Sunday, October 01, 2006

New Biography Casts Joseph Smith As `Tough CEO'

New Biography Casts Joseph Smith As `Tough CEO'

SALT LAKE CITY In the opening lines of his new book, author and historian Richard Bushman says that 200 years should be enough time to gain perspective on the life and work of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Almost as quickly he concedes that any consensus on Smith's character or achievements is unlikely. Like any religious leader, Smith is loved by believers seeking to protect his reputation and hated by doubters engaged in disproving his claims.

``Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,'' written by Bushman and published in September by Alfred A. Knopf, is an attempt at fleshing out a portrait of Smith as man and prophet that shows his flaws and foibles as well as the genius and ingenuity that founded an American religious movement which became a worldwide church of more than 12 million.

The book, which some say is the most important biography of Smith in nearly 30 years, debuted to considerable buzz, said Curt Bench, owner of Benchmark Books.

``It doesn't read like a warts-and-all biography, yet you see Joseph Smith as a man, a flawed human being and one with limitations,'' said Bench, who sells books about Mormons, Utah and Western history. ``It's an important book and it was time for a new important biography of Smith.''

A lifelong, believing Mormon, Bushman acknowledges however that he remains sympathetic to his subject and was conscious of the Latter-day Saint audience in drafting the 561-page volume.

Mainstream Mormons have to be able to recognize the man they call prophet, Bushman said.

But, Bushman said, ``my most desired readers are the curious outsiders who want to know what was going on in the life of Joseph Smith.''

Mormons know Smith as a ``seer, revelator and prophet,'' who as a teenager received a vision in which God told him to restore the true church on Earth. The faithful believe the angel Moroni later led Smith to a set of buried gold plates said to be the record of ancient Americans visited by Jesus Christ. Smith's translation of that record became known as the Book of Mormon, on which Smith founded his church in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1830.

Smith was shot and killed in 1844 by an angry mob at the Carthage, Ill., jail, where he was being held on charges of riot and treason.

Historical records and diaries add to the story. Smith was a ``tough CEO who made it known he didn't like to be challenged,'' Bushman said.

Smith was also uncertain at times about himself and the role he believed God asked him to play. He could be demanding, was subject to melancholy and was at times noticeably absent or distant from others during the early formation of the church. Bushman also lays out some of the more controversial issues surrounding the early church, such as the practice of polygamy, which Smith initially denied and which later became a lightning rod for anti-Mormon sentiment.

``I think some ordinary Mormons will find a different Joseph Smith,'' Bushman said. ``I don't know whether or not it will shock some of them, but I think he's more interesting and attractive if he's a human being.''

Historians say the information is not really new, but the fact that it's all in one place _ Bushman culled information from thousands of pages of records and from some of the more than 18 other Smith biographies _ is unusual.

``There is nothing new there. So what you have is some Latter-day Saints who are ignorant of their own history and their own scriptures. So when he lays it out, there are going to be some who will be a bit shocked,'' said Stephen Harper, an assistant professor of church history at the Brigham Young University.

``Rough Stone Rolling'' also acknowledges contradictions between historical records and ``official'' records of the Mormon church.

``We should just admit we have a problem,'' Bushman said. ``And don't look for a quick fix solution.''

A Harvard-educated historian and the current Gouverneur Morris professor of history emeritus at Columbia University, Bushman has nine other titles to his credit, including the 1984 volume ``Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism.''

Some contend those credentials allow Bushman to get away with something few Smith scribes can: Tell the truth without pricking sensitive church leadership.

``I don't know how I do that,'' said Bushman, who claims not to give much thought to the reaction of church leaders as he writes.

``I don't want them looking over my shoulder,'' he said. ``I just have to write what is.''

Officially the church has no comment on the book, although privately some insiders say Bushman is considered the preeminent Smith scholar.

Mark Scherer, church historian for the Community of Christ, which also claims Smith as its founder, says there are places in the book where Bushman shows his Mormon colors, pulling punches to help preserve Smith's image.

The Independence, Miss.-based church was founded after Smith's death by followers who split from those who emerged to lead the Saints.

Scherer thinks Bushman fails to clarify scriptural references from the Book of Mormon and downplays details, such as the keg and beer shop the Smiths once ran in Palmyra. Bushman calls it a refreshment stand, Scherer said.

``Most scholars see that as trying to smooth over the rough edges,'' Scherer said. ``He walks a tightrope. He understands the need for historical authenticity. On the other hand he's a faithful Mormon who has what I would assume are particular obligations that his faith imposes on him. You have to keep that in mind as you read the book.''

Scherer also said he was hoping for _ but didn't find _ many new insights into Smith's life, especially in the four chapters reworked from Bushman's earlier book.

Still, he says he'll recommend ``Rough Stone Rolling'' to those curious about Smith.

``It's like a kaleidoscope,'' Scherer said. ``Every time a new document emerges, that pattern changes.''

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