Born into a modest New England farming family in 1805, Joseph Smith lived barely thirty-eight and one-half years before his life was abruptly ended by an angry mob in Illinois. His was a brief life span, even by the standards of his time. Nevertheless, despite the brevity of his life, he must be regarded as one of the most significant Americans of the nineteenth century. His crowning achievement was the creation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsbetter known as the Mormon Church. His church, in turn, played major roles in promoting European immigration and in the settlement of the western United States, particularly what became the state of Utah.
Without Smith, there would have been no Mormon Church, and the map of the western United States might have developed quite differently. Smith’s achievement went beyond merely creating an entirely new church. He gave the church a structure and institutions that ensured its survival and growth long after his death. By the turn of the twenty-first century, his church claimed more than twelve million members worldwide and claimed to be the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Although these specific claims have been challenged, it remains clear that the Mormon Church and its members represent a powerful force in modern American society and one that continues to grow stronger.
Richard Lyman Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling is a richly detailed, beautifully written, and impressively documented biography of Smith that probes almost every aspect of Smith’s remarkably complex and almost always fascinating life. This book has been acclaimed as one of the finest studies of Smith yet written, and the word “definitive” has frequently been used to describe it. Such praise raises the question of what constitutes a definitive biography. Although Bushman himself makes no claim to have written one, his book helps demonstrate why a definitive biography of the founder of the Mormon Church may be impossible.
As the concept is generally understood, a definitive study is one that answers all important questions about its subject in ways that satisfy readers who consider its evidence and arguments carefully. Many people, however, would argue that the very notion of definitive biography is a chimera. The most common obstacle to achieving such a work is limited source material. For example, it is unlikely that enough evidence will ever be found to write a definitive account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In the case of Joseph Smith’s biography, the problem is not so much a matter of source materialsalthough that is part of the problemas one of opposing personal beliefs. Faithful Mormons believe that Smith was a true prophet of God, most of whose actions were divinely inspired. They believe that Smith saw God, Jesus Christ, and angels in the flesh; spoke with them; and was instructed by God to reestablish the true Christian church on Earth. A central step in that process was the revelation to Smith of a set of ancient records that he translated with the benefit of divine guidance and published as the Book of Mormon. That book purports to be a history of the peopling of the New World by ancient Middle Eastern migrants known as the Jaredites and Nephites, who brought with them a religion based on the Christianity of the New Testament era.
Shortly after Smith published the Book of Mormon in early 1830, he and a handful of his followers founded the Church of Christwhich was later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsin New York State. A central feature of the Book of Mormon is its account of the appearance of Jesus Christ himself in the New World after his resurrection. Smith’s church was thus not only an entirely original American sect but one that claimed a relationship between the Scriptures and America that no other Christian sect offered. Modern editions of the book emphasize the church’s Christian roots by adding a subtitle: “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” In the Book of Mormon and other writings, Smith went even further, claiming that the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri and that the gathering of Zion would occur in North America. Mormonism may thus be the most American of religions.
These and other revelations, on which Smith built his church, represent rather large claims, and they naturally have an impact on the way that Smith’s life is written. Indeed, the field of Smith biography is notoriously controversial, with no biography satisfying everyone. Leaving aside biographies that are clearly meant to discredit Smith and his church, there is a fundamental rift between Mormon believers and nonbelievers. Mormons are certain that Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is a divinely inspired and true history of the Americas. To them, anyone who challenges those assumptions is anti-Mormon.
A case in point is the distinguished biographer Fawn M. Brodie, whose No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (1944; rev. ed., 1971) was the first critical biography of Smith that attempted to interpret his life without reference to divine guidance. Brodie saw the Book of Mormon as a work of fiction and attempted to explain how Smith wrote it. Because Brodie was a former Mormon who had rejected the church’s teachings, many Mormons dismissed her book as something in the nature of a personal vendetta and refused to consider the arguments that she advanced to make her case.
Richard Bushman appears to be an ideal person to write a biography of Smith. Like Brodie, he is a distinguished scholar. However, whereas Brodie began her career with her study of Smith, Bushman has already carved out an impressive career as a historian and has devoted several decades to studying Smith’s life. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling is, in fact, an expansion of his 1984 book, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Moreover, Bushman is a self-professed practicing Mormon. In one person, therefore, he combines the sensitivity to his subject of a believing Mormon with the credentials of an established secular scholar. However, even that combination might not produce a satisfactory biography of Smith. The problem lies in the unusual nature of the subject, as Bushman himself recognizes in his preface:Yet, it is unlikely there will ever be consensus on Joseph Smith’s character or his achievements. The multiplication of scholarly studies and the discovery of new sources have only heightened the controversies surrounding his...
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