Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

by Richard L. Bushman


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While many “experts” continue to view Joseph Smith as a controversial figure, renowned scholar (and Latter-day Saint) Richard Bushman locates Joseph in his historical and cultural context, fleshing out the many nuances of nineteenth-century American life that produced such a fertile ground for emerging religions. While this book stands in the intersection of faith and scholarship, it does not avoid the problematic aspects of Smith's life and work, such as his practice of polygamy, his early attempts at treasure-seeking, and his later political aspirations. In the end, Smith emerges as a genuine American phenomenon, a man driven by inspiration but not unaffected by his cultural context.

About the Author

Richard L. Bushman

Richard L. Bushman a general editor of The Joseph Smith Papers along with Ronald K. Esplin and Dean C. Jessee, is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University. He has been appointed Howard W. Hunter visiting professor at Claremont Graduate University for 2008–2009. He received his B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University. He taught at Brigham Young University, Boston University, and the University of Delaware before joining the Columbia faculty. His published works include From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690–1765 (1967), King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (1985), and The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992). He has served as president of the Mormon History Association and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.

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Average rating:

(based upon 20 reviews)

Rough read
By , Submitted on 2017-02-07

One could argue this is a well researched, honest portrayal, written by a scholar of impeccable integrity, that also qualifies as an anti-Mormon book - or at least anti your father's Mormon church. This is not the history of your father's Mormon church as there are many aspects your father would have scoffed at. It is a history that is bound to change you if you are a church member. Whatever those changes, they will in a large measure define who you are.
My biggest frustration was in not having explanations from Joseph on some of the most important aspects of his history.
I found new meaning in the book's title. This is an uncomfortable read. And as the gospel rolls forth as a stone cut from the mountain without hands, there will be some rough aspects to deal with.

Don't heed the naysayers
By , Submitted on 2016-08-09

Do NOT base your purchase on the words of those who rate this book at a one or two star rating. This book is gold. A reader has failed to capture the arguments of Dr. Bushman if they think he's trying to present Joseph in a negative light. These people are stuck in the false paradigm that Joseph and his family had to have been perfect, although the church clearly doesn't make any similar statements. He was imperfect, and that's fine. His imperfections don't detract from his holy prophethood.

This book actually argues in Joseph's behalf despite his imperfections. Controversial topics from his life are explained through a cultural lense, proving that Joseph was as much a product of his culture as Moses would have been a polytheistic product of Egypt, and had to change his ways and beliefs when he received the truth.

If you are willing to read carefully and faithfully, this is the best book on Joseph Smith available to you. It provides more information about Joseph's life and work than Lucy Mack Smith's history--which barely provides the framework to Joseph's prophethood and work. It provides broader perspective of Joseph as a man than George Cannon's biography--which is considered by many as the best resource on the details of Joseph's labors. And it gives enough chronological understanding to enable a serious reader to put the Joseph Smith Papers into their proper contexts.

My only warning is the following: I don't view this book as a median for obtaining a testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet. That "median" is the scriptural canon--particularly the Book of Mormon. I imagine this book is only faith-promoting to those who have studied the scriptures (particularly the Old Testament) and are capable of grasping the concept and truth that God qualifies those who He calls--as our current leaders have taught so wonderfully--and that He works in mysterious ways to bring forth His kingdom.

A portrait of a human being who was called to be a prophet, not a god serving time on Earth...
By , Submitted on 2016-06-14

Very intriguing and well written. Dr. Bushman's portrait of Joseph Smith gave this prophet of the restoration some much needed dimension. Far less than the relative demigod he is often portrayed as in church materials, Joseph was a man, as imperfect as every other man, and every other prophet ever called. He had some wholly human faults that didn't help the church at times, but he was also an extremely giving and compassionate man that tried to do what he felt he should. Results were not always positive, and for much of his life, debt was an ever present noose about his (and the church's) neck.

I found Bushman's account to be extraordinarily even handed, full of criticism, extrapolation, and understanding. I greatly appreciated the contextual details he gave to the period, and was shocked and amazed by some things, such as how citizens' Constitutional rights could be so severely trod upon in favor of states' rights, and how early on the party system became corrupted in the U.S.

All LDS church members should read this book to better understand the restoration and the origins of our faith, and the man who started it all.

Another Book Striving to show weaknesses of great men.
By , Submitted on 2015-12-30

If you would like a book that uses much speculation, and broad suppositions to try to show how human, weak, and fallible Joseph Smith and his family were, then this is the book for you. On the other hand, if you would like your faith and knowledge of Joseph Smith and his divine roll and heritage to increase, I would read "The History of Joseph Smith", by Lucy Mack Smith, or "History of the Church" by Joseph Smith, or I would agree with President Packer, who spoke of the dangers of trying to prove that the prophets are only men. Richard Bushman would definitely fit into that category.

A Great History!
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

I have read through this book twice and every time I opened the book I learned something new that expanded my testimony and opened me up to new areas of study.

