Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Rough Stone Rolling: Reflections on Joseph Smith

As a fresh 1L at the J. Reuben Clark (JRC) Law School, I recall an indoctrination video portraying the admirable character and accomplishments of my law school's namesake.  Recently, I attended a Sunstone session where a JRC biographer presented a very different side: one of a flawed, controversial, and inconsistent (though influential and sometimes inspiring) JRC. 

Similarly, my historical understanding of Joseph Smith was much like a funeral eulogy: venerating a life with occasional humorous reference to foibles.  Reading (over the last few days) Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History and Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling have broadened my understanding of a (in)famous man.  Below I reflect on my reading experience.

- I appreciate the portrayal of a failing, uncertain mortal, rather than a heroic magician with all the answers.  In short, Bushman presents a JS I can relate to.

- I'm impressed with the organization and ritual that JS introduced.  These made Mormonism a replicable memeplex, capable of competing in the cultural marketplace (much more so than if he had merely preached doctrines- ideas usually fail without a framework to replicate and distribute them into the future).

- I think Bushman achieved a decent balance of commentary, facts, and context.  He was only occasionally overly apologetic, and never mean-spirited.

- xxi: "The signal feature of his life was his sense of being guided by revelation." That theme ran throughout the biography, leading me to consider Joseph as, at least, mostly sincere in his prophetic and revelatory claims.  I remember Dawkins calling him a charlatan (person who pretends or claims to have more knowledge or skill than he or she possesses; quack): I find that a difficult proposition to sustain.  Deluded, perhaps: but intentionally pretending?  That seems to counter the feel I get from Bushman.  It seems his acts required greater conviction than would be mustered by pretense.

- I thought Bushman's depiction of JS's treasure seeking and magic worldview as a "preparatory gospel" a little too generous (see RSR pg. 54). "Magic had served its purpose in his life.  In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel."

 - I have yet to find a satisfying explanation of Book of Mormon authorship.  The historical account offers some wiggle room, but not much.  The BoM came forth on a distinct date, and must have been composed earlier than that; such complex works typically require a practiced author, working with drafts and revisions; the scribes' accounts of JS looking at the stone in the hat seem to preclude much in the way of revising drafts or working from other manuscripts; most of JS's maturation in writing and theology took place subsequent to 1830.  From a Facebook dialogue today:
"Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates.  Today, Brad and I were talking about resources for researching Book of Mormon historicity. The best recent resource I know if is the Sunstone
article on "Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates". I thought this
would interest members of the MTA.

Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates Part 1

Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates Part 2
    • Brad Carmack ‎"I suggest that arguments made for and against historicity are actually not the prime factor in forming a person’s beliefs about historicity: relationships with other people are more decisive."
      2 hours ago ·
    • Brad Carmack Sounds familiar. As I recall, the best predictor of teen religiosity is relational.

      "Through in-depth interviews of 80 adolescents and their families belonging to different faiths, they recognized an overarching theme of teens building relationships."

      Funny how a person's opinions can be predicted not by the strength or consistency of the opinion itself, but of the relationships of the person.
      In a new study, Brigham Young University professor David Dollahite and graduate ...See more
      2 hours ago · ·
    • Brad Carmack ‎"one must weigh the issues intellectually as part of a broader process of seeking truth through prayer and examining one’s most deeply rooted feelings." I do not feel compelled by this assertion.
      2 hours ago ·
    • Brad Carmack I just finished both links. I have to smile at the parallel between the decline of belief in biblical and BoM historicity, a parallel pointed out to me by my nonmember friend on the phone a couple hours ago.

      "it is hard to believe that someone could actually decide what to think about the historicity question by impartially weighing all arguments and evidence. There is simply too much to weigh; and new arguments, and counterarguments, and rebuttals to counter- arguments, are continually being produced."

      I disagree. In fact, that is exactly what I would like to see: 2-3 arguments from the best researched experts, distilling the 1-2 most likely theories for authorship as of late 2011. I also think stylometry, combined with the large quantity of Joseph's other writings before and after the historical drafting period, is sufficiently powerful to bring some resolution to the question of one or multiple authors, if not also to quantify Joseph's contribution.

      Gary Parker I find the move away from belief in and requirement for historicity interesting, as historicity has traditionally been of fundamental importance to the authentication of Mormonism within the church. Statements from GAs on the critical nature of a belief in historicity abound, and efforts still permeate the culture to validate the faith through such "sciency" means as studies showing coffee to be unhealthy, etc. But the more science seems to invalidate historicity, the more the line becomes 'It doesn't matter if it's true, it only matters if it helps people X'...

- I oppose God-proofs (and divine-origin proofs) based only on a low-probability argument (these are just species of the God of the Gaps vein- see my post on that subject).  However, it's possible that the most plausible account available is the one JS provides.  It's a remarkably rich account, in my view, amongst other reasons apologists would posit to establish the traditional authorship/historicity claim.  Brodie is too casual, I think, in categorizing it as JS's fabrication.  That's quite an imagination, given the many other constraints.

 That's all for now.


  1. Very good stuff, thanks. I would like to see that "indoctrination" video :) I don't even know who David Harrison III is...

    As for historicity of the BoM, what place does a traditional "testimony" have in your framework?

  2. Sorry I didn't respond to this earlier, Austin! I affirm testifying, but the content of my testimony is different than it was 24 months ago.


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