Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling Paperback – Mar 13 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. How should a historian depict a man's life when that man, and his religion, remain a mystery to so many 200 years after his birth? Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University and author of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, greatly expands on that previous work, filling in many details of the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and carrying the story through to the end of Smith's life. Many continue to view Smith as an enigmatic and controversial figure. Bushman locates him in his historical and cultural context, fleshing out the many nuances of 19th-century American life that produced such a fertile ground for emerging religions. The author, a practicing Mormon, is aware that his book stands in the intersection of faith and scholarship, but does not avoid the problematic aspects of Smith's life and work, such as his practice of polygamy, his early attempts at treasure-seeking and his later political aspirations. In the end, Smith emerges as a genuine American phenomenon, a man driven by inspiration but not unaffected by his cultural context. This is a remarkable book, wonderfully readable and supported by exhaustive research. For anyone interested in the Mormon experience, it will be required reading for years to come. (Oct. 10)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* Peter Burnett, California's first governor, never converted to Mormonism, but he came away from his encounter with the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith convinced that he had met "much more than an ordinary man" teaching "strange and striking" doctrines. Both the extraordinary man and his highly distinctive doctrines receive illuminating attention in this landmark biography, published to mark the bicentennial of the American prophet's birth. A distinguished Columbia historian, Bushman stresses the boy seer's thoroughly ordinary origins--born to a hard-pressed New England farm family and denied all but the rudiments of a formal education--to emphasize the marvel of the religious revolution he brought about. Beginning with the publication of a new volume of scripture--the Book of Mormon--recounting the resurrected Christ's ministry in ancient America, that revolution eventually produced a dynamic church run by a complex lay ministry and committed to spreading its message worldwide. Though himself a practicing Latter-day Saint (Mormon), Bushman steers clear of hagiography by permitting readers to hear the voices not only of the prophet's loyal followers but also of various skeptics and adversaries. Readers see in particular detail the views of those who rose against Smith during the turbulent final years of his life, when the practice of plural marriage helped stoke a firestorm of religious conflict. Though that storm ended with the prophet's death at the hands of an angry mob, Bushman gives the slain revelator credit for the remarkable durability of the church he left behind. A deft portrait of a deeply controversial figure. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
In 'Rough Stone Rolling', Bushman has done an excellent job in writing popular biography. It is comprehensive and well-researched, but has enough flow that casual readers shouldn't have a difficult time getting through its 550+ pages of text. There is very little to say about the nature of book; it begins with Joseph Smith's grandfather and ends with a brief discussion of the chaos following Joseph and Hyrum's death; a little addendum on Emma and briefly covers the rise of Brigham Young. However, where this book really shines is its general nature to not shy away from the more negative aspects of Joseph's life. For example, Bushman briefly brings up the issues with the Book of Lehi, polygamy and the Kinderhook Plates, and this is what makes the book an excellent biography: it generally does not act as an apologetic work. While certain details are at times omitted or stressed, this book remains a biography and that is what it does: it tells the story of Joseph Smith's life, but provides plenty of details on the characters closest to him, such as Emma Smith and Sidney Rigdon. The other excellent area of this book is its work on the context in which Joseph Smith lived. Bushman talks widely about the various religious ideas in the eastern United States in the 19th c., and this adds greatly to the understanding of Joseph Smith as a person. It also does not attempt psychoanalysis, and firmly concludes that we really can't know what was going on in Joseph's head.
If this book has one failing, it is a subtle bias from the first page to the last.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"Rough Stone Rolling" is the exact opposite of that book. Richard Bushman uses a lot of the same stories but doesnt have the same negative slant. But he still shows that Joseph Smith was not perfect, which I admire. This is the best biography I have ever read.
This book takes you all through Joseph Smith's life. From a farmboy in New York who got on his knees and asked God to show him the way, to the man who was gunned down in Carthage a martyr for his calling.
If he was a Prophet or not is up for debate. As a Christian I believe that God is real and God can still speak today. Before I read the history of Joseph Smith if someone asked me if he was a prophet, I would have said no. After reading up on the man I would answer that it is not out of the realm of possibility. I believe he believed he was a prophet. I believe that some unexplainable things happened around him and the early Church.
The question was he a great man or not has been settled in my mind at least. I think he was a great man. To be tared and feathered and beaten, and still preach that next morning. To take persecutions and imprisionment in stride, to never compromise what you believe even in the face of death. These things are the very definition of a great man. The fact he put people off sometimes because he played with children and liked to wrestle and have fun. I think it just shows a genuine human being. His great love for his people caused many of his mistakes in life. Like the idea of everybody having everything in common, and his business dealings. Everything he did was with his people in mind. He not only talked the talk but walked the walk. I encourage everyone to read this book. If for nothing else than read a well written, entertaining biography of a real person that is more interesting than fiction. Good day.
