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Showing 1-10 of 229 reviews(verified purchases). Show all reviews
on November 12, 2005
It's hard to overestimate just how much Richard Bushman's long-awaited biography of Joseph Smith has been eagerly anticipated by Mormon readers. Now that it's finally here it would be only natural if it didn't live up to expectations. The thing is--it's just as good as we all hoped it would be. "Rough Stone Rolling" is the culmination of almost forty years of what has been called "the new Mormon history." It's impossible for LDS writers to be objective about Joseph given his place in LDS history, so Bushman aims for balance and candor and succeeds brilliantly.

When I was growing up as a Mormon I have to admit that much of the LDS writing about Joseph was an obstacle to my faith. According to many he was a ideal man without flaw, a sort of 19th-century superhero. This made him a papier-mache saint that was impossible to relate to on a human level. Bushman describes a man who trusted the wrong people at times; was hotheaded, impulsive, and contentious; couldn't abide personal criticism; was a lousy businessman--in short, a man with familiar human foibles. On the other hand he had a large, open heart, an expansive view of human possibilities, and an almost scary insight into the religious quandries of our lives. He was able to convince many, many others that the heavens had been opened. Much of 19th century Protestantism seemed spiritually dead as a stone; Joseph and his followers believed he had restored the flow of revelation that had existed in Biblical times. He became a prophet in a distinctly American vein.

Perhaps his most famous line for non-Mormons was "no man knows my history; if I hadn't lived it I wouldn't have believed it myself." Bushman captures the sheer mystical mystery of Joseph's life. Watching Bushman's Joseph is a little like watching William Blake or even Joan of Arc: how such miraculous things happened still can't be fully explained in this life and one can only marvel at what has been left behind. Bushman's explication of the Book of Mormon is as searching and fascinating as we are likely to get, and yet it only scratches the surface of this American scripture. Joseph came to personify will and energy, and with the sheer force of history turned America into the promised land. From now on, all future attempts to write about Joseph will have to deal with Bushman.
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on April 17, 2008
I bought this book because I wanted to know more about Joseph Smith. I wanted to know why Mormons enthusiastically attest to their faith in him as a prophet of God. I'd done a little internet research but was frustrated by all the "noise" i.e. expressions of feeling, positive or negative, rather than fact.

I learned of two books regarded seriously as historical: Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling and Fawn Brodie's No Man Know My History. Reviews say notwithstanding that both are good factual historical works both are biased: Fawn Brodie is apparently against Joseph Smith and Bushman is for Joseph Smith (Bushman is a Mormon). I haven't read Fawn Brodie's book yet and am still considering whether to or not.

In Rough Stone Rolling Bushman is open about his bias. Page after page Bushman puts a spin of events in Joseph Smith's life that, despite controversy, leaves the reader thinking Joseph Smith could really be a prophet of God anyway. For example Bushman explains how Joseph as an adolescent and young man used his "gift" to try to find buried treasure. Joseph is portrayed as having a desire for wealth (owing to his family's indigent circumstances), but that this irreverent desire had to be overcome before God would allow Joseph Smith to become a prophet.

In the end the reader is left to decide for themselves whether they believe Joseph Smith really did the work of God or not. I liked wondering whether it is true. I am glad I read this book. I believe I have gained a better understanding of the human condition. I recommend this book to anyone for or against Mormonism if they want more than just noise, i.e. if they want the truth.
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on December 28, 2005
I have read many books about Joseph Smith the prophet, but none have been so informative and balanced as this one.

Some of what makes this so brilliant is the autor's choice to include as much information as possible - regardless of it's implications. Richard L. Bushman does not shy away from the controversial, presenting Joseph as somebody who I can finally relate to as a human being, rather than some kind of perfect "way up there" godlike being that Primary and Sunday School (intentionally or not) portray him.

It was a relief for me to read of Joseph's mistakes in addition to his many amazing accomoplishments as a prophet, mayor, general, presidential candidate and much more.

I love how honest Brother Bushman is in the book's preface: "A believing historian like myself cannot [...] pretend nothing personal is at stake. For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all the sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws. Covering up errors makes no sense in any case. Most readers do not believe in, nor are they interested in, perfection. We want to meet a real person."

Brother Bushman has "undertaken to explore a side of Joseph Smith not adequately examined in other biogrophies: his religious thought." Thus, we are able to peer into the mind and thoughts of the prophet - to a degree never before accomplished.

What motivated him to make the choices he made? Why did he sometimes seem to "lie" in regards to poligamy, the danites, his political motivations, etc? Why was he so "secretive" of his past, the BOM translation, his early visions, etc? All of these and other questions are addressed and we are given a deeper understanding by peering into the mind and "religious thought" of the prophet.

For those wondering how much of Brother Bushman's previous work 'Joseph Smith and the beginnings of Mormonism' is contained in this work, he answers that in the preface: "Large portions of chapters 1, 2, 3 and 5" are recycled in this book.

I can't praise this book enough. I loved it so much that I bought a second copy to loan out to friends from church. (Yes, I am an active LDS.) I also bought a copy for my Dad for Christmas. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in a true and balanced history of Joseph Smith, the prophet. It is true that it shows "negative" sides to the prophet, but these are all very well documented and could not be ignored. I for one appreciate the inclusion of all the facts, not just the ones that place Joseph in a good light.

It is as historian Terry L. Givens states on the back cover: "Clearly the definitive biogrophy for generations to come. The most balanced, thorough, and insightful treatment to date--truly a masterful work."
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on October 5, 2009
The footnotes comprise about 20% of the content of this book - all in a section at the end. In the Kindle edition there are no direct links to the footnotes from the text, making them nearly impossible to find as you read, unless you track the location numbers as you go along (very tedious). If you are interested in reading the footnotes (and in a book like this, why wouldn't you be?) buy the hard copy.
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on December 30, 2014
This book is a great place to start. It's an excellent book that covers all of the key events of Joseph Smith's life and the origins of the LDS church with a fairly neutral although slightly sympathetic presentation. If you are interested in knowing LDS church history and Joseph Smith in a way that is non-threatening, then this is it.

That said, I bought this book as an active and fully believing member of the LDS church because it was "safe" in that the author is an active member and held leadership callings of Stake President and Patriarch. I wanted to know more about church history and specifically about Joseph and Emma. An unexpected side-effect was that I "lost my testimony" from reading this book (and others as follow-ups), but I'm very happy to know the "real" history of the church... history that was previously unknown to me and most of the general membership. I know others who have read this book and retained their testimony or even some who say that it strengthened their testimony, so your mileage may vary.

I'd also recommend reading "Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith" (Newell and Avery) as a compliment to this book. If you're interested in Joseph Smith's practice of polygamy and polyandry, then I'd recommend "In Sacred Loneliness" (Compton).
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on November 16, 2015
Those wanting as detailed account as possible, as far as can be reconstructed from existing documents, will be fascinated by this account. More casual readers will likely be overwhelmed by the relentless, month-by-month breakdown of detail. The real wealth of this book is the unique and fresh picture of the prophet as a man literally seized by God, at odds with his own nature and doubts as he has no choice but to follow commands. For non-members it will seem to lean slightly on the apologetic side, if not for its unabashed presentation of newly-disclosed facts. For Mormons it will present a deeply personal look at Joseph Smith which does not correlate closely to church historical traditions. Nevertheless, if one can accept Joseph Smith "the man" with all his foibles and errors, the juxtaposition between this character and the "Prophet" who emerges can be inspiring as it draws us closer and paints a vivid portrait. The research is excellent, the prose readable, and the direction consistent throughout. Recommended, but not for the casual read.
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on January 16, 2007
This has been one of the hardest reviews I've done to date. This book (as shown by other reviews below) has the potential to bother any reader - both faithful LDS members and also those who believe Joseph Smith was a fraud. Why? Because it contains statements that go somewhat against traditional "sanitised" teachings by the Church, and yet also avoids or only touches lightly on topics non-believers would consider essential in telling - which proves you cannot write a book like this and please everyone.

(No book can tell you whether or not Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. That's not the intent of this book, and hence neither should it be the purpose of any review - this is a review of the book, not beliefs.)

