Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman

Bear with me as I continue with my investigation of Mormon history. I read this book thanks to the suggestion of one of you, who commented on my review of Mansfield's book: The Mormonizing of America. Thanks for the suggestion. Now on to my review...

This work is masterfully done! This is the book I would write, were I a legitimate historian and faithful member of the Mormon Church. Bushman does a truly masterful job of tackling Joseph Smith's history as honestly as possible while still permitting the rational Mormon to hold on to their faith. When facing their history, Mormons must confront Joseph Smith and ask a simple yet very loaded question which Bushman summarizes quite well when he asks: Are Joseph Smith's ideas to be attributed to him or God? If the former is true, then the entire Mormon Religion is nothing more than another human fabrication. If the latter is true, then we can finally rest in the comfort that we have the One True Religion and all others can be discarded as false.

So how does Bushman accomplish this delicate dance of relating an honest history while preserving Mormon faith? The answer is with subtle yet brilliant footwork. The dance begins with the title, where the problem is blatantly admitted: Joseph Smith is a very rough stone. Bushman then embarks on a most impressive undertaking--to smooth out as much as the roughness as possible. Here are just a few prime examples:

- Joseph Smith's heavy involvement in magic during his formative years becomes a "preparatory gospel."
- Hunting for deception in the reality of the golden plates becomes "a distraction that throws us off the track of Joseph Smith the Prophet."
- When the prominent scholar, Charles Anthon, refutes the authenticity of the "reformed Egyptian" characters, we learn of a fulfilled biblical prophecy while no mention is made of the fact that no non-Mormon scholars acknowledge the existence of either a "reformed Egyptian" language or a "reformed Egyptian" script.
- The debacle of the lost 116 pages and subsequent need for a different translation becomes the catalyst for Joseph Smith's first recorded prophetic revelation.
- While Bushman admits the uphill battle scholars face in defending the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon, he shrugs aside this astronomically large problem and ends the discussion with the following quote from non-mormon critics: "LDS academicians are producing serious research which desperately needs to be critically examined."

Despite Bushman's self-admitted bias, Rough Stone Rolling is truly a must-read for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. For the faithful Saint who is wrestling with some very difficult questions, Bushman offers some answers. For the curious non-Mormon who appreciates how truly remarkable a man Joseph Smith was, this work provides yet another very useful perspective. This work is thought-provoking on many different levels.

I will end this review with a few bonus observations. First, I find it interesting that both Mormons and non-Mormons are leaving 1 star reviews on Amazon. These reviews speak volumes about the profound effect Joseph Smith still has on people. This book soundly deserves 4/5 stars. It is well written, superbly edited, coherent, and gripping. I withhold the final star because while I cannot ever prove this, I am convinced that Bushman was forced to sacrifice some honesty in order to preserve his faith. I cannot blame him for this. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I am guilty of the same offense