Orthodox life of the decidedly unorthodox Joseph Smith, founder and prophet of Mormonism.
Bushman (History emeritus/Columbia Univ.; The Refinement of America, 1992) describes himself as “a believing historian”—a believing Mormon, that is, as well as a professional historian in the tradition of Leonard Arrington and other Mormon scholars. He is concerned, he continues, with depicting a real Joseph Smith, not a flawless or idealized one, no easy task given both church doctrine and the lack of documentation that is without bias one way or another. The facts are these, and not much at issue: Smith grew up in a region of upstate New York known in the post-revolutionary era as a breeding ground for religious movements of various kinds, in a family that was poor but by all accounts happy. The interpretation begins almost immediately, for Smith became known to the world for having reportedly received visions of an angel who led him to a book “written upon golden plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang.” The accept-it-or-don’t nature of the vision and the text that Smith subsequently developed has been a source of controversy since that September day in 1823. Bushman considers many of the disagreements, such as the “composition” view of the Book of Mormon, with Smith as literal author, versus the “transcription” view, by which Smith dictated divinely revealed text to a secretary. Believers hold to the latter view, for, Bushman writes, “the composition theory calls for a precocious genius of extraordinary powers who was voraciously consuming information without anyone knowing it.” Bushman goes on to consider other controversies surrounding Smith’s short life, from breakaway followers to Smith’s imperial ambitions to the motives for his assassination at the age of 38.
More complete but less evenhanded than Robert Remini’s Joseph Smith (2002); some readers may find parts of Bushman’s narrative to be overly credulous.