suggesting that he has not uncovered new information. However, it seems that with Bushman’s biography we can declare that the revelation and expose narrative in which Brodie implicitly placed her biography has run its course. Having reached its apotheosis in the work of Michael Quinn, which at times seems to be little more than a collection of obscure new sources interspersed with half-hearted commentary, the lets-find-a-startling-new-story brand of Mormon history seems to be well and truly dead. (If it was not killed by Hoffman two decades or more ago.) As no less an iconoclast that Will Bagley has stated, “There is no secret history of Mormonism to be written.”
The fact that there is no secret history of Mormonism to be written, however, does not mean that Mormon history is finished by any means. Within the community of the Saints, we have yet to appreciate fully what two or three generations of serious history hath wrought. I am hopeful that Bushman’s book, by replacing Brodie’s work as the biography of record, will in some sense “authorize” the Mormon mainstream to deal with its history in a way that writers mired in the expose narrative never could. Bushman’s work lacks the aura of iconoclasm and illicit knowledge that has too often served as a boundary maintaining device between the insiders of Mormon intellectualdom and the Mormon mainstream. Bushman’s book includes no manifesto of historical honesty or implicit or explicit attacks on the shameful white-washed history produced by correlation, etc. etc. He simply sets forth his story of Joseph in a sympathetic and straightforward manner. One can read his faith between the lines (more on this later), but he does not duck from telling stories that some might find uncomfortable. If, as I hope, Bushman’s book becomes a source untainted by the air of illicit knowledge that attached to Brodie’s work, then I think that a more realistic view of Joseph will work its way into mainstream Mormon consciousness, albeit one that maintains a commitment to his role as prophet in some literal and authoritative sense. All this, I think, would be for the better.
Unlike Brodie, who confidentially took her readers into Joseph’s mind, in Bushman’s biography Joseph frequently moves in obscurity. The sad truth is that for many aspects of Joseph’s life we simply have very few sources. For example, most people, I think, are unaware of the extent to which there simply aren’t that many contemporary sources about Joseph’s pre-1830 activities. We have whole years of his later life where there are only a handful of documents from his pen. Rather, as Bushman puts it, we frequently see Joseph only through the screen of other minds. One of the startling things about Bushman’s biography is the extent to which he is content to admit our ignorance of certain things and allow the narrative to focus on family or communal stories where Joseph becomes a bit player. (Bushman’s account of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri is a good example of this; Joseph flits through the action, but prior to his surrender to the authorities, he is not a major protagonist in the story.) To the extent that Bushman does try to recapture Joseph’s inner world, what he offers us — based on the sources — is Joseph’s personal religious life. What he shows is a Joseph who was deeply concerned about working out his own salvation and who was frequently anxious about his standing with God.
Those looking for a journey into Joseph’s inner thoughts will find Bushman’s biography a disappointment. What he offers in its place is context. One way of capturing this is to look at Bushman’s self-citation in the bibliography. Not only does he draw on his earlier works on Mormon history, but he also draws on The Refinement of America and From Puritan to Yankee, two books that he has written on American social history. In this sense, Bushman is very much a historian of his generation. A student and grad-student at mid-century, he was schooled by a discipline that was abandoning the various nineteenth-century certainties (e.g. progress, psychology, economic determinism, etc.) that had dominated historiography in the first half of the twentieth century. Rather, he came to professional consciousness at the time when history was turning instead to a less theoretically ambitious focus on social milieu and cultural context. Hence, we see Joseph’s squabbling in Kirtland against the background of an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “culture of honor” among the poor. We see the early trials of the Smith family against the social world of marginal farmers in the early republic. We see the conflicts in Missouri and Illinois against the background of extra-legal democratic violence in ante-bellum America. There are no grand causal narratives, only a detailed backdrop against which the story in its particularity unfolds.
What does this mean for the future study of Mormonism? Bushman’s work suggests that the future of lies in synthesis rather than discovery and expose. Regrettably, this probably means that the days of the amateur in Mormon studies are in retreat. Bushman’s work is great not simply because he is an expert in Mormon history, but also because he is an expert in something else, in this case the social history of the early republic. If, as Bagley suggests, there is no secret history left to tell, progress in our study of Mormonism will come by offering ideas about what it means as a historical and intellectual phenomenon. Those who wish to offer major contributions to the field are going to have to know something other than Mormon history. One will have to be an expert in Mormonism in addition to being an expert in something else, something that can be related to Mormonism. Increasingly, we will live in an intellectual world where showing connections and implications will become more important than documentary discovery.
I think that Bushman’s biography should legitimately emerge as the definitive study of Joseph Smith’s life, at least for a generation or two. I am less certain that it actually will. Frankly, I would be unsurprised if Brodie continues to be regarded by most non-Mormons as the definitive interpretation of Joseph. Despite the fact that Bushman’s work represents a much more impressive scholarly synthesis than Brodie’s and despite the fact that Bushman ties together 60 years of intervening research, he lacks what Brodie offers: A clean, clear naturalistic account of the founding stories of Mormonism. To be sure, Bushman offers us a compelling portrait of the visionary, millenarian, and restorationist context in which Joseph had his visions and brought the Book of Mormon to publication. However, Bushman’s narrative is “tainted” throughout by his belief. He is willing to let contemporary or near contemporary sources speak for themselves, even when they speak of angels and gold plates. He offers no meta-narrative of fraud (pious and otherwise) or delusion to render such stories safe for a secular present. In doing this he adheres scrupulously to historical canons, since the visionary stories he relates are firmly entrenched in what sparse contemporary and eye-witness accounts we have. But I suspect that for many non-believers Bushman’s approach will always seem unsatisfying and somehow unfair. They just know that things couldn’t have happened the way that Joseph and others described them and will regard Bushman’s willingness to end his narrative with contemporary stories as an illegitimate intellectual punt.
