Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Lyman Bushman’s biography of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, is the crowning achievement of the new Mormon history, an intellectual and historiographical movement that carried the story of the Latter-day Saints into the cultural mainstream just as Mormonism itself was moving in from the margins to find a place on the American religious landscape as a respectable belief system and an upstanding faith community. Still embryonic in the 1950s, this intellectual wave did not fully take shape as a movement until a substantial cohort of young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah (the LDS Church), and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints headquartered in Independence, Missouri (the RLDS Church), earned their doctorates in history from reputable graduate schools outside the Mormon culture region. Bushman, a lifelong member of the LDS Church who earned his degree at Harvard University, was one of this band of well-schooled scholars.
In the 1960s historians in the forefront of the new Mormon history created a stable framework for the movement by establishing the Mormon History Association and, along with other young Mormon intellectuals, beginning publication of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Perhaps inadvertently, both LDS ecclesiastical bodies also facilitated development of the new Mormon history in two direct ways. In creating modern church bureaucracies, both ecclesiastical institutions added staff and professionalized their historical and archival departments, hiring well-trained historians as they did so. Both also improved their church-related educational institutions, constructing new facilities and expanding their faculties. This meant that new teaching positions for young LDS and RLDS historians with secular training opened up in the history departments at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, Ricks College in Idaho (later renamed Brigham Young University–Idaho), and Graceland College in Iowa.
The new historiography of Mormonism built on the work of four notable historians without graduate training in history—Bernard DeVoto, Dale L. Morgan, Fawn McKay Brodie, and Juanita Brooks—who published significant works on the Mormon past in the 1940s and 1950s. All four had “Mormon DNA,” as Lavina Fielding Anderson put it in writing about another prominent LDS scholar. Unlike most practitioners of the new Mormon history, with the exception of Brooks, whose status as a good Mormon housewife was never challenged, these precursors were distanced from the church.
Brodie was the only member of the historical quartet who addressed the beginnings of Mormonism. She did so in No Man Knows My History, a work published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1945 when the author was only thirty years old. Her unassailable Mormon birthright as the niece of the man who would become the prophet-president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1950 had not prevented her from becoming an outspoken skeptic, and as would be expected, her skeptical stance clearly figured in her writing about the first Mormon prophet. It probably also figured in the mixed reception the book received. In the public press as represented by Newsweek and Time, Brodie’s work was hailed as “a definitive biography in the finest sense of the word,” one that exhibited the author’s “skill, scholarship and admirable detachment.” Other reviews signaled that it would be embraced by rationalist intellectuals as the best study of the prophet ever written. After the publication of a revised and enlarged edition in 1971, Marvin S. Hill, a BYU professor and an authority on Smith, penned an extended review in which he reported that “for more than a quarter century [Brodie’s biography] has been recognized by most professional American historians as the standard work on the life of Joseph Smith and perhaps the most important single work on early Mormonism.”
By Joseph Smith