An excellent article in the NYTimes this morning provided a bunch of links and information on how to opt out of all sorts of solicitations:
I’ve been very busy lately, too busy to even post here. I was trying to finish a round of revisions on my dissertation while also preparing for two new classes and applying for jobs. I just turned in the latest round of revisions on my dissertation, so I’m taking a short breather before starting in on all the other projects I have.
What have we been up to? Mostly work… But we also went ballroom dancing on New Year’s Eve at the Copacabanna and last weekend went to the Southgate House to see Pike27 play (may be the last time I get to see Dave Purcell and his band rocking, so I had to go). They are a great band, though I have to admit I like their softer stuff more than the harder rock (my folk roots, I guess).
Other than that, not much. I’ve added a few fun widgets to the blog. I have my new Meez avatar that I think is a pretty accurate representation of my state of mind over the last few weeks – me, completely spaced out, typing on my computer. I also added a nifty little widget that will let visitors to the blog chat with me in real time if I’m online. Though, you actually have to visit the blog’s main page to use it – doesn’t work through RSS feeds.
I also cleaned out the 2005 posts from the blog. I’m keeping just one year up. I left a couple of the stories that have received a lot of hits: my debunking of Ionithermie and my discussion of Laurence Britt’s ideas about fascism – they are the two oldest links on the blog and received a lot of hits. I’ll probably eventually convert them to pages and turn off the comments feature, but I’m leaving them up for now.
Macionis, John J. 2007. Sociology. 11th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
Very well designed introductory text
Having just taught a course using this text I do have some opinions about it.
First, the positive. Macionis has gone to great lengths to make the text interesting. One way in which he has done this is by scattering numerous relevant pictures and artwork throughout every chapter; I actually had one student comment specifically about the artwork and how it was well chosen. He has also included a number of very informative maps, tables and graphs, all in vibrant colors, that are designed in such a fashion that even first year undergraduate students with little or no background in sociology can understand them.
As for the coverage of the text, it is fairly comprehensive, hitting upon all of the major social institutions of interest to sociologists and sub-disciplines within the field of sociology. The text is also quite up to date for the most part, including references to recent world events (e.g. 9/11).
Now for the negative. I should note at this point that despite having more critiques than compliments, I did find the text to be the best of a number of current introductory texts, these are just ways that I felt the book could have been improved.
First, the information isn’t flawless. Of course part of this criticism includes the fact that I disagree with the author on some points, but there are also several instances where the author makes claims without references to back them up and other claims that are either dated or simply erroneous. I don’t know that a textbook will ever be able to adequately cover all of the information necessary and do so flawlessly, so to critique the book on this measure is probably asking too much. Besides, with how fluid sociological understanding is some of the claims in the text with which I disagree are controversial topics anyway. Perhaps to remedy this Macionis could attempt to incorporate both sides of the argument as he tries to do when discussing sociological theory; at least, he does so to a degree (see my critique of his coverage social theory below).
Second, the attempts at offering a global perspective are rather limited. Again, this may not be something that is easily remedied because information about large parts of the world just isn’t as available as information about the U.S., or available at all for that matter. And, of course, the text is written to be an introductory text in the U.S., so to focus on the U.S. does make sense in that regard. I found this to be particularly lacking in light of the fact that Macionis claims to be something of a world traveler. Even though he includes occasional snippets from his journeys, there are numerous opportunities to incorporate a more global perspective that are overlooked. In an attempt to discourage ethnocentric American attitudes it would have been nice to have more information about the rest of the world and greater attempts could have been made to incorporate that information.
Third, the coverage of sociological theories is actually rather limited. There is no chapter looking just at sociological theories. Though the ‘dominant’ theories are included throughout (Structural-Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism, and Conflict Theory), there is absolutely no discussion of Ethnomethodology, Conversation Analysis, Rational Choice Theory (there is a brief mention of this), World Systems Theory, Political Processes Theory, etc. I can understand why the coverage would be limited: Exposing novices to too many theories would likely confuse them and there is limited space in the text, but to fail to even mention or briefly summarize many of these theories, though their advocates are fewer than those of the ‘dominant’ theories, dismisses a large body of understanding in the discipline.
