Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

In This Review

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

By Richard Lyman Bushman
Knopf, 2005
768 pp. $35.00
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Bushman, a practicing Mormon who is also a professor emeritus of American history at Columbia University, gives both Smith and his doctrine a sympathetic but perceptive appraisal in this important new study, published in the bicentennial year of the birth of the founding prophet of the Latter-day Saints. Bushman places Smith and his family in their time, culture, and class; the hopes, dreams, fears, and resentments of economically marginalized Yankees provided the essential background for the prophetic revelations that ultimately grew into a kind of sunny American Gnosticism. Drawing on such sources as mysterious gold plates covered with "reformed Egyptian" characters (translated with the help of miracle-working stones delivered by angels) and papyrus scrolls that Smith, who knew no Egyptian, was inspired to recognize as an authentic manuscript of a memoir of the biblical patriarch Abraham, Smith proposed an alternative history for the American Indians (descended from Jews fleeing the 586 BC fall of Jerusalem and later cursed with dark skin due to failures of belief and conduct) as well as a thorough revaluation of traditional Christian doctrine. Readers of this sensitive and comprehensive account will find a new and deeper understanding of Smith, the religion he founded, and the popular culture of the United States during the 39 years of his short but eventful life.