Ultimately, I think that this to is all for the good. Even if it is possible to have discussions that move beyond a simple prophet-fraud dichotomy when approaching Joseph Smith, I don’t think that it is possible to suppress completely the issue of belief and unbelief in how one tells Joseph’s story. Nor do I think that we would wish to. In this sense, no believing Latter-day Saint, in my opinion, can ever write a biography of the Prophet that is honest to his or her view of Joseph that will not be offensive in some sense to most non-Mormons. In the end, while I admire Bushman for producing a scholarly biography that presents Joseph warts and all to the believers, I admire him more for his willingness to offend the Gentiles.
Richard Bushman responds:
Nate Omanâ€™s acute observations about Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and his judgments about the state of Joseph Smith historiography won my assent from beginning to end. It is true, as he says near the beginning, no new documents surfaced to reveal hidden aspect of Josephâ€™s character, and it is likewise true, as he observes at the end, that a biography by a believer will inevitably be tainted. Robert Orsi, the immensely empathetic observer of twentieth-century Catholic devotion, with the same approach to Joseph Smith, could likely win over readers that I will never reach because my belief throws all my conclusions into question. The recent half-column New Yorker brief notice used one of its five sentences to note that “Bushman is both an emeritus professor of history at Columbia and a practicing Mormon, and his exhaustive biography carefully treads a path between reverence and objectivity.” The implication is that my reverence forever draws me away from objectivity, presumably tainting every judgment.
Oman also identifies one motivation for the book, a desire that “a more realistic view of Joseph will work its way into mainstream Mormon consciousness.” The “warts and all” image is one way to characterize what the book tries to accomplish. The so-called “warts,” however, do not have to be looked on as blemishes. A censorious spirit might think of them that way, but they could be seen as aspects of Josephâ€™s character. I like a rugged, sometimes fierce prophet, with depths of melancholy and even despair. Do those qualities have to be seen as “warts?” On the other hand, are his affection and immensely strong will to be listed as virtues or simply as other parts of the package? Whether flaws or characteristics, it is my desire to make the whole part of Mormon consciousness. We put ourselves in a precarious position if we propagate a view of Joseph Smith that conceals part of the man. When a young graduate of BYU learns for the first time about Josephâ€™s plural marriages or his temper, disillusion can set in. If all this was hidden from me in my religious courses, the graduate asks, can I trust what I have learned? To be credible we must be candid.
My discoveries about his characterâ€“new to me at any rateâ€“cause me to wonder why Oman thinks that the book does not take us into the mind of Joseph Smith. I thought I was explicating Josephâ€™s religious views far more extensively than Brodie and that I uncovered aspects of his character, such as his melancholy, that she scarcely touched upon. Omanâ€™s sense that Brodie purports to tell us about Josephâ€™s “very thoughts and motivations” presumes a particular view of the inner Joseph Smith. It may be Oman is looking for an explanation of the revelations: why Joseph Smith came to have visions or write the Book of Mormon. Brodie undertakes an answer; I do not. I donâ€™t have explanatory theories. I think it marvelous he claimed so much and cannot exactly say why he did.
The question of a naturalistic explanation of revelation probably will haunt us for a long time to come. To bring Joseph Smith into the modern world we must have a common-sense explanation of the gold plates. It is hard to imagine him being deluded into thinking he dug up gold plates and carted them around for two years, so he must have concocted a scheme for deluding his followers. What is the alternative? Actual gold plates? Out of the question in modern thinking. The delusion has to extend to the witnesses with their concrete testimonial to having seen the plates? Even empathetic outside observers have to balk at the plates. I think we can ask sympathetic general readers to grant the possibility of Joseph Smith sincerely believing he saw a vision of Christ and God; lots of people did. The plates and the remaining Book of Mormon are the sticking point. I elide the conflict by asking readers to go along with the early Mormon believers. Letâ€™s see what they thought about the plates and what resulted from their belief. Many will give me the benefit of the doubt while reading the book, but a reservation will remain: Joseph could not have had the plates and he probably therefore was a fraud from the beginning. In that deep sense, the book cannot satisfy them.
Would we have it otherwise? I donâ€™t think so. Our religion is based on a founding miracleâ€“like the incarnation or resurrection or parting of the Red Sea. Founding miracles are always the strongest evidence of Godâ€™s intervention in human affairs and at the same time the greatest evidence of prophetic deception. Miracles define the line between belief and unbelief. Crossing that line is what makes us Mormons. We donâ€™t necessarily want the difficulty of belief to diminish, or to offer halfway points where you can accept the plates without actually believing. Allowing for compromises would diminish the force of the founding miracle.
The consequence, however, is the impossibility of a believer writing a biography of Joseph Smith that will ultimately satisfy non-believers. They may be taught to appreciate his achievements and understand him as a man. Readers will get a sense of what led people to believe in Joseph. They may come to admire the Prophet. But they will always entertain reservations. Nate Oman understands this dilemma and the price that must be paid.
A question for the blog is how to work around this central conundrum. How can we use Mormon thought to explore cultural issues and propose resolutions of our social problems without forcing non-believers to stumble over our founding miracle? Can we purvey the fruits of Mormonism without forcing non-Mormons to confront the roots?
