Monday, May 14, 2012

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman

I read Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling in the summer 2007.  I, like many other members who read this book, found and learned things, for the first time, about the history of the Church and that they were very different that the stories I had been taught in Primary, Sunday School, at BYU, at the MTC and on my mission.  It was a real eye-opener.  Generally speaking, I was taught (or at the very least, I was impressed upon) to avoid the controversial issues of Church History - rather I should stick to the the narrative the Church lesson books offered.  The authors of those "other" controversial Church History books would just fill my head with apostasy.  That was my reality until the Bushman book came along - then all of a sudden, it was OK to read about these issues.

I have to admit, my testimony has gone through several phases since that first reading of the book.  I started reading it for a second time in January of 2012 - this time reading it more in depth and considering the words of Bushman.

Below, I've written about a few things that have stuck out to me, that I consider significant for my own testimony.  In some cases, I expound a bit more.  For other parts, I just state things as they are.

The First Vision
Joseph received the "First Vision" in the early part of 1820.  There are many accounts of the vision.  Bushman talks of two main accounts; the one in 1832 and the one in 1838.

It is interesting to note, that we never really know if Joseph told his parents and family of the "First Vision".  As Bushman notes in the book, many of the early converts were drawn to the religion because of the restoration gifts of God and the idea of gathering Zion before the coming of Christ.  The "First Vision" did not play into their conversion, unlike today's introduction of the Church to investigators.

In the 1832 account, the emphasis was on receiving forgiveness of sins.  The "pillar of light" was present and it was "the Lord" who he saw and spoke with.

In 1835 and subsequent versions, more details emerged - the dark power that kept him from speaking; that he heard sounds of walking.  In these other versions, he saw two personages and they both spoke to him.  In the 1838 version, he made it clear the two personages were God the Father and his son Jesus Christ.  In 1835 and 1838 versions, emphasis was placed on the lack of truth in other churches.

Another thing that Bushman notes about the First Vision as well as other visions, is that Joseph was very slow to say anything about them to other people.  In fact, Moroni had to command him to tell his father about his visit from Moroni.  The vision in the Kirtland temple is another example ... see below for more info on this.  In a podcast, Bushman thinks that perhaps the reason Joseph was slow to share these experiences was because of the culture.  There were many people proclaiming visions, but that they may have been seen as "kooks" and Joseph did not want to be seen as in the same vein as these people.

I've often thought about this.  We are taught that "sacred experiences" are indeed sacred and should usually not be shared with others.  It's the whole "pearls before the swine" idea.  But we, as a Church today, are OK with sharing the First Vision and other visions of the prophet.  We are comfortable with Lehi's and Nephi's vision; with Alma's visitation from an angel; with Enos' experience; with Paul's conversion and on and on and on.  But why are we reluctant to speak of experiences that are happening today - right now?  Why are we taught not to share those experiences?  Would we quickly discount others' spiritual experiences?  Would we react the same way the Methodist minister did when Joseph told him?  Is that why we don't share them?  If that is the case, then it's the lack of faith on the hearer's part, while, perhaps, others who would hear it would be edified.

The Book of Mormon
The traditional story of how the Book of Mormon was translated is Joseph putting on the breastplate and Urim and Thummim, casting his gaze onto the plates and seeing the reformed Egyptian turn into English words.  Furthermore, it would seem that Joseph just knew to "put on" the breastplate and spectacles and begin the translation - but this was not so.  As Bushman states on page 63, "Developing a method took time."

