Two Stories—One Faith
Two Stories—One Faith
Reviewed by Louis Midgley
God’s revealing Himself to man, His addressing man, is not merely known through
traditions going back to the remote past and is therefore now “merely
believed” but is genuinely known through present experience which every
human can have if he does not refuse himself to it. This experience is not
a kind of self-experience which every human being can have, of the actualization
of a human potentiality, of the human mind coming into its own, into what
it desires or is naturally inclined to, but something undesired, coming from
outside, going against man’s grain.1
I had previously been invited by my associates to comment on Richard Bushman’s
biography of Joseph Smith, which has come to be known by its subtitle Rough
Stone Rolling. I thought that I had accomplished this assignment
in an essay entitled “Knowing Brother Joseph Again.”2 My colleagues,
it seems, did not agree—I had, they explained, been too subtle. This
opinion shocked me; I have never before been accused of subtlety. It was pointed
out that I never mentioned Richard Bushman or his book in my earlier essay.
But I did not think that was necessary since I had addressed the nagging questions—the
misgivings—that some of the Saints may have about Rough
Stone Rolling, as well as the kinds of things fashioned by critics
of Joseph Smith. In addition, I had set out what I believe is a compelling
argument for why Latter-day Saints should be concerned about Joseph Smith’s
life and times since both the ground and content of the faith of the Saints
are essentially historical. I had also demonstrated that believers are fully
warranted in writing about the Mormon past from within the categories of faith,
and hence we need not cave in to the persistent demands that our history must
be done in secular terms.
Harvard-educated, Bushman began his teaching career at Brigham Young University.
But he soon shifted to teaching at Brown, Boston, and Delaware before ending
as Gouverneur Morris Professor of History at Columbia University. He is known
and highly respected within professional circles. More than any other Latter-day
Saint, he has risen to the top of the American history profession. With his
emphasis on early American history, no one has ever been better equipped or
situated to write the biography of Joseph Smith.3 In addition, Bushman is a skillful literary
craftsman and an especially adroit essayist.
I first encountered Bushman after graduate school, when we both began our
teaching careers at BYU—his career blossomed from there. He was then
busy building on his studies at Harvard by probing Puritan religiosity. He
also surveyed various psychological theories in an effort to see what one
could learn from that literature to better understand both individuals and
movements. He sought to sharpen his own ability to understand empathetically
what drives individuals to hold this or that opinion or to act in different
ways. However, he has not thought it prudent to ground his effort to understand
the past in one or another of the various competing theories found in the
social sciences. No psychological theory can possibly unravel the supposed
secret springs of human motivations and actions. Efforts to penetrate the
way people project themselves leave us in the end with our own projection
and hence also with a mere question-begging confirmation of the skeptical
theory we have chosen to employ.
Whatever else one might say about Bushman, it is clear that he has been,
from his days as a missionary, a devoted believer. I believe he operates on
something like the assumption, to borrow language from David Hume, that “reason
is, and ought to be the slave of the passions.”4 If we begin to fathom the passions at
work in others (and ourselves)—our expectations, hopes, deepest desires—we
will better comprehend the reasons we and others give to justify our deeds
and hence also what really drives the arguments we set out, as well as the
strength and weakness of our understanding of the drama here below.
Bushman has a temperament reflecting both his deepest convictions, as well
as the qualities of his soul. He is irenic at least most of the time. He shies
away from confrontations. His approach to intellectual and social history
is rarely if ever directly argumentative. Instead, he is constantly probing
for a larger and deeper understanding. By this I mean that he strives to see
why people argue the way they do. Where others may focus directly and even
entirely on the details of arguments others advance, Bushman strives to figure
out what drives the arguments or what motivates the framing of an explanation,
objection, or criticism. He is less concerned with the specific details of
arguments. He seeks to figure out why individuals position themselves in the
larger ebb and flow of ideological or intellectual fads and fashions. He has
stressed, for example, the place deep in the hearts and minds of both sectarian
and secular critics of Joseph Smith, both then and now, wherein lie the powerful
background assumptions derived from Enlightenment skepticism about divine
things and fear of fanaticism. His approach to severe critics of Joseph Smith
and the faith of the Saints is to unravel sympathetically the deeper reasons
behind their arguments and objections. I am not insisting that Bushman does
not confront arguments or that he does not provide reasoned responses to the
arguments offered by others, whether Latter-day Saint or not. Instead, I want
to stress that he is not confrontational or argumentative in the way in which
he scrutinizes claims and criticisms or fashions accounts of the past.