A quick response to Bushman: What I meant by not showing Joseph’s inner thoughts, etc. is that it seems to me that RSR doesn’t offer use a pyschological portrait of the prophet, not only in terms of his “motivation” for recieving revelations, but also the pyschology of his non-revelatory action. It seems to me that the notion of character is somewhat different than the notion of pyschology. Character is never matter only of the internal mental activity of a person, but is in many ways a set of generalizations about the nature of their external behavior. I agree, however, that RSR does much, much more to illuminate Joseph’s religious thought and his personal devotional life than do previous biographies. My point, however, is that what it does not offer is a psychology of prophethood or even simply a pyschology of Joseph himself. I am, on the whole, very skeptical of psychology, so this is hardly a demerit in my book.
This is an excellent review.
I am most interested in what impact this book will have among the saints. I wonder how many will read it? I notice its Amazon rank is a healthy 816. The Deseret Book website has it listed on the Bestseller page, but doesn’t seem to be promoting it at all on any other pages…perhaps they only promote their own publications. I wonder what kind of visibility the book has at retail outlets in Utah? How many people will be getting this for Christmas? Perhaps the Joseph Smith aniversary will bring additional buzz. I doubt that it will have the kind of readership that the traditional “church president biography/hagiography” gets, but if even a couple of people per ward read it, I think it could have a profound impact on how the members see Joseph Smith.
I think I have read only two or three Dialogue articles in my life, and as it so happens I’m pretty sure one of them was an article by Bushman in the 70’s about history needing to be reinterpreted in every generation. I think the idea was that writing history was not so much about attempting to objectively recover the factual past as about unfolding the past and telling a story comprehensible to each generation.
So while I don’t dispute that there may not be anything really new forthcoming in primary sources (see however this past exuberant comment of mine on a previous post of Nate’s in which he touched on this same theme), in the spirit of that Dialogue article (or at least my memory of it), I think the end of the ‘document discovery’ era is the only limitation we should imagine RSR making on interpretations of Joseph Smith. The perception ‘there is nothing new’ is not only about facts, but about style and mode of interpretation. It seems ‘nothing is new’ because RSR represents the full flowering of Bushman’s particular interpretive and expository approach, one that was groundbreaking in 1984’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, but which is now familiar (at least to some)â€”and one we would not expect the same individual to dramatically transcend in a later work that may represent the capstone of a career (apologies, Brother Bushman, if it sounds like I’m writing a premature epitaph!). As for succeeding scholars, however, who is to say?
(I don’t think this is necessarily inconsistent with what Nate is sayingâ€”perhaps to some extent I am responding more to what I perceive as a mildly pessimistic tone in Nate’s exposition as opposed to the stripped-down logic of his argument.)
Change of subject: When I visited BYU in September, RSR was featured in a prominent, separate display in the bookstore. To the extent BYU represents mainstream Mormon consciousness (debatable?), perhaps this is an omen it may succeed in penetrating that consciousness. Perhaps a stronger omen might be to see how glossy Deseret Book catalogs treat it. (I can’t remember if it’s in the glossy Christmas catalog. I kind of think it wasn’t, because I remember commenting to my wife that there were only two things in the catalog I was interested in reading, and I’m pretty sure RSR wasn’t one of them. But that could be because I had already purchased and started reading my copy.)
“The so-called â€œwarts,â€? however, do not have to be looked on as blemishes. A censorious spirit might think of them that way, but they could be seen as aspects of Josephâ€™s character. I like a rugged, sometimes fierce prophet, with depths of melancholy and even despair.”
“I hope these descriptions will help us expand our ideas of prophetic character. We are so wedded to the nineteenth-century idea of the feminine Christ, soft, gentle, forgiving, that we lose track of the more fractious and demanding prophets of the Old Testament. I rather like the idea of a rugged prophet with sharp edges and fierce reactions.” (from previouse thread)
These comment from Bushman force me to imagine how ideas from this book could be assimilated into mainstream mormon thought. In other words, can you really imagine a 3-hour block where we speak comfortably about these non-traditional aspects of the prophet? I think this is a real tension in the church where we actively promote the virtues of the B-school polished Brethren of today. Joseph’s occult connections and sexual history seem antithetical to the prophetic virtues of our time. Do people have any thought’s about this? I think we will be forced to deal with it in some way as Bushman’s book inevitably reaches the minds of maintstream mormons.
“â€œThe so-called â€œwarts,â€? however, do not have to be looked on as blemishes. A censorious spirit might think of them that way, but they could be seen as aspects of Josephâ€™s character. I like a rugged, sometimes fierce prophet, with depths of melancholy and even despair.â€?
â€œI hope these descriptions will help us expand our ideas of prophetic character. We are so wedded to the nineteenth-century idea of the feminine Christ, soft, gentle, forgiving, that we lose track of the more fractious and demanding prophets of the Old Testament. I rather like the idea of a rugged prophet with sharp edges and fierce reactions.””
This is what I was trying to get at in Jim Faulconer’s thread on Meanness. I think for cultural reasons we have a bone-deep loathing of violence, anger, conflict, etc. that makes it hard for us to understand certain aspects of divine and prophetic character. Holiness is legion.
I agree with Nate that Bushman’s book is a welcome update to Brodie’s biography, which I still rather like, if only for its creative energy and unflagging belief in the mysterious world of the “Vienna delegation” (Nabokov’s snide epithet for freud-influenced psychology). I read and enjoyed RSR and have been glad to begin to cite it in footnotes in my own work rather than Brodie or periodicals.
I agree with Bushman’s perception that the idea of warts requires an unsupportable dichotomy, and that seeing Joseph as a whole human is a wonderful development.
