Richard Bushman was gracious enough to respond to twelve questions about Rough Stone Rolling.
But first, here’s my very brief review of RSR for the general reader:
Rough Stone Rolling is the definitive biography of Joseph Smith for this generation. Bushman does an able, if not artful, job of telling the prophetâ€™s story. His reading of Josephâ€™s use of seer stones, of his troubled relationship with his financially unsuccessful father, of the Book of Mormonâ€™s countercultural take on Native Americans, and of the changing place of women and blacks in unfolding LDS theology are gems. But Joseph Smith, in this book, is not a majestic, triumphant, haloed, barely-mortal dispensation head. He is, by Bushmanâ€™s portrait, a flawed manâ€”one making many mistakes and subject to many weaknesses. His straightforward style might be a little jarring to those used to sanitized Church history, but this book is and will be the benchmark biography of the founding prophet for a long time.
And now for the questions:
(1) By way of prefacing the book you write: “For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws. Covering up errors makes no sense in any case.” This is, obviously, not the approach of official, correlated Church history. What are the benefits and drawbacks of your approachâ€”and what would you say to a Church member whose faith has been jarred by the disconnect between what s/he learned about Joseph Smith in Sunday School and what s/he learned from reading your book?
I believe the disconnect can damage young Latter-day Saints who learn later in life they have not been given the whole story on Church history. They are tempted to doubt the credibility of their former teachers; what else are they hiding, the shocked young people want to know? On the other hand, are we obligated to talk about Josephâ€™s character defects in Sunday School class, or his thirty wives? That may defeat the purpose of Sunday School or Institute. I am hoping that a book like mine will help to introduce all aspects of Josephâ€™s life into common lore about the Prophet the way most people know he had a seerstone. These now disturbing facts will become one more thing you accept along with visitation of angels and gold plates. People will wonder, question, and eventually assimilate.
(2) Thereâ€™s been a flurry of news stories recently about some newly rediscovered arrest records for Joseph Smith. Have you been able to examine these? Is there anything of interest in them?
We now know Joseph Smith was involved in over 150 law suits. He had a court case hanging over him virtually every day of his life after 1830. Individually, the cases do not reveal surprising new aspects of his character or his thought, but as a whole they are a new factor to be weighed. When the legal and business volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers are published we will have a better sense of how constant litigation bore on the Prophet.
(3) It seems paradoxical that Joseph translated from physical objects (plates, papyri) when he didnâ€™t technically need (or in some cases even look at) them while translating. Were you able to get a sense of what purpose these physical objects served?
The question is a good one, but we can only speculate about the technology of translation. I have lamely likened the plates to a computer, a physical object that gives us access to large bodies of information.
(4) Your characterization of Joseph Smith, Sr. as an inadequate provider is full of sympathy and sadness. You trace some ways in which Mormonismâ€”particularly its concept of priesthoodâ€”compensated for his failings. Is there any evidence indicating that his fathering affected Joseph Smith as a father?
Joseph, Jr., was not a failed father like Joseph, Sr. He was eminent, confident, commanding. On the other hand, he did not leave his son much of a worldly estate either. He intended to leave him priesthood as his patrimony, which eventually Joseph III accepted. For all his lacks in providing for his children, however, Joseph, Sr., did not fail in the affection department. He was the one Joseph, Jr., turned to for comfort during the leg operation. Joseph the Prophet gave the same kind of affection to his wife and children.
(5) A perpetually busy Joseph Smith devoted quite a bit of energy to learning Hebrew, which seems odd given his gift for translation–when he didn’t know the original language. Why did Joseph Smith study Hebrew?
He studied German too and was fascinated by all languages, except the most obvious ones, Latin and Greek, which were associated with the classical civilization that he bypassed entirely. His willingness to engage a Hebrew teacher is some indication Joseph recognized that the word â€œtranslationâ€? for his dictation of the Book of Mormon was a misnomer. He knew his mode of translating was different from the scholarsâ€™. He wanted Seixas to teach him the other way. I interpret the Egyptian Grammar as a failed attempt to bring the two processes together, that is, to learn Egyptian while he was translating by inspiration.
(6) Why do you think the history of the reception of the Melchezidek priesthood is unclear, especially when compared with the Aaronic priesthood?
I am not sure the history of the reception was clear to Joseph either. He was able to give a clear account of the Aaronic Priesthood when he wrote his history in 1839, but not of the High Priesthood. His records actually note three occasions for bestowal of the Melchizedek Priesthood: Moroni said Elijah would reveal the priesthood; Josephâ€™s history said God commanded him to ordain Oliver an Elder; and Joseph and others said he bestowed the Melchizedek Priesthood for the first time in June 1831 when he had himself ordained too. The scriptures say that Peter, James, and John bestowed the apostleship, not the Melchizedek Priesthood. I do not know how to bring clarity to this picture. Our own presuppositions also hinder us from reading the record. We think Joseph had to have had the Melchizedek Priesthood before organizing the Church, and we believe that ordination had to be by the laying on of hands. Those presuppositions add to the difficulty of interpreting a confused record. My tentative conclusion is that Joseph saw the restoration of the priesthood as a cascade of keys, bringing one authority and power after another, not a simple one-two punch of Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood restorations.