The whole process is not really known.  But we do know that he copied characters; had them sent to scholars to translate and to verify.  There is also this passage from Bushman: "Neither Joseph nor Oliver explained how translation worked, but Joseph did not pretend to look at the 'reformed Egyptian' words, the language on the plates, according to the book's own description.  The plates lay covered on the table, while Joseph's head was in a hat looking at the seerstone which by this time had replaced the interpreters.  The varying explanations of the perplexing process fall roughly into two categories: composition and transcription.  The first holds that Joseph was the author of the book.  He composed it out of knowledge and imaginings collected in his own mind, perhaps aided by inspiration.  He had stuffed his head with ideas for sermons, Christian doctrine, biblical language, multiple characters, stories of adventure, social criticism, theories of Indian origins, ideas about Mesoamerican civilization, and many other matters.  During translation, he composed it all into a narrative dictated over the space of three months in Harmony and Fayette."

Bushman describes the 'composition' method, but I'm not going to quote that here.  I will quote what he wrote about 'transcription.'

"The transcription theory has Joseph Smith 'seeing' the Book of Mormon text in the seerstone or the Urim and Thummim.  He saw the words in the stone as he had seen lost objects or treasure and dictated them to his secretary.  The eyewitnesses who described translation, Joseph Knight, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, who was in the house during the last weeks of translation, understood translation as transcription.  Referring to the seerstone as a Urim and Thummim, Knight said: 'Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters.  Then he would tell the writer and he would write it.  Then that would go away the next sentance would Come and so on.'"

"Joseph himself said almost nothing about his method but implied transcription when he said that 'the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book.'  Close scrutiny of the original manuscript (by a believing scholar) seems to support transcription.  Judging from the way Cowdery wrote down the words, Joseph saw twenty to thirty words at a time, dictated them, and then waited for the next twenty to appear.  Difficult names (Zenoch, Amalickiah) were spelled out.  By any measure, transcription was a miraculous process, calling for a huge leap of faith to believe, yet, paradoxically, it is more in harmony with the young Joseph of the historical record than is composition.  Transcription theory gives us a Joseph with a miraculous gift that evolved naturally out of his earlier treasure-seeking.  The boy who gazed into stones and saw treasure grew up to become a translator who looked into a stone and saw words."

A word about the seerstone (or seer stone as found on  The image of Joseph putting his head into his hat to see his seerstone is not a common image in the Church.  I've never even seen an image of Joseph using the Urim & Thummim and breastplate.  Rather, the image that does come to mind is Joseph gazing on the plates (sans seerstone or U&T) while Oliver sits across the table writing.  But the fact that a stone Joseph found in 1822 was being used in the translation of the Book of Mormon is an interesting one.  Bushman talks about this in his book - the theory is that Joseph learned of the Gospel in the context of the treasure and magic culture that existed at that time.

Comparing my childhood/teenage view of the translation of the Book of Mormon with this new (to me), more accurate description of the translation is interesting. In my mind, the two views are vastly different.  My childhood view is simple and very clean.  The reality view is more enticing.  But my fundamental question is this: why, as a child, did I have to be taught the clean version of the story?  If anything, it would have been far easier to believe as a child, the story of Joseph finding a stone while digging a well and then using that stone to translate the Book of Mormon.  Perhaps the "clean" version is told so as not to distract the learner with the idea that there are seerstones just laying around the earth - rather the focus should be on the work of God.  That's just a thought.  But to finish that thought - why would the Church jump to that conclusion?  Is it because others found a seerstone too?  And to prevent others from from finding a using a seerstone (a true one or a false one)?  I don't know.  But the fact remains - the version I was taught was not the whole truth and this is not an isolated example - it's a pattern.

Kirtland Temple Dedication
D&C 110 is an important section in the scriptures and Church History.  As a seminary student, I was taught (or at least I viewed it as being taught) that during the dedication of the Kirtland temple, Joseph and Oliver saw Jesus Christ "standing on the breast work of the pulpit before them, and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber: his eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was like the pure snow, his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun, and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the Voice of Jehovah, saying I am the first and the last, I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain. I am your Advocate with the Father."  They also saw Moses, Elias and Elijah, who in turn delivered keys to Joseph and Oliver.  In my mind, I saw them stepping behind a veil, while the rest of the congregation waited for them. After being visited, they return to the congregation to tell them the marvelous experience ... but they don't.