On Bushman’s final question, whether believing/practicing (I know there’s a whole conversation on those word choices here, but I’d rather bracket it) Mormons can write history that will be of interest to outsiders, I think the answer is yes, but with some qualifications. Many religions have founding or ongoing miracles that will strain the credulity of outsiders, but I think many of us have read compelling treatments of different religions that were written sympathetically. Anthropology seems to me forever based on the tension between the beliefs of the student and the beliefs of the observer–neutrality, while a useful tool, is itself an approach to the questions of belief. I believe this tension has let to some important insights in anthropology.
Does my belief that Bera funeral rites are not truly attended by malign spirits, that cattle wrestling probably does not impart a mystic spiritual vitality to the humans engaged therein affect my empathy for the problems that the Bera are attempting to solve with them? Does it make them less compelling examples of the human quest for understanding of eternal mysteries? I don’t think so. (This is just the most accessible example from Metcalf and Huntington’s excellent overview of funerary rites; I have no particular knowledge of Bera society.)
My work on death in early Mormonism has led me in directions that I think will be of interest to faithful and non-faithful, Mormon and Gentile, precisely because I am exploring Mormon responses to universal human experiences. This is where I think Bushman’s problem can be solved. Not in works that attempt to decide the validity of foundational events, but in actually, in great detail, exploring the impact that belief in those foundational events had on Mormon responses to important human problems. In a sense, I mean Mormon solutions to the problems present in other religions. How does marriage affect the believer? Parenthood? Death and bereavement? The complex tension between individual and community, obligations and freedoms?
This type of work, by consciously bracketing the question of veracity, may ultimately feel somewhat strange to a Mormon reader. It is possible that some will feel that by bracketing those questions we would be denigrating their significance, that by focusing on the influence of Mormonism on the social and religious experiences of its adherents that we would be diluting the authority or power of the institutional church. But by taking this approach, I think we open ourselves up to understanding our own experience of Mormonism more clearly, and I think we allow ourselves to have the kinds of inter-religious experiences that I believe ought to represent true religious diversity (I’m reminded of some talks by Chaim Potok in the 1990s about sharing of deep spiritual convictions across ethnic/formal-religious boundaries.)
I believe there will always be a place for hashing out the details of the foundational events, and I will continue to read them avidly. But those treatments will remain deeply partisan, I think of necessity. But explorations of the experience of religion, of the strategies, philosophies, and communalizing aspects of a defined religious faith I believe can be deeply meaningful for both believers and non-believers.
And this is the area where there is still a great deal of room in Mormon Studies, speaking to Nate’s argument that the hunt for documents is largely over. We have almost tedious details about the mechanics of polygamy and its coverup, but we have less sense of the Mormon experience of love and devotion, the mechanics of marital intimacy (while I’m not squeamish about the topic, I don’t actually intend mechanics of sex here), the experience of parenthood and childhood in Mormonism.
We have hashed out the succession crisis near endlessly but we have written less about the dynamic tension between family and church identity, the manner in which a Smith dynasty may have been experienced in Nauvoo, the nostalgia (if it was present) for the coherence of that foundational family, decimated by the murders of Hyrum and Joseph.
And as for magic, though I think Bushman provides an excellent contextualization, we still seem to be locked to a large extent in the fight with institutional Christianity about the legitimacy of early Mormonism, but we have done less work in the interpretive framework of magic, still using the language of Leventhal and Thomas and Taylor and distracted by Quinn’s endless trivia(lizing). I am finding this magic worldview richly productive in my own current work.
I realize that this type of work ends up sounding interdisciplinary and vaguely like so-called Cultural Studies, but I think this is likely to be a richly productive area for people interested in understanding Mormonism and the Mormon Experience.
Thanks for the review and the reply. Both were very interesting. Ed, Costco has been hauling in big old pallettes of the book for a while now in Orem. And what could be better for sales in Utah than a spot at Costco? I guess I should check Walmart…
“…he lacks what Brodie offers: A clean, clear naturalistic account of the founding stories of Mormonism. To be sure, Bushman offers us a compelling portrait of the visionary, millenarian, and restorationist context in which Joseph had his visions and brought the Book of Mormon to publication. However, Bushmanâ€™s narrative is ‘tainted’ throughout by his belief.”
No one ever offers this critique of Brodie, though, and I think she would be at least as likely to be tainted in her analysis as would Bushman–or any other believing historian. Surely her feelings towards the church make her interpretation of the facts surrounding Smith’s life as suspect as Bushman’s beliefs allegedly do.
Right, Brother Jimbob. I think Nate’s point is that most people have Brodie’s attitude, so they are a lot less likely to adopt a book like Bushman’s that has an attitude alien to their own.
Adam (#5): An interesting point. Do you think Joseph’s sexual behavior could be added to your list of presently culturally proscribed but authentically prophetic and divine traits? (This is a serious question, not at all intended as snark or entrapment.)
I already bought it for myself for Christmas and look forward to reading it.
Wow, great review and response. My copy of RSR is wrapped under the Christmas tree, so I’m going to be late to this party, but I appreciate getting this advance taste.
A general point: Sexual acts are not a trait. They are the result of a trait. Accepting that a trait is part of the divine character is not the same as accepting all acts that result from that trait as divine. Why? because divinity is the wholeness and harmony of many traits that have reached their culmination.
But I do agree that certain kinds of earthy lustiness are culturally uncomfortable for us but might, nonetheless, be authentically divine traits.
We are uncomfortable with it, and with anger, because when vesseled in earthly flesh they are extremely likely to spill over into wickedness. Our frames aren’t enough to contain them if we celebrate them.
Thanks for this excellent installment. Richard, this book is already having a profound effect in my Ward/Stake. I have loned my copy to several people (including some of the more “mature members” and the responses have been quite interesting. I canonly speculate how wide consumption of this material will effect correlation.
