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Publisher's Summary

Founder of the largest indigenous Christian church in American history, Joseph Smith published the 584-page Book of Mormon when he was 23 and went on to organize a church, found cities, and attract thousands of followers before his violent death at age 38. Richard Bushman, an esteemed cultural historian and a practicing Mormon, moves beyond the popular stereotype of Smith as a colorful fraud to explore his personality, his relationships with others, and how he received revelations.

An arresting narrative of the birth of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling also brilliantly evaluates the prophet's bold contributions to Christian theology and his cultural place in the modern world.

©2005 Richard Lyman Bushman (P)2018 Tantor

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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Polarizing...in a great way

What did you love best about Joseph Smith?

A few months after this book was originally published in print in 2005, it was recommended to me by 2 people independently of each other. I was struck by the polar opposite point-of-view these 2 people came from. One of these recommenders was a firm believer in Mormonism and in the divine origin of Joseph Smith's calling, while the other was an ex-mormon seeking to use it to tear down the church. While the one was recommending Rough Stone Rolling in order to promote and bolster Joseph Smith's claims, the other was recommending it as evidence that, in his eyes, Joseph was a charlatan. My attention is piqued by any book that can make contenders for both sides of a controversial topic believe it supports their respective claims, particularly when that topic is one I care passionately about.

41 of 42 people found this review helpful

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An Excellent Biography

What made the experience of listening to Joseph Smith the most enjoyable?

I read this book a couple times about ten years ago. I looked forward to an audio version - so I'm happy it's finally here. It's well narrated.
More important, I've never found a more even-handed treatment of Joseph Smith. Bushman hides nothing and presents Smith in all his complexity. Five stars for sure.

15 of 15 people found this review helpful

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A reasonable history and a excellent audio performance

Some now dated material such as concerning polyandry.

LDS will find the constant and seemingly unnecessary downplaying of treasured miraculous events more than a little vexing. On the other hand, while those who, a priori, consider Joseph’s claims impossible will not be swayed regardless of the way the story is told, to consistently undercut and hide from the miraculous when discussing the life of one who claimed to be a prophet is to inadequately inform. Readers may well wonder why the Joseph portrayed in these pages continues to be a source of fascination, much less inspiration.

One may also wonder what the purpose of this book is, if it is not to irritate believers and mystify the rest!

Audio recording: on the whole, superb. One gets the sense that the reader felt more passionately about the material than the author. Of minor importance, mispronunciation of a variety of specifically Mormon words will make it more difficult for listeners to recognize them in other contexts.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Charles
  • Hyde Park, UT, United States
  • 04-21-18

Great Biography

So hard to review this and do it any justice. It truly captures Joseph Smith and the history of Mormonism in a way that gets anyone member or nonmember alike to delve into and seriously consider the story. The author gives a very fair angle with an inside advantage but an outside perspective. The Mormon history is displayed in a way that examines the critics and the traditions. I’m a Mormon and find it very faith promoting, but I’m not convinced my wife would feel the same way. So well done. Read or listened to it twice.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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A Skeptic's Take: Flawed, but Thorough

This is a more sympathetic and exhaustive take on Joseph Smith's life than Fawn Brodie's "No Man Knows My History." Although a skeptic of all religions, I preferred to read a biography that was more interested in getting the story right than being a polemic against Joseph Smith. As such, although Bushman says right off the top that he is a Mormon, I settled on this book as the more authoritative treatment of the man.

It's probably not possible to write about Joseph Smith and not be biased. Bushman gives Joseph Smith far more latitude with Joseph than most people or even historians would. Joseph is looked on as a prophet even when in the course of his prophecy he makes mistakes that would stop normal people cold. His fling with Fanny Alger, and his later multiplicity of wives, many of whom were already married to committed Mormons, is treated as a spiritual sort of union, rather than a carnal one. When Joseph Smith asks one of his wives to come and see him behind his first wife Emma's back, the author excuses Joseph by suggesting he was lonely (as Emma bore 11 of Joseph's children, he could hardly claim he wasn't getting enough at home). Bushman readily assumes Joseph's spiritual intent in just about every such compromising situation (and there are many), even when it would be easy to read such situations more cynically.

He also spends FAR more time than most historians would in tedious exegesis of the Book of Mormon, and scarcely less time on his later revelations (compiled into the later Doctrines and Covenants). Joseph's chaotic prophetic style hardly can be boiled down into one theme, so Bushman includes all of them. In this sense, the narrative "bogs down" repeatedly.

