Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Longest good reads review ever coming up...
A very good and honest look at the life of Joseph Smith. The author refers to it as a cultural biography in that it gives a clearer picture to Joseph Smith's actions, teachings, etc. by highlighting the culture of Americans in the early 1800s.
I had marked it as a book that I wanted to read based on the lds topics articles that can be found on LDS.org that discuss some of the churches more controversial teachings (some that were lived historically and some that are lived today) such as polygamy, Heavenly Mother, seer stones, priesthood restrictions, etc. No matter the topic, this book would come up as a reference and so when I was at BYU in early May I went ahead and picked up a copy at the campus bookstore.
I honestly would recommend this to anyone (member or not) who is interested in knowing about the roots of Mormonism. I feel like the author did a pretty good job of presenting the material in a neutral way. In fact, he even dedicates most of the preface to the book explaining why and how he tries to present it in a historically factual yet neutral way. And I felt like it made the book easier to read coming from that perspective. I thought this book would answer a lot of questions for me. And it did. However, it also left me with a whole new (and possibly bigger) crop of questions to be answered in the future. It was definitely not a light read and left my poor husband as the recipient of most of my late night questions and discussions.
I find it funny that sometimes other members of the church will view historical books about the church as anti-mormon literature. Despite having purchased this book at the BYU bookstore I was told by someone that I shouldn't be reading it. I understand that not everyone wants or needs to know about the early church. For me, I feel like if I can only accept the easy parts, and never look at some of the dark or hard to understand parts of church history, can I really claim to have a strong testimony?
After finishing this book I would say that my testimony has definitely been affected. I wouldn't really say that it's been strengthened or lessened, but it has me seeing things a lot differently than I did before. I think we get a very limited number of stories from church history that make up the bulk of what we've been taught in Sunday school and we start to think that everything was the way that those few stories portray it to be. Taking a step back and looking at the entire life of Joseph Smith and the other founding members of the early church helps to make the picture a little less picturesque and little more diverse. These were real people, with real struggles, making good and bad decisions, making mistakes, helping others, fighting, forgiving, etc. That might be hard for some to accept, but for me it makes it more believable and relatable. If God loved these imperfect people maybe he loves me.
So, here are some of the topics this book covers:
I've made my peace long ago with seer stones and the Book of Mormon translation process. Being a bit of mystic myself and knowing what I do about the religious culture of the time I really don't have a problem with Joseph Smith looking for treasure, helping people find lost items, or translating plates by looking into a stone. Do I think that is how God usually talks to people...no. But maybe sometimes he lets people use tools that are comfortable for them. I guess if I believe that Moses talked to Him in a burning bush, I can believe Joseph Smith saw the word of God in a stone. The part that is hard for me to understand is why more members don't know more about this part of Joseph's history or how the Book of Mormon was translated. However, I'm excited that the church's website is starting to address these issues and the church just announced a new extensive church history that will be published in several volumes over the next few years and no doubt added to the Sunday school resources.
First Vision (and the differences in written accounts)-
I'm still good with the first vision. I'm even fine with each of the accounts being different. I don't really feel like any of them contradict one another. Some are more elaborate than others, some focus more on particular aspect, but for the most part tell the same story (even though they may be used to emphasize different points). I know from some of my behavioral science classes when I was becoming a teacher that when a kid tells the same story over and over the same exact way it often means it's an altered story (either covering up details, fabricated by them, or memorized from an adult). Had Joseph Smith told the story word for word the same way each time throughout his life I'd probably be more inclined to think it was made up. But maybe that's just me. An interesting thing to note about that time in American history is that there were tons of people claiming to see Christ and Heavenly Father. And his account really isn’t that uncommon when compared with stories being told by others at the time. I guess for some that would make them inclined to think he was telling the truth, and for others probably that they were all lying. I enjoyed reading more thorough accounts of others who also had first vision stories.
Now this was one of the topics that I feel like I was not very well-read about. I think sometimes the way we think about prophecy is very old testament in nature…God just comes down and states in plain words exactly what his people should do. While Joseph sometimes claims to receive his prophecy this way it’s often received more as impressions and in very vague terms. I was also interested in the many accounts of him being “caught up in the spirit” where he would collapse or shake or have to be carried around from place to place while semi-conscious. Again, historically this is something that a lot of denominations at the time were doing but we always hear so much about him trying to distance the early saints from the Shakers and others that it was interesting how many of those practices he participated in himself.