“A question for the blog is how to work around this central conundrum. How can we use Mormon thought to explore cultural issues and propose resolutions of our social problems without forcing non-believers to stumble over our founding miracle? Can we purvey the fruits of Mormonism without forcing non-Mormons to confront the roots? ”
I think not. Isn’t the C.S. Lewis approach best here — that the fantasy just happens to be true? When God actually reveals his hand, miracles result. And not the kind of daily miracles that we have co-opted into the lexicon. These miracles are fantastic and superhuman. To be a Christian, you must believe in grand miracles. To be a Mormon, you must believe in grand miracles. In studying Christianity of any sort, and Mormonism in particular, one must acknowledge that foundation.
Nate, nothing substantive to say other than to thank you for the insightful and thought-provoking review. It has changed the way I am reading the book.
I’ve enjoyed all the attension this book is recieving. I’m wondering how the book is being reviewed in general- I read a negative review in the SL Tribune, and a positive review from Foriegn Affairs, a so-so from kirkus, and a positive review from a paper in florida and the Deseret News. All of the more orthodox LDS sites and reviewers are pretty positive. They seem to be trying by there will allone to have this replace Brodie’s work. Ejoyed the review here.
Also wanted to say thanks to the author for using his time and intellect on Jospeh smith’s life. The book means a lot to me and my friends who have read it.
sam: I think that there is a lot of truth to what you say, particularlly with respect to magic. I do think that there is value in pursuing additional documentary research in Mormon history. (There is almost always value in having additional documents!) My point is that those who are waiting for the next big revelation about Joseph and the founding of Mormonism — “I know about polyandry now. What is next?” — will likely wait in vain. In a sense, I think that this lingering thirst for new hidden histories is a kind of intellectual laziness. Synthesis and interpretation requires, in my view, a lot more intellectual heavy lifting.
I don’t doubt that Mormons can and should write on Mormonism in ways that are of interest and use to non-Mormons. I certainly don’t think that the non-Mormon world is unremittingly hostile to Mormon perspectives or to studying Mormon experience. My point, however, is that from time to time Mormon scholars will always be faced with the challenge that their belief taints their work. This is most powerfully illustrated in histories of founding events, but I suspect that it is likely to pop up elsewhere as well. I think that we make a grave mistake if we regard the existence of such accusations and lingering suspicion toward Mormons talking about Mormonism as a sign of failure. This doesn’t mean that Mormon writers and scholars should be insensitive to criticisms of bias, etc. However, I think that all such charges ought to engaged at the level of specifics, rather than as generalities. At the level of generalities, I think that this is simply the price to be paid by believing/practicing Mormons who wish to write academically about Mormonism. You will never convince the Kucklicks or McMurtry’s of the world, and one ought not to worry too much about this fact.
I have a thought, then a question:
1) I find the New Yorker’s comment (which Busman cites) telling. I am often amused at the ease with which many modern scholars accept the assumption that belief constitutes bias. The notion that unbelief is a prerequisite for, or even an equivalent to, objectivity is startling; yet most modern historians and scientists accept it as self-evident. I would hope that Bushman’s fellow historians would have the intellectual maturity to acknowledge that, after extensive research, Bushman has reached a valid conclusion when he continues to believe in the Prophet. Indeed, I would hope some of them would even have the intellectual humility to admit that he may be right.
Of course, this becomes very complicated because, as Elder Holland has pointed out, Joseph forces everyone who learns about him to make a life-defining decision. Those who decide in the negative (among them, most academics), are still deciding. In order to justify their decision, they must assure themselves the story is a hoax. Thus, in a sense, everyone who does not believe has a vested interest in the outcome, just as does Bushman (or Brodie, for that matter).
2) While I am also anxious for this knowledge to percolate into the mainstream Mormon consciousness, how do we promote this dissemination? If you were suddenly put in charge of the Sunday School, would you teach the seer stone along with the “no alcohol during surgery” story? Would you put polygamy and polyandry up their with consecration and martyrdom. What about as a parent? Does this book become a right of passage for your children when they turn a certain age? Do you teach about the warts in family home evening? How about as a friend? Do you share this with all your believing associates? Only with the spiritually mature? Is everyone “ready” for this book?
Tyler: I actually think that the issue is a bit deeper than whether or not there is bias involved. I think that a lot of historians, for example, object to Bushman’s approach to the founding narratives on methodological grounds. It is not simply that they think that he may be shading the sources unfairly, but they object to the fact that he refuses to “get behind” the miraculous narratives to what was really happening.
For example, I once read the memior of a Swiss immigrant to Zion who described seeing mermaids during her crossing of the Atlantic. Were I to write her biography, I could simply note in my narrative that “then she saw some mermaids,” dropping a footnote to the memior. I think that most historians would view this as a suspicious move. I would need to somehow explain the mermiad story. For example, I might not that the memior was written decades after the fact and memories are faulty. I might note that sailors frequently pulled the leg of landsman by pointing to porpoises, etc. and calling them “mermaids.” I might even point out that “mermaid” was actually a name for certain sea animals like mantees, which everyone understood to be quite different than the mermaids that one finds in Hans Christian Andersen. I might even talk about how belief in mermiads played into the world-view of mid-nineteenth century Swiss immigrants. What would be methodologically suspect, however, would be to simply insert the mermaid sighting into my narrative without some attempt to get behind the event. The methodological move becomes doubly suspect if I claim to believe in mermaids on the basis of supernatural experiences.
