The life of a prophet, with most of its flaws

The author paints an intricate and sometimes contradictory picture of the life and work of the founder of Mormonism.

JOSEPH SMITH: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s founder.

Lyman Bushman. Knopf. 768 pages. $35.

Prophets aren’t always saints. Expect violence, adultery, hubris and power-mongering from Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism and the complex, slippery hero of Richard Lyman Bushman’s exhaustive new biography.

Bushman’s 768-page behemoth is more methodical and less splashy than other recent narratives tracing the formation of the Mormon church, including Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of a Violent Faith, a journalistic thriller linking the modern fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints to the violent behavior of its founder, and Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, an insider’s expose’ on the church’s breakaway polygamist branch. But for a painstakingly researched historical portrait filled with cultural minutiae and scholarly digressions, Rough Stone Rolling is almost never dull.

Skeptical readers may worry Bushman, a practicing Mormon, will attempt to make over his religion’s founder, but he does nothing of the sort. Bushman devotes far less space to the early Mormon practice of polygamy than Krakauer and Beck, but to his credit, he confronts the less savory aspect of his prophet’s persona head on.

At the outset, the author reveals himself as a believer, one who takes it on faith that Smith was divinely guided to produce the Book of Mormon and proclaim himself the temporal and spiritual leader of his early followers. But Bushman, a Harvard-educated historian and a professor emeritus at Columbia University, takes Smith’s shortcomings as part of the prophet-package. The book explores Smith’s early years as a treasure seeker who dabbled in the occult, his mid-career pronouncement that church members should transfer their property to the church and his later teaching that men could have multiple wives.

Smith was born to Protestant shopkeepers in Sharon, Vt., on Dec. 23, 1805. At 14, he began receiving revelations in dreams. Three years later, Smith had his first vision of the Angel Moroni; by 1830, he had published the Book of Mormon. It took Smith 10 years to translate the Mormon Bible after first discovering, through Moroni, golden plates buried on a hilltop in upstate New York. The resulting text (which Mark Twain derided as ”chloroform in print”) placed the United States at the center of Christian history.

Having published a sequel to the Bible at age 25, a less ambitious man might have called it a career. But Smith, driven by optimism and egotism, fancied himself a monarch of a godly kingdom on earth. At the time, such aspirations were hardly unusual. Millenially minded zealots — from such fiery evangelists as Charles Grandison Finney to utopian communities of the Shakers, who believed practicing celibacy would speed Christ’s return — abounded. How, in such a tolerant religious climate, did the Mormons become a target of national scrutiny?

Bushman offers a multistoried answer that hinges as much on the complexities of Smith’s character as the 19th century cultural backdrop. Unlike his fellow evangelists, Smith’s goals were unabashedly political as well as religious, prompting critics to accuse him of power-grabbing, treason and sedition as well as financial and sexual impropriety. Smith cast himself as mayor of Nauvoo, Ill., the chief magistrate of its court, a city planner, ‘commander-in-chief of the armies of Israel,’ and at one point, a candidate for president. He wasn’t always successful. In the late 1830s, war broke out between the Mormons and the citizens of Missouri, forcing the Mormons to retreat to Illinois.

Bushman guesses Smith practiced polygamy as early as 1835. He married some 30 women between 1841 and 1844, including several who were already married. Taking other men’s wives proved damaging to Smith’s claim on his churchmen’s loyalty, and soon, Mormons were rankled by infighting as well as the outside threat of angry citizen militias. Smith escaped arrest several times, but died on June 27, 1844, at the hands of an angry mob that broke into a Carthage jail and shot him four times. He was awaiting trial for old charges of sedition.

Smith warned his followers not to expect perfection of him, and Bushman all but does the same with his readers. He quotes Smith’s own attempt at autobiography as haiku: “I [am] a rough stone. The sound of the hammer and chisel was never heard on me nor will be. I desire the learning and wisdom of heaven alone.”

Perhaps Bushman thought it blasphemous to sculpt a definitive character out of historical shards. He leaves the reader to judge the ambiguous and shifty figure that emerges, piecemeal, in this biography. Or perhaps this was as close to truth that Bushman, a meticulous historian and a believer, could come.

Alexandra Alter is The Herald’s religion writer.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Miami Herald, USA
Oct. 16, 2005 Book Review
Alexandra Alter

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