I know the story of Joseph Smith. I've studied the stories about the early Latter-day Saints' struggles and suffering, including their expulsion from three States, to wit: Ohio, Illinois, and most infamously Missouri. What Rough Stone Rolling has done thus far is provide a layer of depth and complexity I scarcely could imagine. The early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were messy. The nascent world organization which we know today—organized, uniform, rigidly hierarchical when it comes to canonized doctrine and policy—looked a lot different in its infancy. This is expected but nonetheless surprising when my whole experience with the Church has been one of witnessing its clockwork regularity.
What Rough Stone Rolling does not do is present an image and picture of Joseph Smith that is Job-like; in other words, Joseph had struggles and sacrificed a great deal, but Richard L. Bushman does not describe Joseph as "perfect and upright" (Job 1:1). The book certainly isn't antagonistic toward Joseph, but it presents a sometimes angry prophet, even impetuous. It's a side of the prophet, if true, that is a marked difference in how Latter-day Saints normally view him. Bushman also describes moments of genuine caring and compassion, which is more aligned with Latter-day Saints' common understanding of Joseph, but Bushman appears eager to present another side of this complex personality. Having said that, Rough Stone Rolling highlights how momentous and staggering Joseph's goals and accomplishments were, and why his failures were so heartbreaking. Joseph Smith was as much a city-builder as he was a prophet according to Bushman. He was truly a Moses in his day, regardless of how one may feel about the verity of his mission or claims.
In the controlled chaos of the early days of the Church, there was a flood of revelation given through Joseph to the Latter-day Saints and subsequently the world. It was almost as if heaven was fed up with holding back the light and truth it regards so dearly and used Joseph as a spigot. As these revelations poured through Joseph, the new truths, the new visions of heaven, hell, and the gospel of Jesus Christ, caused uproar not only among those on the outside of the Church but on the inside as well. That aspect of Rough Stone Rolling has been one of the more fascinating historical precedents. When Joseph revealed Doctrine and Covenants section 76, known in his day simply as the "Vision," some Latter-day Saints were so off-put by its seeming re-definition of heaven and hell they left the Church. They couldn't reconcile this new revelation with the teachings of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which both teach a very binary view of the afterlife. (The Bible at least hints at elements more fully described in section 76, whereas the Book of Mormon is totally silent on the matter). These doctrinal dilemmas, personal opinions crashing up harshly against newly revealed doctrine, is still very much a part of a modern Latter-day Saints' experience with the Church. It is true we don't experience the same kind of flood of revelation which was almost a constant during the early days of the Church, but we are certainly not without controversy within the Church. (In our day, it appears the trend is to try and change established doctrine instead of struggling with the reception of new doctrine; the Church's position on homosexuality and ordination of women to the priesthood are good examples of this).
Although Rough Stone Rolling provides incredible detail of Joseph's life, it is important to point out the book strives to be a cultural biography of Joseph. In consequence, a great deal of his personal life, especially with Emma, his wife, is omitted from Bushman's book. I find this to be an enormous weakness of the book. I'm not suggesting the book needed to be an additional 500 pages in order to chronicle all of his familial relations; rather, I believe it's a necessity to read other works to understand Joseph's personal life. Emma is an indispensable part of Joseph's saga and the history of the Church he established. Her reputation among Latter-day Saints still prompts debate, albeit the controversy isn't divisive today like it was after Joseph's death. Joseph dearly loved Emma, and her struggles, especially when it came to Joseph's taking multiple wives, informs our understanding of Joseph Smith and some of the actions he took shortly before his martyrdom.
I am on the home-stretch of finishing Bushman's incredible Rough Stone Rolling. My overall opinion of the book is essentially settled, and my excitement to finish the book increases with every page which brings me closer to the dramatic end of Joseph's life.
Other Topics of Interest:
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 2