Book Explores History of the Mormon Church Friday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. Richard Bushman, author of the new book, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, discusses the religious environment during Smith's lifetime.
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Book Explores History of the Mormon Church

Book Explores History of the Mormon Church

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

On Friday it will be 200 years since the birth of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. In his brief life, this untutored Yankee farm boy published the Book of Mormon, founded the LDS Church, built temples and cities and presided over an exodus of the faithful. After his murder in Illinois, his successors established a new base in Utah, and his church would eventually claim a membership of over 12 million people around the world.

But if his accomplishments are beyond question, many have questions about the self-described prophet, about the revelations and angelic visions, about the origins and translation of the Book of Mormon, about policies like plural marriage that remain controversial to this day. Among believers, Joseph Smith is often known simply as the Prophet or Prophet Joseph. Many outsiders regard him as a scoundrel and a charlatan.

Later in the program, still waiting for the Xbox you ordered a few weeks ago? This year's hottest gift is jumping off the shelves. We'll see what other toys are big sellers this holiday season.

But first, Joseph Smith. If you have questions about the life of Joseph Smith, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is

And joining us is Richard Bushman. He's the author of the new book "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling." He's Gouverneur Morris professor of history emeritus at Columbia University, and he joins us from NPR's bureau in New York City.

Good of you to be with us, Professor.

Professor RICHARD BUSHMAN (Author, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling"): Thank you very much.

CONAN: Let's talk about the religious environment during Joseph Smith's lifetime. There was a lot of religious splintering and uncertainty. We're talking about the early years of the 19th century.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, that's true, and it was especially true for Joseph Smith's own family. They came from New England. They were an old Puritan family going back to the 17th century. But they'd kind of worked their way loose from the congregational establishment of that time and for a couple of generations been more or less unmoored religiously with no church and no fast connection to any religion, but still filled with religious zeal. Salvation was important issue for them and, of course, they lived in a time when revivals and camp meetings were thrusting that on everyone.

CONAN: And it was a time that you argue they were hardly the only people looking for an answer, looking for revelation in their time.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, it's--they had a word for it. They called these people visionaries. And by that they meant people who took very literally the Bible promises of spiritual gifts and the Bible practices of prophecy and revelation and thought that they should be revived in their own time. So when Joseph Smith came along and said that the Lord had spoken to him, it was a message they were ready to hear.

CONAN: At the same time, amidst all of these schisms and revivals, there was a fair amount of practice of necromancy, magic, and Joseph Smith was involved in that as well.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, that's right. We think of magic as just hopelessly superstitious and sort of retrograde in our time, but this was an age when a lot of respectable people thought there was hopes they could find treasure using practices that had been handed down through the generations. And Joseph's father especially got involved in it and became for a few years anyway--we don't know how long--involved in treasure seeking in his neighborhood.

CONAN: And Joseph also indulged in this practice, sometimes not always happily, but he was called upon by neighbors to help them out.

Prof. BUSHMAN: That's right. There was a group of people, you know, not too far away who would seek for a treasure in the dark, and Joseph was thought to have special gifts that would help them to find the treasure. And so he did get involved.

CONAN: And there is a definite problem with--you know, a lot of people subsequently have had, that said, `Well, here's a kid who was a treasure seeker and he found golden plates.'

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, that's probably one reason that the whole idea of golden plates was appealing to his father, is that he had been looking for treasure. But of course, the plates turned out to have another purpose entirely and his father recognized this. Joseph was put on trial in 1826 when he was still pretty young, just 21. And the father said, `I now realize we've been pursuing the wrong thing, we've been seeking for gold and we should have been seeking the will of God.' So this treasure seeking sort of morphed gradually--in Joseph's case, not too gradually; rather rapidly--into a more religious pursuit.

CONAN: And you also say that if there was a personal reason for Joseph Smith to get involved in all that he was doing, into the prophet business, if you will, it was because of his father, a man who viewed himself as a disappointment.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, there is a family dynamic there that's kind of poignant, actually. His father had started with a small farm in Vermont, lost it through a business deal and some bad judgment, and had just never been able to get back on his feet. He was a tenant farmer. Lost two farms, actually. He was a tenant farmer when he was in his 50s and had almost nothing to give to his son. He didn't have a religion to give to him. And Joseph somehow took responsibility for his father. When his father was finally baptized into the church that Joseph himself organized, Joseph was just overcome. He just cried and cried. He was just sort of so thrilled that his father finally had found religion. So the incident shows a young man, a son who sort of felt the pain of his father and was doing his darndest to give him some place in the world.