My last criticism (I do have more, but I doubt anyone wants to read more) is relating to the supplementary materials included on the companion CD-ROM. The CD does have some very useful information and a few exercises that might be useful to the students. However, it also includes some word games that I thought would be more appropriate for 8th graders than college students. Also, because I chose to present the course material using PowerPoint I would have preferred to have been able to copy and past some of the illustrative maps. However, all of the maps included on the supplementary CD are in Flash and can’t be easily imported into PowerPoint. They would work great if you want to switch in between the two while teaching the class, but they don’t work together very well.
Overall, the text is pretty comprehensive, well-written, and engaging. I don’t particularly like making students pay this much for a text, but in order to get the engaging photos, artwork, and colorful graphs (which some would argue are worthless but I find to be helpful) you have to shell out the cash. Is the text worth it? Well, I guess it depends on your approach to introduction to sociology. If you would rather cover some very specific areas in depth rather than many areas broadly, you would be better off with a different text or a reader of your own creation. Or, if you don’t belong to one of the three predominant theoretical approaches, continuously explaining your approach because Macionis doesn’t incorporate it may become rather tedious. If you don’t fall into either of these categories you would probably find the text to be very useful.
Scupin, Raymond. 2007. Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus. 2nd ed. Prentice Hall.
Lot of info; not all accurate
The book is a collection of essays covering the anthropology of religion, ranging from theories to descriptions of the major world religions to their histories.
The book is very long and covers a lot of material. Alone it could serve as the text for a course on the anthropology of religion. As I had two books for the course I took, I didn’t read the entire book (it’s over 400 very dense pages). But the material I did read, mostly the chapters by Scupin himself, were not very impressive.
Two things bothered me. First, Scupin doesn’t ever mention rationalization or secularization in his discussion of religious modernization. It’s as though Scupin doesn’t want to consider late 19th centuries ideas about the eventual decline and disappearance of religion. I got the impression that Scupin was writing either to express his beliefs or to appeal to a religious audience. Even if he doesn’t agree with the ideas they merit discussion.
The second thing that bothered me was Scupin’s treatment of the oppressive elements of religion. Understandably, scholars are supposed to be objective and, ideally, they will treat religions fairly. Scupin, however, presents many of these things in a positive light. For instance, on p. 414 he discusses the resurgence of the wearing of the hijab among Muslim women. Scupin argues that this is a demonstration of Muslim women’s dissatisfaction with Western colonialism. There is certainly a degree of this, but there are other elements to it and, it isn’t universally an option for women. To argue that it is just a political statement is to misconstrue what can be an oppressive element of certain cultures.
Overall, though the book is informative and contains a great deal of information, the treatment isn’t entirely objective and can, at times, misconstrue elements of religions. I should also note the the index isn’t very comprehensive. If you choose to use the book for a course in the anthropology of religion, I would suggest making it the sole course text. However, I would also suggest that you supplement the text with information on the stuff that is missing (e.g. secularization and rationalization), as the book’s treatment isn’t complete.
Bushman, Richard Lyman. 2007. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Vintage.
I heard about the publication of this book well before it actually came out through my network of contacts among those who study Mormonism from a sociological perspective. Ultimately it was my connection with these individuals that led me to read the book as I volunteered to participate in a conference panel where the book would be discussed. Because of my participation in that forum I pre-ordered the book on Amazon.com and received a copy of it just days after it was released. I was both excited and overwhelmed by the prospect of reading a book this size by someone of the reputation Richard Bushman has. Unfortunately, that excitement was short-lived…
The book needs very little in the way of summary: it is a biography of Joseph Smith (J.S.) covering a small period of time prior to his birth until his death (with a brief postscript covering the transition of leadership in the main Mormon church after his death). That said, there was one new approach in this book that makes it stand out from other biographies of J.S. I have read and, at least in part, explains some of the length. The book combines a historical biography and a treatise on Mormon theology and scripture. The idea behind this is to tie in the things discussed in the Doctrine and Covenants and The Book of Mormon (BofM) with the events taking place in J.S.’s life. The idea is a good one, but in many regards poorly executed, as will be explained below in my sociological critique of the book. Other than this one new approach, the book is similar to previous biographies.
I wish I could say I loved this book because it was written by a renowned scholar whom I don’t want to offend, but I can’t say I did. This book is flawed on so many levels that I am having a hard time narrowing down which critiques I should cover before I end up writing a book-length review. But before I delve into the critiques, let me point out a couple of good things.