There are several takeaways from the story of Joseph Smith:

Joseph Smith cannot be thought of as simply a conniving fraud. With the notable exception of the gold plates, Joseph Smith's story appears to indicate that he believed in his own ability to receive revelation from God. The gold plates feature prominently at first, then are disregarded, and quickly fade from the story after that. Their sole purpose appears to be to ground Joseph Smith's prophetic powers in reality in the minds of his followers. After that, you either accepted him or not.

Mormons suffered awful, shameful persecution. It would be difficult to find the way they were treated by the people and the state governments of Missouri and Illinois as anything but an indictment of how far our democracy can stray from the ideals of the First Amendment. At one point, a cynical Missouri governor orders the extermination of the Mormons, which had the Mormons not fled the state would probably had been carried out. The final lynching that takes Joseph Smith's life is never punished, and all of the ringleaders of the lynching are acquitted, despite the tacit admission to the crime in open court.

Joseph Smith's failures are manifold. He often responded to the persecution of others in kind, at one point burning houses and towns of people who opposed him in Missouri, and deeming a rival newspaper libelous and destroying it without affording it due process or freedom of the press. It's not surprising that the 3 failed attempts at erecting "Zion" undermined confidence in his leadership and his prophetic powers. He was not a great leader, displaying at turns tyrannical leadership and fickleness. He (like all prophets) was a man of big ideas which, on account of belief in his revelatory powers, he holds on to them against all odds. However (also like all prophets), when they prove impossible, he easily discards them. His constant effort to turn religious and political power to his advantage, his numerous adulteries (although he always pushed back on that accusation) portray him as a very unpolished sort of prophet (hence the subtitle of the book).

The great success of Joseph Smith is his earthly and heavenly hierarchy of institutional power that holds the church together. This is probably more luck than skill. Had he not died at the age of 38, his numerous prophecies would have weighed down the church he founded in contradiction. His ever increasing and bolder pronouncements of heterodox theology, although heretical to non-Mormon Christians and absurd to basically all non-Mormons, form an admirable bedrock for human conduct and societal order. The notions of exaltation, degrees of glory, priesthood open to all (but conferred upon serious converts only), sealing of Marriages for eternity, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Presidency are probably his most important legacies, in that they allowed the church to exist after his death and gave Mormons a hierarchy of earthly and heavenly power that helps guard against the religious complacency that so many other Protestant denominations fall into. While a skeptic like me will always find actually believing in Mormonism as, in the words of South Park, "Dumb, Dumb, Dumb, Dumb, Dumb!" Mormonism stands as a great American tradition: A blend of homespun absurdity and celestial glory.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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enjoying it.

more than half way through. I am enjoying it. however, would have thought audio reader would have done his home work on proper pronunciation of names and places. prevented me from hearing Richard's voice and recognizing his authorship in the book because of the pronunciation highjacking...

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Joseph Smith a Rough stone rolling

The story was great I’m sorry But I don’t believe the narrator was familiar With many words within this religion. His pronunciation of many words I found to be quite odd

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Well researched and written

I had no idea of many of the researchers stories of Joseph Smith. thank you for revealing his history. Now all of us can know his history!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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An amazing insight to the lives of my people

A masterful job of reconstructing the era in history as well as the context wherein the Prophet Joseph was created. It is an amazing witness how God works with such imperfect material to build his kingdom. Definitely God didn’t rely on the puny wisdom of human thought. It gives me hope that despite all my flaws and missteps that there is a bright future to those who look forward with an eye of faith just as Joseph and my 3rd Great Grandpa Hyrum did.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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A great history.

I love the Prophet Joseph Smith and know by the gift of the Holy Ghost and he was a prophet of God. I love learning about this great prophet’s life. He is one of my heroes. I heard different opinions about this book, that it was a “hard read“, etc. I’m not really sure what they were referring to. Was he asked by God to do difficult things that a lot of people didn’t understand and still don’t? You bet. I’m glad he had the courage to do it. Maybe Some people imagine God calls nearly perfect men to be his prophets. I’m frankly glad that he doesn’t. Joseph was a very righteous man with imperfections and weaknesses like the rest of us. Thank God, I say. Personally I like knowing that God calls in perfect people to do his work And hearing about some of Joseph’s personal weaknesses only endeared him all that more to me. It makes me feel like maybe God can do something good with me someday ;). This book is well written, well researched, and gives a very fair perspective.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful