Rough Stone Rolls Into Times and Seasons

December 5, 2005 | 15 comments
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Since its release, Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling has been the subject of conference sessions, media reports, bloggernacle essays and academic conversations far and wide. Seeking to engage Bushman in a sustained and interactive conversation about this compelling new biography of Joseph Smith, we are pleased to announce a symposium running this week at Times and Seasons. Watch for a new review of the book to appear every day with a response from Bushman to follow.

To introduce the symposium and provide a contrast to the coming reviews we thought it might be of interest to offer a window into what sorts of questions Rough Stone Rolling is raising for some non-LDS scholars. Last month at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, one session was entirely devoted to responding to Bushman’s book. Here is the gist of what these scholars had to say.

The first presenter pressed Bushman on his subtitle. What is a “cultural” biography exactly? Is it about contextualizing the figure? This is not what it seems to mean to Bushman who takes a quite different approach. Culture is not used to give a naturalistic explanation of Joseph Smith, but to show how he’s unique. For example, Bushman writes that the Book of Mormon might be considered a “profound social protest.” But, in fact, it makes sense to say, and many have in fact said, that the Book of Mormon is rather the very embodiment of the cultural period.

His second critique was that Bushman does not portray Mormonism as a new religious movement with a charismatic leader although it belongs in this category. Joseph is described as an emotionally and verbally abusive leader who insists on strict loyalty from followers. When that loyalty is breached there are heavy consequences. When proper contrition is showed, followers are welcomed back to the group. These are characteristics of charismatic cult leaders. Another feature of such movements and their leaders is the perception sexual perversions. Sexual excess was considered the all-too common fruit of new religious leaders. Here is another example where Joseph Smith seems to be a representative of his culture rather than an anomaly. Hence, the book can’t properly be considered a sociological or “cultural” biography since it fails to illustrate how JS was similar to rather than distinct from other charismatic leaders of the time.

The second presenter began by referring to Bushman’s claim that Joseph Smith was a product of his environment that couldn’t be contained by it, that Joseph transcends his context. He questioned Bushman’s desire to distinguish Joseph from the other visionaries of his time to try to shed some light on why Joseph’s movement succeeded when other similar movements failed.

He went on to call Rough Stone Rolling “believing history” and to suggest that believing Mormon historians share more than we might think with radical feminist sociologists since both reject a positivist epistemology. We can neither evaluate Vogel’s work with Bushman’s tools nor Bushman’s work with Vogel’s tools. So, what tools do we use? He asked whether believing history has an agenda and wondered what the prospects of believing history are in the academy where positivist methods reign

The third paper focused on the “very thin tight wire” Bushman had to walk between writing a serious work of scholarly integrity on the central character who founded his religion and repudiating the core assumptions of his faith. The presenter commended Bushman for walking that line admirably well and acknowledged that both the open minded believer and the open minded skeptic will encounter much, new valuable insight here.

He then suggested that a purely sociological biography would flirt with being a contradiction in terms. Of course, every person is a social being with a social history of self-meaning, socializing relationships, influences and pressures emanating from others, etc. A good biography will take into account such influences on the character, development and actions of its individual subject. Bushman does this throughout much of his book. The sub-title of the book, “a cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder,” indicates that he takes the cultural emphasis quite seriously. As an historian of the era in American history when Joseph lived, Bushman is knowledgeable about the social and cultural currents of that time period and repeatedly links these to his account of Joseph’s career, character, assumptions and even personality quirks. In fact, one of the ways in which Bushman’s approach differs from many standard biographies is that he doesn’t give us a rigid, detailed, chronicle of every activity or encounter the subject is known to have engaged in. His chapters are identified with significant themes which keeps the narrative from getting bogged down with the minute, inessential details.

But, ultimately a biography is in fact the story of a particular individual, even though it can and should be anchored in the larger social, cultural, and historical milieu in which the individual lives. For a biography to become a purely sociological treatise would amount to more than just taking into account some of the social forces operating on a particular individual. The social forces themselves become the ultimate focus; the career of an individual become a case study to illustrate the nature and effect of these forces. The task of sociology is to study social relationships and the group structures in which they are anchored. The sociologist qua sociology seeks either to develop general social concepts or even theories that have explanatory scope or seeks to apply already existing social concepts or theories to illuminate a specific case.

The book advertises itself as a “cultural” biography, but Bushman doesn’t adequately draw upon existing sociological insights that might broaden or otherwise benefit his interpretation of the singular life, career and character of Joseph Smith as the prophetic founder of a radically controversial, new religious movement. One will look in vain throughout the entire text and endnote section for inclusion of any specifically sociological concept of theory. There is an enormous scholarly literature in sociology on topics like charismatic authority, prophetic leadership in the founding and early development of new religious movements and countless other conceptual themes like reference groups, plausibility structures, utopian social movements, deviance labeling, inter-group conflict, etc. These are issues that have been theoretically and empirically pursued by sociologists for a hundred years from Max Weber to Rodney Stark. None of these works is cited by Bushman. Bushman’s book would have benefited from judicious use of this literature.

