Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

ISBN: 1400077532
ISBN 13: 9781400077533
By: Richard L. Bushman

Check Price Now


Biography Currently Reading History Lds Mormonism Non Fiction Nonfiction Religion Religious To Read

About this book

Founder of the largest indigenous Christian church in American history, Joseph Smith published the 584-page Book of Mormon when he was twenty-three and went on to organize a church, found cities, and attract thousands of followers before his violent death at age thirty-eight. 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.

Reader's Thoughts

Andon Carling

This is the most accurate portrait of Joseph Smith and early Mormon history with which I am aware. Bushman is a believer, so he takes Joseph Smith at his word (i.e., if Smith said he received a revelation, Bushman writes that he received a revelation). Some may find this non-scholarly, but if Smith actually believed what he was saying -- and by reading his history, there is no doubt he did -- then Bushman's approach makes perfect sense. The reader gets inside Joseph Smith's head, sees how the revelations and spiritual experiences effected the man, and ends up inspired by how he dealt with all the trials he faced.If you're a Latter-day Saint looking for a book that paints nothing but a glowing picture of Joseph Smith, this is not the book to read. But if you want to read an accurate history of a stubborn, arrogant man with a love of God and a soul overflowing with conviction, this is the book to read. You understand why millions of intelligent, honest people believe to their core that he was a prophet of God.


"Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.""You don't know me - you never will. I don't blame you for not believing my history had I not experienced it [I] could not believe it myself"- Joseph Smith"Seeing's believing, but feeling's the truth."-Thomas FullerThis was a fascinating, thrilling read. I have heard that some who read it have had a difficult time with some of the facts, plural marriage for example. Nothing really surprised me and I found myself even more grateful for Joseph Smith and the work he accomplished in such a short time. I also found myself gaining a deep admiration for all those early saints. I don't know if I would have been able to endure all that they did. We may never know in this life why some of the more "controversial" doctrines were introduced which is why I included the first quote above. Also, there is no way to prove or disprove that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Even relying on a well researched academic work like this would be foolish. Think how distorted our view of events that happened close to 200 years ago must be even using the most accurate methods possible. This is the reason for the third quote.

Rachel Terry

Extraordinary! Although I took a long break from this book after the first hundred pages or so, I haven't been able to put it down this week. I've been carrying it everywhere in case I get a few minutes to open it up and read (and that's saying something because it's 700 heavy pages).Bushman's writing is beautiful and dense, and he portrays his subjects with compassion. Those one-dimensional mobbers I've heard about my whole life now seem like real people with real fears. I really felt for Oliver Cowdery having to choose between following everything Joseph said and trying to provide for his family's future. I don't blame Emma Smith one bit for not following the Saints to Utah. A lesser woman would have thrown in the towel years before that. And then there's Joseph Smith himself.While I read the last 50 pages, I kept thinking of the campfire we had last weekend. The wood was so dry that it burned with fury, so hot and fast. We all stood back in awe watching that fire burn because the flames whipped up too tall and bright. Joseph Smith burned like that. Toward the end of his short life I wondered how the world could contain him--it barely did. He followed each outrageous project or idea with something even bigger and wilder than the last, and nobody, not even he (it seemed at times), realized how these pieces would fit together into something so beautiful and harmonious.Joseph was no staid 85-year-old church president, the kind of prophet I'm accustomed to. He threw a bugle at a member of Zion's camp during a spat. He ordered his militia to destroy a press that slandered him. He had major, major disagreements with his wife. And yet, I really believe that a man in Joseph Smith's position would have to have plenty of fire. No shrinking violet would do. Of course, he had a gentle side. He loved being around people so much that his days in hiding were absolute torture to him. He couldn't stand being alone. It was so much fun to get to know the personalities of these people I've heard about all my life in a sanitized, formal way. It makes me think that the mere mortals around me are capable of things I would never dream possible.Just yesterday, a forest fire broke out in the area we camped at last week. Over 3,500 acres have burned, and the fire is still not under control. Thinking about that one tree we burned in the firepit makes me think that Joseph, the original fire in our time, has lit fires all over the world. People in many lands still look to his fire as inspiration for their own flames. (No, this is not a confession that I started the forest fire. I didn't do it.)


I decided in 2011 that I was going to start an experiment. Could I use the same formula I used to learn the about England's Tudor period to obtain a better historical understanding (and hopefully additional enthusiasm) of my religion? I started with two books: The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, vol. 1 and this book Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Like others have said, this book is not an easy or fast read. It is quite academic and spends quite a bit of time explaining the doctrines and organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It took me a while to get through this, but it was well worth it. At some points, I felt like I was reading historical fiction. You know, when you know that something bad is about to happen and you want to strangle the characters for walking blindly into their own destruction? I sometimes felt that way about Joseph. I wanted to warn him that starting a bank or destroying the Expositor's printing press probably weren't the best ideas. It is sometimes hard to think of Joseph Smith as a man who did great things but made his share of mistakes along the way (but of course, this is refreshing as well). Aren't we all rough stones, rolling? The subtitle of this book is "A cultural history of Mormonism's founder." The author spends a great deal of time really setting the stage and describing how Joseph, his family, his life's work, and his organization fit into their time and place. Though this can be some of the hardest material to wade through, I was glad to have been immersed enough to better understand why people reacted to him the way they did. My disappointment with this technique though, was that it seemed that events happened because of the environment and the actions of others and downplayed the role of both the Spirit and Joseph's natural charisma. If you are interested in the subject, I'd highly recommend this one. (I would especially recommend it during a D&C study year. The chronology of the revelations is a fascinating aspect of this book.) Brigham Young: American Moses is next. Recommendations of other good biographies of early LDS Church folk would be appreciated.


I would totally give this book 10 stars if I could. My BFF, Natalie Guerrero, has been encouraging me to read this book for several years now and after all the controversy stirred up by this book, I couldn't ignore it any longer. I borrowed Natalie's copy, but enjoyed it so much that I bought my own copy plus several more for gifts. I've sent one to my brother in Afghanistan who totally loves this kind of stuff. Bushman's research and use of sources is superb. It is not quite a page turner like Laura Hillenbrand would write, but there certainly are sections that move very quickly. I was trying to read this book while taking Microbiology, which made it difficult to move through quickly. This book has piqued my curiousity about Fawn Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith. I think my parents gave Brodie's biography to my brother for Christmas a few years ago, so I'm going to have to borrow it. I appreciate the way Bushman calls out the "non-believer" biographers for taking careful consideration of all the possible scenarios for how J.S. could of fabricated the gold plates, but completely write off the first person accounts and testimonies of those who actually saw the plates. As a believer, there is SO much to say about this book, but I'll leave it by just saying my favorite thing about Joseph Smith is his understanding and teachings about the restoration of the priesthood keys that are necessary to wrap up the earth's work during this last dispensation of time. I've always been struck by the "coincidence" of exponentially increasing interest in geneology work that started immediately after Elijah passed his priesthood keys on to Joseph Smith. I'll quote from the book here, "Joseph's story of the earth and its people, more than any set of abstract qualities, conveyed his understanding of God. When the work was finished, the priesthood keys would be returned to Adam, who would turn over the earth and its inhabitants to Christ, who holds the "Keys of the Universe." The presentation of the earth to Christ, with its inhabitants bound together by priesthood ordinances, was the culmination of history. Then "this earth will be rolled back into the presence of God and crowned with elestial Glory," completing the cycle. One more earth had fulfilled its missions. As the Lord said in Joseph's vision ten years earlier, "As one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof, even so shall another come, and there is no end to my works, neither to my words." I think it was my brother, Ezra, who first introduced me to this concept, but everytime I hear it, it rings true to my very core. Regarding the controversy this book has brought about in the LDS community, I don't get it. I have no problem forgiving Joseph Smith for his sinful human nature. From the beginning of time, God has made a habit of using sinners to accomplish his will. As for the learned among us who now feel enlightened regarding the truth of Joseph Smith's sinful nature, I say mind your own damned business and don't try to tell me what I believe. Your clueless condescension is so unbecoming.

Steve Setzer

Interesting and at times powerfully moving. Joseph Smith comes across as very human -- neither angel nor demon. For me as a believer, this book went much deeper than many LDS Church references, and yet still I'm left wanting more -- more details, more stories, more of Joseph and his friends and family. Richard L. Bushman could triple the book's length and I'd keep reading him! These 19th century farmers and artisans come alive; it's not just a dry recital of what Joseph did and where he did it. Using journals and other primary sources, Bushman takes you inside Joseph's head as much as possible, as well as showing the thoughts and feelings of his close associates. As an expert on early America, especially the Puritan and related cultures of New England, Bushman does a magnificent job of setting the scene for the rise of Joseph Smith and Mormonism.I've recommended this book to non-Mormon friends as well who found it to be very well done. It should be noted that the author is a practicing Latter-day Saint, a follower of Joseph Smith. He clearly states that fact at the beginning (since all historians have a slant, it's nice when one tells you up front what it is). When Bushman shows Joseph's failings, he talks about them clearly but does not dwell on them in the loving detail that an anti-Mormon would indulge; you might say he's "honest from a believer's slant".