This is a history book. I would not recommend this to everyone. If you want a testimony of the Prophetic call of Joseph Smith, there are many other books that will instill that testimony. Once you have a testimony of that truth, this book will strengthen your understanding of how he came to be the great man that he was. 5 Stars for sure.

By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

It's was an amazing journey reading this book. I got to know the real Joseph Smith, the flawed man. We've all received accounts of Joseph Smith throughout our lives. These accounts were subject to the interpretations and failings of those who gave us those accounts. Because of this, we usually get a very romantic account of Joseph’s life, making us believe that he was super human somehow. I know I based my testimony on many of those stories. This book will give you the real Joseph Smith and allow you to contrast that knowledge with what you were taught as a child. It will affect your testimony, and you will have to rebuild it based upon the new knowledge you will receive. Then, your testimony will be built upon the real Joseph Smith, and not on the highly romanticized versions you heard as a child. Don’t be afraid of truth! It will allow you to get even closer to our faith and its principles.

Deserves 10 Stars
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

I'm so happy Deseret Book carries this book. I've read this book twice, and it's really helped me understand and appreciate Joseph Smith: the human being who was also a prophet. Thanks Richard Bushman! I hope the lesson manuals at church start to reflect this sort of history. I think it would help a lot of people who are silently dealing with hard questions.

A hard read, but a MUST read.
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

As a missionary serving in the south I was confronted with anti-mormon literature constantly from people of other faiths. Although I did not let it get to me in the beginning I began to have a desire to really have a better historical knowledge of the PROPHET Joseph Smith. I have read many books about the prophet, each finding some new aspect or insight into his life but I must say this book presents a historical perspective unlike any other book about the prophet. Bushman does quote many other authors, even Anti-Mormons in the perspective times, but it allows for the reader to be taken back into a completely different time and understanding of America and its culture as well as an understanding of Joseph's pressures as an untutored boy rising to greatness. A sometimes hard read but I recommend the book because it answered questions for me that could only be answered the way Bushman does. Joseph Smith was indeed a rough stone rolling and was sculpted from an obscure boy to become a mighty prophet of God.

Solid, scholarly study on Joseph's life
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

This is likely the best historical and balanced study on Joseph Smith's life in print. Richard Bushman as a historian strives for greater historical objectivity than is available from many other works about the Prophet, yet maintains his position as a faithful member with an active testimony (Bushman is a current patriarch and former Stake President). It does not shirk from providing a comprehensive view of the Prophet, including many facets that made Joseph human. This is not the "Primary" version of Joseph's history -- those having no interest in the human side of Joseph or those unable to tolerate some of puzzling aspects of early Church history (including plural marriage) may be better served by other books that take a more selective approach. However, those genuinely interested in a full rendering of the man and Prophet can find no better volume.

Succesfully walks the academic line without tarring and feathering Joseph Smith
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

Although some have used Bushman's biography as a scapegoat to leave the church, any damage done by this book is simply due to unrealistic expectations of Joesph Smith. Bushman presents an honest and fair portrait of the Prophet, admitting his bias as a church member, and explores not only Smith's life through letters, journals, and the accounts of others, but discusses key doctrines of the restoration as outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants.
I find the academic approach refreshing and I don't feel Bushman reveals anything about Smith's life for shock value (as many others do), nor does he sympathize with anti-mormon views; rather, he builds credibility by including multiple perspectives, both positive and negative.
Ultimately, Bushman prevails because he presents multiple views of the prophet, demands for an in depth look at Smith's life, and lets the reader decide for themselves.

By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

The author is a Harvard Ph.D historian and a believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This book presents a detailed historical analysis of Joseph Smith. The book does not seek to increase or destroy the reader's testimony. It just seeks to tell the historical story of Joseph Smith as it happened. The author leaves nothing out - any events or details about Joseph Smith, whether controversial or not, are explained, and the reader is left to make his/her own assumptions. A must read for any believing Latter-Day Saint, but a fair warning: this is not a "black and white" testimony that some teary-eyed ward member gives on Fast Sunday. If your testimony is based all on the heart and nothing from the mind and nothing from rational thought, you might have a hard time with this book. However, given the historical facts, one must deal with this information about Joseph Smith sooner or later. Personally, I embrace all the truth about the Prophet Joseph Smith, and this book did increase my admiration of him, and my testimony. It might not do that for you.

This book brought me back to the Church
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

I came across this book while I was estranged from the Church due to my own moral failings. I didn't see the simpleness and the complexity of the Gospel and its messenger until I had read this book. When I was first converted to the gospel, it was because of the testimony of Joseph Smith, and through the diligence of academic thought Bushman utilizes (I am a trained historian myself), I became convinced again of the Lord's divine restoration. This is a profound and complicated work sure to cause controversy with some of it's assumptions and conclusions, but I would exect nothing less written about a man whose experiences have changed the face of modern Christianity.

