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Rough Stone Rolling: My Last Word on Joseph Smith

My final post in my Christian conversation with the Latter-Day Saints is a review of Richard Lyman Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, which has somehow escaped my notice in the 13 years since it was published. I finally discovered it recently when a person who had been LDS for over four decades told me that this was the book that changed that person’s mind about Joseph Smith and helped lead that person to leave the LDS church.

I was surprised to find that Rough Stone Rolling was not at all an “anti-Mormon” book. In fact, it is the most even-handed biography of Smith I have ever found, although written from a sympathetic point of view. The author, a professor of history at Columbia University, is a Mormon in good standing, and the book was highly praised when it was reviewed in the LDS-owned Deseret News. Yet the book gives both sides of the story, with all the supporting information I would want to know about Joseph to make a fully-informed decision about him, while leaving plenty of room for the reader to decide either way about him.

While Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1945) was a ground-breaking work full of masterful research on Joseph, I found Rough Stone Rolling to be far more interesting. Here I found more of Joseph’s heart (as best we can discern it), and less of the naturalistic explanations and psychoanalyzing found in Brodie. (Unlike Bushman, Brodie was excommunicated for her views.) Yet it is not a hagiography (puff-piece promotional for a saint) like the LDS Church History Department’s recent book Saints: The Standard of Truth (see my review at

Rough Stone Rolling is a critical work in the best sense of the word, i.e. a work that asks and answers the right critical questions about Joseph. It makes a generous use of sources that are not easy to get, including collections of primary sources like: Where can you find the 4 written sources for Joseph’s famous 1844 King Follett sermon that introduces his doctrine of eternal progression? (In 2 of those sources, Joseph dares “all Hell” to prove him wrong. For such an important sermon, I’m glad that 4 people recorded it.)

Bushman gives us a stimulating discussion of the Book of Mormon unlike any that I have seen. He explores theories of its origin, preferring to give far more credit to Joseph than to any source that he might have borrowed from (such as View of the Hebrews, Solomon Spaulding, or Sidney Rigdon), while nevertheless expressing wonder at how Joseph could have produced such a text. He also makes persuasive cases for both sides as to whether the book’s content is true or false, while hinting that his own position may be that such a book need not be factual to be true.

Reading Bushman’s account of the Saints’ experiences at the hands of mob “democracy” in Missouri is revealing. The author explains why the Missouri mobs thought they were simply doing the will of the people by beating up Mormons and destroying their property, and why they thought that no judge or sheriff could punish the people from doing the people’s will. What happened to the LDS over and over in the 19th century could easily happen again in the 21st century to both LDS and Nicene Christians, at the hands of mobs with the names Antifa, Resist, and the political parties that support them. Speaking of the government’s claimed powerlessness to help the Saints on such occasions because of “States’ rights,” Joseph declared these authorities to be “a stink” and that “they shall ascend up as a stink offering in the nose of the Almighty.”

Rough Stone Rolling also sheds new light for me on Joseph’s views on African Americans and slavery. While the Book of Abraham declares Africans to be under a curse and therefore unable to hold the priesthood, and while he positioned himself in Missouri as being against abolition, in his 1844 campaign platform, Joseph is all in favor of setting blacks free from slavery: “Break off the shackles from the poor black man, and hire them to labor like other human beings.” (Here Bushman cites Joseph’s actual campaign brochure.) Joseph claims that slaveholders would readily set their slaves free if compensated for their losses. It is difficult to tell which of Joseph’s views on the subject are his heartfelt convictions and which ones are for political consumption, but it is helpful to have all of those views on the table.

Bushman’s description of Joseph’s Council of Fifty at Nauvoo was also enlightening for me. I had been led to believe that this was a super-secret council that anointed Joseph as a political king. I was surprised to find that this council included 3 outsiders, i.e. non-Mormons. Apparently, the Council’s first task was to find a more secure place for the Saints to live than their current location, probably sensing that their days in Illinois were numbered. Furthermore, the Council sought to lay out a broader vision for the implementation of the Kingdom of God on earth, a sort of shadow government waiting for God to bring the present world order to an end. Whether this was a treasonous body, or whether it potentially placed too much power in the hands of Joseph, the reader may decide.

The part of Rough Stone Rolling which probably turned the above-mentioned LDS reader against Joseph may have been the author’s treatment of Joseph’s plural marriages. Bushman’s approach to this subject is not attack, but matter-of-fact. His frank acknowledgement of the large amount of deception required in these marriages differs from the recent Church Historical Department book only by degree; while the Saints book concedes in a brief sentence that Joseph was compelled to deceive his wife Emma at times, Bushman’s book spells out how many times Joseph had to deceive both her and others. Yet Bushman explains that Joseph never thought of himself of committing adultery or practicing polygamy; he thought he was simply following orders from God. Whether this was God or not, the author leaves the reader to decide, without comment.

If I could recommend one book for an honest LDS seeker after truth to read about Joseph to place the necessary facts in their hands, I would recommend Rough Stone Rolling. Check out what you find there against the History Department’s book. Check out the works of Fawn Brodie and of Jerald and Sandra Tanner to dig deeper into their perspectives. You will then have all of the most important data necessary to draw the conclusions that everyone must make about Joseph Smith. Don’t leave it to someone else to do your thinking for you. You are the one who must answer to God for what you think of Joseph, and what you think of Jesus.

Whatever you do, don’t let anyone lead you away from Jesus. He alone can save us and put us right with God.