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Book review: Biography shows the real Joseph Smith

Published: Sunday, Oct. 2 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

JOSEPH SMITH: ROUGH STONE ROLLING, by Richard Lyman Bushman, Knopf, 730 pages, $35.

Joseph Smith, the LDS prophet, once characterized himself as "a rough stone rolling down the hill. The sound of the hammer and chisel was never heard on me nor never will be. I desire the learning and wisdom of heaven alone."

No wonder Richard Bushman decided to include "rough stone" in the title of his new book.

The eminent Harvard-educated historian and author of several highly-acclaimed prize-winning works — including "From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765" — is also the author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," a splendid cultural biography. In spite of many attempts by historians and religious-history buffs to capture the life of Joseph Smith, no one has come close to re-creating a full and satisfying portrait until Bushman.

A committed Mormon who is determined to write history with complete documentation and honesty of interpretation, Bushman, who grew up in Oregon, is an important national figure. He began his teaching career at Brigham Young University before moving on to Boston University, the University of Delaware and Columbia University, where he is a professor emeritus.

That makes him fit the famous Wallace Stegner analogy: "The Westerner must go away and get his eyes opened and then look back."

There is still no promise of objectivity here. As Bushman says in his preface, "For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, not ducking any of the problems. Covering up flaws makes no sense in any case. Most readers do not believe in, nor are they interested in, perfection. Flawless characters are neither attractive nor useful. We want to meet a real person."

That is what Bushman gives us. The Joseph he portrays made major mistakes — such as the Kirtland Bank fiasco, the selection of convert John C. Bennett (a scoundrel) to act as mayor of Nauvoo and head of the Nauvoo Legion, his unsuccessful attempt to keep polygamy from his wife, Emma, his tendency to roundly scold the people closest to him, his tendency toward boastfulness — and other situations that occasionally call into question the soundness of his judgment.

Yet, Bushman also portrays a strong, charismatic, spiritual man who was devoted to family, someone with the determination and the ability to design and build functional cities and a church resistant to pressures and persecutions, an unlearned man who became fascinated with learning and could exude uncommon energy and personality in his sermons and writings, a man who could and would bear unbelievable physical suffering caused by genuine and frightening enemies, a man with exceptional leadership abilities.

And he places Smith firmly in the context of his day — we see him reacting to the problems of the Aage of Jackson, such American social problems as slavery.

Utilizing a narrative gift rare among historians, Bushman gives us an exciting, full-bodied and entirely human look at a dynamic and affectionate religious leader. In spite of his determination to cut out "flowery phrases," the author is notable for his ability turn a phrase and make history dynamic and interesting. His sources are notably complete and his arguments are persuasive.

Yet Bushman does not try to answer every question or solve every problem. He merely presents all the salient aspects of Smith's life and considers all sides of all issues even when he cannot be make an airtight conclusion. The result is a mesmerizing account of a very complicated man, one done with scholarly wisdom and faith.

It is unlikely that another book about Joseph Smith will supercede this one for many years to come.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com

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