Joseph Smith: Prophet, Revelator, Human

As Mormons celebrate the bicentennial of their church's founder, a new biography explores his achievements--and shortcomings.

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.

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Interview by Michael Kress
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