Monday, October 02, 2006
Fwd: M* Interviews: Richard Lyman Bushman
M* Interviews: Richard Lyman Bushman
by Millennial Star Editors
M* recently asked the noted historian and author Richard Lyman Bushman
to talk about his new book, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Knopf,
2005). Jed Woodworth, an occasional commenter at M*, interviewed
Professor Bushman, who graciously provided the answers to questions
provided by Jed.
Comments are welcome. In between speaking engagements Professor
Bushman may dip into the discussion on occasion.
You say in the preface that Rough Stone Rolling pays more attention to
Joseph Smith's religious thought than previous biographies. Was there
some aspect of his thought that you ended up falling in love with much
to your delight? Did any aspect repel you?
Plural marriage is hard for anyone who is happily married to
understand, but it does not repel me as it does many Latter-day
Saints. I can picture saintly people forming a communal bond within a
household or series of households. It drops barriers that hedge up our
strongest passions, and so strikes fear into our hearts, but it erects
new barriers that in time the Utah Saints grew accustomed to. I love
the King Follett doctrines about a vastly intelligent and powerful God
taking wandering, primitive spirits under his wing and teaching them
how to achieve glory.
What about Joseph Smith so charmed his followers? You make the point
that most converts never knew the Prophet before they converted. What
kept them believing after they met him?
I don't think a lot of the Nauvoo Saints knew him intimately. They
heard him speak and saw him around town, but were not his intimates.
Yet they did love him, as you say. I think it was because he wore his
heart on his sleeve. He let his anger rip and he overflowed with love.
His impetuosity sometimes made him hard to live with but people knew
where they stood. A great, emotionally-charged personality can be
One school of thought says historians do better when they aggressively
argue for a position on issues of controversy. Yet on many of the
modern controversies surrounding Joseph Smith—Book of Mormon
historicity, the date of Melchizedek priesthood restoration, the place
of Church organization, the meaning of polyandry—you present the
evidence without coming down definitively one way or another. Why is
I see no reason to solve problems that cannot be solved. When you go
beyond the evidence, you get in trouble. Premature closure leads to
You have called your historical method broadly empathetic, a method
sometimes mistaken for partisanship. Did empathizing with Joseph ever
make it difficult for you to empathize with Emma?
Not in the least. I see their relationship as tragic. She believed in
him but could not bear plural marriage. He loved her but could not
resist his own revelation. They were both heroic actors on a large
stage trapped in terrible moral dilemmas.
Mormonism as a violent religion is one of the most enduring images in
the popular press, starting with E. D. Howe and coming down to the
present in Jon Krakauer. Rough Stone Rolling, however, says Mormon
militarism was reactive, not native, to the tradition. "What could the
Mormons do but defend themselves like a nation?" you ask rhetorically
at one point (235-36). Given the perception of militarism, has
Mormonism been radically misunderstood? Is it important for Joseph
Smith to be known as a peace-loving prophet?
I am not sure Joseph was a peace-loving prophet. He was outraged at
the treatment his people received and was passionate to overcome his
enemies. He also was desperate because he could not see how to
accomplish it. He brought together military bodies in Zion's Camp and
the Nauvoo Legion, but he knew that resistance was futile. The Mormons
would always lose in an outright war. He struggled to erect political
institutions like the municipal court to protect himself and the
Saints, but they were frail reeds. His failure to solve the problem of
American violence was dramatically demonstrated by his death.
Unfortunately, along the way he sometimes cultivated the violent
elements among his followers who did wish to use force, and they were
responsible for the greatest mistake in our history.
For a long time observers represented Joseph Smith's Mormonism as
authoritarian religion. More recently, scholars like Nathan Hatch have
emphasized its democratic elements. What does Joseph Smith stand to
gain in this debate? What does he stand to lose?
I have chastised Nathan Hatch for leaving Christ out of The
Democratization of American Christianity. Evangelical Christians were
not setting about to be democrats, but to preach Christ crucified. He
acknowledged the lacuna but justified his work on the grounds that it
made Christianity more attractive in the modern world. I don't think
we want to play that game. I think we are perfectly justified in
claiming that Joseph Smith's teachings were radically democratic in
some respects, but they were thoroughly hierarchical in others. Both
sides have to be stressed. The double-sidedness has to be kept in mind
to understand the conflicts that arose when an Oliver Cowdery or a
John Corrill switched from Kingdom language to republican speech. By
going from one language to the other, the Kingdom virtues of obedience
and consecration of properties are transformed into aspects of
Joseph Smith was a man who sought to imitate the Bible. Is there
anything extra-biblical about him?