In terms of research, this book is fantastic. But in terms of objectivity, the author comes up short. This biography is unmistakably written from the biased perspective of a believer. So here is my recommendation: Pair this book with No Man Knows My History by Fawn M. Brodie. She is clearly biased from the opposite end of the spectrum. They are both compelling historical works. I've heard respected scholars affirm that. So reading them back to back might offset their respective author's biases.


What a wonderful way to get to know the prophet, Joseph Smith... in his own time and place. Starting with brief biographies of his parents and their families and ending with his death, this book is comprehensive yet reader-friendly. To begin to understand a person fully, you have to understand where they came from. This book really helped me to get to know Joseph in his own time period and place; within his own familial and cultural background. I appreciated the openness and direct manner the author used in addressing the more controversial issues. A must read by anyone looking for a balanced (well, as balanced as possible given the enigmatic source material... people either loved or hated him so it's hard to find any non-biased original sources) study into the life of one of the US's most controversial characters.

Luke Terry

As definitive of a book on Joseph Smith as there can be. I say this because at the apex of his last 6 years of life, there is surprisingly little recorded of his personal thoughts and feelings. Perhaps he said it best with his claim that “no man know’s my history.” Despite this, and regardless of personal religious beliefs, any reader of this book would be hard pressed to find a biography of a more fascinating historical figure.This book has brought to light for me a better understanding why those who don’t believe Joseph Smith to be a prophet are so uneasy about him. Much like Christ, it doesn’t seem his life was lived in a way that you could justify him as being simply a great moral teacher or Christian minister. He either was who he said he was (that being a prophet) or he was the greatest American scoundrel/ hypocrite/ disillusioned zealot/ fill in the adjective religious leader. The visions he claimed and the life he lived didn’t allow for much grey area conclusions.I suspect my lasting impressions of this book is of Joseph’s sheer determination and vision. His grand plans and years of repeated failures to create a “Zion” leading to what must have been a colossal feeling of despair when he was given up to mobs for months in Missouri to live in a jail while his destitute people had to flee the state in the dead of winter due to the government’s extermination order. Only to rise from that depth refined, and move forward and build Nauvoo. His life was a constant crescendo, and even though I was familiar with his life events, I was somehow caught off guard and saddened by the abrupt end to his life with his murder.For those aspects of his life that are vague and uncertain for me as a believer, for now I’ve ultimately filled in the gaps of understanding his character by reflecting on the fruits of his work in all the beauty, power, and divinity that he created in the societies he built, the doctrines he taught, and of the lives of those who believe his teachings both then and now. With that being said, here’s a few of my favorite passages:“Judging by his actions, Joseph believed in the revelations more than anyone. From the beginning, he was his own best follower. Having the word of God at his back gave him enormous confidence. He unselfconsciously exercised authority not only among people of his own social class, but with men of learning and broader experience...They all deferred to the Prophet and the revealed commandments despite his lack of education and social position. Faith in the revelations, added to his innate personal strength, made him indifferent of rank. He believed in himself and the cause to the point of arrogance, as more than one critic pointed out. Indeed, the Church was built on his confidence. Members came and went, leaders rose and fell, but Joseph persisted. He believed, as the revelations assured him, that “no weapon that is formed against you shall prosper,” and the work of God will roll forth.”“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. The amplification of authority at the center was meant to increase the authority of everyone, as if the injection of power at the core energized the whole system. Although the Prophet’s ability to speak for God put his supreme authority beyond dispute, power was simultaneously distributed to every holder of the priesthood and ultimately to every member. From the outside, Mormonism looked like despotism, if not chaos. On the inside, subservience to the Prophet’s authority was believed to empower every member. Though he was Moses and they were Israel, all the Lord’s people were prophets.”“Joseph’s May revelation differed from standard perfectionism in defining “fulness” as truth rather than holiness, returning to his earlier doctrine of light. Protestant perfectionists strained toward moral sanctification, Joseph toward a perfection of knowledge. Christ “received a fulness of truth, yea, even of all truth,” the revelation said. The Saints were enjoined to obey and sanctify themselves, but to the end of being enlightened. “He that keepeth his commandments, receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth, and knoweth all things.”...To become like God, as the word “fulness” implied, was to grow in light and truth - to be filled with intelligence. Holiness was not an end in itself but the avenue to intelligence. One kept the commandments in order to receive truth and light.”“The revelation said the Saints would inherit a fulness of God’s glory. All that the Father had would be theirs. The texts put no limits on the extent of this fulness. The revelation on priesthood said that “all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.” These passages altered the idea of salvation from making peace with God to becoming like God. The words “salvation” and exaltation” contained a world of difference. One implied escape - from sin or hell or Satan - and the other elevation to glory and godhood.”