CONAN: We're speaking with Richard Bushman. He's the author of the newly published "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" and a professor of history emeritus at Columbia University. If you'd like to join us, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us:

And let's talk with Charles. And Charles is calling from Salt Lake City.

CHARLES (Caller): Hello, gentlemen.

CONAN: Hello.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Hi.

CHARLES: Great to be on the show. Glad to know that you're covering this topic. I've lived here for quite a few years now. Not from a family of Mormons and I'm not Mormon myself, but quite fascinated by all the history here that you find, because Mormons are so caught up in their own history. Even now during Christmastime, it seems so apparent to me that really the celebration of this man, this American, is much, much more highly celebrated than Christ himself. As a matter of fact, a brand-new film has been released in local theaters, a movie, a production of the life of Joseph.

And I wonder what Mr. Bushman thinks about changing times, because I teach young people and I find that because of the Internet and all the information that's now available that all these controversial things like the money digging and the polygamy and many of the claims about the falsehood of things like the Book of Abraham, for example, and all of these things are now so well proliferate because of the Internet that I find students taking what we might call a more liberal stance on the life of Joseph. And many of them are now saying things like, well, perhaps he was misguided in many ways, but yet still is a very inspirational man. And even Bushman's book seems to me like the sort of thing that two generations ago would have been appalling to Mormons, would've been considered, you know, some kind of abomination. He would've been fired from BYU had he written such a book. I wonder what he thinks about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, there's a number of questions in your comment. One is: Is Joseph Smith put above Christ? This is his 200th anniversary, so the church is kind of going overboard this year. Normally, almost no attention is paid to his birthday and Christmas dominates the scene. And in Mormon theology and I think in Mormon life Christ, of course, stands above Joseph Smith all the way.

CONAN: I can tell you, Charles, that here in Washington, DC, for many years, the best Christmas light show in town is up at the Mormon Temple. But go ahead. They don't say much about Joseph Smith, to you?

Prof. BUSHMAN: Right. When it comes to was he a fraud or was he an authentic prophet, that's always a hard decision to make. Many of the world's great religions begin with a miracle of some sort, sort of a founding miracle. You know, it's the parting of the Red Sea and deliverance of Israel or the incarnation or the resurrection or Mohammed being carried by Gabriel to Jerusalem at night. And these are always the most controversial and the most powerful part of a religion. They're powerful because they seem to offer hope that God is actually intervening in human life in some way and are the foundation of faith. And they're controversial because they're so miraculous, they're so extraordinary. And so that debate just goes on forever, as it has in Christianity down to this time.

CONAN: I was interested, if I could bump in again, in your book you said, look, you can spend a lot of time investigating whether Joseph Smith was a charlatan, but if you do, you do that at the risk of overlooking what he meant to all of the people around him and everything he accomplished.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, the interesting thing about Joseph Smith is that he was able to create a following and that people did believe him and this very large church resulted. And so to understand how that happened, you had to sort of get inside the mind of the believers, not the minds of the skeptics. The skeptics have to tell their story, and I try to give them a voice in this book, but the interesting story is the story of belief.

CONAN: And we should point out that you yourself are a believer.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Yes, I am.

CONAN: And there was an interesting way of--the way you choose to phrase a lot of things suggests that there's a great deal of controversy about, well, for example, Joseph came to believe that he had these conversations.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, it's difficult. You have to keep in mind when you're writing a book for a general audience that there's going to be lots of different opinions about Joseph Smith. And some people say you always have to say the `alleged revelation' or this or that. I don't want to compel readers to become believers in order to follow the story, so I use language throughout that permits people to see him as a human being struggling to know his own mind and at the same time give a space for Mormons to say this is a man whose thoughts really come from God; they're inspired.

CONAN: Charles, thanks very much for the call.

CHARLES: Thank you.

CONAN: We're going to talk more about the life of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and take more of your calls when we get back from a break. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is We're discussing the newly published book "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, a Cultural Biography of Mormonism's Founder" with is author, Richard Lyman Bushman.

When we come back from the break, we'll also be joined by another professor emeritus. Emeriti prospering here at TALK OF THE NATION today. This, Mario DePillis at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Again, if you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's the talk of the nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing today Joseph Smith and the Church of the Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. This coming Friday marks the 200th anniversary of Smith's birth. Our guest is Richard Bushman, author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling." He's the Gouverneur Morris professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. If you have questions about the life and legacy of Joseph Smith, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

And joining us now is Mario DePillis, a professor emeritus of American social and religious history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He's with us from the studios of our member station there, WFCR, in Amherst, Massachusetts.

