Monday, September 24, 2007

Richard L. Bushman's "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling"

Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History, Emeritus, at Columbia University. His From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690—1765 won the Bancroft Prize in 1967. His other books include Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (1984), winner of the Evans Biography Award; King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (1985); and The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992).

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his acclaimed book, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005), and reported the following:
Who can believe such an absurd idea as the page 99 rule – until they try it. For lo and behold, what did I find on page 99 of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling but a set of ideas about the Book of Mormon that synthesized my overall thinking about Joseph Smith.

On that page, I come to the end of a segment on the Book of Mormon and Indians and launch into a discussion of the place of the Bible in the book. I had been arguing that the Book of Mormon appears at first to incorporate nineteenth-century American prejudices about the Native American population. They are fierce, savage, and cursed with a dark skin. If they turn to God, they are told, this curse can be removed, suggesting that goodness and virtue are white, and savagery and wickedness are dark. Yet underlying these racist notions is the book’s underlying message that Native Americans are also Israel, God’s chosen people. Moreover, the Book of Mormon teaches that the American continents belong to the Indians; the Europeans are interlopers who must join with this branch of Israel or be cast off. Strangely, the native peoples in the Book of Mormon are both cursed and blessed. At this juncture between Indians and the Bible, I write the following:

All the efforts to situate the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century are frustrated by contradictions like these. The book elusively slides off the point on one crucial issue after another.... The Book of Mormon is equally perplexing on its comments about the Bible, the book from which Joseph’s translation primarily drew its strength. The Book of Mormon can be seen as an extension of the Bible, as a mammoth apocryphal work.... And yet for all the similarities and mutual confirmations, the Book of Mormon challenges the authority of the Bible by breaking the monopoly of the Bible on scriptural truth. Certain passages in the Book of Mormon even throw doubt on the Bible’s accuracy.

The Bible, in other words, receives the same treatment as the Indians. It is both honored and depreciated. I think of that passage as an expression of my overall view of Joseph Smith. He appears to be one thing, but at the same time is something else.

I voice this thought in a passage on revelation and authority. Revelation made Joseph the commanding presence at the head of the church. Since he spoke for God, he had the potential to exercise dictatorial power over his followers. But, incongruously, he also promised every church member revelation like his own.

In Kirtland, he had silenced the visionaries when they competed with his authority. And yet in a perplexing reversal, the revelations also said everyone was to receive inspiration and speak for God. Despite Joseph’s monopoly on Church-wide revelation, the Lord promised these untutored elders revelation of their own.... In an inexplicable contradiction, Joseph was designated as the Lord’s prophet, and yet every man was to voice scripture, everyone to see God. That conundrum lies at the heart of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism (p. 175).

Where this leads us I cannot say, save to conjecture that compelling systems of thought will frequently, perhaps inevitably, embody paradoxes, as Terryl Givens has argued in his new book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. The human mind confronting existence is incapable of reducing it to a logically consistent system. If we are true to reality, we will inevitably arrive at paradoxes. It may be a mark of Joseph Smith’s capaciousness that paradox lies at the center of his thought.
Read an excerpt from Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling and learn more about the book from the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue