Joseph Smith: Prophet, Revelator, Human
As Mormons celebrate the bicentennial of their church's founder, a new biography explores his achievements--and shortcomings.
BY: Interview by Michael Kress
When Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints--commonly known as the Mormons--in 1830, there were few signs that this group of six people would grow into an international religious movement that today claims 11 million members and is the fourth-largest denomination in the U.S. Dec. 23 marks 200 years since Smith's birth in Sharon, Vt., and his spiritual heirs have been commemorating his bicentennial throughout this year. Among the events marking the anniversary was the publication of a new scholarly biography, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," by Richard Lyman Bushman, a professor emeritus at Columbia University and a practicing Mormon. Bushman spoke with Beliefnet about his book and about the man who founded the Mormon Church.
Can you explain your book's subhead, "Rough Stone Rolling"?
These are words Joseph Smith used to describe himself, and then Brigham Young repeated them. I was drawn to them because I think they capture the incongruity of his inadequate preparation for any kind of leadership role and the rough style of personality and method that continue to the end of his life. And I think it points out the incongruities of a person with so little background who achieved so much.
How did someone with those incongruities create such a lasting institution?
It's the great puzzle of his life. Those who study prophetic figures in history--American as well as ancient history--point out the immense energy that floods into a person who comes to believe that God is speaking through them and that they are chosen instruments for some divine purpose. That confidence of Joseph Smith gave him all sorts of powers he might otherwise not have commanded. It overcame the intimidation he might have felt because of his lack of education and social standing. He just boldly went forward with these extravagant plans for a church and a city of Zion and a temple, and I think that sprang from his confidence that God was with him.
He also had a knack for speaking to the deep religious issues of his time--one of these being a hunger to return of biblical powers. This is a Bible-blazing people, and it's quite obvious that all the gifts that are promised in the New Testament and the tradition of direct revelation had petered out by their time, and there were a lot of people who wanted these returned. And Joseph Smith gave them what they were looking for: a prophet speaking for God.
What were the negative effects of his inadequate preparation?
For someone so unprepossessing to claim so much made him appear like a fraud. How can anyone say God has spoken to him when he has so few qualifications? And so people ridiculed him immediately, and even more were suspicious of him, thought this was a con operation and he was actually dangerous. So that incongruity set up great suspicions in the people who saw him in operation.
We think of Smith as a man with supreme confidence, but you write about a man with human doubts and insecurities. What were some of these?
This came as a surprise to me because he does seem so bold, almost impregnable, in his confidence, and it is true that people didn't intimidate him. But he needed people around him, I concluded. He was at his best when he was surrounded by people, believers or unbelievers. When he was alone, he became blue, as he said. He fell into melancholy. He had a kind of Abraham Lincoln character about him, and all the sorrows of his past and his mistakes would flood in on him, and he felt like he was very dependent on God to restore him, because he felt so weak and ineffective.
You've said that scholars are beginning to think of Smith in the context of a tradition of American prophecy. What do you mean by this?
Scholars are beginning to recognize that the prophetic voice recurs in America. It begins with Anne Hutchinson, who says quite bluntly that God was revealing his truth to her. This role is accessible in a Bible-believing culture, and the Bible is, of course, as significant as the U.S. Constitution for establishing the primers of American culture. So there are people who picked up that role, and Joseph Smith is preeminent among them. No one exceeds him in claiming prophetic powers. He produces Scripture and revives the biblical role. So that's one way to think of Joseph Smith, as stepping out into a tradition of American prophets.
How has Smith's image changed over the years among academics and the general public?
There are certain traditions that just persist forever. One is that he was a "colorful fraud," and even a "dangerous fraud," which was a stereotype that was locked on him almost immediately. He was classed with Muhammad as a man who thought he spoke for God and therefore wished to impose his will by force on people around him, and he was frequently compared to Muhammad in his own lifetime. That remains.
I do think there is a growing willingness to respect Joseph Smith because of the success of the Mormon Church. With so many sensible, likeable people who are Mormons and who believe in him, it's not as easy to dismiss him as it was in the 19th century. So there's a look-and-see attitude: Hard to believe he did the things he claimed to do--seeing an angel and translating--and still, here are the consequences, the Mormon people. So there's a suspension of disbelief among some observers.