And, Professor DePillis, nice of you to join us today.

Professor MARIO DEPILLIS (University of Massachusetts at Amherst): Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to get your thoughts also on an America in 1820s, an America that is in the midst of revival, anxious for revelation, yet an America that is also still in the midst in the legacy of the Enlightenment.

Prof. DEPILLIS: Yes. Well, in the midst of that Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, there was a great deal of spiritual hunger and there was a great deal of confusion. And in fact, Joseph Smith, the prophet, begins his story by saying that he went to the woods to seek wisdom in all this confusion. And his confusion, personal and the confusion outside, was part of what was going on in the population at large. So he spoke to them. And when he wrote in his autobiography or journal, they were saying `Lo here, lo there,' the Presbyterians were contending for this, the Baptists for that, and so on, and when the angel appeared to him, said that they were all an abomination and they were all wrong.

So there was a great deal of spiritual hunger, a great deal of confusion, and when his book appeared and his powerful personality appeared, there was no way but for him to have success.

CONAN: A large element, do you think, of his success being that element of certainty?

Prof. DEPILLIS: Yes, of certainty. People wanted answers, just as today those who are converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often say that they get answers which they don't get from the mainline churches. And they also get something else which I've spent my life studying, which is community. They get a sense of community in their wonderful ward chapels where they have a lot of support for one another. So, yes, certainty and I would add community.

CONAN: Professor Bushman, let me bring you back in here. Certainly no lack of certainty on Joseph Smith's part later. Initially, though, he was cautious about telling people what he had seen, what he had experienced.

Prof. BUSHMAN: It's hard to explain exactly why, but he said almost nothing about his first vision, even to his family, and was a little reluctant to talk about the angel who told him of the plates. And that was true for some of his other visions. The revelations that came to him by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost he wrote down and published almost immediately. I can't fully explain this myself except to say that there is this group of visionaries who were a little bit of a scandal in that time, as much as money digging. And he may--wanted to avoid being categorized with this group of kind of marginal people.

CONAN: Professor DePillis, also do you think that it's necessary to look at the origins of the Book of Mormon and the conditions under which it was translated or dictated, if you will? Is that central to understanding of Mormonism?

Prof. DEPILLIS: Well, it is certainly central to understanding the way Mormonism grew and how it is taught. It is also central to the way non-believers, most of the United States and most of the world, conceive of Mormonism because they look at the Book of Mormon and, as you say, how it came to be and say this cannot be a genuine scripture that the Mormon Church claims it to be. It is a production of the mind of a very young man, very skillfully done, but still his own production and not a revelation from God, and that the golden plates have never been seen since.

So there are two points of view here. One is for the person of faith this is absolutely necessary. And even Mormons who think that the Book of Mormon shouldn't be believed in literally continue to remain members and say that it should be taught because it is such a powerful part of their faith. Outsiders, however, no.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. And let's turn--(800) 989-8255, by the way, if you'd like to join us. Michael. Michael, calling us from Williston in Florida.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello, sir.

CONAN: Hello. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MICHAEL: Thank you very much. You know, I wonder if anybody has made the point that "The Pearl" was translated from a set of gold plates that were returned by the angel Moroni shortly after Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphics. And of course, the hieroglyphics were reproduced in "The Pearl" in actual illustrations that show beyond a shadow of a doubt that the man was a charlatan.

CONAN: Richard Bushman, I wonder, we're entering into your turf here.


Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, it'd be very difficult to prove that this rural farm boy who was not very literate in upstate New York could have had access to documents that showed the Egyptian hieroglyphics or any experiences of that sort. So I think it would be hard to say that that in itself is a demonstration that the Book of Mormon was fraudulent.

MICHAEL: Well, actually, sir, I had some experience with "The Pearl" back in England in days when I was associated with the Egypt Exploration Society. And he actually reproduced copies of the inscriptions in his "Pearl." And...

Prof. BUSHMAN: Who reproduced them?

MICHAEL: ...he actually got hold of copies of these tablets...

CONAN: I'm sorry. Who are you talking about, Michael?

MICHAEL: Joseph Smith.

CONAN: OK. All right.


Prof. BUSHMAN: You mean the Pearl of Great Price?

MICHAEL: Yeah, he actually got ahold of copies, as has previously been alluded to...