When I encountered Bushman in 1968, I quickly came to the conclusion that
he would eventually use his gifts to write a biography of Joseph Smith. I
was convinced that he would not be able to avoid doing this, given his training,
interests, intellectual gifts, and solid faith. I can think of no other Latter-day
Saint better fitted for such a task. There is simply no one in the LDS community
more qualified to undertake such a daunting endeavor. In 1984 my expectations
were at least partially realized. Soon after Leonard Arrington was made head
of the nascent History Department of the Church, a series of studies of the
Mormon past was commissioned. Bushman was asked to write the key initial volume.5 The result
was the eventual publication of Joseph Smith
and the Beginnings of Mormonism (hereafter Beginnings).6
This book was well received by faithful Latter-day Saints. In it he was able
to deal effectively with what enemies of the church have long insisted were
fatal flaws in Joseph Smith’s early ministry. On the crucial first period
in Joseph Smith’s life, Bushman surpassed all other previous accounts.7
The publication of Beginnings came
just as word was leaked to the press by enemies of the church about the notorious
Salamander letter—Mark Hofmann’s most famous Mormon forgery. When Bushman’s
attention was drawn to that strange letter, he merely tinkered with a few
words on one page. He thereby avoided being sucked into desolate speculation
about the historical grounds of the faith of the Saints. His book was thus
not flawed by entanglement with the rabid nonsense generated by the Hofmann
forgeries. There is no large salamander-shaped hole in the middle of Beginnings, as there is in other books written
by authors in thrall to Hofmann’s forgeries.8
Beginnings became an important
source of information as well as of understanding for Latter-day Saints (or
interested non-LDS) of Joseph Smith’s controversial and hence crucial early
history. Those Latter-day Saints who were familiar with this book, including
the Brethren, thought highly of it. One bit of evidence that this was the
case is that Beginnings was included
in the packet of materials given by the Church of Jesus Christ to libraries
in the United States and English-speaking Canada, as well as in Australia
and New Zealand. I became familiar with this matter in 2000 when I was asked
to assist in placing some of these packets in university libraries in Auckland,
New Zealand. I doubt that Beginnings
would have been present in that packet if the Brethren were not pleased with
For a scholarly book written by a faithful, competent Latter-day Saint, Beginnings
sold well. But it did not reach more than a few of the Saints. And the story
Bushman told ended just after there began to be a tiny community of Saints—that
is, soon after the events leading to the recovery and publication of the Book
of Mormon, the experience of the witnesses, the restoration of the priesthood,
and the reception of the initial revelations. Although I very much admired
Beginnings and recommended it whenever I could,
I was also annoyed that it stopped where it did. I was, therefore, delighted
when it was announced that Bushman would write a full biography of Joseph
In Beginnings, Bushman had described
the crucial founding events. I have argued elsewhere that, if the story of
the visits to Joseph Smith by a heavenly messenger and the subsequent recovery
through the gift and power of God of the Book of Mormon, and the events that
launched the fledgling Church of Christ—those crucial first
steps—hold up to critical scrutiny, then nothing “can
really detract from the miracle of the whole.”9 Beginnings contains a remarkable account of
those first steps.
Not everyone, of course, was pleased with Beginnings. Some critics expressed misgivings
because they noted the absence of trendy explanations drawn from the social
sciences or appeals to a thoroughly secular religious studies literature.
Those with a strong emotional investment in picturing Brother Joseph as something
other than a genuine seer and authentic prophet were displeased with Beginnings.
Criticism of Beginnings was found
on the margins of the Mormon intellectual community, but outside the circle
of faith—from those I call cultural Mormons—and, of course, from
within the Community of Christ (then RLDS). Virtually no one in the larger
secular environment knew enough or cared sufficiently to form a coherent opinion.
This can be seen with responses to Beginnings
but even more so with Rough Stone Rolling.
Some of the same people on the margins of the Latter-day Saint intellectual
community who objected to Bushman in 1984 have again been hostile to Rough Stone Rolling.10
Stories Rather Than Formal Theology
In Rough Stone Rolling Bushman
incorporated the bulk of five of the six chapters that constituted Beginnings. In these chapters he examined
the Smith family background, Joseph’s first visions, the recovery of the Book
of Mormon, as well as the controversy it generated, and the legal organization
of the Church of Christ. This previously published, calm, deftly written,
judicious account augured well for what has now become a full biography of
Brother Joseph. The final chapter in Beginnings,
entitled “The Restoration of All Things,”11 was not included in Rough Stone Rolling, except for an anecdote
involving Newel K. Whitney (see Rough
Stone Rolling, 127), though the other five chapters, with some
editing and additions, constitute a fifth of Rough
Stone Rolling. Since Beginnings
essentially ended with the legal organization of the Church of Christ, “The
Restoration of All Things” appears to have been an essay that Bushman
tacked onto his 1984 account of Joseph Smith, and hence it did not fit the
In that fine ten-page essay that concludes Beginnings, Bushman contrasts the faith of
those gathered into a tiny community of believers by the Book of Mormon (and
other early revelations) with the formal theology of the Disciples of Christ
as set forth first by Thomas Campbell and then by his son Alexander, who sought
to restore a primitive Christianity as they imagined it to be in the New Testament.
One crucial difference between Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith, from Bushman’s
perspective, was that Campbell was fully “a child of the Enlightenment,
ordering, rationalizing, systematizing.” Thus
when Alexander Campbell pulled his teachings together into a treatise in
1835, he explained how he had arrived at his principles: “The object
of this volume is to place before the community in a plain, definite and perspicuous
style, the capital principles which have been elicited, argued out,
developed, and sustained in a controversy of twenty-five years, by
the tongues and pens of those who rallied under the banner of the Bible alone.”12
Joseph Smith began his ministry by recovering the Book of Mormon and then
portions of the words of Moses (and also Enoch). Hence what Brother Joseph
offered was something radically different from Alexander Campbell’s “restoration.”
For those early Saints, “the sacred history of the past at that point
flowed into the Mormon present,”13 just as it does now. What Joseph restored
encourages the Saints to enter a world not unlike that recorded in the scriptures.
For the Saints the rhythm of historical events described in the Bible has
not ended but is still taking place now. We must, however, have the desire
and then the eyes to see. For the first Saints, it was the recovery by a strange
means of the tragic story of the Lehi colony and then the visions of Moses
and Enoch, and also what those stories taught those first faithful about the
heavens being open, that grounded their faith. This made those earliest members
of the Church of Christ radically different from the Campbellites, who merely
attempted a dogmatic theology fashioned by disputation from the Bible alone.
