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" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Excellent suggestion, Jana. I’ve read “Rough Stone Rolling” twice, and found it quite worthwhile both times. The first of those times, I studied the footnotes carefully. I recommend it to all, and especially to 2 specific audiences: 1) Those who are afraid that candid history inevitably weakens testimonies, and 2) those who Sincerely question whether believing Mormons can examine their own history with honesty and integrity. Good books are worth reading, studying and rereading. “Rough Stone Rolling” is a very good book.

  • Thanks for the heads up, I’m one of those that picked it up (twice, once hardcopy then later for my Kindle) but never finished it.

  • Mormon history seems to be highly embellished and oftain fabricated by Mormons. Mormons seem to have many good teachings, but the foundation seems very shady.

    I’m highly suspicious that Joseph Smith was an occultist, con artist and fraud. Though it’s hard to say where exactly the truth is with all the different accounts. I’m highly suspect that Joseph Smith kept getting exposed as a fraud using secular cons, so he may have decided change his method of operation to use religion to cloak his scams.

    Mormons often contradict themselves. Often claiming a quote of writing or speech is not an actual Mormon quote, position or policy; yet allegedly Mormons have tried to sue for copyright infringement of the same very materials they claim are not Mormon. So they are dishonestly arguing out of both sides of their mouths.

  • I agree with Wayne (above) that Rough Stone Rolling is a great book. As a believer, I read it with great interest and finished it rather quickly.

    I will admit though that it was a catalyst for my so-called “faith transition”… I had known about a few unsavory parts of church history, but the complete package was too much for me to hold down. I respect Dr. Bushman for having the courage and motivation to publish a well documented and refreshingly frank book that has so far survived on the shelves of Deseret Book. My only hope is that the content in Rough Stone Rolling will be taught more openly at church. I think that besides the unsavory history, the church’s bigger problem is teaching one story in correlated lesson materials when the historical record supports another story (or many stories in cases like the First Vision).

  • Very well said, GP. I’m convinced that when future church leaders reflect on these turbulent years they will realize it wasn’t that members couldn’t handle the messiness of church history, but that the institutional church failed to prepare them for it. Compound the sense of betrayal many experience when learning this history with the lack of pastoral care or an official church setting to address their concerns, and you have a recipe for distrust and disillusionment that is near impossible to repair.

    So glad this book group is taking place. What a great idea!

  • @ John Doe – There are some pretty remarkable results that have followed this “occultist, con artist and fraud”. In fact he must have been the greatest “occultist, con artist and fraud” in history to have such good fruit fall from his “occultist, con artist and fraud” tree.

  • Aimee,

    President Uchtdorf said: “The Church is Not an automobile showroom–a place to put ourselves on display so that others can admire our spirituality, capacity or prosperity. It is more like a service center, where vehicles in need of repair come for maintenance and rehabilitation” and, if I might add, where we learn to help a bit and work together in the repair and maintenance process.

    I agree that we need to improve within the Church in listening, and reaching out to those with questions about history and faith with love and understanding. We need to do our homework both by study and prayer, and I hope we are. I the end it is largely about keeping or regaining the Spirit by holding onto or again grasping the iron rod. Mists of darkness and mocking voices will swirl, but deeply studying the Book of Mormon is major key to faith in Jesus Christ and in the mission of the Prophet, Joseph Smith. See also

  • Jana, you forgot to mention the ‘literal’ translation of Abraham or polyandry. Don’t misunderstand this post. I am an active member and temple worker. I do not like all the contoversy but because it exists, I am trying like many others to reconcile it. My dad once told me that our Heavenly Father would not let his church be restored by men with these type of issues and that all the accusations must be false. And yet much of this ‘new history’ is coming from the journals of faithful members or even from writings that have been unavailable to the rank and file member in the past as they were kept locked up in private collections or the First Presidency Vault. I would never advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater but the bathwater is much dirtier than I was led to believe.

  • Satan tempted Adam and Eve with fruit. I find it ironic that you’re willing to go to bed with Satan glorifying the obtaining of sinful fruit.

    In other words:

    The ends, doesn’t necessarily justify the means.

    Ill-gotten gains are sinful.

    The Mormons aligned themselves with occultists like the Nazis. The Nazis had many fruits, but in my opinion those fruits were tainted with evil, because of the sinful methodology that they were obtained.

    The Mormons aligned themselves with slavery, to reap the sinful fruits of servitude from those they subjugated.

    The Mormons have reaped the sinful fruits of organized crime. Such fruits I don’t consider “good”.

    Christians should conclude such fruits to be bad, not good.

    Fruits that are truly good are obtained ethically.

    The Mormon church and Mormon priesthood will not be true until they repent.

  • Actually, it is not “hard to say exactly where the truth is.” If you read the book Jana Riess is recommending, you get more than a very good idea. What you’re doing is uncritically repeating exaggerations and misinformation ,.. because it feels so good to do so. That’s unworthy (and un-Christian).

    Another example is in the paragraph which begins, “Mormons often contradict themselves.” Sir, that is just propaganda and you really ought not to publish slurs about an entire group of people without having the slightest idea of what you’re talking about. This claim that “they” are “dishonestly arguing out of both sides of their mouths” is just nonsense.

    I was raised by Bible-believing evangelical parents in Bible-believing evangelical churches. I have great affection for my evangelical friends … right up until they begin to lie and distort the truth. Then I get disgusted and embarrassed for my former faith.

  • If only you were less judgmental, eh?