Before commenting on *Rough Stone Rolling,* I want to make an obvious (but necessary) disclaimer: As a Catholic I do not accept the basic thesis of Mormonism - namely, that Jesus founded a Church and then allowed it to fall into apostasy until a nineteenth century American named Joseph Smith restored it. Mormons believe that, with the death of the last apostle, the Church also died. Catholics, by contrast, believe that the pope and bishops are successors of the apostles.
With that disclaimer in mind, I must say that Dr. Bushman helped me appreciate the great genius of Joseph Smith. At a time when rationalism was robbing people of a direct experience of God, Smith convincingly presented himself as a prophet and wanted others to have similar revelations from God. But he also recognized the need for authority to prevent individual revelations from fracturing the community. In the process he set up structures very familiar to Catholics: a priesthood, a hierarchy with one final authority and rituals which connect believers to divine mysteries. *Rough Stone Rolling* details the steps involved in the creation of a church that would impact the lives of millions of people.
Joseph Smith lived only thirty-eight years, but he had a greater long-term influence than any nineteenth century American. In some ways he was the quintessential American. Emerging from very humble origins, Smith embodies the American ideal of the self-made man. And he had democracy deep his bones: Notwithstanding his extraordinary revelations, he did not put on airs; he wanted all of his follower to receive revelations. Above all, Joseph Smith was a quintessential American in his can-do spirit. Build the heavenly Zion here on earth? No problem. Let's do it right here in Missouri. And when they drove him out of Missouri, he started over again in Illinois with an even bolder vision. That is the American spirit - and Joseph Smith incarnated it to the nth degree.
As Bushman brings out in great detail, Joseph Smith not only had faith in his personal revelations; he had great faith in his country and its constitution. Even when that country treated him badly, he kept faith that its institutions would bring him vindication. In the end the legal system and its officers failed him and he died at the hands of a mob while being held in the Carthage, IL, jail.
Joseph Smith's life provides much material for reflection. I would like to mention two areas that particularly called my attention. The first relates to Joseph Smith's "can do" spirit. It has a downside: a peculiar blindness to the reality of man's fallen nature (original sin). Bushman describes Smith as someone who underestimated the evil in his enemies, his followers - and himself. It came out most dramatically in the shameful treatment of his wife. He tried to give Emma everything, but in the end he did not give her what he had pledged and what she most desired: Joseph himself.
A second question *Rough Stone Rolling* raises is how we as a society accommodate people who have very different beliefs. Can we appeal to a "natural law" which binds everyone? I believe we can. For example, that it is wrong to defraud, break a contract, physically harm or take an innocent human life. Also, I believe, we can argue from the basis of the natural law that marriage is an institution that binds one man and one woman in a life-long and exclusive union. At the same time, I am concerned that our society is falling into what Pope Benedict called a "dictatorship of relativism." That is, many people have despaired of articulating a natural law applicable to all - and instead feel that the only thing we have left is a kind of mob rule, where matters are decided simply on the basis of who (or what group) is most powerful politically. The life of Joseph Smith - and his continuing influence among Mormons - provides a dramatic test case for these important questions. And it appears that, if we continue to move in the direction of a dictatorship of relativism, Catholics, Mormons and other people of faith, will have many occasions to stand together for the rights of conscience.
When I was growing up as a Mormon I have to admit that much of the LDS writing about Joseph was an obstacle to my faith. According to many he was a ideal man without flaw, a sort of 19th-century superhero. This made him a papier-mache saint that was impossible to relate to on a human level. Bushman describes a man who trusted the wrong people at times; was hotheaded, impulsive, and contentious; couldn't abide personal criticism; was a lousy businessman--in short, a man with familiar human foibles. On the other hand he had a large, open heart, an expansive view of human possibilities, and an almost scary insight into the religious quandries of our lives. He was able to convince many, many others that the heavens had been opened. Much of 19th century Protestantism seemed spiritually dead as a stone; Joseph and his followers believed he had restored the flow of revelation that had existed in Biblical times. He became a prophet in a distinctly American vein.
Perhaps his most famous line for non-Mormons was "no man knows my history; if I hadn't lived it I wouldn't have believed it myself." Bushman captures the sheer mystical mystery of Joseph's life. Watching Bushman's Joseph is a little like watching William Blake or even Joan of Arc: how such miraculous things happened still can't be fully explained in this life and one can only marvel at what has been left behind. Bushman's explication of the Book of Mormon is as searching and fascinating as we are likely to get, and yet it only scratches the surface of this American scripture. Joseph came to personify will and energy, and with the sheer force of history turned America into the promised land. From now on, all future attempts to write about Joseph will have to deal with Bushman.