"Imitate" is not exactly the word I would use. He certainly drew upon
the Bible and justified virtually every doctrine with a biblical
passage. The question here is which Bible. The Bible scarcely exists
apart from interpretation. It is infinitely malleable. There is a
Calvinist Bible, a Catholic Bible, scores of other Bibles, and then
Joseph Smith's Bible. His originality lay not so much in going beyond
the Bible but in going beyond the Protestant Bible. Priesthood,
temples, corporeal God, human divinization, are all in the Bible but
not the Bible Joseph's Protestant neighbors were reading. They would
consider him radically extra-biblical as evangelists do today; he
would think otherwise, and in some striking instances such as God
working in councils, modern biblical scholarship supports Joseph
Is Joseph Smith an American tragedy? Does he have a tragic flaw in the
spirit of Lear or Oedipus?
I have said as much, though it is a peculiar kind of flaw: the
conviction that he spoke for God. It was the same flaw that brought
down other American prophets like Anne Hutchinson, Nat Turner, and
Martin Luther King. The flaw really, however, is within the American
system that cannot accept its own prophets. To rid the republic of its
fanatical enemies (see question 9 below), its citizens have to resort
to undemocratic means. That is what I mean by the phrase "the logic of
the visionary life" in the introduction. We cannot reconcile our two
founding documents: the constitution and the Bible. One makes the
people the voice of God, the other the prophets. The two are always in
danger of clashing unless moderation is exercised on both sides.
Rough Stone Rolling devotes considerable time to Joseph Smith's
critics: Booth, Campbell, Howe, Bacheler, Turner, Bennett, and Law,
among others. Was this choice conscious on your part? What do the
critics have to teach us about Joseph Smith?
Partly I was thinking of balance. The attacks on Joseph Smith were as
much a part of his world as the testimonies of the believers. He lived
under constant critical pressure; to understand his life, we must be
aware of the pressure cooker environment. Especially I wanted
readers--Mormons and non-Mormons alike--to recognize the influence of
the "fanatic" stereotype, which I say at one point, with perhaps a
little exaggeration, was as influential in American thought as racial
stereotypes. People came with a pre-formed category of religious
fanaticism that went back as far as Martin Luther and beyond, really.
It is part of the liberal mind to require adequate enemies who wish to
crush all the liberal virtues of free speech and individual choice.
The religious fanatic has served that purpose for hundreds of years
and still does. This animus against fanaticism informs Jon Krakauer's
book. Mormons are the enemy he loves to hate. Since the stereotype
turns up in its full beauty in the writings of Joseph's critics, I
wanted to give them voice.
What are the practical consequences of the golden plates for
appreciating Joseph Smith's place in American religious history? Are
the plates an inevitable snag that get outsiders hung up on whether
Joseph told the truth?
The truth of the implied hypothesis is borne out by the Larry McMurtry
review in the New York Review of Books (November 17, 2005). All
McMurtry could talk about was the plates and plural marriage, the two
most sensational points of Joseph's career. I gave a talk at the
Princeton Club about Joseph Smith in mid-October dealing with this
very point. The problem with seeing Joseph Smith as a fraud, based on
the gold plates story and plural marriage, is that it stops inquiry.
He can be dismissed out of hand, and everything else he did is
Is Joseph Smith's kingdom-building useful in a post-9/11 world?
What defines the post-9/11 world? Fear of terrorism, American
militarism, Samuel Huntington-type cultural conflict? I think Joseph
Smith's kingdom-building is useful in general. Perhaps its greatest
use now is to restore calm and security, so that we do not take
extreme measures. Knowing we have each other and the protection of
God, we should continue to see all people as God's children and avoid
rash action that will hurt more than it will help. Unfortunately, I am
not sure it always works that way. Our apocalyptic tendencies take
hold, and we look for the worst. We should be immune to panic but we
are sometimes not.
What does it mean to say that "the judgment of history has been that
Joseph's great achievement was the creation of the Mormon people"
By history I mean non-Mormon scholars who consider Joseph Smith's
achievements after 200 years. They may dispute the scope and literary
power of the Book of Mormon, dismiss Zion, the temples, priesthood,
the doctrinal revolution and everything else, but they do not deny the
people who came into being because of Joseph. At a discussion between
evangelicals and Mormons at the American Academy of Religion in
November 2004, Mark Noll said he considered Joseph Smith's claims to
be "empty" but he could not gainsay the strength of the Mormon
Joseph Smith's conception of a church of cities, rather than a church
of congregations, you say at one point, was "doomed" in 1830s America
(222). Despite the demise of Zion cities, the Zion idea has shown
remarkable durability among believing Mormons for more than one
hundred and fifty years. Why is Zion one of Joseph Smith's most
resilient theological innovations?
A difficult question to answer. In New York City we are 20,000 people
scattered in a population of 7 million. How can we consider ourselves
in any sense a city? One reason may be the lasting force of the
gathering. For sixty years we formed actual cities, and that may have
engrained the communal concept into our cultural genes. (I think in
general we have not adequately weighed the influence of that gathering
period on our culture.) Another reason may be the continuing force of
the word "consecration." The heart of Zion was the consecration of all
our properties to God and each other. When we use that word in the
temple the memories of that complete consecration still play over the
word. We are more committed to one another than other religious
Many thanks to Professor Bushman for these thoughtful answers.