Richard Bushman has written a fabulous book, and in so doing he tells us a great deal about the limits and possibilities of Mormon studies. The first thing that struck me about Bushman’s book was how it rather explicitly invites comparison with Fawn Brodie’s earlier biography. This is a good place, I think, from which to understand the book’s significance. Both biographies were published by Alfred A. Knopf (no accident that), and both take quotations from Joseph Smith as their titles. Brodie’s title, of course, comes from Joseph’s King Follet discourse. “No man knows my history,” calls up a vision of secret, unknown stories, and Brodie’s book very much traded on this expose narrative. Not only did she have a wealth of largely unpublicized sources gathered by Dale Morgan, she also offered to take us inside the mind of Joseph Smith, purporting to tell us his very thoughts and motivations.
Bushman’s title — “Rough Stone Rolling” — is an image that Joseph used to describe himself. Both the adjective and the verb are important. The year before Joseph’s murder, Brigham Young, picking up on the image, said:
This is the Case with Joseph Smith. He never professed to be a dressed smooth polished stone but was a rough out of the mountain & has been rolling among the rocks & trees & has not hurt him at all. But he will be as smooth & polished in the end as any other stone, while many that were so very poliched & smooth in the beginning get badly defaced and spoiled while they are rolling about.
In contrast to Brodie’s narrative of secret revelations, Bushman offers us a picture of a rough and human Joseph, but one who is nevertheless becoming smooth and polished. Hence, he offers “warts and all” history, but it is not embedded in Brodie’s implicit framework of expose. Bushman is not ripping aside the veil of tradition to show the real and unvarnished Joseph Smith. Rather, he shows the real and unvarnished Joseph Smith within a context that nevertheless grants to him the possibility of progress, refinement, and prophecy.
And to be sure, Bushman’s Joseph Smith has warts enough. Rough Stone Rolling goes through the story of Joseph Smith Sr.’s financial and personal failures, the Smith family involvement in folk magic, Joseph’s early money-digging adventures and trials, his suspicious in-laws, feuds and petty arguments in Kirtland, financial mismanagement, early accusations of adultery, Joseph’s (peripheral) involvement with Danites in Missouri, the secret introduction of polygamy, polyandry (i.e. marriage to women already married to other men), and all the rest. No doubt many will take issue with the way that Bushman interprets these events, but nothing is swept under the rug. The same is true of other issues in Church history. For example, Bushman offers a summer of 1830 date for the visit of Peter, James, and John, which would suggest that the organization of the Church on April 6, 1830 occurred without the Melchizedek priesthood. More importantly, he acknowledges that priesthood — as opposed to generalized authority — does not appear as a concept in contemporary sources until the Kirtland period and that there were no ordinations to the “high priesthood” until the summer of 1831.
What is interesting about Bushman’s history, however, is that there are basically no startling new revelations in it. One will search these pages in vain for evidence that Bushman has found some new document that reshapes our vision of early Mormon history. I don’t mean to suggest that Bushman has not done an impressive amount of research in original sources for this book, nor am I suggesting that he has not uncovered new information. However, it seems that with Bushman’s biography we can declare that the revelation and expose narrative in which Brodie implicitly placed her biography has run its course. Having reached its apotheosis in the work of Michael Quinn, which at times seems to be little more than a collection of obscure new sources interspersed with half-hearted commentary, the lets-find-a-startling-new-story brand of Mormon history seems to be well and truly dead. (If it was not killed by Hoffman two decades or more ago.) As no less an iconoclast that Will Bagley has stated, “There is no secret history of Mormonism to be written.”
The fact that there is no secret history of Mormonism to be written, however, does not mean that Mormon history is finished by any means. Within the community of the Saints, we have yet to appreciate fully what two or three generations of serious history hath wrought. I am hopeful that Bushman’s book, by replacing Brodie’s work as the biography of record, will in some sense “authorize” the Mormon mainstream to deal with its history in a way that writers mired in the expose narrative never could. Bushman’s work lacks the aura of iconoclasm and illicit knowledge that has too often served as a boundary maintaining device between the insiders of Mormon intellectualdom and the Mormon mainstream. Bushman’s book includes no manifesto of historical honesty or implicit or explicit attacks on the shameful white-washed history produced by correlation, etc. etc. He simply sets forth his story of Joseph in a sympathetic and straightforward manner. One can read his faith between the lines (more on this later), but he does not duck from telling stories that some might find uncomfortable. If, as I hope, Bushman’s book becomes a source untainted by the air of illicit knowledge that attached to Brodie’s work, then I think that a more realistic view of Joseph will work its way into mainstream Mormon consciousness, albeit one that maintains a commitment to his role as prophet in some literal and authoritative sense. All this, I think, would be for the better.
Unlike Brodie, who confidentially took her readers into Joseph’s mind, in Bushman’s biography Joseph frequently moves in obscurity. The sad truth is that for many aspects of Joseph’s life we simply have very few sources. For example, most people, I think, are unaware of the extent to which there simply aren’t that many contemporary sources about Joseph’s pre-1830 activities. We have whole years of his later life where there are only a handful of documents from his pen. Rather, as Bushman puts it, we frequently see Joseph only through the screen of other minds. One of the startling things about Bushman’s biography is the extent to which he is content to admit our ignorance of certain things and allow the narrative to focus on family or communal stories where Joseph becomes a bit player. (Bushman’s account of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri is a good example of this; Joseph flits through the action, but prior to his surrender to the authorities, he is not a major protagonist in the story.) To the extent that Bushman does try to recapture Joseph’s inner world, what he offers us — based on the sources — is Joseph’s personal religious life. What he shows is a Joseph who was deeply concerned about working out his own salvation and who was frequently anxious about his standing with God.
Those looking for a journey into Joseph’s inner thoughts will find Bushman’s biography a disappointment. What he offers in its place is context. One way of capturing this is to look at Bushman’s self-citation in the bibliography. Not only does he draw on his earlier works on Mormon history, but he also draws on The Refinement of America and From Puritan to Yankee, two books that he has written on American social history. In this sense, Bushman is very much a historian of his generation. A student and grad-student at mid-century, he was schooled by a discipline that was abandoning the various nineteenth-century certainties (e.g. progress, psychology, economic determinism, etc.) that had dominated historiography in the first half of the twentieth century. Rather, he came to professional consciousness at the time when history was turning instead to a less theoretically ambitious focus on social milieu and cultural context. Hence, we see Joseph’s squabbling in Kirtland against the background of an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “culture of honor” among the poor. We see the early trials of the Smith family against the social world of marginal farmers in the early republic. We see the conflicts in Missouri and Illinois against the background of extra-legal democratic violence in ante-bellum America. There are no grand causal narratives, only a detailed backdrop against which the story in its particularity unfolds.
What does this mean for the future study of Mormonism? Bushman’s work suggests that the future of lies in synthesis rather than discovery and expose. Regrettably, this probably means that the days of the amateur in Mormon studies are in retreat. Bushman’s work is great not simply because he is an expert in Mormon history, but also because he is an expert in something else, in this case the social history of the early republic. If, as Bagley suggests, there is no secret history left to tell, progress in our study of Mormonism will come by offering ideas about what it means as a historical and intellectual phenomenon. Those who wish to offer major contributions to the field are going to have to know something other than Mormon history. One will have to be an expert in Mormonism in addition to being an expert in something else, something that can be related to Mormonism. Increasingly, we will live in an intellectual world where showing connections and implications will become more important than documentary discovery.
I think that Bushman’s biography should legitimately emerge as the definitive study of Joseph Smith’s life, at least for a generation or two. I am less certain that it actually will. Frankly, I would be unsurprised if Brodie continues to be regarded by most non-Mormons as the definitive interpretation of Joseph. Despite the fact that Bushman’s work represents a much more impressive scholarly synthesis than Brodie’s and despite the fact that Bushman ties together 60 years of intervening research, he lacks what Brodie offers: A clean, clear naturalistic account of the founding stories of Mormonism. To be sure, Bushman offers us a compelling portrait of the visionary, millenarian, and restorationist context in which Joseph had his visions and brought the Book of Mormon to publication. However, Bushman’s narrative is “tainted” throughout by his belief. He is willing to let contemporary or near contemporary sources speak for themselves, even when they speak of angels and gold plates. He offers no meta-narrative of fraud (pious and otherwise) or delusion to render such stories safe for a secular present. In doing this he adheres scrupulously to historical canons, since the visionary stories he relates are firmly entrenched in what sparse contemporary and eye-witness accounts we have. But I suspect that for many non-believers Bushman’s approach will always seem unsatisfying and somehow unfair. They just know that things couldn’t have happened the way that Joseph and others described them and will regard Bushman’s willingness to end his narrative with contemporary stories as an illegitimate intellectual punt.
Ultimately, I think that this to is all for the good. Even if it is possible to have discussions that move beyond a simple prophet-fraud dichotomy when approaching Joseph Smith, I don’t think that it is possible to suppress completely the issue of belief and unbelief in how one tells Joseph’s story. Nor do I think that we would wish to. In this sense, no believing Latter-day Saint, in my opinion, can ever write a biography of the Prophet that is honest to his or her view of Joseph that will not be offensive in some sense to most non-Mormons. In the end, while I admire Bushman for producing a scholarly biography that presents Joseph warts and all to the believers, I admire him more for his willingness to offend the Gentiles.
Richard Bushman responds:
Nate Omanâ€™s acute observations about Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and his judgments about the state of Joseph Smith historiography won my assent from beginning to end. It is true, as he says near the beginning, no new documents surfaced to reveal hidden aspect of Josephâ€™s character, and it is likewise true, as he observes at the end, that a biography by a believer will inevitably be tainted. Robert Orsi, the immensely empathetic observer of twentieth-century Catholic devotion, with the same approach to Joseph Smith, could likely win over readers that I will never reach because my belief throws all my conclusions into question. The recent half-column New Yorker brief notice used one of its five sentences to note that “Bushman is both an emeritus professor of history at Columbia and a practicing Mormon, and his exhaustive biography carefully treads a path between reverence and objectivity.” The implication is that my reverence forever draws me away from objectivity, presumably tainting every judgment.
Oman also identifies one motivation for the book, a desire that “a more realistic view of Joseph will work its way into mainstream Mormon consciousness.” The “warts and all” image is one way to characterize what the book tries to accomplish. The so-called “warts,” however, do not have to be looked on as blemishes. A censorious spirit might think of them that way, but they could be seen as aspects of Josephâ€™s character. I like a rugged, sometimes fierce prophet, with depths of melancholy and even despair. Do those qualities have to be seen as “warts?” On the other hand, are his affection and immensely strong will to be listed as virtues or simply as other parts of the package? Whether flaws or characteristics, it is my desire to make the whole part of Mormon consciousness. We put ourselves in a precarious position if we propagate a view of Joseph Smith that conceals part of the man. When a young graduate of BYU learns for the first time about Josephâ€™s plural marriages or his temper, disillusion can set in. If all this was hidden from me in my religious courses, the graduate asks, can I trust what I have learned? To be credible we must be candid.
My discoveries about his characterâ€“new to me at any rateâ€“cause me to wonder why Oman thinks that the book does not take us into the mind of Joseph Smith. I thought I was explicating Josephâ€™s religious views far more extensively than Brodie and that I uncovered aspects of his character, such as his melancholy, that she scarcely touched upon. Omanâ€™s sense that Brodie purports to tell us about Josephâ€™s “very thoughts and motivations” presumes a particular view of the inner Joseph Smith. It may be Oman is looking for an explanation of the revelations: why Joseph Smith came to have visions or write the Book of Mormon. Brodie undertakes an answer; I do not. I donâ€™t have explanatory theories. I think it marvelous he claimed so much and cannot exactly say why he did.
The question of a naturalistic explanation of revelation probably will haunt us for a long time to come. To bring Joseph Smith into the modern world we must have a common-sense explanation of the gold plates. It is hard to imagine him being deluded into thinking he dug up gold plates and carted them around for two years, so he must have concocted a scheme for deluding his followers. What is the alternative? Actual gold plates? Out of the question in modern thinking. The delusion has to extend to the witnesses with their concrete testimonial to having seen the plates? Even empathetic outside observers have to balk at the plates. I think we can ask sympathetic general readers to grant the possibility of Joseph Smith sincerely believing he saw a vision of Christ and God; lots of people did. The plates and the remaining Book of Mormon are the sticking point. I elide the conflict by asking readers to go along with the early Mormon believers. Letâ€™s see what they thought about the plates and what resulted from their belief. Many will give me the benefit of the doubt while reading the book, but a reservation will remain: Joseph could not have had the plates and he probably therefore was a fraud from the beginning. In that deep sense, the book cannot satisfy them.
Would we have it otherwise? I donâ€™t think so. Our religion is based on a founding miracleâ€“like the incarnation or resurrection or parting of the Red Sea. Founding miracles are always the strongest evidence of Godâ€™s intervention in human affairs and at the same time the greatest evidence of prophetic deception. Miracles define the line between belief and unbelief. Crossing that line is what makes us Mormons. We donâ€™t necessarily want the difficulty of belief to diminish, or to offer halfway points where you can accept the plates without actually believing. Allowing for compromises would diminish the force of the founding miracle.
The consequence, however, is the impossibility of a believer writing a biography of Joseph Smith that will ultimately satisfy non-believers. They may be taught to appreciate his achievements and understand him as a man. Readers will get a sense of what led people to believe in Joseph. They may come to admire the Prophet. But they will always entertain reservations. Nate Oman understands this dilemma and the price that must be paid.
A question for the blog is how to work around this central conundrum. How can we use Mormon thought to explore cultural issues and propose resolutions of our social problems without forcing non-believers to stumble over our founding miracle? Can we purvey the fruits of Mormonism without forcing non-Mormons to confront the roots?