Also, because so many of his prophecies were indirect or vague. We have to look at his interpretations of prophecy. Sometimes he would publish them directly or give them in front of large groups. Other times he would write them down and then draft and redraft them until he felt like he had it right. A pattern that seems to emerge for me is that Joseph Smith had a tendency to take things overly literal. Or another way of saying that would be that he sometimes took eternal principals and tried to make them fit into the physical mortal world at the time. He hears treasure in Salem and he’s thinking it’s gold when it’s really converts. He hears Kingdom of God and he sets up a secret council of fifty and appoints himself king. He hears that we need to seal the human race together in the Kingdom of God and he starts marrying multiple women and sealing men to one another as father and son for dynastic reasons. He hears Zion and he immediately thinks it’s a specific place- Missouri, Kirtland, eventually Utah. He hears second coming and he thinks it’s happening next week. This isn’t to say he didn’t receive these revelations just that sometimes his interpretation about how it should be handled or how literal it is seems off. I know I sound like I’m trying to rationalize some of the more difficult decisions he made. This is just my own opinion on things. I think the church clarifies some of these and some have just kind of been dropped. We now believe that zion has many stakes all over the world. That the kingdom of God is an eternal organization rather than a physical government. But when it comes to polygamy, it’s just kind of this gray blob out there that no one really knows about. Was it commanded of God? Why? If so, was it lived in the correct way? Etc etc etc. But we’ll get there later on in my polygamy sections.
Word of Wisdom
So some interesting history here about when it was actually enforced. When received Joseph regarded it as a “good thing to try” but not a commandment as serious as say polygamy. I found it interesting that Joseph continued to drink and occasionally smoke the rest of his life. And that sacraments and temple ordinances were all performed with alcohol for many years even after his death. He even gets drunk on occasion and has a fist fight with one of his brothers. I think sometimes we hear the story about him being a young man and needing surgery on his leg and he refuses to drink and says that he’ll be fine if his dad just holds him and we think that indicates he never drank. I don’t fault that church or teachers or anyone for that, it’s just my own incorrect assumption that I made when I was younger.
There’s no question that Joseph Smith and the early saints had some terrible, violent and unjust acts perpetrated against them. Including theft, tar and feathering, rape, murder, and more. In some cases these things were even made lawful to do to Mormons. However, I always assumed that these acts were all perpetrated by people who didn’t know much about the Mormons or hated them for being different. When in fact many of these stories were carried out by disaffected ex-mormons or even splintering groups within the church itself. For instance the Kirtland temple is taken over by several recently excommunicated members of the quorum of the twelve. It was also unfortunate to read about many instances where church members where found stealing, destroying, burning printing presses etc. of non Mormons either in retaliation or under orders from superiors within the church. Very sad treatment of many people on both sides who did not deserve it.
This one is hard guys. This one is seriously hard for me. I just have a really hard time reconciling polygamy and my belief that God values women equally with men. I just don’t see how they can go together. And I guess I always just put this on the shelf before and said “I’m never going to understand that one so I’m just not going to think about it”. But after reading this book and realizing how important Joseph Smith regarded this practice it’s hard to put it on the shelf and consider myself a well informed saint. Joseph Smith has several quotes referring to polygamy as his crowning doctrine. The doctrine that all other doctrines pointed toward. It's often suggested that it was just a test of the obedience but that's not what Joseph Smith taught. He believed it was a necessary ordinance of exaltation...just like baptism or marriage. So, I guess I have to take a closer look at it.
Upon closer inspection, however, you find some hard stories. Already married women who are sealed to Joseph Smith instead of their husbands. Sexual relations with younger women, older women and the already married women. Joseph actively telling people to keep it secret from Emma (his first wife) and telling women when it’s safe to come over to avoid Emma. Emma threatening to leave him. In fact, as he begins to extend the practice of polygamy to other men he tells those men that part of the doctrine of polygamy is that they must keep it secret from their first wives also. How could a loving God require that of women or men? It’s a lot to take in.
It's also interesting to note that so many men left the religion because they refused to live polygamy. Oliver Cowdery, Orson Hyde, and more. Eventually some come back and do live polygamy but many others don't. It's often suggested that these men left because they wanted more power within the church or wanted to be prophet. That may have been true too but we have to acknoweledge that on some level a lot of these men leave over polygamy.
