Today, I am brought to ask, but which "Brother Joseph" shall we know? I recently began reading 'Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling', by Richard L. Bushman. This book is considered by many to be the most significant and accurate biography of Joseph Smith to date (please note- Bushman is a faithful LDS member, historian and Patriarch). Yet reading it, I find a Joseph Smith that I hardly recognize. As a child of the Correlated Curriculum, I have been taught all my life a very particular narrative of the founding events of the Church. This narrative portrays Joseph Smith as the heroic boy-prophet who innocently inquired of the Lord about religion and was told he would become an instrument in the hands of God to restore the true Gospel to the earth. It tells of his miraculous retrieval and translation of the Gold Plates into the Book of Mormon. It tells of his devoted and idyllic marriage to his wife Emma. It portrays Joseph as the innocent victim of countless persecutions, trials and injustices. It paints him as almost angelic in his countenance, stature, faith. This spiritual 'Superhero' of almost immeasurable integrity is the image of Joseph Smith almost all of us have been given in countless Primary, Sunday School and Seminary classes. This is the official Church 'version' of our history. But it is not accurate.
Instead, what I discovered in 'Rough Stone Rolling' (RSR) is an entirely different Joseph Smith. This Joseph was deeply involved in folk magic and the use of 'peep stones' as a youth. This Joseph was rough and uneducated - someone who was frequently in trouble for treasure-seeking. This Joseph wrote or dictated 1/2 a dozen different versions of the First Vision; most of which did not even mention seeing God the Father or ask the question of which church to join. This Joseph translated the majority of the Book of Mormon with the Plates either covered in a cloth on the table or entirely absent from the room; and he did it with his face buried in a hat - his favorite 'seer stone' inside. This Joseph had 30 wives, at least 9 of which were married to other men at the time he married them. This Joseph hid his polygamy and polyandry from his wife for years, and its practice caused heartache and strife in their marriage. This Joseph was financially reckless and brought many persecutions and trials upon himself and the Church. He could be ill-tempered and did not take criticism well. He asked high-ranking members of the Church to publicly lie about the practice of polygamy among their ranks, and he eventually destroyed the printing press that was trying to fully expose his polygamous practices - an action that would cost him his life. It is true that this Joseph was a sincerely spiritual individual who believed what he taught and tried to put it into practice. He was untiring in his service to God and fellow Saints and performed many acts of selflessness and kindness; but he was also a flawed human being - indeed a 'rough stone' - not the polished gem I have been presented with all my life.
The paradox between the Correlated version of Church history and the actual one is the quandary of the Church in our generation. I do not blame Joseph Smith for any of this in the slightest - he never pretended to be anything he wasn't. And don't get me wrong - I believe Joseph was indeed a prophet. In fact, I find this new, flawed Joseph much more realistic and relatable than the caricature portrayed by the Church. It was the Brethren of current and previous generations who decided to paint a whitewashed view of historical events. Perhaps nowhere else is this more evident than in the 1981 talk Elder Boyd K. Packer gave to a group of Church historians and CES instructors called "The Mantle is Far Greater Than the Intellect". His most famous (and telling) quote from this talk is:
"Some things that are true are not very useful."I would encourage you to read the entire talk - its quite interesting (you'll have to download the PDF from the link I provided). This talk served as a 'shot across the bow' to Church Historians, as Elder Packer clearly spelled out that their immortal souls were in danger if they did not portray a faith-promoting view of Church history. For some years prior, the rather progressive and intellectual Leonard J. Arrington had served as Church Historian. He was the first professional Historian ever to fill that position. Arrington had taken a different and more academic approach to Church History, and for the first time had opened the Church Archives to outside scholarship. During his tenure he produced two books on general Church history which were not well received by the Brethren. A year after Elder Packer's talk, the entire Church History Department was 'transferred' to BYU, and Bro. Arrington, the Church Historian, was 'released' (without a vote of thanks, notably). The Church also closed its historical libraries to outside scholarship. The Brethren had spoken - only the 'faith promoting' version of the story would be entertained.
There is a problem with that kind of thinking. Richard Bushman put it succinctly, I think, in his own musings about RSR:
The real question is, Should we hide troublesome things from the Saints and hope they will never find out? The problem then is what happens when they do. They are disillusioned and in danger of mistrusting everything they have been told. . . . Amazingly, many LDS don't know Joseph married thirty women. We have to get these facts out to be dealt with; otherwise we are in a vulnerable position. It may be my job to bring the whole of Joseph's story into the open...I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they may lose faith in the entire teaching system that brought them along. If their teachers covered up Joseph Smith's flaws, what else are they hiding?
Exactly. You can't be open and closed at the same time. You can't pick and choose which details of history are 'faith promoting' because leaving out 'the bad stuff' will make you look like a liar. The age of the Internet and the universal accessibility to information has now forced the Church to re-think its position on historicity. President Hinckley was instrumental in bringing about change in this regard, and in opening the Archives again. He instigated a program of transparency that made writing a work like RSR possible. Probably the most important effort of all is a project now under way called The Joseph Smith Papers. It is an effort to publish literally every document written by, dictated by, or directly connected with the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. And when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING - right down to financial ledgers and the like. This is a most welcome advancement, and Bro. Bushman is one of the historians involved in this effort.
For me, probably the most important take-away from my recent studies is the realization that receiving revelation and knowledge from God is a murky, inexact science. Each person filters inspiration through the cultural and personal experiences and biases they possess as a human being. As the Apostle Paul said in Corinthians, "For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.". Joseph Smith's struggle to know the mind and will of God, his successes, his ultimate failings and trials, his stumbling while trying to peer through that dark glass make me realize that our current leaders are no different. They too are men of their age, struggling to know the mind of God as they lead an entire people. They are no better than Joseph Smith, but no worse. As a consequence of this realization, I am less inclined to jump on every word they speak. I am more inclined to meditate and pray about their counsel, for I see how easy it is for that counsel to be fogged and clouded by the dark glass that is their humanity. I will sustain them, but I will not trust them blindly or follow their counsel without serious contemplation and prayer. I see quite clearly now that they are rough stones in their own right. And so am I.
- What are your thoughts on the recent, more accurate portrayals of Joseph Smith? Does the whitewashed version of Church History disturb you?
- What do you think of the new openness evidenced by The Joseph Smith Papers?
- How can the Church introduce a more realistic portrayal of Church history without alienating the general membership?
Here are some interesting links related to this subject:
Maxwell Institute thoughts on RSR, by Daniel Peterson
The Joseph Smith Papers project, sponsored by the Church
FAIR Podcast: Richard L. Bushman, Part 1
FAIR Podcast: Richard L. Bushman, Part 2
Joanna Brooks - blog discussion about Joseph Smith history.