Jefferson Cloward

Bushman's 740 page biography comes from a pro-LDS standpoint which will be attractive to LDS readers who want to understand controversial aspects of Smith's character without avoiding the hard parts of history. Like any good historian, Bushman concedes the influences of his own bias in the preface: "Everything about Smith matters to people who have built their lives on his teachings. To protect their own deepest commitments, believers want to shield their prophet's reputation. . . . A believing historian like myself cannot hope to rise above these battles or pretend nothing personal is at stake." Though I'm no historian, I feel Bushman did a good service to his religion with this frank depiction of history. He does lean towards a positive interpretation of Smith's actions, giving believers an option to accept Smith's unattractive actions as "character flaws" and "mistakes," and a serious reader should at least balance this book with Compton's In Sacred Loneliness, and should consider No Man Knows My History.

Seth Jenson

I LOVED this book! It's been a while since I read it but I figured I'd still do a post about it anyway. It helped me get to know Joseph Smith, the man, so much better. He was just as imperfect as the rest of us, but what made him unique and special was his courage, his faith, his determination, and his vision. Oh, and another obvious unique thing about him was the fact that he had a calling and a responsibility laid upon his shoulders that few on this earth ever have. My appreciation for Joseph Smith multipled as a result of reading this book. For the first time he became real to me. Someone I could relate to and empathize with and understand a little better. He struggled with some of the same things I struggle with, and he got down and discouraged sometimes too. But he never gave up, and he willingly obeyed every mandate God placed upon him. He never shrunk or shirked. His sheer grit in the face of his human frailties have inspired me many times and, in a sense, have empowered me with the knowledge that I can overcome and accomplish great things too. If Joseph Smith was able to accomplish so much in such a short amount of time, and with so many personal weaknesses, then I know I can accomplish my work too.


I love Joseph Smith, warts and all. I love that he has warts. I love that he has a lot of warts. I love that his warts are really interesting, cool and complex. I love that he's unapologetic about truth - not about Mormonism or America or anything, but about Truth with a capital T. There's a lot wrong with so many good things, and there's a lot of stuff in the LDS church to have a beef about. Bishops and Stake Presidents can suck, the bureaucracy can sometimes (OK, most of the time) keep you from feeling and enjoying the Spirit, members are too needy, too whiny, too offensive, too ignorant, or too shallow, and the whole world in general is rarely fair and that can reflect poorly on a Heavenly Father running the whole show. But none of those frustrations change Truth, change the true gospel of Jesus Christ, or change that that is what Joseph Smith sought to champion. I love Joseph and I know that he his a prophet of a true God in heaven. More on the book later...


Comprehensive thorough biography of Joseph Smith and touches upon the basic tenets of Mormonism. I appreciated how the book put doctrine J.Smith taught into a context I hadn't thought of before. I also liked the way the author laid out the life story of J.Smith. Fascinating book-doesn't gloss over the controversial parts of J.Smith's life, but is somewhat sympathetic. In my opinion, it's impossible to be completely objective when talking about J.Smith.


Very intriguing and well written. Dr. Bushman's portrait of Joseph Smith gave this prophet of the restoration some much needed dimension. Far less than the relative demigod he is often portrayed as in church materials, Joseph was a man, as imperfect as every other man, and every other prophet ever called. He had some wholly human faults that didn't help the church at times, but he was also an extremely giving and compassionate man that tried to do what he felt he should. Results were not always positive, and for much of his life, debt was an ever present noose about his (and the church's) neck. I found Bushman's account to be extraordinarily even handed, full of criticism, extrapolation, and understanding. I greatly appreciated the contextual details he gave to the period, and was shocked and amazed by some things, such as how citizens' Constitutional rights could be so severely trod upon in favor of states' rights, and how early the 2 party system became corrupted in the U.S.All LDS church members should read this book to better understand the restoration and the origins of our faith, and the man who started it all.


This book is very enlightening if you're wanting to get into a good discussion about the Prophet Joseph Smith's background and character. There is a lot of context around some of the early doctrines of the church and a pretty a good attempt is made to cross-reference worldy explanations for how the doctrine could have come to be. That being said, all of the worldly explanations tend to get shot down in a pretty methodical way. This book is not for the faint of heart. You'll learn positives and negatives about Joseph's character and his past. While the book is mostly positive and let's the reader decide for himself from the facts, you'll find your appreciation of the things that Joseph and his family went through increase dramatically while reading this book. Good for anyone wanting to increase their knowledge of early church history. It's a good introduction to some of the other early church opponents and leaders.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *