'Smith' big on selective details, weak on interest

Salt Lake City Tribune/October 29, 2005
By Martin Naparsteck

Richard Lyman Bushman in Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling attempts a biography of the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that meets the highest standards of professional historians and reflects his Mormon beliefs.

He gives us a tedious rendition of the known facts of Smith's life, making one of the most interesting men in American religious history sound downright boring. The book requires inspired effort to read. He offers no new significant information and no new ways of viewing Smith.

Bushman accepts Smith as a prophet who received revelations from God, accepts the Book of Mormon as holy scripture and defends Smith against many of the charges other biographers directed against him, including the view he developed polygamy to satisfy his lust.

In Bushman's view, Smith married "most likely between twenty-eight and thirty-three" women "to create a network of related wives, children and kinsmen that would endure into the eternities." Bushman adds, "He did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin." Smith sometimes married women who already had husbands. Bushman claims, "There is no certain evidence that Joseph had sexual relations with any of the wives who were married to other men."

A nonbeliever might reply, "Duh!" How about the fact, skeptics might ask, some of those husbands were outraged? Exactly what evidence does Bushman want? Videotapes?

Bushman explains a famous prophecy by Smith in a manner likely to please the faithful. In 1832, Smith said someday a civil war would be fought between the North and South. Believers often cite this as proof God spoke to Smith. Doubters have seen it as bunk, noting that for decades thousands of people predicted a civil war.

Bushman cites, without comment, an 1861 Philadelphia newspaper recalling the prediction and asking, "Have we not had a prophet among us?" By not commenting, Bushman can claim he is simply reporting a fact. However, by placing the quote at the end of the section devoted to the prophecy, he leaves an impression of agreement.

Incredibly, he quotes Fawn Brodie in defense of the literary merits of the Book of Mormon. The book's "structure," Brodie wrote in No Man Knows My History, an unflattering biography of Smith, "shows elaborate design, its narrative is spun coherently, and it demonstrates throughout a unity of purpose." Bushman omits that she calls the book "dull," says it's "fiction" and accuses Smith of plagiarizing large portions of it from the Old and New Testaments.

Bushman argues, mostly by implication, that despite being a prophet, Smith was flawed as a human being. Among other faults, he notes Smith rejected almost all criticism, often with anger and threats. He says Smith "did not rise above the fray in the serene majesty of his calling." But even here, he stops short of blaming Smith fully, instead insisting Smith merely reflected his times. There was, Bushman notes, a "culture of honor" requiring men to react strongly to any public slight.

The result is procrustean. Bushman selects facts to support his view and ignores many that don't. Where he can't ignore them, he explains them with stretched logic. Bushman thus uses intellectually dishonest methods to give us a dull portrait of an interesting man.

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