December 23, 2005 was the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. In light of his bicentennial, historian Richard Lyman Bushman has released a massive biography—Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Weighing in at 740 pages, this book is one of the most comprehensive investigations into the life of Joseph Smith to date. It will undoubtedly become a standard reference for the life of a great American enigma.
Why is this true? Because Bushman's work is filled with thorough research. This author has done his homework, and it shows. He constantly refers to relevant sources, including many primary and original source materials. The result is a very detailed look at Smith's life.
At the same time, this tome is also well written. Even with its thoroughness, it is easy to read. Bushman is telling a story of the man who began what has become an entrenched American religion. The reader easily becomes immersed into Smith's world and culture. As a result, the pages pass quickly. You want to read what happens next.
Unfortunately, Bushman is not always a reliable guide. This quote is telling:
Incredible as the [gold] plates were, hunting for deception can be a distraction. It throws us off the track of Joseph Smith the Prophet. In devising a story of a charlatan, we lose sight of the unprepossessing rural visionary who became a religious leader admired by thousands. What is most interesting about Joseph Smith is that people believed him. To understand the emergence of Joseph the Prophet, we must follow the stories told by family and friends who believed they were witnessing a miracle. From their accounts issues the Joseph Smith who has a place in history (58).
So then, Bushman feels free to divorce Smith's history from his legacy. What matters is the Joseph Smith known and loved by his followers, not necessarily the actual, historical man. Discerning readers cannot help but wonder if the story they are reading is accurate.
Bushman dismisses critics and criticism far too easily. He does not sufficiently wrestle with historical difficulties. While he does admit mistakes and flaws in Smith, he does not entertain the possibility that Smith could be anything other than what he claimed to be, a restoring prophet of God. We may expect this treatment from a practicing Mormon, but his lack of interaction with critical sources leaves his narrative unconvincing.
The author's bias is particularly noticeable when he deals with the historicity of Latter-day Saint scriptures (such as the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham) as well as Smith's polygamy. Chapter four, "A New Bible," reads like a rehashing of arguments from BYU apologists at FARMS. His division of plural marriage from polygamy rings artificial and leads to an implausible reconstruction of the emerging practice among the Saints.
Therefore, Bushman's biography is an immensely helpful yet insufficient account of Joseph Smith. When used critically, it promises to be a valuable resource. But as a historical work on Joseph Smith, it leaves much to be desired.