The Book of Mormon and the subsequent Book of Moses (with its account of
Enoch’s ascent to heaven) are dramatically different from Campbellite theology,
which was an effort to distill “the essence of the Gospel from the scriptures,
turning Bible stories and preachments into an orderly set of principles. Joseph
Smith’s revelations, on the other hand, made new sacred narratives that were
themselves the foundation of belief.”14 The faith of the Saints both then and
now rests on a story of the dramatic opening of the heavens to a rough young
fellow who was also a mighty seer, whose revelations took the imaginations
of the Saints all the way back to before this world and hence to a grand council
in the heavens and then forward to a future that transcends the turmoil of
this world. “The greatest error,” according to Bushman, “would
be to mistake these narratives from ancient times as mere objects of curiosity,
revealing a Mormon taste for the mysteries of antiquity.”15
As indicated by Bushman, what separated Campbellite religiosity from the
faith of those gathered into the Church of Christ
was not so much the Gospel Mormons taught, which in many respects resembled
other Christians’ teachings, but what they believed had happened—to
Joseph Smith, to Book of Mormon characters, and to Moses and Enoch. Mormons
ever afterward were unable to take much interest in formal theology or
systematizing treatises like Campbell’s. No such attempts achieved the
place in Mormon faith that creeds assumed in other churches. The core of Mormon
belief was a conviction about actual events. The test of faith was not adherence
to a certain confession of faith but belief that Christ was resurrected, that
Joseph Smith saw God, that the Book of Mormon was true history, that Peter,
James and John restored the apostleship. Mormonism was history, not philosophy.16
Of course, those first “Mormon missionaries taught a familiar Gospel.”17 What
then was the crucial difference between what Joseph Smith offered and sectarian
theology? Bushman answers correctly that “Mormon principles came by revelation.”18 Thus,
according to Bushman,
The Prophet showed no sign of wavering when exposed to the scorn of Palmyra’s
rationalist editors and to the criticism of Campbell himself. Joseph told
of the visits of angels, of direct inspiration, of a voice in the chamber
of Father Whitmer, without embarrassment. He prized the Urim and Thummim and
the seerstone, never repudiating them even when the major charge against him
was that he used magic to find buried money. His world was not created by
Enlightenment rationalism with its deathly aversion to superstition.19
The visions and the revelations to and through Joseph Smith do not provide
an account of the nature of things but are, instead, a history written from
the perspective of covenants and commandment (and hence also of the blessings
and cursings associated with obedience or disobedience), and not formal theology
or even bits of information to be assembled by us into a catalogue of beliefs.
The texts constituting our scriptures should not be seen as badly done philosophy
that we should now work at sorting out. Put more bluntly, we live by stories,
which include revelations to seers and prophets, and also to those who wish
to make and keep covenants that may transform us into the seed of the Christ,
if we endure in faith. Such is not the product of learned disputations, and
it is not a formal system. The revelations invite us, instead, to enter into
the ongoing history of salvation and exaltation.20 The point is to invite us to participate
in the kingdom of God not merely then and there in a remote past, but also
in a proximate here and now.
For those who want everything explained, everything nailed down, stories
may seem the wrong way to go. So there is an urge among some Saints to turn
stories into at least dogmatic theology. There are also those who tend to
see the scriptures as badly set out formal or systematic theology. They want
the contents and culturally conditioned stories from several parts of the
world over long periods of time to yield theoretical knowledge of the nature
of things. They insist on harmonizing fragmentary stories—they want
Mormon Doctrine. I am not troubled by the incompleteness and unfinished character
of stories found in our scriptures and elsewhere; the disarray of these stories
does not offend me. If I have read Terryl Givens and Bushman correctly, they
see in our Joseph Smith/Book of Mormon founding story and in what flows from
it an invitation by God for us to enter into the very same world found in
the scriptures—a world pulsing with divine powers, one in which we struggle
to keep commandments and find favor in God’s sight and so forth, and one in
which by our uncoerced decisions—our faith and repentance—we become
partners with God in a glorious endeavor. God does not compel us but invites
us, and, if we respond, he will both test and assist us, since he loves us
and desires that we become like him. We discover that we are engaged in a
struggle in which there are real losses and real gains. This larger story
is, of course, rough, unpolished, and unfinished since it continues even now
as we face our own Liberty Jail or Heartbreak Ridge. The subplots and details
are also necessarily couched in the language of the people who experienced
them. Our explanations of our encounters with the divine are always something
less than the experience itself. We are invited to live in an enchanted world
filled with real dangers, wonders, and also hope.
“A Developing History”
Bushman, I believe, is on solid ground in his explanation at the end of Beginnings.
Put bluntly, the Saints live by—and in—stories21
rather than by creeds, confessions, or formal theologies, whether dogmatic or
systematic or otherwise. Some critics have complained that we do not have a
theology but instead a history that takes the place of theology or carefully
worked-out creedal statements. Others, however, who are aware of this, have
not made it an object of derision. For example, Martin Marty, a rather liberal
Lutheran churchman and author whom Jan Shipps lionized as one of the current
“deans of American religious history,”22
read an address at Westminster College in Salt Lake City on 20 March 1989
in which he argued that “Mormons have not made much of doctrine, of theology:
they especially live as chosen and covenanted people in part of a developing
history.”23 Marty thus also recognizes
that “much is at stake when the story is threatened, as it potentially
could have been when forged documents concerning Mormon origins agitated the
community and led to tragedy a few years ago.”24
Beginning even before the publication of the Book of Mormon, our critics have
insisted that in various, often competing, ways we are captives of a superstition
that corrupts our understanding.