As he points out Bushman tries to finesse this issue by looking at the story of gold plates and translation from the point of view of converts, and then trying to explain why they found the story compelling. For some, however, this will be a matter of too little too late; and simply looks like a dodge on the methodological point.
“Of course, this becomes very complicated because, as Elder Holland has pointed out, Joseph forces everyone who learns about him to make a life-defining decision. Those who decide in the negative (among them, most academics), are still deciding. In order to justify their decision, they must assure themselves the story is a hoax.”
I think this language is too strong. You could say that learning about Muhammad forces the same choice, and my Middle Eastern Studies colleagues aren’t spending their time assuring each other that he was wrong. That’s in the end dissatisfying – it’s better simply to acknowledge the impact he had and look at the fruits of his career instead.
I guess that means I think suspension of judgement is possible, depending on what questions we ask. Historians of religion can examine faiths not their own without either embracing or rejecting them, or even considering the question. Of course, perfect objectivity is always a myth, but historians of Christianity find ways to write about the Puritans without overtly passing judgement on whether John Calvin was right; and I think it’s a sign of youth yet that Mormon history seems still preoccupied with that question.
Sam is right – we need to stop arguing about truth claims and instead investigate results and implications, and this is a point that I hope Mormon studies is reaching. One thing I appreciated about Bushman’s book was the tentative steps he took towards this – one example is his Joseph as city builder, a way of looking at his thought that invites comparisions in American history alone from the Puritans to the Transcendentalists and beyond. This is exciting, and I hope it is followed up on. What Mormon history really needs is to be de-ghettoized..
“This doesnâ€™t mean that Mormon writers and scholars should be insensitive to criticisms of bias, etc. However, I think that all such charges ought to engaged at the level of specifics, rather than as generalities.”
Exactly. And I think that gradually as more Mormons like Bushman produce intellectually respectible work about their own tradition, such charges will fade. Nobody in the academy complains about Catholics writing Catholic history anymore, except, as Nate says, in specifics.
I hope Nate is right that RSR “will in some sense â€œauthorizeâ€? the Mormon mainstream to deal with its history in a way that writers mired in the expose narrative never could.” However, if it is successful in this regard, new troubling questions will arise: What will those LDS who like to complain about the historical ignorance of their fellow members do when there’s no one else to roll their eyes at?
I say this in jest, of course, but not completely.
A question. What does it say of Dan Vogel’s work which takes a similar stance as Brodie but has the advantage of decades of new data that it won’t displace Brodie for those in the more naturalistic camp? (I ask sincerely, I’ve not yet read Dan’s book and probably won’t get to it until the spring)
Just a note for those interested, I’ve put up a page where I’ll keep links to all the Bushman discussions at various LDS oriented blogs. Let me know if I missed any. I’ll try and keep it reasonably up to date.
Re 23, Vogel’s book isn’t nearly as enjoyable as Brodie’s for one thing. And I at least didn’t get the feel from the former that it was full of decades of new data strengthening the naturalistic position, only that it was expanding slightly on the latter without the benefit of a strong prose style and imagination.
Clark: I haven’t read Vogel’s book, but I wonder if its long term impact and visibility is limited by its publisher. Signature is a niche press that has little or no academic cachet outside of Mormon circles. There is no shame in this, but I wonder if it might have a certain self-ghettoizing effect.
For my money the future of serious Mormon thought lies largely outside of Mormon presses. For example, what I think of as the five best recently published books on Mormonism have all been done by non-Mormon presses, and only one of them was with Illinois, which has a long tradition of publishing Mormon material:
Rough Stone Rolling (Knopf)
Hand of Mormon (Oxford)
The Mormon Question (UNC Press)
More Wives Than One (Illinois UP)
The Politics of Religious Identity (UNC Press)
I’m trying to work on some lengthy comments a bit later this week. But for the moment, let me ask a question:
Many on the site (including Bushman) have forcefully argued that a more human Joseph is a more interesting Joseph. Isn’t there a risk however of extending the localized curse of a prophet? (i.e. a prophet hath no honor in his own country).
As we get to know Joseph more intimately do we lose some awe and respect for him because seems more human?
** As the saying goes: Catholics teach that the Pope is infallible but no one believes it. Mormons teach that their prophet is indeed fallible, but no one believes it. **
This shouldn’t preclude us from investigating, researching and publishing detailed biographies, like Bushman’s excellent work, but we shouldn’t be surprised if most “lay” Mormons find the book unfulfilling.
?What does it say of Dan Vogelâ€™s work which takes a similar stance as Brodie but has the advantage of decades of new data that it wonâ€™t displace Brodie for those in the more naturalistic camp?”
Vogel is, I think, caught up in the same tired issues of truth claims, which limits the interest of his argument to historians outside Mormonism who are interested in what the tradition means rather than arguing if it’s true. For them, quite frankly, that is beside the point. Vogel posits things like Joseph forging plates and practicing stories; he is more detailed than Brodie, but really says nothing new.
The most interesting part of the book is his close reading of the Book of Mormon, which Brodie, mistakenly, I think, dismissed. Vogel provides a reading which is sometimes insightful, sometimes Nibley-esque in its parallelism and other times lapses into strained superficiality. It might, though, appeal a great deal to naturalists seeking to evaluate the BoM. On the other hand, the BoM is rather surprisingly ignored by most academics who look at Mormonism. It’s probably too long, like Harold Bloom said.
I also think Nate is right about Signature. It’s far too niche to attract much notice.