CONAN: Right, the Pearl of Great...

MICHAEL: ...with the golden tablets that in fact were wafers of thin gold foil that had been buried with the mummies in Egypt.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well...

MICHAEL: And he reproduced them without a shadow of a doubt in "The Pearl."

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, I--there's a--you have access to a story that I don't think is part of the ordinary Mormon record. You should publish that so that we can all examine it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: Well, it was published in England and it was a copy of what is called "The Pearl," which is the foundation of the Book of Mormon.

CONAN: All right. Michael, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MICHAEL: Not at all.

CONAN: Just one small point, Richard Bushman, I grew up in New Jersey where at the time we did not have a lot of Mormons and I always thought it was the angel Moroni. I've been corrected since and told it was--we had Moronis in New Jersey, but it's Moroni (pronounced Moro-NYE).

Prof. BUSHMAN: That's right. This is not an Italian Moroni.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much. I mistook myself for all those years and maybe that's part of the problem here.

This is from Nan in Geneva, New York, who sent us an e-mail. `I'm only about a third of the way through the book, so forgive me if you've answered this already. What do you suppose made Joseph Smith so successful in launching a new religion while other groups such as George Fox's Quakers and Ann Lee's Shakers, vital at the time, have faded away?' The Quakers at least will object that they haven't faded away completely, but anyway, the broader point?

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, at the time, he was successful because he lived in a Bible-believing age. And this role of prophet is always accessible to anyone who's studying the Bible because the Bible is based on the writings and lives of prophets. And so Joseph stepped into that role, and that was thrilling to people around him. Why he has been so successful since that time in an age that's maybe decreasingly believe in the Bible and going into the 20th century and to other lands is another question. And I think here that to that business about fulfilling the biblical religion in the form of prophetic revelation, you have to add Mario DePellis' comment that the Mormons for some reason have been immensely successful in forming communities that are deeply devoted to one another. They care for each other and help each other grow, and people sensing that want to be part.

CONAN: And, Professor DePillis, if you'd like to add and particularly in 19th century terms.

Prof. DEPILLIS: Add to his...

CONAN: As to why he was so successful where other religions were not.

Prof. DEPILLIS: Well, I think if you compare him with local prophets like Jemima Wilkinson in western New York or Mother Ann Lee also in New York but in the east, they did not have, I don't think, quite the persistent charisma and leadership power of Joseph Smith. It's a little unfair to judge Mother Ann Lee because she died so soon after the establishment of her religion. But he had a personality and mind, a charm and intelligence that was really quite impressive. And one of the most impressive things to me was that this boy, quite ignorant, having practically no real education--maybe he attended some school, maybe a couple of months, before the age of 10--that this boy came to be such a good writer, not in the Book of Mormon, which I don't consider good writing, but in his speeches and in his letters, his eloquent letters to his wife and so on. Quite extraordinary man. So I would say his great talents are part of what explain his success.

CONAN: We're talking today about the new book "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" with its author, Richard Lyman Bushman, who's a Gouverneur Morris Professor of history emeritus at Columbia University, and with Mario DePillis, professor emeritus of American social and religious history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. If you'd like to join us, the number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me, if you will, turn that question sort of on its head. Why were Joseph Smith and his followers so terribly unpopular in upstate New York and later in the Midwest when they were trying to establish this new religion, and in fact, he, of course, was killed--he and his brother--at the hands of a mob and eventually the Mormons left to go to Utah. Richard Bushman?

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, that's the Mormon story. Wherever they settled, within two or three years animosity had built up against them, not because of any specific acts they did. There was nothing they could be prosecuted for in courts. But in a sense, for what they were--that is, they were people who claimed the gifts of God. And their neighbors thought they were fanatics, and it would be one thing if they were people with peculiar religious beliefs scattered in small numbers through a community, but they had this practice of gathering, so that within a few years, they threatened to become a majority in the community. And that terrified people. They thought that the sheriff and the school board would soon be under the control of the Mormons, and they saw no other resort than to turn to the old American practice of mobbing and--to drive these people out. And it happened in place after place.

CONAN: Professor DePillis, what was it about Joseph Smith or his creed that people found so repugnant?