Marty maintains that we live by stories—all of us. 25 A people stripped of the memory
of its past ceases to have an identity. Our individual memory of who and what
we are is our own story. In addition, as communal beings we have an identity
that also necessarily involves a story or perhaps a bundle of sometimes even
conflicting and competing stories. What Marty calls “religious communities”
also live by stories. As these stories fade, the vitality of faith melts away.
This can now be seen taking place in Europe and the United Kingdom, as well
as in intellectual circles in the United States.
I have entitled this essay “Two Stories—One Faith.” The first
of the two stories is, of course, the story of Joseph Smith’s encounters with
a heavenly messenger, of a massive history of the travels and travails in a
strange land by a portion of the covenant people of God. This story also involves
Joseph Smith actually possessing real artifacts from the distant past—including
metal plates containing that previously unknown history, as well as what in
the Book of Mormon are called Interpreters (or Directors)—two seer stones.26
This is only the beginning of what, to those outside the circle of faith, often
seems absurd—a strange, impossible story. But the fact is that this story
grounds the faith of the Saints.
The faith of the Saints is both grounded on and consists of two stories, one of which centers on the founding
events—the recovery of the Book of Mormon and so forth—while the
other larger story consists of a glimpse of a cosmic and then a fully redemptive
history. The first story concerns a heavenly messenger tutoring Joseph Smith
and preparing him to recover a previously unknown history we know as the Book
of Mormon. What flows from the first story is another story of complexity
and rich detail. Its recovery gradually opened for Joseph and then for the
Saints a plan vast in scope that looks back to a deep past where there was
once a war in heaven (that continues even now here below). This larger second
story thus begins with a grand council, with fierce debates in which we were
once even observers or participants, then our own mortal existence understood
as a probation, with the possibility of an eventual glorious return to the
presence of God in the future. The larger story rests on the truth of the
initial grounding story—they are not separable. One cannot pick and
choose what one likes in the second story while rejecting the grounding and
founding in the first story.27
Marty argues that such stories have a history-like character but are actually
both more and less than what we currently imagine constitutes history. According
to Marty, standing behind Jewish communal identity is the story of “how
this God chose Israel and covenanted with the nation. This was a moral God,
whose judgments were to fall on Egypt and Assyria,” though divine judgments
often “fell most strongly on the chosen and covenanted people.”28 Latter-day
Saints will recognize this story since they share much of its contents. This
story and the vehicles through which it is preserved, even for those many
who now tend to explain away the very idea of God “as a projection, an
illusion, an invention to fill social needs” (lifting explanations from
Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx and their disciples), still provide a foil against
which their Jewish identity is formed and preserved.29 Marty also points out that Shi’ite and
Sunni Muslims live by their own similar but also competing stories. “Christians
similarly live by story. They see God’s activity in the events, words, works,
circumstances, and effects of Jesus Christ and tell the story of his death
and resurrection as constitutive of the faith that forms their community.”30 Marty also recognizes that all forms
of faith with historical content and grounding face the corrosive impact of
modernity—that is, pervasive post-Enlightenment skepticism, especially
in elite circles, about divine things, as well as fear of fanaticism and superstition.31
Living in the Story
The Saints, I believe, have been able to enter a delightful world much like
that described in our scriptures, though like everyone else, unfortunately,
we still tend to have one foot in Babylon, even if it is not currently known
by that name. The Saints have often opened their hearts and minds and entered
into an enchanted world in which the divine is present. The Book of Mormon and
the story of its recovery make this possible for the Saints. In this and other
ways the faith of the Saints, if and when it is genuine, is historical—that
is, involves stories that form its ground but that also invite everyone to have
their own place in a story not entirely unlike that which they encounter in
Every effort we make to forget or ignore our past only opens the door to
disillusionment among the Saints, especially when those outside the circle
of faith present elements of our past in a distorted way. It is far better
that faithful Latter-day Saints present the rich details of our history rather
than dissidents, cultural Mormons, or sectarian or secular critics. Young
people are especially vulnerable to having their faith disturbed, if and when
they discover elements in our past that we have ignored or, for whatever reason,
neglected to set forth for them. The Internet, if not the printing press,
the bookstore, and the library, has made almost everything—including,
of course, the gutter and the sewer—accessible to anyone with a computer.
I believe that we cannot and should not hide or be embarrassed by details
about the Mormon past. Of course our history is not the story of perfect people.
We are all faltering and imperfect. It is far better for someone like Bushman,
whatever flaws there might be in Rough Stone
Rolling, to have dealt as well as he could with the rich details
in Joseph Smith’s career than for these to be brandished before us by our
If Bushman is right, many of the early Saints learned that someone who was
a visionary had through the gift and power of God recovered the Book of Mormon,
which contains the fulness of the gospel—that is, the absolute necessity
of faith (understood as trust) in Jesus as Messiah or Christ, repentance (understood
as turning or returning to God), the gift of the Holy Spirit and enduring
to the end, all part of a plan set out in the beginning and pointing the faithful
to a glorious future.32 Some of those early Saints may not have
even known Joseph Smith’s name. It was the message—the really good news
in this otherwise disconsolate world—that was primary. This is still
true. The Book of Mormon seems to have been for the Saints mostly a sign—evidence—that
the heavens were once again open and the authentic gifts of the Holy Spirit
were again available to those who wished to enter into covenants in which
they could, if faithful—that is, if they endured to the end—be
sanctified and thereby become the children or seed of the Holy One of Israel,
who would then be their Father.
