A work of superb scholarship, this definitive biography of the founder of Mormonism is released on the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's birth.
How should a historian depict a man's life when that man, and his religion, remain a mystery to so many 200 years after his birth? Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University and author of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, greatly expands on that previous work, filling in many details of the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and carrying the story through to the end of Smith's life. Many continue to view Smith as an enigmatic and controversial figure. Bushman locates him in his historical and cultural context, fleshing out the many nuances of 19th-century American life that produced such a fertile ground for emerging religions. The author, a practicing Mormon, is aware that his book stands in the intersection of faith and scholarship, but does not avoid the problematic aspects of Smith's life and work, such as his practice of polygamy, his early attempts at treasure-seeking and his later political aspirations. In the end, Smith emerges as a genuine American phenomenon, a man driven by inspiration but not unaffected by his cultural context. This is a remarkable book, wonderfully readable and supported by exhaustive research. For anyone interested in the Mormon experience, it will be required reading for years to come. (Oct. 10)
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March 12, 2007
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Excerpt from Joseph Smith by Richard Lyman Bushman
My Last request & charge is, that you will Live together in an undivided bond of Love; you are maney of you, and if you Join together as one man, you need not want aney thing; what counsil, what comfort, what money, what friends may you not help your Selves unto, if you will, all as one contribute your aids.
asael smith, "A few words of advice" (1799)
Lucy Mack Smith bade farewell to her sons Joseph and Hyrum a few days after their deaths in June 1844. Joseph's secretary, Willard Richards, and their brother Samuel had brought the bodies back from Carthage to Nauvoo, and after the corpses were washed and dressed in burial clothes, the Smith family was admitted to the room. "I had for a long time braced every nerve," their mother wrote,
roused every energy of my soul, and called upon God to strengthen me; but when I entered the room, and saw my murdered sons extended both at once before my eyes, and heard the sobs and groans of my family, and the cries of "Father! Husband! Brothers!" from the lips of their wives, children, brother, and sisters, it was too much, I sank back, crying to the Lord, in the agony of my soul, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken this family!"
Six months later, Lucy began a narrative of the early life of Joseph Smith. She was sixty-nine, afflicted with disease and saddened by "the cruelty of an ungodly and hard hearted world." Within a month she had lost three sons: Joseph and Hyrum to vigilante bullets and Samuel to a fever contracted while escaping the mob. Of her seven sons, only the unstable William survived. Her husband, Joseph Sr., had died four years earlier, and she lived with her daughter, another Lucy, and later with Joseph's widow, Emma, who was carrying her husband's unborn son.
In this troubled and uncertain moment, the question of the Prophet's successor remained unsettled. Lucy's son William was soon to be among the contenders. The "Gentile" countryside expected the Mormon kingdom to crumble and the Saints to disperse. When they proved inconveniently adamant, the citizens forced the Mormons to leave. But trouble did not slow Lucy's dictation to Martha and Howard Coray through the winter of 1844-45. One crisply told story after another covered the pages, making her narrative the central source for the early life of Joseph Smith.
Lucy Smith reacted to the sorrows and distresses of her life with indignation, not regret. Recollecting the murder of her sons, she wrote that "my blood curdles in my veins." At the close of the book, she consigned the malicious and indifferent government officials who had darkened her family's lives--the governors Lilburn W. Boggs, Thomas Carlin, and Thomas Ford, and President Martin Van Buren--to the judgment of God. She was a proud, high-strung woman, belligerent, capable of anger, grief, and sublime confidence in the final triumph of the innocent. She concluded her account with a lofty judgment: "And I shall leave the world to judge, as seemeth them good, concerning what I have written. But this much I will say, that the testimony which I have given is true, and will stand for ever."
Lucy did not mention the name of Joseph Smith, Jr., until page 56 of her record. As she told the story, no signs or portents accompanied the birth of her most famous son. She said quite simply that "in the meantime we had a son, whom we called Joseph, after the name of his father; he was born December 23, 1805. I shall speak of him more particularly by and by." Joseph's revelations and writings, his part in constructing the city of Nauvoo, the tens of thousands of followers, and his national notoriety--none of this overwhelmed Lucy Smith's story.
The Smith family stood at the center. Lucy's pride was the pride of family. When she saw the bodies of Hyrum and Joseph, she spontaneously asked why had God "forsaken this family." Her narrative began with her father, Solomon, and devoted six chapters to her brothers and sisters before telling about herself. Lucy calculated that six Smith martyrs had fallen because of persecution: Joseph Sr.; sons Don Carlos, Hyrum, and Samuel; William's wife Caroline; and Joseph the Prophet.
She had little worldly to boast of. Lucy knew of the "attention and respect which are ever shown to those who live in fine circumstances," but of her sister Lydia, who "sought riches and obtained them," Lucy wrote but two paragraphs: not that Lydia was less loved, "but she seemed to float more with the stream of common events."7 Lucy's pride arose from the way her family met adversity. Joseph and Hyrum lay in triumph in their coffins because justice and charity gave them power over their enemies. She honored those who overcame. Her narrative turned the misfortunes of the Smith family into exemplifications of family character.