Bushman informs us the "vision was not included in editions of the Doctrine and Covenants published during Joseph's lifetime, and no manuscript copies exist save Warren Cowdery's and the one Willard Richards copied into Joseph's history for the Church newspaper in 1843.  Joseph never mentioned the event in his other writings.  There is no evidence he told the Kirtland Saints."

"The episode behind the veil is mysteriously suspended at the end of the diary without comment or explanation, as if Joseph was stilled by the event."  Bushman goes on to say that the formal revelations the Saints were used to receiving from Joseph seem to stop and that he was receiving "incommunicable revelations" the Saints "could not bear."

This was something new to me.  Again, I viewed this revelation of Joseph and Oliver seeing Christ in the Kirtland temple as something grand - a bulwark of doctrine for the Saints.  But they never knew this vision happened until seven years later.  In fact, the sole purpose of building the temple was so that the Saints could receive their endowment - to see and know Christ personally.  Meetings occurred in the temple from January to April - many outpourings of the Spirit occurred, but not as many saw the face of God as was hoped.  Bushman writes, "Not many saw the face of God or the Savior, but enough had been given to say that the endowment was now theirs.  As one brother wrote later, 'Some brethren expressed themselves as being disappointed at not receiving more and greater manifestations of the power of God, but for our part, we had found the pearl of great price, and our soul was happy and contented, and we rejoiced in the Lord.'  Joseph told the quorums 'that I had now completed the organization of the church and we had passed through all the necessary ceremonies, that I had given them all the instruction they needed.'  Now they needed to 'build up the kingdom of God." (pp. 318-19).  And then, when Joseph and Oliver thought the endowment was essentially over, they see the greatest of all the visions - Jesus Christ ... and then they don't say a word.  Maybe, as Bushman alludes, more was revealed than the Saints were ready for and this is why they didn't say anything at the time.

I don't have anything specific to say about Zion.  I've always held the same belief and opinion about Zion and the book just reaffirmed my opinion.  Namely - that the Saints kept having to give up on it over and over again.  Almost from the start of the church, they had a dream of Zion.  And whenever they tried to establish it, they failed.  All the knowledge that was given to the Saints has stayed with us.  But perhaps the single most important thing to them was establishing Zion - and that was the one thing they could not get and keep.  Now, Zion is not so much a central place for the Saints to live in, rather it's a watered-down Region-Stake-Ward concept.  It's palatable, but not necessarily satisfying.

Word of Wisdom
Just some minor observations abot the WoW as I read the book.

The WoW was given in February 1833.  I've always been taught that the WoW at the time it was give was just that - a word for the wise, but not necessarily a commandment.  It was later codified by the Saints living in Utah, along with the interpretations of what "hot drinks" meant.

In first few months of 1838, Oliver was accused of "various infractions of the Word of Wisdom ... Cowdery admitted to drinking tea three times a day for his health, and the Whitmers contended tea and coffee were not covered by the revelation."  It would seem the WoW had some force back then.

Another passage from when Joseph was in Nauvoo: "Through the late fall and winter of 1843 and 1844, Joseph and Emma's relationship broke down only once.  During Sunday dinner on November 5, Joseph became ill, rushed to the door, and vomited so violently that he dislocated his jaw.  'Every symptom of poison,' Richards noted in Joseph's diary.  That night at the prayer meeting, Richards wrote in code that Joseph and Emma did not dress in the usual special clothing, a sign they were too much at odds to participate.  The next day, Richards wrote that Joseph was 'busy with domestic concerns.'  Years later, in the anti-Emma atmosphere of Utah, Brigham Young spoke of a meeting where Joseph accused his wife of slipping poison into his coffee.  Brigham interpreted Emma's refusal to answer as an admission of guilt."  Bushman later goes on to say the accusation was "unfounded" and that Joseph was prone to violent vomiting and that he had dislocated his jaw before.  But in all this, what caught my attention was Joseph drinking coffee in 1843.