My favorite part of this book is that it is occasionally honest about some of Joseph Smith’s flaws. Most faithful Mormons may not want to read about the verbally and emotionally abusive Joseph, but it turns out its nigh impossible to paint Joseph and his periodic tirades any other way, “While Joseph was sensitive to the spirit of others, he may have been tone-deaf to the spirit of his own words. Unable to bear criticism, he rebuked anyone who challenged him” (p. 296). In fact, while defending Joseph’s outburst of anger and his tendency to bicker and fight (see p. 301), Bushman admits Joseph fought with people a lot and, when doing so, belittled and insulted. Bushman also admits that J.S., despite his occasionally militaristic rhetoric, was all bark but no bite (he wouldn’t fight when it came down to it; see p. 371). This certainly isn’t a side of Joseph Smith seen in “official histories,” so it was nice to see a little bit of painting with the “honesty brush.” Bushman even mentions that J.S. might have made a few mistakes here and there (see p. 247 for a mistake Bushman transforms into a positive, i.e., a trial of his follower’s faith), so the book is clearly a step toward a more honest look at J.S.’s life than what is normally found in “official histories.”
The book also does a good job of covering the less well-known periods of J.S.’s life. For instance, the late 1830s, with the exception of the Kirtland Bank scandal and his stint in the Liberty Jail, are usually glossed over in biographies. According to this book, Joseph was depressed during a lot of this time and not particularly productive in terms of revelations (see chapter 20). Bushman also points out that Sidney Rigdon was often the primary public speaker for the Mormons, taking the stand at most major events. I wasn’t aware of Rigdon’s role as the premier speaker nor was I keen on what J.S. was doing during the slower periods in Mormonism’s early history; this was informative information. There were a few other tidbits thrown in here and there that were informative to me as well, which made the book almost worth reading.
A final, significant, and positive attribute worth noting here is that the book can serve as a transitional text for all of the faithful Mormons who avoid or are unaware of the more controversial incidents in the history of the LDS Church. While Bushman does not address most of these incidents in great detail (see my critique below), he at least mentions some of them (e.g., Joseph “translating” with his head in a hat, Joseph’s numerous wives and drinking habits, etc.). In fact, if I was going to recommend a book for faithful Mormons to help them come to grips with the spotty past of their religion, this would probably be at the top of the list. They could read the book, keep their testimony, but at least start on a journey toward admitting there are controversies.
Let me turn now to the first of my two major criticisms of the book. I am trained as a sociologist and, as such, was excited when I noted on the dust jacket of the book that it was billed as “ A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder.” As a sociologist, my understanding of what such a phrase means may differ significantly from how a historian will interpret that phrase. For me, such a phrase implies that the events that took place in the life of the individual of interest – in this case Joseph Smith – are going to be contextualized or situated in the environment in which they took place. The example I often give to illustrate this with Mormonism (derived from Thomas O’Dea’s classic 1957 work, “The Mormons”) is to point out that it was fairly common for people in upstate New York to claim to have seen Jesus or God or angels and to have received a promise that their sins had been forgiven (see the quotes from p. 41). As a sociologist I see such events as evidence that J.S.’s claims were common to the time period and area and therefore are explainable as a product of his cultural milieu. What’s more, awareness of the fact that many people claimed such spectacular supernatural visitations provides a “naturalistic” explanation for the claims made by Joseph Smith – he was caught up in a culture that not only accepted such claims as truthful but praised them. This is also known as “hysteria” in sociological terms – “a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions” (Merriam-Webster). In short, unless you are willing to accept every claimed supernatural visitation during that time period as truthful, you are better off viewing them as a shared cultural phenomenon or hysteria that resulted in numerous claimed “visions.” According to this explanation, the claimants didn’t truly see anyone, but they may have believed they did. However, in all likelihood, many of them probably just made it up. Okay, enough with the sociology lesson… How does this apply to Bushman’s book?