The Seven-Year Travail
Bushman had already earned considerable credibility as a historian. In order
for him to retain credibility within the historical profession, especially with
those who are inclined to be critics of Mormon things, he had to demonstrate
that he was aware of and had confronted as well as he could every question and
objection a diverse non-LDS audience might have. Since the Saints are largely
unaware of these criticisms, it was imperative for him to instruct the Saints
while also responding to a variety of skeptics. In writing a biography of Joseph
Smith, he had to master in a mere seven years as well as he could what he believed
were the most relevant portions of the enormous primary and secondary literature
on Joseph Smith and Mormon origins, as well as the literature on the cultural
setting and controversies in which those events took place. Obviously the fewer
the sources, and the less controversial the person, the easier it would be to
write a biography. In dealing with Joseph Smith, one must face the complexity
of the background and cultural setting of the prophet.
A major hurdle for Bushman was carefully identifying and then probing the richness
of Joseph Smith’s fourteen-year ministry. Joseph experienced and accomplished
a vast number of things in such a very short time—a mere fourteen years!
For anyone over forty, that number might come as a shock. One is led to ask:
did all that happen in a mere fourteen years? It is a bit ironic that, with
all the technology currently available and as much assistance as anyone could
possibly want or need, it still required seven years for Bushman to tell Joseph’s
story. Those who have not attempted to write social or intellectual history
may not appreciate the difficulty of undertaking a biography of Joseph Smith.
Possible Latter-day Saint Concerns
Only a tiny minority of Latter-day Saints have followed the efforts of scholars
to sort out the details concerning the life of Joseph Smith or of the efforts
of our critics to pull the church from its historical foundations by picking
on this or that detail. Some of the Saints might be troubled by certain things
they find in Rough Stone Rolling
since they may not have previously been aware of this or that detail about
Joseph Smith’s career. When the Saints encounter Rough Stone Rolling, they may for the first
time face details with which they are quite unfamiliar. Some might be uncomfortable
with Bushman having dealt with difficult issues; even though they are themselves
more or less aware of these matters, they may wish he had not addressed them.
They may even believe that mentioning some things might harm the faith of
others. I thought that I had already addressed all or most of these in “Knowing
Brother Joseph Again.”33
Much like technology generally, the Internet is both a curse and a blessing.
It makes possible the proliferation of anti-Mormon Web sites and also of various
lists, boards, and blogs, all at best of mixed quality. But it has also opened
the door to sophisticated defenses of the faith and the Saints. Even those
striving hard to advance an anti-Mormon agenda have ended up in desperation
posting links that unravel the very literature they seek to promote. Where
once, and not too long ago, the conversation on Joseph Smith’s prophetic truth
claims was largely confined to crude anti-Mormon potboilers or to magazines
known only to a few of the Saints and to even fewer of their enemies, now
the Internet has made much of the primary and secondary literature available
to anyone who has access to a computer and the ability to use a search engine.
So it is no longer possible for either friend or foe to ignore issues.
Before the Internet, Bushman had been able to deal with all the presumably
sticky issues involving Joseph Smith in Beginnings.
Despite the critics, his account has held up. Why then is there concern about
Rough Stone Rolling? Never before has a book
by an LDS scholar immediately reached such a large audience. What may trouble
a few of the Saints about Rough Stone Rolling
are such things as his candid accounts of polygamy or his willingness to picture
the Prophet with passions. Some may ask why he had to bring up such matters.
Some might actually prefer a two-dimensional cardboard figure. They may prefer
to believe, though they must know better, that Joseph knew everything from
the moment of his first encounter with a heavenly messenger or that he was
never perplexed or at a loss for understanding, that he was always in full
command of every situation, a model of emotional self-control, and hence that
he would never manifest hostility. But the textual record clearly shows otherwise.
And the story one tells must be grounded on the textual record and not on
what we might wish or imagine. It is an obvious mistake to insist on turning
Joseph Smith into the image of what we may now think a prophet must be. Joseph
Smith was not omniscient, and he clearly does not fit our current idealized
model of human perfection; he was also not inerrant or infallible. He was,
as I indicated in “Knowing Brother Joseph Again,” both less than
we might imagine and also much more. And Bushman has it right, Brother Joseph
was a “rough stone rolling.”
Joseph was also both a seer as well as a prophet—hence more than an
ordinary village visionary. Sections of our Doctrine and Covenants were received
by him in a strange, entirely unconventional way—by looking at his seer
stone, just as he had done in dictating the Book of Mormon to scribes.34 He also
dictated revelations in which both he and the Saints were addressed by deity.
If Bushman is correct, he was his own best disciple—he carefully studied
those revelations to try to find direction. We commit a mistake when we make
these sorts of things seem bland, commonplace, or ordinary. I believe that
we should be stunned when we read the language of our scriptures. The fact
is that these things were anything but routine or ordinary.
Bushman argues that for the earliest Saints it was exactly the news that
the heavens had once again opened that brought people into the Church of Christ
and then began to make some of them turn away from Babylon. It was not Joseph’s
personality that mattered. Of course he was rough, unpolished—Bushman
is right about that. Joseph was passionate—he had a temper. He should
not be normalized, turned into a model husband or parent or corporate executive,
or seen as a model for conducting successful business ventures. His greatness
issues from the fact that he was chosen by God and then stuck with his calling
come what may—that he endured. Despite one disaster after another, messages
from heaven guided both Brother Joseph and the Saints forward through a sea
of troubles since nothing ever turned out the way he or they hoped or expected.