A wolf in sheep's clothing.
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

If you have any desire to read this, it would be better to read The Myth Makers by Hugh Nibley first. For Nibley is by far a superior and more recognized scholar, not only in LDS circles, but also one of the most respected scholar/author's in the world. He touches on similar subjects with clarity and both deep scholastic knowledge and his references are taken from his own research from original sources, not relying on the work of others as this book often does.

A Gospel Classic
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

It will not be very long before this book is in the homes, minds, and bookshelves of the majority of Saints who are interested in learning about Church History. Rarely does a book come along that not only is true to the Historical aspect of biographies (where they just tell things like it is, and that's it), but also appeals to the spiritual, inspirational side as well. Bushman shows Joseph in his true colors as an imperfect person like ourselves, the only difference is he had a Prophetic calling. It feels like you grow up with young Joseph as he tries to figure out his place in the plan of the Father while still trying to grow up in the first place. My favorite chapters in the book are the ones about the Book of Mormon, Moses, Enoch and Joseph, and then the one about polygamy. No one has ever written with such clarity on such 'controversial' aspects of Joseph's life like Brother Bushman does. Out of the many hundreds of religion-related, books I have read, I would rank this as my second favorite--The infinite Atonment being first.

By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

I have felt for years that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, but I had a lot of questions about his life. I did not feel like I knew who Joseph Smith was or why his critics attacked him. I often could not help wondering in the back of my mind if there might be some merit to their claims. Bushman has presented the facts clearly. His research is impecable and as objective as a believer can be. He answered my questions about aspects of Joseph Smith's life that today would seem strange, or controversial. I now feel like I understand much better Joseph's talents, gifts, personality, and family. I am amazed at the work that the Lord was able to do through him despite the chaos of the times and circumstances. I know now much more surely than before that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the doctrines revealed through him truly were of God. The truths of the gospel that I love so much were revealed through a man who sought to do the Lord's will in all things.

By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

I see the book as a manifestation of what historians do. They do not make judgement calls. Is Joseph a prophet? Is what he what did right or wrong? Is it all true? Not the historians problem. Bushman just gives what happened and tries to portray Joseph through the manuscripts. I think most critics of this book are viewing Joseph as he exists beyond the manuscripts, personal Holy Ghost given testimony. History is about telling us Jospeh as a man, Church, theology, spiritual experience are telling us Joseph as a Prophet.

A thorough exploration of the life of Joseph Smith.
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

I appreciated the thoroughness of Dr. Bushman's research and his willingness to explore all aspects of Joseph Smith and his relationships with his family and associates. That being said, I must also say that I had one overarching concern while I read this book. Namely, I thought that many of Dr.Bushman's attributions, interpretations, and assumptions, in large measure, did not adequately portray or convey Joseph's prophetic mantle, ministry, and mission. But let me reiterate that I definitely respect the level of scholarship it took to produce a book of this caliber.

One of the best!
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

Excellent! This and Lucy Mack Smith's history on Joseph Smith should be read by all Joseph Smith enthusiasts.

I strongly recommend this book.
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

This book has been controversial because of its varied acceptance in the LDS community. Perhaps I expected more because of all of the hype. While I didn't read this book in hopes that all controversial issues would be the focus, I did read it hoping that they would be addressed at least more sufficiently than they were. Where detail may be lacking in significant events in Joseph's life, he does an excellent job in filling in gaps between these events. He provides a more clear window into the life and humanity of Joseph Smith, and shows Joseph growing into his prophetic roll, as a 'rough stone rolling.' His research is reflected strongly in his book, and where Bushman is well researched, his biography is profoundly articulate. The perspectives he brings to the table are unique on many subjects, and almost turns historian-apologist in some places. I couldn't imagine some of the points that he makes to be more clear, precise, and profound than they are. Where Bushman is on, he is dead on. When he strikes gold, it is the pirates treasure trove. Overall, despite my complaints, I recommend this book. While I have my own complaints, I believe that any study on Joseph Smith would be incomplete without having read this book.

A disservice to the Smith Family
By , Submitted on 2015-02-25

Bushman obviously spent much time in researching for this book however he was seduced by the anti-authors whom he copiously quotes and footnotes. He was obviously trying to have his book accepted by the academic world and wrote for that audience. He took the comments from neighbors and the trends of the time and attributed them to Joseph and his family. He states the Smith's had a 'psychologically crippled child' and he states Father Smith was useless and the family had rejected him, which nothing could be further from the truth. Father Smith was a Spiritual giant as recorded by contemporaries, etc. Regarding the charge of an affair in Kirtland, he states there is no evidence or written record of the person being named but then spends pages quoting anti-authors as to who the lady was and that it did happen. He spends many pages in his book citing and 'proving' the negative aspects and ascribing such to Joseph and his family but then comes back in a few short sentences saying...'but he was a Prophet.' He took the very comments Joseph says were being falsely circulated about his family and sets out to say they are true because it then makes the Smith family 'fit' in and be like their neighbors. The point is they were not and that is why the Lord could use them and why they were persecuted. This book does a real injustice to the Smith family and to Joseph. I cannot recommend this book.

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