The last paper argued that believing history is the same thing as religious apologetics and that sociological analysis must restrict itself to naturalistic explanations. Although Bushman’s book offers a superbly detailed description of JS, there is not general theoretical framework for accounting for Joseph Smith; there is no sociological typology. Sociology necessarily parts company with the particularizing moves of biography.

Richard’s response to these papers was gracious as well as compelling. He acknowledged feeling out of place among the sociologists in the room and then explained his aim was to recover the world of Joseph Smith because that’s the only way to understand the people of the past. If we poke holes in their stories we become unable to understand their power. As an historian he is interested in knowing why Joseph Smith was able to command such allegiance?

Social scientists try to colonize the past. But, as an historian he seeks to enter the exotic and foreign. He wants to know that *other* land. History is like traveling. We have to recover past worlds.

Bushman admitted to being handicapped in this project in one way. He kept trying to answer the question of how JS went from an unpromising rural boy to a prophet, but, just couldn’t answer the question partly because he didn’t want to. He said he *wants* it to be a marvel. He wants Joseph to be as difficult to understand as Muhammad is.

And so he is for many.

These are the questions the scholars are posing. What questions do you have? Perhaps some of your questions will be answered this week as we discuss Rough Stone Rolling on Times and Seasons.

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15 Responses to Rough Stone Rolls Into Times and Seasons

  1. Jettboy on December 5, 2005 at 11:54 am

    Sounds to me like the wrong group was commenting on the book. As Bushman pointed out, its a history book and not a socialogical biography. It does, however, point out the possible reception this book will have for future work: disrespect and scoffing.

  2. Dave on December 5, 2005 at 12:13 pm

    Thanks for the excellent summary, Melissa. My impression is that it is impossible to write a good biography of a controvesial figure that makes everyone happy. You can certainly write a bad biography of a controversial figure that everyone pans, but even a very good biography of a controversial figure will only make some people happy.

    For all the sociologists’ criticisms, one wonders what a “sociological biography” as opposed to a cultural biography would look like? What kind of biography would please a sociologist except one that effaces the role of the individual subject in favor of social or historical “forces”? The best a true biographer could do to please an audience of sociologists would be to force individuals into neat little categories like “charismatic leader” who leads a “new religious movement,” then explain how the biographical subject talks and acts like any of a dozen other charismatic leaders who started new religious movements. Fine, except that’s not really biography, is it? Forcing the historical subject into neat little sociological categories in fact seems like the antithesis of good history which, if nothing else, strives to get the particular facts right and accord them some weight. So while the sociologists are probably correct in noting that Bushman didn’t write good sociology, that’s probably a compliment to his historical scholarship rather than a criticism.

  3. Frank McIntyre on December 5, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    I agree with Dave. Theories can be great for describing averages and trends but it can be easy to get carried away applying them to particular individuals. Perhaps a sociologist can jump in and point out some examples of sociological biographies, if such a thing exists.

  4. Clark on December 5, 2005 at 12:48 pm

    The comments about positivism were rather interesting. And here I actually thought positivism was the boogey-man of intellectuals. Yet it sounds like some are embracing it? Reminds me of that overly long thread at my blog with Dan Vogel debating the subject.

  5. Jared on December 5, 2005 at 2:16 pm

    the book can’t properly be considered a sociological or “cultural� biography since it fails to illustrate how JS was similar to rather than distinct from other charismatic leaders of the time.

    Well, perhaps not to this person’s satisfaction. There were several times in the biography when Bushman noted similarities between Joseph and others, that the believing part of my brain wanted more distinction. Sometimes a distinction was made, but not always. And even then, the distinctions didn’t seem that stark to me. At least that was my impression.

  6. Jonathan Green on December 5, 2005 at 2:37 pm

    Actually, an entire session devoted to a recent scholarly work is one of the highest forms of respect that academics can show. Another would be critical engagement with a work outside one’s own discipline. Raising objections, posing questions from a new angle that an author may not have yet considered–that’s what academics get paid to do. Maybe I’m missing the whole context, but Melissa’s report on the session strikes me as quite a positive thing; it shows that Bushman’s book is one that can’t be simply ignored in more than one discipline.

  7. John C on December 5, 2005 at 4:41 pm

    I just want to second Jonathan’s comment.