We should all desire to know as much as possible about Joseph Smith. I am
disheartened when I notice signs of indifference to him. My own passionate
interest in Brother Joseph, as I have explained in “Knowing Brother Joseph
Again,” is grounded in my belief that he was the human vehicle who set
out the ways in which I now have access to divine things and a hope for a
glorious future. Joseph made available for us the Book of Mormon, the priesthood,
the revelations, and hence the understanding that we can live in a community
in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be experienced and where both justification
and sanctification (deification) are part of the plan of happiness. I am,
of course, also aware and pleased that a large number of Saints, by encountering
only the bare outlines of Brother Joseph’s story, have been able to enter
a world in which the divine is present. I am also aware that the recovery
of the Book of Mormon, even when its explicit teachings were not the primary
focus—which seems to have been the case until rather recently—assured
the Saints that the heavens are not closed. For the Saints this is wonderful
Bushman could not have ignored the literature critical of Joseph Smith and
been either honest or credible; he had to take up issues that may surprise
some of the Saints. Those who are troubled by discovering in Rough Stone Rolling a discussion of issues
they are anxious about or that they fear will not be inspirational or edifying
must understand that we simply cannot pretend that some things did not happen;
we must, instead, cherish what is a truly amazing, complicated, and rich history.
By doing this openly, we avoid the charge that we have sanitized our history,
that we hide our past, and that there are things that, if known, would pull
the church from its foundations.
Whatever mistakes or flaws there might be in Rough Stone Rolling, and I believe there are
some of these, the fact is that, by telling Joseph Smith’s story from within
the categories of his own deep faith, Bushman has made a very large contribution
to building and defending the kingdom.
I am, of course, sympathetic with those who have, perhaps for the first time,
confronted details in the always controversial, rich, and wonderful story
of the founding prophet of this dispensation. In “Knowing Brother Joseph
Again,” I described my own youthful experience when I encountered something
in a biography of Joseph Smith that I found challenging. I discovered even
as a kid that one can learn by looking into those things that seem troubling
and then profit even from strident criticisms of the founding prophet and
his story.35 We should,
I believe, not hide from those things that trouble us but, as far as possible,
seek additional light by looking further into the textual evidence; we should
ponder more deeply when we are startled or think we have found a mistake in
some effort by one of the Saints to tell the founding story of our faith.36
Addressing Different Audiences
Bushman clearly wanted to speak convincingly to those not within the circle
of faith; he wanted to write in such a way that Joseph Smith would be accessible
to those who are not Latter-day Saints. He wanted to get those not of his faith
to go along with his account of Joseph’s life and times. He also wanted to take
them both into and beyond the challenging “first steps” and into the
larger story. His standing within the history profession made it possible to
have Rough Stone Rolling published by a distinguished press. Never before
has a national publisher sold as many copies of a book by a Latter-day Saint.
Bushman seems to have believed that he had figured out a way of getting non–Latter-day
Saints to accept his account in his account of Joseph Smith. He was, it turns
out, wrong. He had underestimated the hostility about Mormon things among
cultural elites, both Christian and otherwise. Bushman seems to have been
both dismayed and shocked by the reception Rough Stone Rolling has received among those
who are not Latter-day Saints. He had lived among them and hence thought he
knew how to speak to those folks. Perhaps his easy way of making friends misled
him about how they really see his faith. Be that as it may, he tailored Rough Stone Rolling to get them to see Joseph
Smith as something other than a scoundrel, but he essentially failed. He now
regrets not writing Rough Stone Rolling
as an advocate rather than by submerging his own deepest convictions in an
effort to get non–Latter-day Saints to take Brother Joseph seriously.
How do I know these things? I have followed the blogs in which Rough
Stone Rolling has been debated and have also read a number of interviews
with Bushman concerning his book. I also own a copy of a remarkably candid
diary in which he reveals his expectations, desires, passions, and disappointments
surrounding the publication of Rough Stone
Rolling. This diary serves as a kind of postpublication apology
for his biography of Joseph Smith. This unusual “book” is entitled
On the Road with Joseph Smith.37 On the Road is, I believe, in some important
ways, though not nearly as polished, better written than Rough Stone Rolling. In his diary, Bushman
speaks effectively to those Saints he may have lost with Rough Stone Rolling. Why? Bushman the believer
stands out; he does not disappear behind long descriptions of events in which
it becomes difficult to determine where he really stands on issues. In addition,
this diary has many of the same qualities that his essays have. Fortunately
most of his LDS essays have recently been assembled in a volume entitled Believing
Bushman is irenic, shrewd, insightful, and calm. His faith shines through
in his essays, though often in unobtrusive, carefully articulated ways. Though
he seems to detest the word apologist
because of its current role in often mindless ideological battles, he is very
much an apologist—that is, a defender of the faith and the Saints. I
admire Bushman’s essays. He is, I believe, at his very best as an essayist.
Hence I urge those Saints who may have misgivings about Rough Stone Rolling to pay close attention both to the
remarkable essays in Believing History
and to On the Road when it is eventually
made easily accessible.
This diary is, I believe, Bushman’s effort to explain and defend what he
tried to do as well as his reaction to what has taken place as he began to
sense that he might have failed to accomplish all that he had hoped in his
biography of Joseph Smith. He clearly thought or hoped that he could keep
Latter-day Saints with him, a phrase he likes, while at the same time dragging
along the Gentiles, whom he seems to have believed he could somehow charm
into setting aside their hostility to Mormon things. He now has recognized,
I believe, that to some extent, in his effort to get the Gentiles to go along
with him on Joseph Smith, he failed to reach either audience in the way he
had expected. His effort to speak in the same dispassionate voice to two radically
different audiences simply failed. The non-LDS audience, as reflected in reviews
and in various other ways, seems to have seen far too much of Bushman’s own
faith in Rough Stone Rolling, which
it turned out that they detest, while at least some of the Saints have wondered
whether he was a believer. I believe that he would have done better if he
had argued his case more directly in Rough
Stone Rolling—that is, if he had explained in some detail
why he simply must mention things that make some Saints uncomfortable and
also why he and other Latter-day Saints can believe what Gentiles insist are
The story of the restoration is more challenging and wonderful than we sometimes
make it appear. When we dumb it down, we do ourselves a big disservice. It
is, among other things, a story that, because its essential prophetic truth
claims are true, radically challenges our worldly desires and assumptions.
