This is Part 2 of my review of Richard Bushman's public comments to a small gathering in Southern California last month. In Part 1, I summarized Bushman's explanation of his approach and method, which placed Joseph as one prophetic figure in what he called the "grand tradition" (and he's thinking of a modern tradition, not an ancient one). In Part 2, I'll summarize what Bushman described (with a broad brush) as Joseph's three biggest accomplishments. Despite a flurry of B'nacle posts on various Bushman topics, I have found his short lecture that I'm summarizing in these two posts to be the best introduction to Rough Stone Rolling that I've come across. I hope some readers find it useful.
1. Publishing the Book of Mormon
Bushman noted that this wasn't how you started out in the religion business in the 19th century, by writing a book. Aspiring ministers preached, they didn't write. But Joseph Smith didn't preach a single sermon before the organization of the LDS Church in 1830. Yet Joseph was not a bookish young man. So the Book of Mormon ("BoM") was a perplexing accomplishment.
Bushman offered brief comments on the BoM, noting its vast scope ("of biblical proportions") and how even the very first readers saw it as an apocryphal Bible or "gold Bible," to use the popular term. Joseph wrote nothing before the BoM and nothing that approached it afterwards. He peaked (as an author) at 23. For a more extended commentary on this issue by Bushman, the reader can consult "A New Bible," Chapter 4 of RSR, which includes the following comments:
The book has been difficult for historians and literary critics from outside Mormondom to comprehend. A text that inspires and engages Mormons baffles outside readers. ... Mark Twain dismissed it as "chloroform in print." Bernard DeVoto called it "a yeasty fermentation, formless, aimless and inconceivably absurd ... a disintegration." ... Perhaps because she had been reared a Mormon, Fawn Brodie saw the Book of Mormon differently: "Its structure shows elaborate design, its narrative is spun coherently, and it demonstrates throughout a unity of purpose." ... The book has been controversial from the moment of its publication until now.
2. Joseph as a Reformer
Bushman described Joseph Smith as a reformer in an age of reform. This was, for Joseph, a lifelong focus, whereas once the Book of Mormon was published Jospeh quickly moved on to other projects. While some reformers concentrated their energies on one issue, such as Garrison and his abolitionist activism, Joseph took a broader approach like other communitarians. He aimed for something like a new society, anchored by a City of Zion or New Jerusalem. The Mormon concept of "consecration," which grew over the years, also captures some of the reformist impulse, I think.
Bushman spent some time explaining Joseph's unique approach to what we might now call urban planning. Joseph didn't see many big cities. In fact, he didn't really understand cities, so he fashioned his own unique "urban vision": a city of farmers who live in the city, then go out to work their fields by day. This wasn't just an idea, it became the actual blueprint for Mormon cities. Know any other American historical figure that designed a city, then built it? Bushman opined that Joseph, more than any other American, changed the landscape of America. Gotta love those wide Salt Lake City streets. Standing at the state capitol campus and looking down State Street stretching 15 miles to the south, you'd think you were looking at a Roman road in some modern European city. No Romans, just Mormons.
Another point I can't pass up was Bushman's remark that the creation of the Mormon people might just be Joseph's single greatest accomplishment, and one which comprises part of the more general reforming drive. Attending seminary, going on missions, serving in callings, accepting all callings, signing that tithing check every month — it is a distinctive and powerful society. Bushman said Mormons recognize each other, which is often true and presupposes that there is something "Mormon" to recognize.
3. The Vision Thing
My (borrowed) term, not Bushman's, but it sums up Joseph's third big accomplishment: How he managed to develop such a broad vision on such a narrow educational base and from such a confused and confusing rural New York culture. Joseph's cultural library starts and ends with the Bible. He picked up the Restorationist vision of restoring a primitive Christian church, like others in that area, from the New Testament. But Joseph went back to the Old Testament like no one else of his time did. This led to Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, to temples (quite different from chapels or Sunday meetinghouses), to the idea of kinship with Abraham, and eventually to plural marriage.
I think the mention of priesthood under this topic might tie in to Bushman's lengthier comments in "Priesthood and Church Government," Chapter 13 in RSR. In that chapter, Bushman made a remark that I think captures a lot of what eludes critics who attempt to dismiss Joseph as just another religious crank who somehow developed a following, and it relates to what was discussed in the previous paragraph. Here's Bushman's commentary:
The characterization of Joseph Smith as the prophet with no gift for administration ... misses the mark. Joseph did not attend to details the way Young did, but he could certainly organize. Almost all of his major theological innovations involved the creation of institutions — the Church, the City of Zion, the School of the Prophets, the priesthood, the temple. Joseph thought institutionally more than any other visionary of his time, and the survival of his movement can largely be attributed to this gift.
Winding up his comments, Bushman called Joseph Smith a "classic overachiever." He stressed the latent conflict between religion and democracy in antebellum America, with Joseph's life illustrating the logic of a prophetic life in democratic America. He noted it was Joseph's suppression of a newspaper that touched off the final confrontation in Illinois, and that the attack on Carthage Jail was led by a newspaper editor. Bushman concluded that, to get along, believers (with a religious worldview) must moderate their absolutist claims. But non-believers (with a democratic or secular worldview) must likewise moderate their exaggerated fears of "fanatical" religious or prophetic claims.
I suppose I've said enough, but I do want to add a couple of my own comments. I think Bushman's observations on the tension between religious and democratic approaches to public life are insightful and quite relevant today. You can see it in the high visibility every single "religion in the public square" issue gets in the media. You can see it in the conservative (read "religious") complaints about how the media is too biased or liberal (read "democratic" in the classical sense developed in the prior section). The conflict Bushman described is still with us.
Surprisingly, you can also see it in the reaction of moderate Christians themselves, those who see the proper role of believers as going to church on Sunday, then being regular democratic citizens the rest of the week, living Christian values but carefully avoiding bringing any overtly religious practices or artifacts into secular workplaces, schools, or other public institutions. Any group that takes religion more seriously than the Protestant "go to church on Sunday" model gets labelled a "cult." Yes, the predominant Protestant model is successful, as accomodations go, but the core issue that leads to the "cult" charge is really institutional, not doctrinal. Protestants want weak institutions that avoid any but a token presence outside the confines of the chapel or meetinghouse. Any group that takes institutional religion more seriously, that sees their religion, as an institution, as more than just a Sunday morning thing, gets termed a "cult." I think Protestants are lukewarm (institutional) Christians who try to have a foot in both camps. That's actually a pretty good compromise in a pluralist society, but it's nice to understand (in a way they obviously don't) what is motivating their criticism of those with a different approach to religion.