In response to Richard’s last question, we can put forth Mormon viewpoints to the larger world without having to invoke the foundational miracles by arguing from the value of the subsequent Mormon religious experience. With millions of adherents and going on two hundred years of historical experience the Mormon point of view does have to rely solely on the validity of the foundational miracles to be accepted as a worthwhile perspective. Just to use some wildly divergent examples, one does not need to accept the gold plates to ask the sociologically interesting question of why Mormon youth show higher than average religiosity, ask the politically interesting question of how Native American or Polynesian Mormons do or do not use the Book of Mormon as anti-colonial tool, ask the theologically interesting question of how Mormonism’s “finite” (in comparison to creedal Christianty) God affects the issue of theodicy, or ask the historically interesting question of why Mormonism survived and prospered after Joseph Smith’s death. The utility of insights from the restored gospel in the work of scholars who are Mormon and the lived lives of Latter-day Saints for almost two centuries provide sufficient grounds to make worthwhile Mormon perspectives on issues of interest to larger non-LDS circles.
The acceptability of this approach was illustrated for me by my experience with Reverend Thomas Ryan of the Paulist Fathers in connection with his wonderful book “The Sacred Art of Fasting.”
In this examination of fasting as a spiritual practice Father Ryan included an entire chapter on the Latter-day Saint practice of fasting, giving us equal standing with Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Father Ryan chose to give us equal attention with these much older and larger religious traditions not because he thought our fasting practices were revealed by the only true prophets on earth, but rather because he was fascinated by discovering a religious community where millions of people regularly fast. And I must say it is a two-way street. Father Ryan’s description of fasting among Latter-day Saints is better than anything I have ever seen from any Mormon, and he brings to bear fascinating insights from other spiritual traditions on our fasting practices. I would love to make this book better known among Mormons, but back to RSR.
As to the converse question of how insights from RSR might enter into mainstream LDS discourse, I think that depends on whether they can be given a causuistic spin. As long as they are presented in a faithful rather than a debunking spirit I think the Mormon mainstream can absorb and benefit from many of the more non-standard facts in RSR. For example, Joseph’s temper and adherence to the concerns of the culture of honor, when coupled with the amazing speed with which he forgave people who genuinely wronged him (e.g. Orson Hyde), make Joseph both more of a ‘regular guy’ and more admirable. The fact that Joseph was allowed to be subject to the consequences of his mistakes in political and economic matters teach us that we should not assume that the Lord will make us rich just becasue we intend to pay a lot of tithing, it teaches us that spiritual growth is more important than power and riches. Joseph’s sometimes overbearing forcefulness becomes fascinating rather than galling when contrasted with the eagerness with which he sought to endow others with charismatic and priestly power.
One can argue that putting such a faithful ‘spin’ on everything is just sugarcoating truly sour stuff, but I believe that that is as appropriate in talking to a community of faith as bracketing the credibillity of miracles in talking about religious matters to a community of scholarship based on objectivist principles.
With millions of adherents and going on two hundred years of historical experience the Mormon point of view does NOT have to rely solely on the validity of the foundational miracles to be accepted as a worthwhile perspective.
Random thoughts on this book and the comments:
**First let me begin with the fact that I’m much interested by what happens in this book. It has moved me to tears, frustration, anger, meditation on my life, my belief, my history.
**I’m not all the way through Bushman’s book yet. Moving through the details and movements here takes time and thought. But I’m not always sure that lack of records that Bushman underscores means lack of Joseph’s involvement. I find Bushman distancing Joseph from events that really are mysterious. I’m fine when Bushman leaves this mysterious, leaves the lack of connection, the lack of evidence (that’s useful and helpful). I’m confused when he jumps to a comfortable interpretation of the lack of information. Generally a lack should be allowed to remain mysterious, discomfiting, not gathered into something comforting. I tend to think that â€œmaking things strangeâ€? is useful, Bush tends toward â€œmaking things familiar.â€?
**I think that Bushman too often interprets the lack of Joseph as subject matter or topic in the holy records (revelations, Book of Mormon, New Translation) as the lack of the personal in these records and in the Mormon story. With Joseph you need to push a lot at the notion of what is “personal.” And with this term “personal” I think of something situated in a time and place, invested in a certain complex of issues, concerns, anxieties. There is much in Joseph’s story that seems strikingly situated in a time and place (and by Joseph’s story I mean also the stories he dictated in the revelations, the Book of Mormon story, the New Translation of the Bible, the Abraham story from the papyrus. . . .). And a place where I stand, where I speak, where I live–that seems dipped in the personal.
**I totally agree with Nate that synthesis, elaboration is what makes this book interesting. A focus on “expose” gets us nowhere.
**If we allow the mystery of believing in the story we tell about Mormon history, we must allow a respect for the mystery of not believing.
**Mormon history is so invested in the notion of “enemy.” That comes from the revelations. And it comes from the way Mormons early told our own story (with Joseph lead and some good reason beginning in Kirtland, and Missouri, and Illinois). For me the much more troubling story is that of the “double.” What I am doing is very like what you are doing. The “enemy” story forgives so much on our side.
Adam S. #4 said, “These comment from Bushman force me to imagine how ideas from this book could be assimilated into mainstream mormon thought. In other words, can you really imagine a 3-hour block where we speak comfortably about these non-traditional aspects of the prophet?…Josephâ€™s occult connections and sexual history seem antithetical to the prophetic virtues of our time. Do people have any thoughtâ€™s about this? I think we will be forced to deal with it in some way as Bushmanâ€™s book inevitably reaches the minds of maintstream mormons.”
