Title: Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling
Author: Bushman, Richard Lyman ; with the assistance of Jed Woodworth
Publisher: New York : Knopf
Year Published: 2005
Number of pages: xxiv, 740
Reviewed by Dennis Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters
Because I am a librarian, trained as a cataloger, I transcribed the above title and subtitle of this biography from the title page. Because they are publishers, the editors or designers at Knopf added a second subtitle to the cover, but not the title page, of the book: “A cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder.” This is an important characterization of the book. Cultural history is Richard Bushman’s strong suit as an historian, and he explains in the preface how that guides his writing. “A rhetorical problem vexes anyone who writes about the thought of Joseph Smith. …there are reasons for not inserting a disclaimer every time a revelation is mentioned, no matter how the reader or writer feels about the ultimate source. The most important is that Joseph Smith did not think that way. The signal feature of his life was his sense of being guided by revelation” (xxi).
Joseph Smith’s life was no more radical than his thought, not even more dramatic. Bushman wrote the words in the preceding paragraph no later than 2005. Twelve years on, one might be pardoned for asking if this biography might have been supplanted by the publication of the Joseph Smith papers, or superseded by the on-going publication by the Smith-Pettit Foundation of a three-volume biography by three different authors, each focused on a different period of Smith’s life. The answer is no, not for me — and the reason is the great care that Bushman takes to stick to that “cultural biography” as a guiding principle.
Bushman comments, again in his “Preface,” on The Joseph Smith Papers, noting that “This study has been helped immensely by the project to collect and publish Joseph Smith’s papers in a scholarly edition.” This acknowledgement is typical of Bushman’s gracious spirit. He goes on: “Many of the papers have long been available but sometimes in doctored form and not carefully annotated.” Here Bushman’s integrity as an historian shines through, followed by a slight note of despair: “A comprehensive sweep of the nation’s archives has produced many more…. Although I have not had the benefit of all the annotation and cannot cite the new edition now going to press, I have been given access to the materials as they have been assembled. For this I am grateful” (xxii).
In reviewing Richard Van Wagoner’s Natural Born Seer, I noticed that, although it was finished in 2010 and published in 2016, it did not cite the Joseph Smith Papers all that often, and did not acknowledge the 2002 revised edition of Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Dean Jessee’s masterful compilation. So I cannot conclude that Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling has been superseded, or is out-of-date. It is still a comprehensive survey of the life and thought of a remarkable man.
The emphasis on the thought of Joseph Smith accounts for differing responses to this biography by me and by Valerie, my wife. When I received the review copy of the book, a paperback which is not quite the same edition as the hardcover — because some errors in the text have been silently corrected — I challenged Valerie to read that copy, while I re-read my hardcover first edition. She had been unable to finish reading it when I first got it.
So we began. With this kind of biography, I’m a slow reader; with this biography, a very slow reader. That’s because I read the footnotes, or in this case endnotes, as I come to them, and write my own notes on the notes on post-it notes, and stick them to the notes pages. Sometimes I read the source notes to see whose work was being cited; occasionally I read the index, to find my way back to a note I neglected to notate. And at all times, I miss footnotes.
So this review is overdue. Valerie gave up reading Bushman for a time, switching to Sherri Dew’s Go Forward with Faith : the Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley. The difference between an analytical biography of a man born over 200 years ago, and a narrative telling stories of a contemporary, many of which she could relate to, if not recall — the difference was telling to her. The analytical biography, placing the subject in the cultural context of his time, seeking to explain his thought for a general audience, was slow going for her. But after finishing Dew’s book, she picked up Bushman’s again. Valerie knew Joseph Smith from Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith : the First Mormon, which focuses on the stories of Joseph’s life, but had not known much about Gordon Hinckley.
I’ve urged her to persevere in reading Bushman, because to me the understanding he brings to Joseph Smith’s life and thought provides a framework for my own research into his life, which resulted in my writing a long poem — over 80 pages in manuscript, written in Anglo-Saxon verse, the meter of Beowulf. I consider Joseph a hero, and a hero in the mold of Beowulf, a warrior against ignorance, a protector of his people, one willing to face the dragon and die in his struggle. So I have a personal reason for enjoying Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling. And I have enjoyed reading it. But I still read the endnotes, because I am still interested in Bushman’s sources.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention Jed Woodworth’s contribution to the book. He is not listed on the jacket of the book, but on the title page his contribution is identified as “with the assistance of Jed Woodworth.” In his preface, Bushman elaborates. He met Woodworth through a series of summer seminars held in Provo, Utah to sponsor “two months of research into the cultural context of Joseph Smith’s life and thought,” bringing “a half dozen students” together, “graduate students and advanced undergraduates.” Woodworth was one of those. Bushman says “Jed began as an editor and research assistant running down secondary work, checking facts and quotes, and improving style. As time passed. … [h]e … tested my claims, elaborated ideas, and enriched the scholarship. Probably only scholars will appreciate the depth of the research reflected in the notes. … Jed earned his place on the title page many times over” (xxiii).
It is this combination of the big picture and the telling brushstroke that makes the book so compelling to me. To cite but one example, I was intrigued by how Bushman and Woodworth handled the question of the relationship between Masonic rites and the temple endowment. First, they address “The concept of the temple” which “had steadily expanded since it was first mentioned in a revelation in late 1830. In Independence, the temple was understood as a place for the Lord to return — a place to lay His head when He came” (448). [That temple was never built, although the Church of Christ Temple Lot maintains a visitors’ center on the site.] “In Kirtland, Joseph added administrative offices, a meetinghouse and school, and, more significantly, performed the rituals of washing and anointing in the House of the Lord” (448). [Joseph lost control of that temple for a time after he moved to Far West. There he planned to build 12 temples, in the plat for the City of Zion. Cornerstones were laid for one]. “In Nauvoo, the ceremonies were further elaborated to include baptism for the dead, endowments, and priesthood marriages” (448). [I added those explanatory notes to emphasize Joseph’s sense of almost despair at the frustration of his efforts.]
After explaining the temple rituals instituted in Nauvoo, Woodworth and Bushman note that “Portions of the temple ritual resembled Masonic rites that Joseph had observed when a Nauvoo lodge was organized in March 1842 and that he may have heard about from Hyrum, a Mason from New York days. The Nauvoo endowment was first bestowed just six weeks after Joseph’s induction” in the Nauvoo lodge (449). After a brief history of Masonry in Illinois, Bushman and Woodworth go on to describe Joseph’s response to his induction:
“Intrigued by the Masonic rites, Joseph turned the materials to his own use. The Masonic elements that appeared in the temple endowment were embedded in a distinctive context — the Creation instead of the Temple of Solomon, exaltation rather than fraternity, God and Christ, not the Worshipful Master. Temple covenants bound people to God rather than to each other. At the end, the participants entered symbolically into the presence of God” (450).
The endnote to that paragraph states that “Michael Quinn emphasizes the temple endowment’s ascent into heaven as a distinguishing feature,” citing his study Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, published in 1987. The reference is to pp. 184-90, wherein Quinn draws “only on authorized descriptions of the endowment by LDS leaders” to show “how the Mormon endowment reflected the ancient and occult mysteries far closer than Freemasonry” (Quinn, 186). His account is comprehensive and exemplary.
That is an example of how deeply Woodworth and Bushman go into every aspect of the culture of Joseph’s place and time. It also demonstrates the care with which they present the work of other scholars, and acknowledge their scholarly debts.
It is also an example of why I read this book with one finger in the pages of notes, even the second time. I commend it to you, for the story it tells of this “rough stone rolling” across the landscape of 19th-century America, and out into the wider world in the 20th. You couldn’t have a clearer cultural biography, and no better has been published since.