It is not merely sentimental feel-good stuff or something vaguely inspirational.
Of course, the basic outlines of Brother Joseph’s story are familiar to Latter-day
Saints. But many of the details are either not known or not sufficiently well-known.
Joseph’s story cannot be reduced even to an account of his encountering a
messenger from the heavens who once lived somewhere in America. That element,
of course, is crucial, but it is not all of the story. By fleshing out Joseph
Smith’s story—the first and founding story of our faith, Bushman has
capped his distinguished career with an important service to the Saints. Whatever
the flaws in his book, Bushman helps us to better appreciate our wonderful
historical legacy, if we are really interested in doing so.
A Short List of Observations about Rough Stone Rolling39
1. Are there flaws in the account of Joseph Smith provided by Bushman? Yes.
(But I am not inclined to discuss these in public.)
2. Did Bushman neglect some primary and secondary literature that would have
been useful for him to have consulted? Yes, of course. That was inevitable.
(Again, I am not interested in calling attention to this in public.)
3. Do I think that Rough Stone Rolling
is the final word on Joseph Smith? No.
4. Are there some things about Rough Stone
Rolling that trouble me? Yes. For one thing, the clumsy way the
citations are packed at the back of the book and then coded to the bibliography.
This is simply an outrage. Why? It makes locating the sources Bushman cites
very difficult. In addition, at times a series of quotations in a paragraph
are packed into a single endnote. Then one has to play the game of figuring
out which quotation comes from which source. Why not just have footnotes with
5. Did I learn new things by reading Rough Stone Rolling? Yes, of course. I encountered many
delightful or troubling bits of information or interpretation. In “Knowing
Brother Joseph Again,” I tried to explain how I believe one should respond
to things that annoy or trouble one when reading the literature on any topic
in which one is interested, and especially on Joseph Smith.40
6. Are there explanations of issues where Bushman could have avoided mistakes
by consulting others? Yes.
7. Will Rough Stone Rolling weaken
the faith of those Saints who read it? No, only in the case of those who insist
on an idealized two-dimensional figure.
8. Did Bushman write in such a way that all the Saints will sense his own
deep faith? No.
9. Should Bushman have exposed his own faith more directly in Rough
Stone Rolling? Yes.
10. Is Rough Stone Rolling superior
to other past or recent biographies of Joseph Smith? Yes. It is far superior
to recent efforts by those who have access to much of the primary source material.
One important reason is that Bushman strictly avoids the onerous mistake of
what has come to be known as “clairvogelance” when writing about
the past.41 Given
what it takes to master the relevant literature, to think clearly about complicated
and controversial issues, and to write sufficiently well, we are not likely
to have a better biography of Joseph Smith for some time.
Leo Strauss, “Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion,” in Liberalism: Ancient and Modern (New York:
Basic Books, 1968), 232. This was originally published as the “Preface
to the English Translation” of a book by Strauss entitled Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (New York:
Schocken Books, 1965), 8.
See Louis Midgley, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again,” FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): xi–lxiv.
See, for example, Richard Bushman’s From Puritan
to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690–1765
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967); King
and People in Provincial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1985); and The Refinement
of America: Persons, Houses, and Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992).
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed.
L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1888), 415.
A decision was eventually made to pay the sixteen authors and cancel the series.
Several of the volumes in this series were eventually published, some of which
were outstanding. See, for example, F. LaMond Tullis, Mormons in Mexico: The Dynamics of Faith and Culture
(Logan, UT: Utah State University, 1987); R. Lanier Britsch, Unto the Isles of the Sea: A History of Latter-day Saints
in the Pacific (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986); and Milton V.
Backman, The Heavens Resound: A History of
the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830–1838 (Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book, 1983). This move was not, as critics constantly wrongly claim,
an instance of suppression or censorship. All of those authors were free to
publish their work, if they cared to do so and if they had completed a viable
Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings
of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).
The most prominent competing accounts are to be found in Fawn M. Brodie,
No Man Knows My History, 2nd ed. rev. and
enl. (New York: Knopf, 1971), and Dale Morgan
on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History, ed. John
Phillip Walker (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986). This volume included
the edited fragments of the supposedly definitive account of Joseph Smith
that Morgan worked on for nearly two decades. He never got past rough drafts
of the first chapters. Bushman covered this same period in an obviously superior
manner in Beginnings. For details, see Gary F.
Novak, “‘The Most Convenient Form of Error': Dale Morgan on Joseph Smith
and the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review
of Books 8/1 (1996): 152.
For an example of a book deeply indebted to and hence also flawed by the mischief
of Hofmann’s forgeries and related lies, see Grant H. Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt
Lake City: Signature Books, 2002). For details, see Louis Midgley, “Prying into Palmer,” FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 365–410.
See “The First Steps,” FARMS Review
17/1 (2005): xi–lv. The language quoted is taken from Martin E. Marty,
“Two Integrities: An Address to the Crisis in Mormon Historiography,”
Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 9, and
is quoted at xvi.
