Rough Stone Rolling — Richard L. Bushman

Rough Stone Rolling is considered by many to be the most academically defensible book
on the prophet Joseph Smith in print. That said, most non-LDS academics implicitly reject any restoration history as biased if it does not begin with the assumption that Joseph Smith was a fraud.  At least one primary reason is the non-repeatability of revelation and visitation. Because these things are not repeatable in the academy, they must necessarily be discounted and condemned without trial. Hence, I do not think the book accomplished academically defensible part of its intended outcome.

At least one secondary purpose was to deal with what for some members are “tough” issues. When we talk and testify of the prophet Joseph and the events surrounding the restoration, we give the most faithful account we possibly can give. That account opts to expose some things at the expense of others. Some members don’t know about “complicated” restoration events and when confronted with these, they may deny them, fall away, ignore them, or run to an apologist.  Many issues are exposed in Rough Stone Rolling with little care taken to distinguish between the glowing and the complicated. However,care is taken to place the complicated events in a favorable light. On the other hand, Bushaman does not go out of his way to emphasize the glow. The events as stated end up in the center.

I have said before that re-telling history is necessarily an interpretive act. When evaluating history at least as much scrutiny needs to be placed on the writer of the narrative as on the accounts of the events themselves. In Bushman’s case, he interprets the events of the restoration as a believer in Joseph’s accounts of visions, visitations, events and artifacts. Bushman’s testimony and love of the prophet seeps through the pages, thereby undercutting his credibility in the academy, but fortifying the truth of his presentation.

Bushman is a solid researcher and an able writer. If I had any wish, it would be to ask him to rewrite the book ignoring the academy. I think he would have been better off had he begun this way in the first place.

As far as the exposure of the prophet’s imperfections goes, I do not believe that the prophet Joseph would have any objections. He never wanted to be the focal point of anything. His life was devoted to pointing people to the Savior and to eternity. He was not reticent to share with the world several sharp rebukes he received from God from time to time. He could have easily received these rebukes without documenting them, yet he is forthright about these and his weaknesses.

Many in the church share the catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, but apply it to Latter-Day Saint prophets. I am not one of these, and I am not bothered by incidents in any of the lives of any general authority that are not in harmony with perfect discipleship.

There is no need to fear this book and a lot to be gained from reading it. My copy is well marked with coded colored pencils and coded post-it tags. Last Sunday night my eight year old asked me about the tag color differences. I told him that Red meant “really cool.” He wanted to read all of the Red tag references. We spent about 30 minutes reading about and discussing some of the wondrous events in the prophet’s life. It was the best 30 minutes I spent all week. Many thanks are due to Bushman for his book. I recommend it.


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