[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, ' by Richard Lyman Bushman

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'Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,' by Richard Lyman Bushman

    Review by WALTER KIRN

    Rough Stone Rolling.
    By Richard Lyman Bushman, with the assistance of Jed Woodworth.
    Illustrated. 740 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

    Most men who go searching for signs from God look skyward, but
    Joseph Smith, the youthful Mormon prophet, distinguished himself
    from his visionary cohort by hunting for sacred wisdom in the
    ground. In 1827, this barely literate 21-year-old dug in a hillside
    in rural upstate New York and unearthed a set of golden plates
    whose unfamiliar characters he translated with the aid of magical
    "seer stones." The result was the Book of Mormon, a second Bible
    whose elaborate tale of interracial warfare between two ancient
    American peoples - the so-called Lamanites and Nephites - was
    dismissed by Mark Twain as "chloroform in print" but today forms
    the basis of a worldwide church with a still-growing membership of
    some six million in the United States and another six million

    The mystery of the scripture's origins (was it really translated
    from "reformed Egyptian" or was it made up or borrowed from other
    sources?) is just one of the burning questions about Smith that
    Richard Lyman Bushman, his latest biographer, examines from every
    conceivable rational angle before declaring it to be unanswerable -
    unanswerable in a way that vaguely suggests such puzzles were
    divinely intended to stay that way. Bushman, a retired Columbia
    history professor who also happens to be a practicing Mormon, has a
    tricky dual agenda, it turns out: to depict Smith both as the
    prophet he claimed to be and as the man of his times that he most
    certainly was. "The efforts to situate the Book of Mormon in
    history, whether ancient or modern, run up against baffling
    complexities," Bushman writes, seemingly closing the door on the
    whole matter while slyly leaving it open a crack for a faith. "The
    Book of Mormon resists conventional analysis, whether sympathetic
    or critical."

    As refracted through Bushman's intellectual bifocals - one lens is
    skeptical and clear, the other reverent and rosy - most of the rest
    of Smith's remarkable story is shown to resist such analysis as
    well. So why make the effort in the first place? By showing the
    inadequacy of reason in the face of spiritual phenomena, Bushman
    seems to be playing a Latter-Day-Saint Aquinas. It appears he wants
    to usher in a subtle, mature new age of Mormon thought - rigorous
    yet not impious - akin to what smart Roman Catholics have had for

    Once the reader despairs of ever finding out whether Smith was
    God's own spokesman or the L. Ron Hubbard of his day, it's possible
    to enjoy a tale that's as colorful, suspenseful and unlikely as any
    in American history. Operating on the margins of society, out where
    the traveled roads turned into paths, Smith managed to build a
    major religion from scratch. What's more, unlike other 19th-century
    utopian faiths, Smith's parade kept lengthening over time rather
    than dispersing from the start. Despite bloody harassment from all
    sides, a chronic shortage of funds and almost nonstop challenges to
    his authority, he did Moses one better by leading an exodus and
    amassing a tribe at the same time.

    Bushman's Smith, whatever else he was, comes off as a singularly
    brilliant motivator whose method - call it Dynamic Overextension -
    modern students of management would do well to study. By
    perpetually promising the world to a mixed bag of followers that
    included preachers picked off from other sects, Smith not only
    captured hundreds, then thousands, of minds, he harnessed their
    muscles, too. From New York he led his pilgrims to Ohio, only to
    tell them once they'd settled down that Zion lay in Missouri, much
    farther west, and that many of them would have to pack their things
    again. To make things yet more strenuous for everyone, he
    dispatched bands of missionaries to Europe to convert enough souls
    to populate the place.

    The upshot of always demanding the impossible was chronic
    disappointment and disaffection when Smith's followers walked face
    first into the actual and found it painfully solid, not made of
    cloud. Zion (near modern Kansas City) wasn't the promised land
    Smith had promised but a turbulent, insecure frontier whose
    residents tarred and feathered the hopeful interlopers, torched
    their houses and not infrequently murdered them - all with the
    tacit permission of politicians who feared the swelling Mormon vote
    and the liberal views of the prophet they believed controlled it.
    Though Mormons today tend to be social conservatives, their founder
    was something of a wild-eyed radical, opposing slavery, preaching
    kindness to animals and even promoting an economic order based on
    distributing wealth according to need. His dreams and schemes came
    in cascades of revelation, and when they evaporated, fresh visions
    arrived, many of them assigning blame for the misfortunes on the
    failings of those whom they befell while promising yet grander
    glories if the erring Mormons straightened up.

    The violent confrontations in Missouri and the humiliating retreat
    that brought the Mormons to Illinois (a haven they would have to
    flee after their prophet was assassinated in 1844) turned Smith
    from a primarily religious figure into a full-blown political
    leader. His idealistic pacifism gave way to a practical doctrine of
    self-defense. His mild-mannered tolerance for dissent became a
    cranky insistence on discipline. In tracing this fateful shift from
    seer to czar and oracle to general, Bushman earns a place for his
    biography on the very short shelf reserved for books on Mormonism
    with appeal to initiates and outsiders, too.