See, for example, Marvin S. Hill, “Richard L. Bushman—Scholar and
Apologist,” Journal of Mormon History
11 (1984): 125–33. As sour and sarcastic as ever, as well as confused
and misinformed, Hill is also unrelentingly critical of Bushman’s full biography
of Joseph Smith in “By Any Standard, a Remarkable Book,” Dialogue 39/3 (2006): 155–63. In the
last paragraph (p. 162) of what is a sustained attack on Rough Stone Rolling, Hill indicates that he
does “not wish to end [his] review on an overly negative note. Despite
the fact that Bushman’s ‘look’ at Joseph comes up markedly short at times
and he does not always examine controversial issues carefully, his book suggests
that thought about the Prophet has matured among some faithful Latter-day
Saints.” Latter-day Saint scholars, of course, have made significant
advancements in understanding Joseph Smith, but not in the directions suggested
by those infected by the culture of unbelief.
See, “The Restoration of All Things,” in Bushman, Beginnings,
Bushman, Beginnings, 183. Note the
common sectarian Protestant slogan “Bible alone.”
Bushman, Beginnings, 186.
Bushman, Beginnings, 187.
Bushman, Beginnings, 187.
Bushman, Beginnings, 187–88,
Bushman, Beginnings, 180.
Bushman, Beginnings, 183.
Bushman, Beginnings, 184.
Terryl Givens has set this out in some detail in his remarkable By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched
a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
21. For my views on this issue,
see Louis Midgley, “Theology,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism,
4:1475; “Directions That Diverge: ‘Jerusalem and Athens’ Revisited,”
FARMS Review of Books 11/1 (1999): 27–87; “Faulty Topography,”
FARMS Review of Books 14/1–2 (2002): 158–70. See also Daniel
C. Peterson, “‘What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?': Apostasy and Restoration
in the Big Picture,” FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000), xi–lii;
and James E. Faulconer, “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse,”
in this number of the FARMS Review, pages 175–99.
Jan Shipps, “Mormonism from Different Perspectives,” in The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lectures, ed.
Dean L. May and Reid L. Neilson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006),
274. She claims, quite correctly, that Marty has “earned enormous respect
within the academy.”
Martin E. Marty, We Might Know What to Do and
How to Do It: On the Usefulness of the Religious Past (Salt Lake
City: Office of the President, Westminster College, 1989), 12.
Marty was, of course, referring to the forgeries of Mark Hofmann and to Hofmann’s
efforts to hide his chicanery. Marty, We Might
Martin E. Marty, We Might Know,
The Saints eventually called this artifact a Urim and Thummim, but since Joseph
had to return it to the heavenly messenger, he ended up using in its place
his own seer stone, which the early Saints also called Urim and Thummim.
As, for example, it appears Grant Palmer wants to do. He claims to be fond
of the idea of an eternal married relationship, while insisting that Joseph
Smith just made everything up and then lied about doing this.
Marty, We Might Know, 10.
Marty, We Might Know, 10.
Marty, We Might Know, 11.
I have dealt with the historical elements in the faith of Christians in “Knowing
Brother Joseph Again,” xiv–xvi.
See Noel B. Reynolds, “The True Points of My Doctrine,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996):
26–56; M. Gerald Bradford and Larry E. Dahl, “Doctrine:
Meaning, Source, and History of Doctrine,” in
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1:393–97; and Louis Midgley, “Prophetic
Messages or Dogmatic Theology? Commenting on the Book of Mormon: A Review
Essay,” Review of Books on the Book of
Mormon 1 (1989): 92–113, on what is meant by doctrine in
the Book of Mormon, and hence on what constitutes the gospel and its fulness.
“Knowing Brother Joseph Again,” xii–xiv, xvi–xxix.
Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants in which the Urim and Thummim (seer
stone at this point) played a role include 3, 6–7, 10–11, and
14–17. A correspondent of the Chicago
Tribune, reporting on an interview with David Whitmer (published
17 December 1885), wrote: “In order to give privacy to the proceeding
a blanket, which served as a portiere, was stretched across the family living
room to shelter the translators and the plates from the eye of any who might
call at the house while the work was in progress. . . . it was not
for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of
the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time hidden from his collaborators,
and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons
mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives
besides.” Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness
(Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991), 173. William E. McLellin apparently visited
Oliver Cowdery’s widow, who certified that “Joseph never had a curtain
drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place
the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude
the light, and then [read the words?] as they appeared before him.” Cook,
David Whitmer Interviews, 233–34.
On Joseph’s use of a curtain while translating, see Royal Skousen, “Translating
the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book Of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for
Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997),
63–64. Joseph’s wife, in the “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,”
Saints’ Advocate, 2/4 (October 1879): 51,
bore witness that she “frequently wrote day after day, often sitting
at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with
the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”
“Knowing Brother Joseph Again,” xi–lxv.
“Knowing Brother Joseph Again,” xxv–xxix.
Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph
Smith: An Author’s Diary (New York: Mormon Artists Group, 2006).
This unbound “book” contains printing on one side of eighty-three
pages of very expensive, unbound paper, with its own wooden slip cover (made
of cherry wood). One hundred and two copies were printed. Each copy is numbered
and signed by Bushman. Kofford Books is said to be in the process of publishing
it in a more accessible format. If that were not the case, I would comment
on it in detail.
Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day
Saint Essays, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2004); a paperback version of the book has just
been released in 2007.
These opinions are offered without supporting arguments. My intention in doing
this is to make my position on Rough Stone
Rolling as clear as possible.
40. “Knowing Brother Joseph
For this insightful label, see Andrew H. Hedges and Dawson W. Hedges, “No
Dan, That’s Still Not History,” FARMS
Review 17/1 (2005): 211.