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.