(7) You write of Joseph Smith â€œengaged in a series of small quarrels, domestic disturbances, and squabbles. He did not rise above the fray in the serene majesty of his calling.â€? The Joseph Smith who throws a bugle in a fit of rage and who signs letters â€œwith utter contemptâ€? doesn’t remotely fit a 21st-century Church memberâ€™s conception of what a prophet should be. What are your thoughts on this?
I hope these descriptions will help us expand our ideas of prophetic character. We are so wedded to the nineteenth-century idea of the feminine Christ, soft, gentle, forgiving, that we lose track of the more fractious and demanding prophets of the Old Testament. I rather like the idea of a rugged prophet with sharp edges and fierce reactions.
(8) Do we know if the writings of Joseph of Egypt were translated? If they were, do we know where they now are?
(9) A major tenet of the Church today is that the prophet will not lead the Church astray. Contrast that with John Corrillâ€™s explanation of why he left the Church:
“When I retrace our track, and view the doings of the church for six years past, I can see nothing that convinces me that God has been our leader; calculation after calculation has failed, and plan after plan has been overthrown, and our prophet seemed not to know the event till too late. If he said go up and prosper, still we did not prosper; but have labored and toiled, and waded through trials, difficulties, and temptations, of various kinds, in hope of deliverance. But no deliverance came.”
You then write, â€œEverything Corrill said was true. The great work had met defeat after defeat.â€? How do you reconcile Josephâ€™s mistakes with the idea that the prophet will not lead the Church astray?
There is a difference between leading the Church astray and keeping the Church out of trouble. The early Christian apostles could not end opposition to and persecution of the primitive Church. Sometimes doing the right thing leads to suffering and death.
(10) There are only a handful of majestic, powerful images of Joseph Smith in this book, such as the scene where he orders the prison guards silent on pain of death lest they continue their blasphemy, obscene jests, and filthy language. Why are there not more â€œfaith-promoting storiesâ€? in Rough Stone Rolling? Are they not substantiated by the historical record? Are they not germane to your portrait?
I did as a policy avoid stories told long after Josephâ€™s death. There are so many reasons to exaggerate and distort that it complicates the writing terribly to enter all the qualifications necessary to evaluate these posthumous accounts. Actually I felt there was plenty that was inspiring in the materials I was more confident of. I find inspiration in prophetic sorrow and defeat as well as in triumph.
(11) In the context of the revelation commanding polygamy, you wrote, â€œThe possibility of an imaginary revelation, erupting from his own heart and subconscious mind, seems not to have occurred to Joseph.â€? But it apparently occurred to you. For some members, what is most troubling about pre-Utah polygamy (besides, of course, the practice itself) includes the secrecy, public disavowals, and the fact that many of Joseph Smithâ€™s wives were already married to other men. How do you make sense of the Churchâ€™s history of polygamy?
I sense two related questions here. One has to do with the possibility that Joseph was misled; the other about the miseries and deceptions following from plural marriage. I donâ€™t think Joseph entertained the possibility of self-deception. He knew all too well the horrendous consequences for the Church and himself personally in instituting plural marriage. Though usually punctilious in obeying the commandments, he delayed nearly a decade (save for the unhappy experiment with Fanny Alger) before complying with this one. Once into plural marriage, he found himself ensnared in all the convoluted activities you name. The expediencies he adopted made him and lots of other people unhappy. I donâ€™t know anyone who can make real sense of this. All I can say is that the practice did result in the creation of a powerful culture in fifty years. The descendants of the people who came through those times are the core of faithful members today. In actual fact, plural marriage did raise up a people to the Lord.
(12) Your epilogue begins with the famous statement from Joseph Smith: â€œYou donâ€™t know meâ€”you never will I donâ€™t blame you for not believing my history had I not experienced it [I] could not believe it myself.â€? After researching and writing this book, you come closer to experiencing his history than most of the Saints. Do you feel that you know Joseph Smith?
Only in part. There are too many veils between us and Joseph Smith. I am pretty sure there were struggles and sorrows in his life we know not of. Were there visions and glories too? Probably. I do know he was an exceptionally strong man who could bear defeat and discouragement without giving up. Courage may have been one of his strongest traits.
(13) Melissa also asked: Do you think this is the sort of book that, had you written it as a young scholar, would have negatively impacted your career? In other words, do you think that the fact that you are retired gave you some freedom to write a book that you couldn’t have written if you were trying to get tenure?
I donâ€™t think writing about Joseph Smith would have counted against me so long as the scholarship was sound. My historical colleagues respected my first book on the Prophet which contains all the really demanding episodes, save for plural marriage. It was published five years before I was offered the job at Columbia.