I mentioned before that it is kind of ambiguous why the church stopped that practice. Certainly a partial reason is to gain statehood. Many of the early saints and prophets of the restoration have multiple quotes about polygamy being superior to monogamy and that polygamy will never be taken from the earth again. Yet it is. So if they were wrong about it never being stopped, is it possible they were wrong about starting it up in the first place? Or is it a case like when they started to practice the law of consecration and they failed at it so God stepped it back a bit. And if they were practicing polygamy wrong, in what ways was it wrong? Should it not have just been men with multiple spouses? Maybe it was more of an eternal principal and they didn’t need to have marriages in the mortal or sexual sense? Maybe it was supposed to be a financial or protective joining rather than a physical one? Again, these are the questions I have. I’m not trying to give anyone any answers.
And lastly, the reason that this topic is so hard for me to put on a shelf- the fact that it is still in some form practiced today. As Mormons, we claim all the time that the practice was ended a hundred years ago. And while that’s physically true we still practice spiritual polygamy all the time through temple sealings. If a man divorces or becomes a widower he can be sealed to a new spouse at the same time while a woman may only be sealed to one man. I know that several years ago, it was changed so that a deceased woman can now be sealed to more than one man, but that is much less common than the other. So it’s not really that we aren’t practicing polygamy we’ve just postponed it for the next life.
There's approximately 1 million more things I could say about this topic but since the book I'm currently reading is a biography of women who lived polygamy I'll save the rest for that book review.
Women and the Gospel
This is the last topic I’ll hit, even though there are more that I’d love to discuss. It’s hard to be a religious woman because we are told over and over again that we should find ourselves in the scriptures and learn about our divine potential from our heavenly parents. But all of the writers of scripture are men and 98% of the stories are about men. And we know tons about our Heavenly Father but very little of our Heavenly Mother. I feel like church leaders today are good and they are careful to add women into the scriptures. When a scripture says the word man you might often hear them add “and women” when reading it aloud. But given the cultural background and attitudes toward women at the time when the doctrine and covenants or bible was written it’s not very likely that the original authors thought it included women. It’s kind of like when the Founding fathers wrote “All men are created equal” they didn’t mean women or other races, they meant all white men are created equal. When Joseph Smith hears “This is my work and my Glory- to bring to pass the immortality and Eternal life of man” he is thinking of it in the same way- Man, not woman.
One clear place we can see this is in temple practices that are different for men and for women based on Eve’s choice. So even though one of the articles of Faith written by Joseph Smith says Men won’t be punished for Adam’s transgression the follow up to that is that Women will be punished for Eve’s. This shows me that when Joseph Smith wrote man in this context, he meant just that, man.
The church organization from the beginning has men at the lead with women at home taking care of the family and property. I’m not saying I want the priesthood or anything. I just mean that reading this helped me empathize with early latter-day saint women. For months at a time the men are in the school of the prophets or in the temple learning and being edified while the women are left at home doing all their own chores, and their husbands chores, and taking care of the children (many of whom die in their arms.) While things aren’t quite as bleak for me today. It’s still very hard in church culture when my husband is called into so many meetings and receives so much training and I’m often left at home taking care of all the other things. Or I’m left at church taking care of all the kids and can’t hear any of the spiritual messages. It’s hard to feel like my bucket is getting filled at all.
I also was under the impression that men and women received the endowment at the same time. When in fact it was actually a few years in between the first endowment of the male leadership and the endowments given to women. Part of this has to do with the fact that the first endowment didn’t resemble our current endowment in any way. When it was revisited a few years later, and given more structure, it was then made available to women for the purpose of them being able to enter into polygamy. It was also interesting to note that there was an ordinance called a “second anointing” that was given after the endowment to people as a gift for helping Joseph marry additional wives or for entering into polygamy themselves. When I tried to look this up on LDS.org the only reference was in a Sunday school lesson that said “Do not try to discuss or answer any questions about the second anointing”- which kind of gave me a sinking feeling.
So, I’m not apostate. I’m just making sense of things. I guess a huge takeaway for me is that God uses imperfect people. And that maybe he doesn’t reveal all of his purposes even to his most elect because we are all here to make decisions and be tried. Even with all the questions I have I’m able to see Joseph Smith as a prophet. But not infallible. I know that we all make mistakes and that he made mistakes. But, sometimes it would be nice to know which things were mistakes and which weren’t. For each person that line is going to be different...obviously some people think it was all a mistake or lie, others think none of it was a mistake and it was all done perfectly, for me the truth seems to be somewhere in the middle. Like I said before- sometimes the church clarifies and sometimes they don’t. Are the holding things back? Are we just not ready? Are some things just unknowable? Anyway, all of you people who are smarter than I am, read this book and give me some answers! Please! ;)
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