    Bushman marks the prophet's time in prison, where the Missourians
    had locked him up on a dubious charge of treason, as the dawn of
    his historical self-consciousness, when he recast the Mormon
    experience as myth and situated his people in a narrative that
    would give them a durable identity, not just a debatable theology:
    "Joseph had conceived a strategy. For the Saints to claim their
    rights, the story of persecution had to be told." Bushman, who
    seems to believe that psychoanalysis can shed a partial light on
    the miraculous, relates Smith's new emphasis on sacred suffering to
    the humiliations of his youth as the son of a scorned and
    struggling farmer. By uniting his private traumas with the public
    tribulations of his church, the first Mormon became the essential
    Mormon, too.

    The split personality diagnosed in Smith by his best-known modern
    biographer, Fawn Brodie, has no place in Bushman's study, whose aim
    is not really to get inside the prophet but to show him from so
    many angles that he achieves a lifelike roundness while retaining
    an impenetrable core, which Bushman suggests is where the holiness
    goes. But as Smith becomes increasingly ambitious about personally
    building and peopling God's kingdom in the American Midwest, it's
    hard not to wonder whether the forces driving him ran on chemical
    and neurological fuels. Bushman may find such medical hindsight
    trivial - a meaningless, anachronistic autopsy - but it might help
    make his behavior seem less ghostly, less unremittingly remote. We
    hear Smith's words but we can't quite picture him speaking them,
    can't quite imagine their flavor and their tone.

    "Awake, O Kings of the earth!" the prophet cried from Nauvoo, Ill.,
    the half-built Mississippi river town that he'd designed to
    accommodate immigrant Saints who would include but not be limited
    to "the polished European, the degraded Hottentot and the shivering
    Laplander." "Come ye, O! come ye with your gold and your silver,"
    he urged. The magnificent gathering Smith craved would also, on
    some level, include the dead, whom living Mormons would baptize in
    absentia and rescue from the spiritual darkness that had descended
    after the time of Christ and hung on until the teenage Smith,
    sitting up late in his parents' house, came face to face with the
    angel Moroni, whose strangely luminous white feet hovered several
    inches above the floor.

    That's where the journey that Bushman chronicles started - with the
    prayers of a boy of rudimentary schooling and no conspicuous talent
    other than a self-proclaimed ability to pinpoint buried caches of
    gems and gold, whose contentious local religious culture crackled
    with rumors of signs and wonders while ceaselessly arguing over
    salvation's fine points until former congregants could no longer
    stand each other and drifted off to join more agreeable sects that
    often disbanded more quickly than they'd been formed. The prayers
    from Smith that sliced through all the bickering constitute the
    inspiring story that Mormon missionaries first lavish on their
    converts, but as the faith of budding Mormons matures they're told
    the story of Smith's murder in 1844 - a date with destruction he
    may have made inevitable when his forces smashed the printing press
    of a newspaper Smith branded libelous and dangerous.

    The incident led to his jailing in nearby Carthage, where the
    governor guaranteed his safety from the latest in a series of mobs
    that saw the prophet as a monstrous devil and were repulsed by his
    polygamous household, disgusted with the uniform that he affected
    while drilling his militia, and perhaps most disturbed by his
    confident declaration that his followers would hold sway over the
    world someday, and perhaps quite soon. They rushed the jail and
    shot him. He staggered to the sill of a high window, tipped
    forward, and toppled to his death while calling out "O Lord my
    God." This cry to heaven drew no recorded response. Perhaps the
    realm that Smith had long conversed with had nothing more to say to
    him, or perhaps he'd fabricated his whole career. For Bushman, the
    fact that his church continues to grow is proof that he was onto
    something big, though. For logicians, this is tantamount to arguing
    that Santa Claus probably exists because he gets millions of
    letters each year from children. But but since logic played almost
    no part in Joseph Smith's life, it may be fitting that it's largely
    absent from this respectful biography as well.

    Walter Kirn is a regular contributor to the Book Review. His most
    recent novel is "Mission to America."

Related Searches

      * [68]Smith, Joseph
      * [69]Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)
      * [70]Religion and Churches


   68. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=per&v1=SMITH%2C+JOSEPH&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=SMITH%2C+JOSEPH&rt=1%2Cdes%2Corg%2Cper%2Cgeo
   69. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=des&v1=MORMONS+%28CHURCH+OF+JESUS+CHRIST+OF+LATTER%2DDAY+SAINTS%29&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=MORMONS+%28CHURCH+OF+JESUS+CHRIST+OF+LATTER%2DDAY+SAINTS%29&rt=1%2Cdes%2Corg%2Cper%2Cgeo
   70. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=des&v1=RELIGION+AND+CHURCHES&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=RELIGION+AND+CHURCHES&rt=1%2Cdes%2Corg%2Cper%2Cgeo

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