This reviewer accepts Joseph Smith as what he purported to be--a Prophet who received revelation directly from God as did the Prophets of the Bible. The religious among us will accept their duty to answer to God as to whether they followed the biblical injunction to judge righteous judgment--by their fruits shall ye know them. Joseph Smith's teachings have endured and have developed in exactly the manner that one would expect and that the Prophet predicted. I loved this biography precisely because it portrayed the man who was a Prophet--a man who refused, sometimes unwisely, to take the safe path; a man who overcame the lack of social and educational advantages in a quintessentially American fashion; a man who made dumb mistakes just like we all do but who maintained an absolute optimism. A man who was sometimes too quick to trust, regularly overworked, frequently disappointed and who was often betrayed by his own better instincts--but he learned from his mistakes and he was absolutely faithful to the light he had received. Judge him by the Book of Mormon, which he translated, judge him by the leaders he trained, by Brigham Young and by his successor, Gordon B. Hinckley, judge him by a Church whose members and temples span the globe, judge him by the good works of those who follow his revelations as such, judge him by what he accomplished in such a short life, judge by the focus of his writings upon Jesus Christ, but don't judge him because some reporter or diarist recorded events with discrepancies or because of a wrinkle in Joseph's recollection of unprecedented events.
In Rough Stone Rolling, Mr. Bushman walks the path of truth--he admits his bias towards belief but backs up his statements. He calls it as he sees it while still admitting that there are arguments both ways. He demonstrates that a positive faith-promoting history does not need to ignore difficult issues. Mr. Bushman realizes and acknowledges that at some level any beliefs regarding the Prophet end up being based upon faith--whether faith in DNA analysis of Indians, faith in the recollection and accuracy of persons long dead, faith in one's personal perceptions and powers of analysis, or in a divine witness of truthfulness; the book shows that Joseph dealt with persons of all such motivations but that Joseph ultimately succeeded based upon the actions and support of those who professed a divine confirmation of their queries regarding Joseph.
In this his record is superior to advocative portrayals that set forth only positive or negative arguments. Joseph, like all the Prophets before and since, summed it up correctly when he stated that though he made mistakes, there were no errors in the revelations he gave to the Church. This work succeeds in revealing Joseph's life; one cannot fully appreciate Joseph's achievements without a knowledge and understanding of the opposition he faced and overcame. As to his status as the Prophet, each reader must come to and be prepared to defend his or her own judgment. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally. (James 1:5)
Bushman is well equipped to take on the task of a new definiative Joseph Smith biography. The author said he was workling on this for seven years and it shows. Considered by many the best Mormon historian since Leonard Arrington, he does better that most to try and flesh out and construct a human Joseph, while also allowing for the possibility of divine inspiration. Thoroughly research and aided by the author's expertise as a historian who specializes in the area and time of Joseph Smith, he provides excellent contextualization and placement for Joseph and his movement.
The writing is near excellence. A little thick at times, but more often flowing and allowing for artistic articulation. I could only see a few minor notes I would add were I to be the proof reader. I feel like I would be greedy to criticize orask for more than is presented overall.
The book follows Joseph from a poor New England upbringing through, local superstition and magic practices, religious retrenchment, visions, controversial gold plates, the formation of church and utopian cities, conflict within and without, to his run for presidency and assassination.
This book may not be comfortable for all orthodox Mormons. The author shows integrity by questioning traditional timelines of priesthood restoration. He presents plural Marriage with a lot of the facts that are commonly left out,like marriages to women who were already married to another man. He discusses josephs failures and struggles. He includes an ocassional item that may not fit with the orthodox narrative. There is no whitewash here. Yet he presents a sincere and loyal Joseph Smith. One who is believing and intelligent. A man with weaknesses, but also a man considered by millions to be a 19th century prophet. He makes Joseph appear new and real, and brings in fresh sources for even those well read on the subject.
This book does faithful Mormon studies proud. As I read I made a mental list of controversial subjects, wondering if he would he address them, and found almost all of them were addressed, while allowing the narrative to flow. The skeptic may think too much benefit of the doubt is given to Joseph. Counter points are in here, but when he can the author gives the subject the benefit of the doubt. The footnotes are wonderful. A good jumping off point for further reading.
Time will tell if the book will gain as much acceptance outside on the Mormon community as Fawn Brodies. A must read for those interested in Mormon studies, but also a good read for outsiders who want to explore Mormonism from a faithful yet honest perspective.