Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Questions about Joseph Smith? Join the Club

51Z7ku6pZDLSeer stones. Plural wives. Masonry. Folk magic. Conflicting First Vision accounts.

Why is Joseph Smith so complicated?

And why does it matter so very much for Mormons?

In the last decade, the Internet has brought all the Smith family laundry out into the open, for better or for worse. The “for better” part of that, for me, is that historical truth always needs to be acknowledged, even when – I would say especially when – such facts make us uncomfortable.

The “for worse” part is that the Internet is not exactly the best place to head for nuanced interpretation or agenda-free historical context to help us understand those facts. For that, we rely upon professional historians now more than ever.

So the Juvenile Instructor, one of the web’s top independent sites for Mormon history*, will start a book club on May 10 focusing on Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, a landmark 2005 biography of the prophet by Columbia University historian emeritus Richard Lyman Bushman.

He was one of my professors in graduate school, which was a huge privilege for me since he is one of the world’s top historians of Mormon and American history. The guy won the Bancroft Prize, for crying out loud. But he’s also a former bishop (you can read about that here) and longtime stake patriarch. He has a strong faith (see here and here) and a beautiful heart.

Richard’s meticulously researched biography of Joseph Smith does not shy away from the hard questions. It doesn’t hide the facts.** It does, however, try to understand those facts in context, so that Smith emerges as a worthy, if complex and even tormented, religious founder.

Maybe you started this book and never made it to the end. However fascinating it is, it’s also nearly 600 pages, which is a lot to ask in our ADHD culture . . . Oh look, a squirrel!

Or maybe you bought the book when it came out ten years ago, or had it given to you, and it is still sitting on the shelf. Maybe you were too intimidated to read it alone.

Now you don’t have to. I hope you’ll join in the JI book club to learn about Joseph Smith and discuss the book. There will be some professional historians helping to guide the conversation, and they have promised to answer any questions that come up in participants’ comments. The reading load is light – just a few chapters a week – and the company promises to be . . . well, passionate, I’m sure.

Because while nuance and context have been sorely lacking in many Internet discussions of the Mormon prophet, no one on either side has ever wanted for passion.



*Also check out Keepapitchinin for excellent observations about Mormon history, and fascinating primary sources.

** Well, except for the “refreshment stand” thing. That was a generous euphemism.



About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.