The life of a prophet, with most of its flaws
The author paints an intricate and sometimes contradictory picture of
the life and work of the founder of Mormonism.
BY ALEXANDRA ALTER
JOSEPH SMITH: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism's
Lyman Bushman. Knopf. 768 pages. $35.
Prophets aren't always saints. Expect violence, adultery, hubris and
power-mongering from Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism and the complex,
slippery hero of Richard Lyman Bushman's exhaustive new biography.
Bushman's 768-page behemoth is more methodical and less splashy than
other recent narratives tracing the formation of the Mormon church, including
Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of a Violent Faith, a
journalistic thriller linking the modern fundamentalist Church of the Latter
Day Saints to the violent behavior of its founder, and Martha Beck's Leaving
the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, an insider's exposé on
the church's breakaway polygamist branch. But for a painstakingly researched
historical portrait filled with cultural minutiae and scholarly digressions,
Rough Stone Rolling is almost never dull.
Skeptical readers may worry Bushman, a practicing Mormon, will attempt
to make over his religion's founder, but he does nothing of the sort. Bushman
devotes far less space to the early Mormon practice of polygamy than Krakauer
and Beck, but to his credit, he confronts the less savory aspect of his
prophet's persona head on.
At the outset, the author reveals himself as a believer, one who takes
it on faith that Smith was divinely guided to produce the Book of Mormon and
proclaim himself the temporal and spiritual leader of his early followers. But
Bushman, a Harvard-educated historian and a professor emeritus at Columbia
University, takes Smith's shortcomings as part of the prophet-package. The
book explores Smith's early years as a treasure seeker who dabbled in the
occult, his mid-career pronouncement that church members should transfer their
property to the church and his later teaching that men could have multiple
Smith was born to Protestant shopkeepers in Sharon, Vt., on Dec. 23,
1805. At 14, he began receiving revelations in dreams. Three years later,
Smith had his first vision of the Angel Moroni; by 1830, he had published the
Book of Mormon. It took Smith 10 years to translate the Mormon Bible after
first discovering, through Moroni, golden plates buried on a hilltop in
upstate New York. The resulting text (which Mark Twain derided as ''chloroform
in print'') placed the United States at the center of Christian history.
Having published a sequel to the Bible at age 25, a less ambitious man
might have called it a career. But Smith, driven by optimism and egotism,
fancied himself a monarch of a godly kingdom on earth. At the time, such
aspirations were hardly unusual. Millenially minded zealots -- from such fiery
evangelists as Charles Grandison Finney to utopian communities of the Shakers,
who believed practicing celibacy would speed Christ's return -- abounded. How,
in such a tolerant religious climate, did the Mormons become a target of
Bushman offers a multistoried answer that hinges as much on the
complexities of Smith's character as the 19th century cultural backdrop.
Unlike his fellow evangelists, Smith's goals were unabashedly political as
well as religious, prompting critics to accuse him of power-grabbing, treason
and sedition as well as financial and sexual impropriety. Smith cast himself
as mayor of Nauvoo, Ill., the chief magistrate of its court, a city planner,
'commander-in-chief of the armies of Israel,' and at one point, a candidate
for president. He wasn't always successful. In the late 1830s, war broke out
between the Mormons and the citizens of Missouri, forcing the Mormons to
retreat to Illinois.
Bushman guesses Smith practiced polygamy as early as 1835. He married
some 30 women between 1841 and 1844, including several who were already
married. Taking other men's wives proved damaging to Smith's claim on his
churchmen's loyalty, and soon, Mormons were rankled by infighting as well as
the outside threat of angry citizen militias. Smith escaped arrest several
times, but died on June 27, 1844, at the hands of an angry mob that broke into
a Carthage jail and shot him four times. He was awaiting trial for old charges
Smith warned his followers not to expect perfection of him, and Bushman
all but does the same with his readers. He quotes Smith's own attempt at
autobiography as haiku: ``I [am] a rough stone. The sound of the hammer and
chisel was never heard on me nor will be. I desire the learning and wisdom of
Perhaps Bushman thought it blasphemous to sculpt a definitive character
out of historical shards. He leaves the reader to judge the ambiguous and
shifty figure that emerges, piecemeal, in this biography. Or perhaps this was
as close to truth that Bushman, a meticulous historian and a believer, could
Alexandra Alter is The Herald's religion writer.