Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Vintage Books. 2007.
This book took me a long time to finish – nearly four months! At 784 pages, this is easily one of the largest books I’ve ever read. I won’t try to comment on the historical accuracy of the research, because I’m simply not qualified.
I really enjoyed reading most of this biography. It assumes a faithful approach and always gives Joseph the benefit of the doubt. The authors faith is evident in the conclusions drawn from the historical facts. What is really remarkable about the book is how Bushman sets the stage for active Latter-day Saints to confront and understand difficult aspects of LDS history without coming to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a liar or a fraud.
I wish I had encountered this book 15 years ago. In many ways, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for my faith as a teenager was the polished & flawless portrayal of Joseph Smith by the modern Church. All the church manuals, movies, and other materials present Joseph as an ideal prophet – a flawless man who could do no wrong. Always the victim, Joseph was persecuted for his unwavering faith. It was a version of a prophet I couldn’t accept – a man I couldn’t relate to – an image of a prophet too unrealistic to believe… but I had never been given an alternative…
Bushman does Mormonism a great service by portraying Joseph Smith as a man attempting to do the will of God, subject to his own humanistic limitations. Bushman presents Joseph to be more idealistic than ideal. While it is evident that Bushman would support Joseph as a prophet regardless of the historical record, he doesn’t shy away from discussing Joseph’s flaws & mistakes. The result is a very readable narrative that presents Joseph as a dynamic & charismatic leader, always intent on establishing Zion, never quite aware of his own limitations. Joseph is portrayed as a master religion builder & organizer, eager to establish rituals & ordinances, and always expanding the scope of Christianity.
I would recommend this book for nearly anyone. The book assumes the reader has a basic understanding of general Mormon history (it continually uses phrases like “before the saints migrated to the west…,” seemingly unaware that novice readers might not know about the mass exodus westward. But it’s still certainly an entry-level book – a basic introduction to historical issues surrounding early Mormonism. It was a good follow-up to No Man Knows my History, the other biography of Joseph Smith I read several months ago.