Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

In Rough Stone Rolling Richard Bushman attempts to present an objective, academic view of the life of Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith. He acknowledges that much of the work on Smith is either "devotional" works written by current church members or academic work written by those (often former church members) who seek to justify their view. He seeks to provide a balanced, thoroughly researched academic work. In this he succeeds. He makes it clear from the outset what his views are and provides sources to back his opinions. However, he is not afraid to bring up the "dirt" and countervailing viewpoints.
He straddles the border between popular and academic history. It reads better than a typical academic work, yet the abundant quotation of primary sources slows down the narrative. (There are also plenty of sources with original punctuation and spelling, make things 'fun'.)
The narrative proceeds in a primarily chronological fashion. However, it is divided into important "episodes" in Joseph Smith's life and the formation of the church. After the first few chapters, the church becomes inseparable from the man. However, he also encouraged a process of "councils" of members that would make decisions. The church could continue to function in his absence (and continued after his death.) Joseph did remain the primary source of revelation for the church, with his voice being the ultimate authority.
As time progresses, he seems to be more of a "participant" in the story. Most of the historical records were written about him. Even his journals (when they were recorded), were often written by scribes rather than first hand. We get a sense that he was striving to build up not only a religious community, but also a large scale society. City building became meshed with the building of God's kingdom. This, alas, helped contribute to the strained relationship with the locals. (After all, if a religious community was pulling in more people, it could soon dictate its will in a democratic government.) The charter of Nauvoo, Illinois gave the community significant rights which the Mormons were able to use to help quell problems and build a city.
Joseph was eager to welcome new members into the church, with very minimal "background checks". Those with education were often placed quickly in leadership positions. However, there was also significant turnover, as many people become disillusioned with Joseph or some aspect of the church and fell away. These "former followers" turned out to be some of the most significant enemies. Some were alienated by Joseph's practice of "plural marriage". The practice came from a revelation that Joseph received and only shared initially with key church leaders. Joseph had "married" dozens of women of various ages and marital status. The actual physical practice remains somewhat ambiguous. (Many of the already married "wives" had their husband's consent and continued to live with him. Others appeared to have been more intimate.) At the same time Joseph was practicing plural marriage, he was preaching strongly against the use of "spiritual wifery" to commit adultery, and denying that he committed adultery. (Thus leaving the practice of plural marriage even more confusing.)
Joseph's death resulted after the destruction of a press that was publishing "libelous" material. He was called to stand trial in a neighboring community, where he was killed by a mob. The church splintered, with the majority eventually following Brigham Young to Utah (while Joseph's wife and children remained in the midwest.)
Joseph's story is that of a man who took on responsibility significantly beyond his upbringing. The book presents his story as it occurred during the time. He was a charismatic leader who believed he had received divine communication. He was also a community leader who set up organized structures that outlived him. And finally, he was a man with weaknesses. This book tries to provide a story of his life as close to what he experienced in his time. In that it succeeds.

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