Upfront, I consider this to be an excellent piece of work, one of the best to date, but I cannot honestly call it a definitive tome on Joseph Smith. While impressive and well documented, it contains gaps in Joseph Smith's history, which are documented in other works, that I felt could have been included. I also found Bushman's style of writing and commentary a little too wordy and philosophical at times.

Before reading "Rough Stone Rolling" I had read Bushman's previous effort on Joseph Smith: "Beginnings of Mormonism" - an excellent historical account. So understandably I was expecting the same ease of reading from this book plus much more - especially as both believers and non-believers were giving it such great reviews. The subtitle clarifies why my high expectations were too unrealistic. This is a CULTURAL biography and so as a result, Bushman spends a lot of time interjecting psychoanalysis rather than just reporting historical detail. This is not a bad thing, but not what I was expecting.

I applaud Bushman, who upfront admits he's a believer, for being able to present the material objectively. Bushman uses a myriad of sources to back up his statements and has produced an impressive footnote section taking up over 100 pages at the back of the book.

However, in regards to historical details of a controversial nature, he will often only touch on the topic, or instead, boldly comment on it with the meat of his point found only in the footnote section. There are also times when he completely avoids calling a spade a spade: "To safeguard his burdensome secret, Joseph publicly and repeatedly denied he was advocating polygamy". Any non-Mormon writer would simply have stated "Joseph Smith repeatedly lied in public when accused that polygamy was being practised". (p.491, similarly p.538)

Let me emphasize that this is the worst I can say about this book. While not meeting MY expectations it should impress any reader.

There are reasons that believers and non-believers will love this book and reasons (as you'll read in other reviews) that both parties will find fault with this book. Regardless of what you believe, Bushman has done a commendable job performing exhaustive research and producing an excellent biography which I highly recommend.

***** 4.5 stars
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on August 29, 2016
I haven't finished this, yet, but I am really enjoying it. Over the years I've read a lot of Mormon history, but always written by outsiders or ex-Mormons. This is fairly scholarly but extremely well written and a very worthwhile read. It is written by a Mormon scholar but with a complete awareness of criticisms of Joseph Smith. I would highly recommend as a history but also as a religious history. It has actually helped me better understand what I had so long criticized without much thought. It is not hagiography, but it is very revealing for anyone who approaches with an open mind. Can't say enough about how glad I am I found this and bought it.
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I am very grateful to Richard Bushman for this book. Writing about Joseph Smith invites a storm of criticism because skeptics only want him debunked and believers want their faith supported. Each wants their pre-conceived image of who Joseph was to be proven correct. Bushman takes a strong stance that lets the evidence we have speak for itself, preferably as close to Joseph himself and contemporary witnesses as possible, and tell the story of his life to high scholarly standards.

For me the book read somewhat sparer than a biography that includes anecdotes as if they are history. Many familiar stories that I learned growing up are simply not here. However, relying as much as possible on contemporary accounts and what Joseph himself wrote or said provides a a biography more consistent in its view of Joseph than the books that either extol him or those that tend to attack him and try to debunk him. For example, the famous Brodie biography seemed to me to want Joseph to be both a genius and a dolt, a highly energetic man yet lazy, a crazed believer and a cynical con man, and on and on with similar contradictions. Bushman achieves a more consistent lens on Joseph, despite the complications of the man and his life. I think this is both a great achievement and a real help in trying to understand Joseph. I mean it as high praise for the book when I say that I think that almost everyone who reads this book thoughtfully will take away a broader and deeper conception of who Joseph Smith was and what he did.

Rather than try to recount the book to you I want to share several things that I learned from the book and really value. I could list dozens more, but you can read the book for yourself (which I encourage you to do). Yes, I am a believing member of the LDS Church, but I think the book is intelligent and honest and complete enough to provide interesting and thought provoking material for both the believer and the skeptic and for someone who comes with no knowledge of Joseph at all. Believers will have to consider the complications of the man and his flesh and blood temperament and the misjudgments he made in his life about the people he trusted and some of the actions he took. Skeptics will have to deal with the reality of the man and his achievements. Simply dismissing him as a con man or a crazed visionary will not work because that is not what the actual evidence says. Joseph did not run the Church as the single central figure nor did he turn it into a cult of Joseph Smith.