    That’s what I get out of the idea of faith transitions after learning something or other – or a series of somethings or others – about Joseph Smith. “How could God possibly …?” Many others learn the same things, and yet square them with their own faith and direct experience with the divine. But some want to judge Smith harshly and conclude that God cannot possibly be found in his works. It’s too bad, really.

  • Since I’m not a life-long member, I guess I just don’t relate to this experience of finding the historical reality to be at odds with a simplified and sanitized kiddie version. But in the days when I was being raised in evangelical churches, I got THEIR simplified and sanitized version of history and the Bible … and the truth, there, is messier too. I don’t expect everything to look pretty to me, because it is never going to do that.

    Since you’re a temple worker – and bless you for your service! – I’d encourage you to reflect on temple messages. We are His children, and we will often (maybe nearly always) act like it, even those of us whom He calls to be His prophets and apostles. Leadership callings are not a mark of perfection, or proof against error. But overall, we are being led where we need to go.

  • Thank you for sharing Elder Uchtdorf’s wonderful quote here. I agree with it 100%. Sadly, I have found his vision is rarely encouraged in actual church practice, particularly when it comes to discussing doubt or questions about troubling aspects in the lives of early church leaders. Elder Uchtdorf is a blessed example of the pastoral care our members need, but for many that care is too late or not present in their weekly worship experience.

  • If only you were less blindly believing, eh?

    That’s what I get out of the idea of true believers – even after learning something or other – or a series of somethings or others – about Joseph Smith. “How could God possibly …?” Many others learn the same things, and yet easily come to the conclusion that Joseph Smith was not what he claimed by applying common sense. But some want to praise Smith highly and conclude that God can be found in his works, regardless of what he does (even if it goes against the 10 commandments). It’s too bad, really.

    Try – I try to not use ad hominem comments, but I wanted to turn it around on you to see how you felt about it (and it was hard even doing this exercise, because this is not my style). Anyway, these kinds of comments do not advance the discussion. I am more than happy to discuss any topic of substance with you, but without personal attacks. Disagree with me all you want, but let’s stay on topic. Thanks.

  • Aimee – I completely agree with you! I have read President Uchtdorf’s talk “Come Join with Us” several times, and I have hopes that the church culture will catch up to him. What I believe needs to happen is an overhaul in two significant ways:

    1. Be completely open and honest about church history (even the unsavory parts) in church. Mandate that the essays are discussed in church lessons from top-down. Teach the essays in GC.

    2. Implement processes/programs at the top-level of the church to be more inclusive and understanding of those who struggle with doubt or even disbelieve entirely.

    I believe that with these two items, the church will be very strong in culture and in tolerance for others who do not share the same beliefs as the correlated version. At one time that may have been a tenable position for me… but now it’s too late… I simply don’t believe anymore at all.

  • It’s curious that you interpreted my comment as a personal attack. Honestly, I could interpret “by applying common sense” the same way, but I guess you intended me to do so. That’s fine, I understand.

    The point which still deserves to be made – and it is not, repeat not an ad hominem attack, but is rather an observation which is fully germane to your comment – is that it is entirely possible to reconcile knowledge of history with faith. You can disparage the people who do so all you want, but you should understand that it is entirely possible to reconcile knowledge of history with faith. You suggest that it does not “advance the discussion” to say this, and yet you tell everyone that learning surprising (?) details about Joesph Smith’s life led to a “faith transition for you.” OK, fine, but it doesn’t for everyone, so how were you (or how are they) different? Doesn’t that advance the discussion?

  • Sure there are ways that people can reconcile the issues and still have faith. I can understand at least some of the reasons as I myself have been there before. I’m sure that there are many other reasons though too. Whatever makes folks happy.

    But then there are those who, despite best attempts, cannot reconcile the issues. In most cases I know about (mine included), it is because the overwhelming evidence points to another conclusion. Many times those who disbelieve are told to be quiet or become ostracized or face disciplinary action for “anti-Mormon lies”… even when those individuals are simply citing the historical record.

    That was the essence of my original comment you replied to. My hope is that the church will start teaching a complete and accurate accounting of church history – in church. There was really nothing judgmental about my original comment from what I can see, even after re-reading it several times.

  • “There was really nothing judgmental about my original comment from what I can see, even after re-reading it several times.”

    That comment seems to misunderstand mine. And I had believed that you understood me correctly, since your reply began with an attempt to respond with a converse question. And the rest of my reply elaborated on the sense in which I was using the term judgmental. It’s not worth rehashing, but I thought your subsequent comment (quoted above) was a bit of a non sequitur.

    Moreover, it is not the case that “the overwhelming evidence points to another conclusion,” any more than it is true that the evidence “clearly” points to thus-and-so result. If you couch it in terms of how YOU read the evidence, then I can accept that as your reading of it. But when you make the statement flatly you’re implicitly dismissing the acuity of those who see the evidence differently. Aren’t you?

  • “But when you make the statement flatly you’re implicitly dismissing the acuity of those who see the evidence differently. Aren’t you?”

    You seem to be missing my point or trying to portray me as something that I am not. Re-read my previous reply. I was stating my own position (and that of many others) that clearly the evidence does not support the truth claims of the church. I am completely confident that if the evidence were presented in a courtroom setting, that an unbiased jury would side with me. That is my perspective and there should be nothing fallacious or offensive to stating my position.

    I also stated that others have different ways of reconciling the issues and maintaining the faith. If their path to reconciliation works for them, then great. But it doesn’t work for me.

    That’s really it. I think I’m done with this conversation though… we seem to be rehashing the same topic.

  • Thanks for letting us know about the book club. I’ve just picked the book up for my Kindle so that I can get started reading for Monday.