I, like most of you, have known the non-standard facts contained in RSR for sometime. I have rarely shared these historical events with anyone, because I feel that it is not my place to expose people to facts that might be trials of their faith before they are ready. And I feel that the mark of readiness is when they seek out knowledge for themselves. It has been a general rule that the Lord predicates revelation upon the recipient’s request. Likewise, I think most of us learned these facts about Joseph by seeking them out. We had to wrestle with how to adjust our paradigm to incorporate our new knowledge. I found FARMS quite helpful with that. Eventually, we threw off our old notions, and our testimonies became firmer. I think this is the process that most members should take.
I feel that it has been wisdom that the leadership of the church has made it a practice not to include some of these events in “official histories”, Sunday School and institute manuals. I think the weakest of the Saints and investigators in general have a hard enough time adjusting their paradigms to include what they do know about the doctrines and practices of the church. “Milk before meat”. Their tender roots are not ready to stand the heat of the day. I think the problem with anti-Mormon literature is that it exposes people to things before they are ready.
Faithful members would often not read Brodie’s book because it was considered “anti-” or Quinn’s books because he is no longer a member for refusing to have the church approve his writings before publishing them. I am glad that the church has now softened its stance and has permitted Bushman to publish RSR. RSR provides easy access for the general membership to these facts without having to sift through FARMS articles. Perhaps the timing is right for the release of RSR as it has become easier due to the internet for people to become exposed to these non-standard facts, and we would rather that they learn them from a Mormon source first. And has been stated before, some members might feel betrayed if they think the church is trying to hide these things from them. The members are going to have to rise to the occasion and stretch to accomodate new ideas, but I think it is good for them as long as it is not faster than they have the capacity to receive.
But, let interested members seek it out. Perhaps we could recommend RSR to interested parties. I don’t think we should make these facts part of our Sunday School classes. As more and more members become acquainted with these ideas, it will slowly enter the mainstream awareness. These things will probably only be talked about in church as often as Heavenly Mother or polygamy are after the majority of members are acquainted with the facts.
After reading â€œRough Stone Rollingâ€? I wrote (Date: Fri, 18 Nov 2005 23:44:04 -0500)
the following to an old friend and historian James S.Olson Ph.D.
I just finished reading “Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling” by Richard Lyman Bushman and your name came to mind. You are a student and writer of history, but also a first hand witness of one coming fresh from experiences beyond the understanding of natural man. Your name tells it all Jimmy Olson friend of Superman!
Within the shadows, types, patterns, symbols and mysteries of the gospel and within the scriptures lie greater truths than the natural eyes can see. Jimmy Olson stood next to Clark Kent and never saw the Superman within. Many stood by Joseph Smith and never knew his history. To talk or write the words are one thing, but to truly see as Joseph did is another.
Now I’m no great writer, but what I wrote is the truth of things that I truly saw before I found my life written in the …
Before I really freak you out and ask the question which begs an answer let me bring you up to date in my life. I’m still on Long Island living in the City of Long Beach on the far south shore in Nassau County two miles from the Queens / NYC line. I’m the Branch President of the very small Long Beach Branch. My house is one block from the ocean and one block from our little church building. I’m two miles from the A subway train which takes me once a week to our tiny Manhattan Temple (Bishop Frost is 1st cou. in the Temple Presidency). I’m happily married to my second wife Beth for 23 years in Dec. I have two adult children living home. Matt is a senior in HS and Emily who heading to Utah Valley State as a junior in Jan. I have two sons in the US Army Dave who is in Iraq guarding convoys as a gunner in a HumVee. Guy who is being deployed to Afghanistan in Jan. as a foot soldier. I have two other sons living in Colorado near their mother Darlene and grandmother Arlene. Rob is continuing his college life in hopes of being a doctor. He did a bit in the Marines a few years before 911. Mike is working construction still trying to find himself a little like all of us.
I’m happy and still keep in touch with Glenn Hughes, Bobby Worthington and Dirk Hooiman. I’m closer to Dirk and plan on retiring in June and move to SLC near where he has been living for the past 10 years. The Valley calls to me and I must go. Beyond the vail of those mountains there is a place for me that God has prepared.
Now back to the future. Riddles are the puzzles of the gods which his children must learn to answer. The key to this mystery is in reveasing your mind set. Seeing the future before it is history would make you a true seer which is what God would have all his children be!
Can you finish what I wrote back 4 paragraphs ago? To answer you must first read my book “Into the Greater Light” at my web site:
Then if you dare contact Clayton Christensen and let him know that you were there in those days when the Lord brought Bobby, Glenn, Dirk and I together into his Church, the Kingdom of God here on this earth. He will give you the next key so you will know exactly what the Lord would have you do.
Remember the stones keep rocking and rolling down that hill that Joseph laid the foundation for. In following President Hinckley by rereading the Book of Mormon before the end of this year you will be ready for that future which shall surely come to try the faith of the saints.
I say nomore, but to you I said more than enough because when I first came you were my friend!
Peace, love & blessing,
your most unworthy servant,
Now I ask “What Hath God Wrought?”
As a historian whoâ€™s never been a Mormon, Iâ€™m impressed with RSR. Bushman tries hard to get the facts straight while remaining within the intellectual confines of Mormonism. Although Bushman does not have the literary punch of Brodie, he more accurately portrays the religious side of Joseph Smith, something she could never fathom. Frankly, I will recommend RSR to all my believing friends for the very reason enochville has some qualms about the bookâ€”I would like to shake their faith in Mormonism. And how better to do so than by recommending a biography by a believer thatâ€™s been endorsed by BYU and Deseret News?
A query to anson re: #34 — would you recommend RSR to non-believers to get a better understanding of the origins of Mormon religious thought?
Certainly. Of course, I’d make sure that they understood that Bushman was a believer.
Talk of the Nation interviews: Richard Bushman and Mario Depillis discusses the religious environment during Smith’s lifetime.