Unfortunately, the book convolutes the contextual or cultural explanations in order to present Mormonism and Joseph Smith as somehow “genuine” or “authentic.” Perhaps the clearest example of this is Bushman’s treatment of the temple ritual, “Portions of the temple ritual resembled Masonic rites that Joseph had observed when a Nauvoo lodge was organized in March 1842 and that he may have heard about from Hyrum, a Mason from New York days. The Nauvoo endowment was first bestowed just six weeks after Joseph’s induction. The similarities were marked enough for Heber Kimball to quote Joseph saying that Freemasonry “was taken from preasthood but has become degen[e]rated. but menny things are perfect.” Joseph often requested revelation about things that caught his attention… Masonic rites seem to have been one more provocation” (p. 449). In this instance, the book completely reverses the causal order. Rather than recognize that Joseph Smith took the Masonic rites, modified them slightly, then incorporated them into a new ritual performed in Mormon temples, Bushman claims that the cultural milieu served to spur Joseph Smith to turn to god who then revealed ancient temple rituals that actually predated the Masonic ones he had just witnessed. Bushman is claiming that, while the Masonic rites prompted Joseph to turn to god for more information, in fact, the rituals that were later incorporated into Mormon temple worship are not based on those of Freemasonry.
If my lesson above on contextualization was clear, readers of this review should see the problem with Bushman’s approach. He has a clear example of a cultural element – Joseph’s induction into a Masonic lodge – that predates Joseph’s incorporation of “Masonry-like rituals” into a Mormon temple ceremony. But instead of seeing how the cultural milieu led to the development of a component of Mormonism, the book turns logic on its head and claims Joseph became privy to revelation that revealed the true rituals and their purpose.
I would possibly be willing to overlook one instance of historical-cultural gerrymandering like this, but the book is teeming with them. For instance, on page 41 the book talks about some of the other “visions” in the Palmyra, New York area, but instead of looking toward them as explanations of J.S.’s claims they are used to explain why J.S. was not taken seriously by local religious figures. Bushman is willing to admit that such claims were common, but not willing to admit that Joseph’s claims fall into the same category as all of the others – which are dismissed by Bushman as “inauthentic” and “not genuine.”
The book details another event, the advent of militant Mormonism in 1833 (e.g., The Danites and the Nauvoo Legion), with a different cultural twist. Rather than simply recognizing that Mormons wanted to defend themselves and that Joseph Smith justified such defenses using his “revelatory” powers, the book blames the militant push among some Mormons on U.S. democracy (see p. 230). Bushman argues that the militant streak had nothing to do with Joseph’s countless battle cries voiced in the name of god but instead on the lawlessness that abounded in the frontier lands of the time – if you wanted justice and protection, you had to provide it yourself. In a certain sense, Bushman is right; the frontier was lawless to some degree. But he also dismisses any possibility that Joseph’s rallies to war in the name of god and revelation played a part in this. By the time Bushman is done excusing Joseph’s militancy, the role of culture in this biography has become clear – it is being used to justify, not to explain. When Mormons did bad things, it was the surrounding culture that was at fault. If they did good things, like developing a hierarchy and organization that allowed the religion to survive post-Joseph Smith, it was god working through Joseph Smith and not the culture of the day.
The culmination of the abuses of culture takes place on page 104, “Taken as a whole, the Book of Mormon can be read as a “document of profound social protest” against the dominant culture of Joseph Smith’s time.” Most commentators on the BofM who take a naturalistic approach to understanding its creation are quite clear on the fact that the BofM is anything but a cultural protest. In fact most agree it is an embodiment of the culture that surrounded Joseph Smith. For instance, the last third of the book is made up of battles between “god’s people” and those who engage in “secret rituals.” This is nothing less than a thin mask of the outrage felt toward Freemasons in upstate New York at the time the book was written. The book addresses religious questions that were common in J.S.’s environs and even tackles Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason,” which was widely circulated in New England while J.S. was growing up and closely read by Joseph’s own father. How Bushman’s book arrives at the understanding that the BofM is a protest of J.S.’s culture is beyond me.
The approach to culture taken in this text is truly unique in my experience. While it is not my place to suggest the subtitle of the book be changed, I believe readers should be aware that the employment of “culture” in this biography of Joseph Smith is not only non-traditional but obfuscating and illogical.
My second biggest critique of the book involves a psychological phenomenon that should have been employed in the book to account for Joseph Smith’s revisions of his past but was not. To continue the pattern above, let me briefly explain the phenomenon then illustrate how Bushman’s book fails to account for it. The phenomenon is called “retrospective labeling” and is tied to the social-psychological labeling theory. Labeling theory argues that people can be “labeled” or assigned to a role – usually by others – and that there are role expectations that go along with such labels. For instance, if someone is given the label “pedophile,” those who are made aware of the label begin to treat the individual differently, falling in line with the expectations of an individual who is seen as a pedophile. “Retrospective labeling” is part of the labeling process and facilitates the adoption of the new label. For instance, with the “pedophile” example, once the label has been presented, part of the process of making the label stick involves examining that individual’s past and beginning to reinterpret previous behaviors and incidents in light of the new label. So, if the now labeled “pedophile” had, at one point, been known in his/her neighborhood for giving out candy to young kids, people who are aware of the new label will reinterpret that behavior as an example of the pedophilic tendencies rather than as genuine kindness. This process will continue until just about every element of the labeled individual’s life has been turned into accounts that mesh with the new label. In short, the individual’s past is recreated and revised to fall in line with his/her present label.
This idea needs a slight extension in order for my critique of the book to make sense. In the previous discussion, retrospective labeling was done primarily by others. But it is not always the case that retrospective labeling is done by others. In some instances, when people adopt a label put on them by others, they, too, can engage in retrospective labeling. And even when they don’t, a slightly different process can have similar outcomes for individuals: cognitive dissonance. The idea behind cognitive dissonance is that people prefer not to hold contradictory or conflicting ideas or beliefs. Thus, as Rick Phillips (2005) recently pointed out, being both gay and Mormon is a problem because the identities conflict – Mormonism says homosexuality is wrong but homosexuals do not see their sexuality as a choice. Thus, there is a cognitive conflict. Cognitive dissonance argues that such conflicts, when they are significant enough (as in the the Mormon/gay instance) will have to work themselves out in favor of the stronger belief or identity. Cognitive dissonance also works to re-create one’s past when a new identity is adopted. To return to the same example, homosexual’s who leave the Mormon church will often begin to re-examine their past behaviors with the intent of showing how they favored apostasy from the beginning. They will claim things like, “I never really believed in Mormonism,” or “I just served a mission because I was supposed to, not because I felt called to do so.” In summary, while people can retrospectively label another’s behavior to match their new identity, individual’s can also revise their own past to fall in line with their current views.
I know that’s a lengthy explanation for a book review, but trust me, it’s necessary. Now let’s look at how Bushman’s book fails to take such an understanding of human psychology into perspective. Here’s an example from page 75, “Joseph had not told his mother about his First Vision, and spoke to his father about Moroni only when commanded. His reticence may have shown a fear of disbelief. Although obscure, Joseph was proud. He did not like to appear the fool. Or he may have felt the visions were too sacred to be discussed openly. They were better kept to himself. The late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication. Did Joseph add the stories of angels to embellish his early history and make himself more of a visionary? If so, he made little of the occurrence.” In this instance Bushman is at least admitting it seems a little questionable that J.S. only mentions his earlier “visitations” once they seem to fit in with the theology J.S. had since “revealed.” This becomes clearer with the next quote, “In a similar lapse, Joseph failed to record the date of the visit by Peter, James, and John to restore the apostleship, nor did he include the event in the first edition of his revelations. For years, priesthood appeared only dimly in his thinking” (p. 202). Are you beginning to see the pattern? Whenever a later account written by Joseph Smith includes details that are not included in earlier accounts, Bushman attributes such incidents to “lapses” and “forgetfulness” or a lack of confidence, “As Joseph became more confident, more details came out” (p. 40).
Now, keeping in mind my earlier explanation of the human tendency to revise our past to fall in line with our present, does it not seem likely there is an alternative and more compelling explanation of what was happening here? My interpretation of these events in light of the social psychological concepts discussed above goes as follows: Joseph Smith was not “forgetting” things nor was he “gaining confidence.” He had, in the interim years between when he claimed the “visitations” took place and when he was writing the history, come to the conclusion that said “visitations” were necessary. This is even noted by Bushman when referring to the transfer of priesthood authority by Peter, James, and John (which is the best example of revisionism as it was only mentioned years after the fact). In my opinion, J.S. realized he was missing certain elements that would add credibility to his religion and he therefore created them or, in the case of visions he had earlier mentioned, revised them to fall in line with his newer understandings (e.g., the change of the Angel Nephi to the Angel Moroni).
At no point does this book seriously consider that Joseph might have been making things up. Instead, in each instance where an event is revised or created whole cloth years after it was alleged to have happened, the author argues that J.S. either forgot to mention it earlier or was too timid to do so. Examples of such explanations can be found on pages 69, 157-159, and 389. Even if the book had considered at length the possibility of retrospective revisionism and debated whether or not it had happened but ultimately concluded it was due to lapses in memory, I would be more forgiving. But to dismiss the possibility that Joseph Smith was either willfully creating false accounts or doing so as a result of changes in belief and identity without any discussion left me thinking this book was not really interested in providing a comprehensive and balanced account of J.S.’s life.
There are several additional aspects of this book that are very troublesome. In line with my previous criticism about the possibility of revisionism creeping into Joseph’s first-person accounts, the book takes every sympathetic, pro-Mormon account at face value. But, unless there is incontrovertible proof or so many witnesses that to deny their claims would be overtly apologetic, the book dismisses critics of Joseph, his theology, and his new religion. For instance, on page 233 the book notes, “The Palmyrans never knew the Joseph of his own history. They saw him as a careless, indolent treasure-seeker; Joseph remembered growing up anguished and searching, anything but slack and careless.” The book certainly doesn’t conclude that Joseph was careless or indolent. While it is commendable that the book includes the comments of the occasional critic, they are routinely dismissed. And even when the comments of critics are included, the book is quick to include negative descriptors of the critics (e.g., “mean-spirited” – p. 330, “excommunicated” – p. 49). (Another example of an account that relies solely on J.S.’s personal history can be found on page 60, where Joseph alleges he was attacked but there is no evidence of such an encounter other than J.S.’s testimony.)
Bushman does admit from the beginning that he is biased and that he does not plan on writing the most objective biography of Joseph Smith, “A believing historian like myself cannot hope to rise above these battles or pretend nothing personal is at stake. For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible” (p. xix). What this means is that the perspective throughout the book is one in which everything Joseph Smith claims to have happened is considered to have happened. As Bushman puts it, “the book attempts to think as Smith thought and to reconstruct the beliefs of his followers as they understood them” (p. xxii). As a result, it is not uncommon to read passages like the following in which Bushman presents what was happening in a purely supernatural framework, “Once again, the devil was determined to overthrow the Church by causing division, all to prevent the Saints from being endowed” (p. 301). To the secular reader, this perspective is difficult to bear.
Another fascinating example of how this book fails to employ sociology when it could is in its unwillingness to portray Mormonism as a charismatic new religious movement (a.k.a. cult) and to illustrate how Joseph Smith fits the mold of a charismatic leader. At one point the book does draw this comparison, “Mormonism succeeded when other charismatic movements foundered on disputes and irreconcilable ill feelings partly because of the governing mechanisms Joseph put in place early in the Church’s history” (p. 250). But even this one allusion to charismatic cults is designed to distance the LDS Church from them. Why I find this unwillingness to compare the LDS Church and its founder with other similar movements (especially when it is often seen among objective, secular scholars as the perfect example of such a movement) is because it is very clear Joseph Smith had many of the characteristics of a charismatic leader. For instance, if you replace “Joseph” in the following quote with “Jim Jones”, you can see the similarities, “As the years went by, and one stalwart after another deserted him, [Jim Jones] came to value loyalty above every other virtue” (p. 170). Valuing loyalty over honesty, integrity, or any other virtue is characteristic of dictators and frauds. Additionally, the book admits Joseph was emotionally and verbally abusive toward the members of the movement, “Joseph rebuked critics and berated the defiant William. Outsiders who demeaned the Prophet or his family were cursed. On the other hand, he warmly welcomed them back when they were contrite” (p. 302). This is another characteristic of charismatic cult leaders, they berate when you disagree with them but are effusively caring and loving when you obey them. The book does admit that sexual excesses were common for “pretended revelations” in Joseph Smith’s time, but doesn’t find J.S. guilty of such behavior, “As for the world at large, plural marriage would confirm all their worst fears. Sexual excess was considered the all too common fruit of pretended revelation” (p. 438). Despite the many similarities, I got the clear impression from reading this book that Bushman believes J.S. was somehow different from all the other charismatic cult leaders. This led me to wonder how a Bushman biography of Jim Jones or Sun Myung Moon would read?
The treatment of classic controversies in the history of Mormonism is also surprisingly shallow. Bushman limits his discussion of Joseph Smith Sr.’s involvement with magic to one sentence, “Possibly in Vermont and certainly later in New York, Joseph Sr. was involved in magical practices, an unorthodox but not unusual way of connecting with the supernatural” (p. 26), a topic that takes up pages and pages of D. Michael Quinn’s book on the magic worldview and Mormonism. The book also dismisses the allegations that the Kirtland Temple dedication was high-spirited as a result of bawdy drunkenness with a one-line reference, “A few skeptics wondered if the brethren had become drunk on sacrament wine, but according to Joseph’s journal, the nonstop Tuesday and Wednesday meetings were, finally, the endowment” (p. 318). This dismissal is particularly interesting in light of this description of the Nauvoo Temple dedication, “The absence of profanity and intoxication pleased Don Carlos Smith, the editor of the Times and Seasons” (p. 424). Why would Don Carlos be pleased by “the absence of profanity and intoxication” if it hadn’t happened at the Kirtland Temple dedication, which a number of critics claimed? Doesn’t such a contradiction merit more than a single line dismissal? Finally, Bushman’s reasoning behind the existence of the gold plates was surprisingly trite, “Since the people who knew Joseph best treat the plates as fact, a skeptical analysis lacks evidence. A series of surmises replaces a documented narrative” (p. 58). Any controversy surrounding the existence of the gold plates, the ultimate fate of which is never described, is dismissed in two sentences. Throughout, the dismissal of controversy is far too simplistic. I was left with the feeling that the book glossed over the serious issues but delved deeply into history that is not debated.
If it were not for the significance of the claim, I’d probably be willing to let the next problem, an internal contradiction, slip past without mention. On page 130 the book claims, “This was the manner in which all his written revelations were dictated and written. There was never any hesitation, reviewing, or reading back, in order to keep the run of the subject; neither did any of these communications undergo revisions, interlinings, or corrections. As he dictated them so they stood, so far as I have witnessed.” Forty-four pages later, the book notes the following, “A conference on November 8 instructed Joseph Smith to review the commandments and “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the holy Spirit.” Correcting “errors” in language supposedly spoken by God again raised the question of authenticity. If from God, how could the language be corrected? Correction implied Joseph’s human mind had introduced errors; if so, were the revelations really his productions?” (p. 174). I understand that the book is trying to approach things from the perspective of the people of the time period, but it seems a bit disingenuous to make a claim at one point (using the voice of a historic individual) only to contradict that claim later. I’m not really sure what was intended here.
Finally, I think it is worth noting that, even though the author admits he is biased at the beginning of the book, his biases come across in the form of apologetics. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m having a hard time explaining the following any other way, “The Book of Mormon, the longest and most complex of Joseph Smith’s revelations, by rights should have been written in his maturity, not when he was twenty-three. Emerson, Joseph’s nearly exact contemporary, was still finding his voice when he was that age, with only his journals to show for his extensive study. Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon without any practice runs or previous writing experience. It came in a rush, as if the thoughts had been building for decades” (p. 105). Mormons often try to use this argument to persuade critics that J.S. must truly have been inspired. Of course, it fails to take into consideration that Joseph Smith had made a trial run at writing the book that had been lost and had spent his childhood creating stories about Native Americans and their ancestors and telling them to his siblings and parents (something not mentioned at all in this biography). What’s more, numerous authors have written superb literature (i.e., better than “chloroform in print”) in their early twenties, Stephen Crane is just one example.
In conclusion, while this book does present a new approach to understanding Joseph Smith – the addition and discussion of many of his writings – I found the reasoning in this biography to be simplistic, biased, and apologetic. Where insights from sociology and psychology could have been applied, they were not. And, despite not being a historian, I felt the author’s treatment of history was overtly and overwhelmingly biased, relying far too heavily on pro-Mormon accounts while dismissing any unfavorable accounts. My recommendation that this book be billed as a pro-Mormon biography of Joseph Smith for faithful Mormons stands. For non-Mormons, I recommend Dan Vogel’s biography instead; he treats the serious issues in depth and, while critical, is at least even-handed. The same cannot be said about this book.