Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
While reading this book, I think I recommended it to about every person I had a conversation with about it. Now that I'm actually finished reading it, I have mixed emotions. I'm not left with the feeling I wanted to have -- the triumphant "Praise To The Man" feeling. But I do feel grateful. Grateful for Joseph for the questions he asked, for the organization he established and for those early saints and their willingness to believe in what had to be SO hard to believe. Grateful for its continuation and the clear heads of the 12 apostles who didn't let the chaotic end of Joseph Smith's life translate into a chaotic religion.
The book serves its purpose - narrating the history of Joseph Smith's life. The author, Bushman, seems neutral throughout most of the book. He acknowledges early on that writing a true history about Joseph Smith is an almost impossible task. Defenders of his reputation write from the perspective of believers and disregard any story that finds fault with him. Other biographies are written by non-believers or former believers who have to discount any inspiration he claimed to have. Bushman, a believer but historian, writes Joseph as a prophet who made mistakes. I think that it is a fair assessment.
I started this book a bit nervous about what I would discover. I have never read much about him other than what the church publishes. The only bad stuff I had ever read was on the internet when I'd be searching for a primary sharing time idea. Googling can be dangerous. As I'd start to read, a sick feeling would start in my stomach and I would immediately stop. That was a road I didn't want to go down. I already knew most of the rumors but there aren't many "safe" answers to those questions in church literature. If you are not a church history scholar, chances are you don't know the real history of Joseph Smith. From primary on, we are taught his teachings, his testimonies and recalled versions of his early history. We are given a man who was a charismatic, beloved leader. A man who loved children, had a playful side and willing to suffer any amount of persecution to bring about the full restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. After reading this book, I think all of the above descriptions are true. That doesn't seem to be a rosy, post-mortem memory of a man. But he was not perfect and he didn't always do things perfectly. There seems to be two ways of interpreting his mistakes. Either he wasn't a prophet and and the mistakes were a result of a fanatic with the idea of creating an empire and failed due to lack of experience and implementation skill or he was a prophet and tried to carry out the will of God without a full understanding of the revelations at that time. At least that's my interpretation. The revelations he received were not all neatly understood and laid out to him like they are to us in the Doctrine and Covenants. They came and he wouldn't always recognize immediately its meaning or purpose. That's what was the most enlightening to me -- the setting that the prophet was in. What was the feeling and atmosphere during that time? The mood of the people, the religious frenzy, the political climate? Reading this book really helps a person understand the mentality of all involved from the early followers of Mormonism to his persecutors. I'm relieved that after reading this book, my testimony of the prophet is not shaken. The stories of the "bad stuff" did not shake me. In fact, it helped me to understand the prophet even more. I finished this book tonight and I feel melancholy. I hated the frenzy at the end. There was such intense hatred in such normal people. I ache for Emma and her suffering, isolation and loss. I recommend this book to anyone who is curious about Joseph Smith and when and why he did the things he did.