Bushman showed me the power and genius of the organization of the Church and its balancing mechanisms of being flat with a broadly held male priesthood with a hierarchical leadership with doctrine of keys and how the later addition of women in the operation, governing of the Church, and caring of the needs of the Saints strengthened and enriched it. And while Joseph was the President of the Church and its Prophet and Seer he really did let local leadership govern itself according to the principles taught through the revelations. I think Bushman's focus on the development of the organization and its role in preserving the Church and its ongoing growth after Joseph's murder is spot on and helped deepen my appreciation of its dynamism and adaptability.

I also like the compromise language Bushman achieved in dealing with the realities of the revelations of Joseph Smith. The author always refers to them as Joseph's revelations. For believers, we accept them as revelations from God through Joseph Smith, but I can see them as "Joseph's" in that they were given through him. And skeptics who reject anything divine about the revelations can accept that, whatever they are, Joseph spoke them. I also liked learning how many of the revelations were given in the presence of others in meetings, how matter of fact they were, how they were immediately copied and circulated, and how difficult it was to get them collected and printed for a variety of reasons until we finally got them published as the Doctrine and Covenants.

Another thing I gained a deeper appreciation of was the utter daring and the monumental nature of building the Kirtland Temple so early in the Church's life. Most Mormon congregations (wards) have around 500 members. Kirtland at the time they were building the temple was growing, but only had around 600 members when the project began. I can't fathom taking on such a project with so few people and for a people living in log structures and less it is even more incredible. Yet they built it in that rugged frontier town. I also thought that Bushman handled the sense of the miraculous around the dedication of the temple very sensitively. I also did not realize that when Joseph and Oliver were receiving the visitation of the Savior, Moses, Elijah, and Elias on the altar of the temple that up to 1,000 members were in the temple on the other side of the curtain.

When I was growing up I did not understand clearly how early the Saints arrived in Missouri and how much larger the settlement there was than in Kirtland even though the temple in Kirtland was built and the proposed temple for Zion was not. Bushman also does a good job of giving a clear picture of the dynamics of the persecutions in Missouri and how the growing political power and anti-slavery stance of the Mormons antagonized the locals. The so-called Mormon War is also more critical to the rest of Joseph's life than I had realized.

The constant hounding from Missouri and Joseph having to fear for his life from then on was something I had not truly appreciated. I also think Bushman handles the issue of plural marriage as well as it can be handled. And I think I gained a deeper understanding of John C. Bennett's role in the persecution of the Mormons in Illinois than I had before. I think the actual martyrdom is given a little too light a treatment here, but it is well covered material, and as Bushman notes, a great deal of faith promoting stories have accumulated around that event over the years. And I think he was probably wise in not opening up his book to attacks because he debunked someone's favorite story about Joseph's last days. Just laying out what is actually documented from the time is very helpful.

Even with all the praise I have given, I could heap a great deal more if I had the space and time. But I do want to share an honest perspective I have of the book. It is superior, truly marvelous, from Joseph's early life through the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. That is the zenith of the book. From that point on, while good, the author himself cites difficulty in getting to Joseph directly after that point because his life and the nature of the work of the Church and the lives of the Saints changed. The rest of the book is not as exquisite. Very good, interesting, and informative, but not quite equal to the previous material. It becomes more of a narrative than it had been probably for the reason Bushman cites.

I did find the footnotes and bibliography quite useful. They enriched my reading and sent me on to other reading I found illuminating and will help me in selecting other directions for study for years to come. So, I am especially thankful for the hard work in putting all that material together, as well.

This is a monumental work and a treasure. Read it. Evaluate it for yourself no matter your present attitude or judgments of Joseph Smith. You will have a more considered and informed view for having read it.

And, I don't know why this is in the paperback section. I bought and read the hardcover of the book.

Reviewed by Craig Matteson, Saline, MI
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on October 23, 2016
The book is both troubling and interesting. It is troubling if you envisioned Joseph Smith as a perfect, super human hero. He was apparently very human with feelings, emotions and imperfections. It is interesting to note that Joseph Smith, despite accusations from his detractors, never sought personal power or wealth. His ambitions seemed grounded in the establishment of God's kingdom on earth despite having a predominance of followers who were not quite up for the task.
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