How did a young man from a poor farm family - who as a boy received minimal education and had little religious background - come to found a church that today boasts millions of members worldwide?
A religious leader for only 14 years until his assassination in 1844, Joseph Smith drew thousands during his lifetime to his vision of a theocratic New Jerusalem in the American heartland. Possessing what one critic called a genius for "religion making," Smith wrote new scriptures and created a complex institution that has long survived his death.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, and on December 23, the 200th anniversary of Smith's birth.
In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, historian Richard Bushman, professor emeritus at Columbia University and a practicing Mormon, fashions a fascinating, definitive biography of the rough-hewn Yankee who stirred controversy from the start.
Bushman's intimate, 740-page portrait explores all the corners of controversy but does not resolve them, suggesting that - given the nature of the man and his story - such resolution is never likely to occur. An honest yet sympathetic portrayal, the book is rich in its depiction of developing Mormonism.
During an era of revivals and religious ferment, Smith saw himself as a major prophet and revelator - a restorer of the one true church. Despite a story that appeared fantastical to many, Smith's teaching caught the interest of others in search of a faith different from that offered by the churches of the time.
As a youth, Smith engaged with family and friends in magic and treasure-digging. He also prayed to know which church to attend. He said later that he was then told by God and Jesus that the existing churches were in apostasy.
In a second vision, Smith said, an angel named Moroni directed him to buried golden plates that were to become the source for his Book of Mormon, which he translated from hieroglyphs through the use of a seer stone and spectacles that he called the Urim and Thummim. (The angel later retrieved the plates.)
The Book of Mormon is understood by Latter-day Saints to be the history of Jews who traveled to the Western hemisphere around 600 BCE, and of Jesus' visit to them after his resurrection. (The assumption that the Indians of the Americas are the descendants of the people in the book has been upset recently by DNA studies - done by Mormons - which show no connection to the ancient Hebrews.)
Smith - called simply "Joseph" by Mormons - published the book in 1830, and later published others ("The Book of Abraham" and "The Book of Moses") purporting to provide true histories that go far beyond the Bible.
It was not preaching, but his ongoing "revelations" that shaped the developing religion and its practices. They were full of biblical phrasings, and many practices derived from Old Testament teachings (such as restoration of Aaron's priesthood).
The revelations included establishment of a hierarchical priesthood in which all males participate; secret temple rites; the deeding of property to church bishops, to be distributed as appropriate to the needy and toward purchase of land; and the nature of the afterlife, which includes "plural marriage."
Some may feel the author sanitizes Smith's motives for establishing polygamy and marrying dozens of wives.
Bushman tells an engrossing tale of a charismatic leader who was egalitarian and loved working with others, yet who was sensitive to criticism or dissent.
Mormons believed the Second Coming to be imminent, and converts followed their leader from New York to Ohio to Missouri, where Joseph said New Jerusalem was to be situated. But in purchasing large amounts of land for their City of Zion, the Mormons clashed - and even went to war - with other residents.
Smith lived in a biblical world where God's laws alone were of concern; He did not acknowledge governments, the nation, or the Constitution, Bushman says, until his flock ran into trouble and needed government protection. He then turned to state governors, and later to the US Congress for aid. The Mormons' story and self-image shifted from one of revelation to persecution.
Driven out of Missouri, the Saints regrouped in Nauvoo, Ill., where they built a temple and city, drawing church members from as far away as England. Yet Joseph's polygamous practice stirred controversy even among the faithful (including his first wife, Emma), and a few dissidents were excommunicated.
After he destroyed a dissenting Nauvoo newspaper, Smith was jailed in a neighboring city, and he and his brother were killed by a mob and militiamen who were guarding them. (His successor, Brigham Young, led members west to Utah.)
Meticulously researched, the detailed nature of this biography may make it of interest mostly to Mormons. Yet Bushman also offers an intriguing exploration of a remarkable development in American religious history.
Claims that the church is the fastest growing in the US have recently been questioned (studies show that about the same number are leaving as joining). But its members are increasingly widespread in the US and more visibly influential in political circles (i.e. Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, and Gov. Mitt Romney (R) of Massachusetts, who may run for president in 2008).
This is a work that offers non-Mormons a chance to gain knowledge of a church not their own. It also stirs deeper questions about American religious convictions and how they shape lives and culture.
• Jane Lampman is on the Monitor's staff.