Today is an auspicious day to write about “Rough Stone Rolling.” Joseph Smith, the star of the show, was killed by a mob of vigilantes one hundred and sixty-seven years ago, June 27, 1844.
Growing up as a Mormon, I’ve been hearing about Joseph Smith since before I can remember. As such, the general outline of his life is pretty familiar. Even still, Bushman’s biography did fill in an awful lot of details – a lot of things about Joseph that aren’t generally known throughout the church. They’re not specifically suppressed by any means, but they just aren’t simple or applicable enough to a Sunday School lesson. Kind of like in Joseph’s own time –missionaries frequently did not feel the need to mention Joseph at all – their message was primarily the restoration of spiritual gifts from the ancient Christian church. Today the Church is similar – the message Joseph preached is more important than the man himself.
Joseph did an incredible work in his relatively short life, even if you completely disbelieve his claims of prophecy and revelation. I think Bushman did a good job giving unbiased treatment of his life. He presents the revelations, visions, and other supernatural claims just as Joseph and his contemporaries recounted them without interjecting his own opinions or beliefs.
Joseph wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. There’s the “money-digging” of course; kind of silly and ludicrous to us in our time, but not so much in the supernatural mixture of magic and religion that permeated New England culture in the early nineteenth century. He tried out many different business schemes throughout his life and exactly none of them succeeded. Although not entirely his fault, the failure of the bank Joseph helped to set up in Kirtland was the main impetus for dissent among church members there and forced him from the city. He sometimes had a short temper. During Zion’s Camp he had a series of squabbles with his cousin Sylvester Smith. One that stuck in my mind: Sylvester threatened to kill one of the camp dogs, Joseph threatened to whip Sylvester if he did. They were both pretty nasty to each other.
The Missourians and other mobbers persecuted the Mormons out of fear of fanaticism. They were wary of the ever-growing numbers of converts streaming in from other states and even foreign countries, all claiming allegiance to a man who claimed to speak for God. Who could predict what he may preach and what atrocities his “blind followers” might commit in the name of God? Fear bred suspicion, then hatred and violence. It’s ironic that the Missourians were right in one regard – in the kingdom of God, the laws of God are higher than the laws of man. Many of the Saints would have followed Joseph’s revelations to the death, if required. Later on in Utah, many men practiced plural marriage, were arrested and thrown in jail. They would rather be disobedient to the law of the land than disobedient to the will of God.
Speaking of plural marriage, that’s probably THE most interesting, not-really-taught-in-Sunday-School item about Joseph Smith that Bushman’s biography sheds some light on. Perhaps because of Emma’s efforts at white-washing history after Joseph’s death, or due to the church’s reluctance to associate itself with the renounced practice, the historical record gets a bit murky. But Joseph did marry several women, the vast majority in just a few years in Nauvoo, and generally in secrecy. Joseph had twenty or thirty or so plural wives. Some of them were already married to other men! (That one was news to me.) Many of these marriages were in name only, but there’s evidence of at least a few being fully consummated. Some wives actually lived in the Smith household at different times, but Emma always ended up kicking them out. It seems like she tried to understand and accept the practice, but never could. Joseph ended up marrying many of his wives without informing Emma at all.
Why did Joseph practice polygamy? A weighty question that I truly don’t know the answer to. (Well, I take that back, I do know why – because he felt God commanded him to do it. And whatever God commands to do is right.) On the face of it, looking back from our day and age, it looks like nothing more than adultery, bigamy, and lecherous behavior. (I was going to write “lecherousity” but I’m not sure that’s a word.) Indeed, this was almost invariably the first reaction of those early Mormons who were introduced to the doctrine by Joseph. All had to take time out, pray, and gain a personal assurance that it was from God. Joseph himself described an angel with drawn sword standing above his head, threatening him with his life if he did not practice and teach the doctrine.
I’ve heard and give some credence to the idea that polygamy was necessary to quickly “raise up a righteous posterity” and create, in just a few generations, a solid, cohesive society of members committed to each other, their families, and the church. Whatever the reasons though, I wonder if the main reason Joseph practiced polygamy as he did was more to set the example for other church leaders than for anything else. It was a struggle for the Apostles and others to accept the doctrine when taught by Joseph himself; imagine Brigham Young trying to sell it in the midst of the confusing succession crisis that followed Joseph’s death….
Through it all I get the impression of Joseph as a man trying to do what he thinks is right. He was convinced of the veracity of his revelations — although “convinced” is the wrong word since it may imply a period of uncertainty; Joseph never doubted that his revelations were from God. They were real to him and it was not even possible for him to question. All he could do was choose to obey or not. He chose obedience and placed his trust in God, and tried as best as he could to carry out His will.