Writing a biography on Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith is a tough job. Opinions vary wildly, from certain church members who seem to think that Joseph was completely infallible to detractors who can find absolutely no value in his work. To his credit, Richard Bushman walks the line nearly perfectly in Rough Stone Rolling, creating a biography that has value beyond initiates of the Mormon religion.
Rough Stone Rolling chronicles Joseph Smith’s life, from his family heritage all the way through to the events following his martyrdom. What makes Rough Stone Rolling unique is that it focuses less on the actions of his life and more on his teachings and the possible inspiration for them. This might be uncomfortable to some church members. Bushman spends time discussing Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, and the doctrines that were circulating around during the time period. Bushman draws parallel’s between the contemporary theologians, which seems to be trying to placate detractors who see Joseph’s work as a product of his time. However, the examination of 1800’s American religious culture seemed more geared towards providing context for Joseph as well as showing that truth exists outside of the confines of Mormon religion. Oftentimes, members of the church seem to believe that Mormonism has a monopoly on truth, so seeing Bushman give due credit to theologians outside the church helped me understand the time in which Joseph was raised and appreciate what makes Mormon doctrine so unique.
Much of Rough Stone Rolling is dedicated to interpreting Joseph’s doctrinal revelations, which may be off-putting to those who expected a straight forward biography. But, separating Joseph’s life from his doctrines is a mistake because his teachings determined the course of his life. Bushman realizes this, and does not shy away from lengthy doctrinal discussions.
Bushman also does not shy away from the more complicated parts of Joseph’s life. He chronicles the development of polygamy, Joseph’s strained relationship with Emma, and the reasons that early church leadership left the fold. Many Mormon writers seem to believe that discussing the controversy of Joseph’s life degrades him as a prophet, but Bushman proves that you can discuss the less clear aspects of Joseph’s life while still venerating him as a prophet.
What is most impressive about Rough Stone Rolling is that it appeals to both members and non-members. Even for those that do not believe in the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, reading Rough Stone Rolling is an interesting look into the mind of one of the most interesting characters in American history. As a tool to understand both the psychology of the prophet and why Mormon believers hold him in high regard, Rough Stone Rolling is perfect. For members of the church, the book offers answers to the more challenging parts of Joseph’s life as well as providing historical background for the Doctrine and Covenants that is often hard to see while reading that book. Rough Stone Rolling is a perfect book for anybody trying to understand more about the remarkable life of Joseph Smith.