  8. TMD on December 5, 2005 at 4:58 pm

    It seems to me that had Bushman engaged more with the sociological literature he would have had a weaker book. When engaging with theory, the study of a single individual is by definition to what I would consider a case (unless you could break it up through time, but then you just have a highly biased small-n sample). This means his conclusion is either: these theories work (which means it’s a trite and unintersting case) OR these theories don’t work and I don’t know which one does (too many degree of freedom, having more theories/hypotheses than cases) (a book without any conclusions). Neither of which is very interesting. Only only only if you have a particular person whose life/experience is particularly intersting for the plausibility of the theory itself does ‘sociological biography’ make sense, and then the theory is the real focus of the book rather than the subject (see for instance Robert Wuthnow’s discussion of Martin Luther as a means of examining his concept of articulation, (Communities of Discourse, Harvard, 1989)).

    Lacking his own theory, it would be odd and narrowing for Bushman to engage seriousy with sociology. Why this was not obvious to the sociologist is unclear to me…

    History is a great ground for social scientists to learn how people interact, and while social science can be the source of insights about history, it cannot provide a comprehensive answer to the kinds of questions Bushman asks. Those questions are beyond its scope.

    Additionally, I don’t think we should be concerned with how professional historians and sociologists respond to the book, since it is after all a biography and the place of biography in the academy is itself questionable (and questioned).

  9. TMD on December 5, 2005 at 5:07 pm

    errr, too few degrees of freedom

  10. danithew on December 5, 2005 at 8:39 pm

    What interests me is that during Joseph Smith’s own lifetime, some people (even he, it seems) saw a viable comparison between Joseph Smith’s future legacy and that of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. There’s a quote I’m looking for that I heard in church, where a former governor (in Missouri?) made the comparison. Anyone know the quote I’m talking about?

    And btw, how is the accuracy of your site visit counter? ‘Cos it looks like it’s getting close to the 1 millionth visitor.

  11. Bill on December 5, 2005 at 9:42 pm

    I was a the same stake conference, Danithew. Here is the quote in question, from Governor Ford of Illinois (the comparison to Mohammed seems to have something to do with polygamy, something left out of the conference exegesis):

    “It is to be feared,” wrote Ford as he faced death,
    that, in course of a century, some gifted man like Paul, some splendid orator, . . . may succeed in breathing a new life into this modern Mahometanism, and make the name of the martyred Joseph ring as loud, and stir the souls of men as much, as the mighty name of Christ itself. Sharon, Palmyra, Manchester, Kirtland, Far West, Adamon Diahmon, Ramus, Nauvoo, and the Carthage Jail, may become holy and venerable names, places of classic interest, in another age; like Jerusalem, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Calvary to the Christian, and Mecca and Medina to the Turk. And in that event, the author of this history feels degraded by the reflection, that the humble governor of an obscure State, who would otherwise be forgotten in a few years, stands a fair chance, like Pilate and Herod, by their official connection with the true religion, of being dragged down to posterity with an immortal name, hitched on to the memory of a miserable impostor. There may be those whose ambition would lead them to desire an immortal name in history, even in those humbling terms. I am not one of that number. [Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois . . . (Chicago, 1854), pp. 359-60]

    I stole the citation from this site, where it is surrounded by other context:

    http://www.rickgrunder.com/Ford%20Items/Ford%20Message%201844/ford1844.htm

  12. danithew on December 5, 2005 at 10:54 pm

    Thanks Bill. That’s the quote I was looking for.

  13. Jonathan Green on December 9, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    To everyone at T&S: a thousand thanks for organizing this, especially to the reviewers, and to Richard Bushman for participating. The reviews and responses are some of the most thoughtful and intelligent things I’ve ever read, with plenty to think about and chew over for a long time to come.

  14. Nate Oman on December 9, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan. We are glad that you have enjoyed it…

  15. Noel Hausler on December 15, 2005 at 10:28 pm

    I first read anythng Bushman wrote was in Dialogue Spring 1969. I had been lent material by the Tanners on the First Vision, where extensive quotes from Wes Walters. After Backman’s book came I wrote asking the Tanners if they thought his book was a reasonable response. They forwarded my letter to Walters who provided his own comments about Backman’s book. Backman interestingly enough does not have Walters writings listed in his bibliography.
    Around the same time there was an American couple in my ward, I had just started subscribing to Dialogue. I asked them had they heard any comments from leaders in Slat Lake City as to what they thought of the Journal. Their comment was that they were uphappy about a certain article by a Presbyterian pastor on the revival question and the rather weak response by an LDS historian. Later when I purchased the back issue Spring 1969, I found that historian was none other than Dr Bushman. Reviews of Walter’s & Marquardt’s book Inventing Mormonism by LDS reviewers give grudging praise to his tenacity for dig up material from many sites. As I have yet to read the Bushman;s book , i wonder how much he relied on Backman’s book. Was Joseph Smith’s vision a Jesus vision, a common occurance for many at the time, or a full fledged, occurance motivated by a revival the evidence for which is not conclusive (1820, no but 1823-24 yes)
    Also as Dr Bushman answered a question of mine on Zina Huntington at Griffith University, because of my hearing loss did not get it all. Was this thing with Zina Huntington (chasing another man’s wife ) was something to be acceptaed?

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