Shortly before Joseph Smith was martyred, he said: "No man knows my history." I have been pondering what he meant. I can say now after reading Richard L. Bushman's excellent book Rough Stone Rolling that I know Joseph Smith and his history a little bit more.
Joseph Smith has to be one of the most fascinating personalities to have ever graced the American scene. I say this not because he had eccentric ideas but because those ideas stuck. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is 15 million strong and is growing rapidly every year. More and more people are coming to know Joseph Smith as a prophet of God in our latter-days and are joining themselves to a Church which claims Joseph as their "prophet of the restoration." Like the great men and women we study and admire who left an imprint on human history, religious and otherwise, Joseph Smith deserves attention.
The culture of the time is as much a focus of Rough Stone Rolling as Joseph Smith is. (No wonder the book's subtitle is "A Cultural Biography of Mormonism's Founder"). One of the most difficult aspects of studying history is understanding the culture and milieu of the place and time you're studying. We too often inflict historical personalities with our own sanctimonious judgments regarding correct behavior and correct viewpoints. Bushman does a wonderful job of comparing Joseph against his contemporaries and highlighting how we was the same in some ways and different in other ways. Joseph, like us all, was in a few ways, but certainly not all, a product of his circumstances.
Considering what Joseph Smith accomplished during his forty-four years of life is staggering. Latter-day Saints believe what John Taylor, third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said: "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it" (D&C 135:3). Even from a non-religious and purely secular perspective, one has to recognize Joseph did some extraordinary things, building cities as much as translating ancient records. Even with near constant and virulent opposition, Joseph and the early Latter-day Saints accomplished incredible feats. Rough Stone Rolling provides a rich history which I believe Mormon and non-Mormon alike can appreciate. The book presents an incredibly dramatic American saga, which any lover of history can benefit from by adding it to their reading collection.
When I began reading Rough Stone Rolling I stated my hope as follows: "I'd like to break down some of the barriers between myself and Joseph as
a human being and get to know him as I would if he visited my home and
shared dinner with my family." And what is my verdict? In large measure, yes, Rough Stone Rolling made Joseph more human, more understandable, and perhaps in some ways even more inexplicable. He made some decisions which, especially in light of the Saints' precarious position in Illinois in the early 1840s, that simply don't make any sense, such as instituting and practising polygamy. The question of why is unavoidable. At this point the opinions diverge. Latter-day Saints will say he was commanded by God and as a true prophet he would obey, regardless of the consequences. Non-Mormons have plenty of explanations for why he did what he did, most of them less than positive. For my part, I believe the former. I believe he was a prophet of God who acted in good faith toward God and men. He was human as we all are and his weaknesses and faults are more abundantly testified of by his detractors exactly because he claimed to be a prophet. It's a lofty and lonely position.
At the most recent General Conference, Elder Neil A. Anderson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stated: "The negative commentary about the Prophet Joseph Smith will increase as we move toward the Second Coming of the Savior." It is noteworthy to point out that Latter-day Saints link the attacks on Joseph's reputation as one of the signs signalling the second coming of Jesus Christ. Enemies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know, as well do the Latter-day Saints, that the foundation of the Church's position rests on Joseph Smith's claims to be a prophet called of God. If he wasn't, then the Church he founded, and the line of priesthood succession continuing through him, must be a fraud. If he was, then the implications of such a fact are immense, affecting every human life on earth and their life in eternity. Rough Stone Rolling doesn't answer that question, but it does present an American drama so extraordinary it begs to be read. Rough Stone Rolling isn't the only worthwhile account, but it is certainly a valuable addition to what will no doubt be a growing literature on Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints.
Other Topics of Interest:
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 2
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 3