At time of his leg operation, he would not drink a strong drink.  But later, there were numerous times when he drank wine.  In fact, during the Nauvoo chapters of the book, I was surprised at how many parties and social dinners they had at the mansion.  Wine seemed to be served often at these parties.  Perhaps there was a fundamental difference, in peoples' minds, between strong drink and mere wine.

This seems like such a burned-over topic in Church History.  But the key thing that I learned from Bushman's book was that the original teaching of "Celestial" marriage was marrying multiple "spiritual" wives and that in order to obtain the highest kingdom, a man must enter into this new and everlasting covenant.  This teaching has since shifted from polygamy to mean one man marrying one woman in the temple for time and eternity.

Other things to note on this topic ... Bushman alludes that this doctrine began around the time of the dedication of the Kirtland temple.  It was never openly taught.  This doctrine was always taught in secret.  Joseph denied it publicly.  Emma hated the doctrine and the thought of polygamy - Joseph was stuck between eternal damnation (for not practicing it) and his wrathful wife (who he loved dearly).

I see the practicality of most doctrines.  But I don't see it for polygamy.  Yeah, there's Jacob 2, but I don't think there was a great need to "raise seed" back in 1836-88.  Maybe it was for the point of "restoring all things", but if that was the case, wouldn't it have been sufficient to introduce it; perform it once and call it good until it was actually needed?

King Follet Discourse
Every missionary wanted a copy of the King Follett Sermon.  When I worked in the copy center at the MTC my freshman year at BYU, we had copies of it on standby to sell to missionaries.  I don't know if my memory is accurate or not, but I seem to remember we could not sell copies of the sermon anymore at one point.

As Bushman notes, it was the doctrine of polygamy and multiple gods that essentially got Joseph killed.  It was just too much for people in that day.  But the feeling I got from reading Bushman was that this was major, major doctrine for the 20,000 Saints assembled on April 7, 1844.  But to this day, the sermon remains absent from the D&C.

One of his last quotes
About a week after the King Follett discourse, Joseph gave his final public sermon on June 16, 1844.  From Bushman's book: "Joseph new his leaps would terrify less intrepid souls.  'I despise the idea of be scared to death,' he said upon completing his proof of God the Father having a father.  'When things that are great are passed over with[ou]t. even a thot I want to see all in all its bearings & hug it to my bosom.'  Then came a sentence that captured his spirit perfectly: 'I never hear[d] of a man being d[amne]d for bel[ievin]g too much but they are d[amne]d for unbel[ief].'  A few minutes later he stopped talking.  The sky was pouring rain."

And that seems to sum it up - Joseph brought a lot of ideas into the world.  The final few ideas cost him his life, but the fact remains that we have those ideas because of Joseph's desire to believe and gain knowledge from God.

Final Thoughts
Rough Stone Rolling is a fantastic book.  For someone who was raised in the Chruch and was taught all the wonderful things about Joseph Smith and Church History and never taught a thing about the "dark secrets" of the Church, reading this book was a bit like reading the journal of someone you look up to ... and when you read it, you realize they really aren't the person you perceived them to be.  You realize they are human - just like you - they have faults, sins and short-comings.  There is a bit of a let-down.  But then you realize no one is perfect except Christ.

If anything, you should feel confident that if the Lord approves of and loves Joseph, then he also loves us!  Joseph and the church were in debt.  They broke the law of the land.  They didn't always keep the commandments.  They were forced to make tough Adam/Eve/Fruit and Nephi/Laban/Thou-shalt-not-kill choices.  When all was said and done, Joseph just wanted to do what the Lord wanted him to do.  And if we can say that all we did was what the Lord wanted us to do, then despite all our faults and short-comings, we can feel confident in the Lord's love and approval for us.