Prof. DEPILLIS: Well, Richard Bushman summarizes it in a general way, but I would disagree in one respect. He begins by saying that they were persecuted for what they were; very true, very true. But on the other hand, they also were persecuted for what they did--that is, take one example: They come to Jackson County, Missouri, in large numbers and they are confronted there with emigres or emigrants or frontiersmen, as they used to say, from Tennessee and Virginia and Kentucky--pretty sympathetic to the slave power--individualistic. The Mormons come in, communally organized; they were originally communists, remember. And within months, they began to make the land productive and start building a press and started on a school, started a community. And it might have been a wonderful city had they not been persecuted. But coming in like that as a large group, more or less taking over the land and the local culture, could not but have antagonized these others, who also suspected the Mormons of being Abolitionists.

So there are many examples of this in American history. If you take the example of the Maharishi there in Antelope, Oregon, coming in there and overwhelming the people of the dales in Oregon and many other examples of groups coming in like that and being resented. So what they did was almost as important as what they were.

CONAN: And, Professor Bushman, we just have a minute or so left before the break, but I did want to bring you in on the point that you make, that America at that time was extremely--and may remain so to this day--extremely uncomfortable with the idea, or at least secular America was, of revelation--of a direct voice to God.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, I think the trouble the Mormons had uncovered a fundamental contradiction in American culture. Our two great documents are the Constitution, but in this--his day at least the Bible. And under the Constitution the voice of the people is the voice of God, and under the Bible the voice of the prophets is the voice of God. So anyone who claimed to speak for God threatened to overthrow the rule of law and order in a democratic society. And that was bound to surface in some way or another down the line.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we'll take more of your calls about the life and legacy of Joseph Smith, and we'll also take a look at the hot toys for this holiday season, and why if you're still out trying to buy one of them they're going to be very, very difficult to find. Tickle Me Elmo--you can find that this year. Xbox--you could have a problem.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. President Bush said this morning that he approved of domestic espionage on suspected terrorists without court order. The president said he would continue the electronic eavesdropping program as long as America faces a terrorist threat, and he also claimed that the program includes safeguards to protect civil liberties. House lawmakers opened the way for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge today. The ANWR provision was attached to a major defense bill that forced many opponents to vote for it. The Senate has yet to decide on its final version of the same bill. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, the government pays Iraqi journalists to print good news stories in the Iraqi media. The Pentagon will soon begin placing pro-American message in foreign media without disclosing the US as the source. The struggle to win support for US policy overseas--next TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Today we're talking about Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church. Our guests are Richard Bushman--he's the author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," which has just been published--and Mario DePillis, professor emeritus of American social and religious history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And of course, you're invited to join us at (800) 989-8255 or send us e-mail:

And let's go to the phones. Kaile is with us from Tucson, Arizona.

KAILE (Caller): Oh, yes. Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, Kaile.

KAILE: Yes. I recently read Fawn Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith entitled "No Man Knows My History." And I was wondering what your guests thought of this work, and also I understand she had unprecedented access to church documents, but was also excommunicated for writing this book. And I wanted to know, as an author and historian, what your guests thought of this book and the perspective of the church.

CONAN: Sure. Richard Bushman, you want to start?

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, Fawn Brodie came from a distinguished church family. Her uncle was president of the church eventually. She did have access to a lot of material, but I don't think the power of the book comes from the material she had access to but to her immense skill as a writer. She was just a marvelous journalist, very opinionated, strong woman, and it remains a classic Mormon history. She wrote as an unbeliever at that time; she had worked her way out of the church. And it was considered by the church as an attack on its founder, and that's why she lost her membership.

CONAN: I was just going to say to Professor DePillis that excommunication--rarely regarded as a positive thing by historians.

Prof. DEPILLIS: Rarely? In this case I don't see quite the point of your question.

CONAN: Well, I was just trying to follow up on the point and get your opinion on the aspect of her, you know, being thrown out of the church by publication of this biography.

Prof. DEPILLIS: Oh, yes, well, I can certainly speak to that. We had since that time quite an extraordinary set of excommunications in 1993, the so-called purge of '93 in which feminists and same-sex people and slightly unorthodox people were excommunicated. And certainly Fawn Brodie, having written what the Mormons call and what historians call a naturalistic interpretation of the life of Joseph Smith, could not remain in the church, and the church had no choice but to say go. But she has a very special place in Mormon history. She's more than a biographer; she's an enormous figure. And when she couldn't come back to Salt Lake City as a kind of persona non grata, couldn't even step foot in there--when she finally did come back shortly before her death, when she spoke a huge hall was totally filled up, standing room only. That's the kind of important figure she was in the Mormon history. So I don't think she would ever have reneged; I'm sure she wouldn't have. I met her myself late in her life and talked to her. At any rate, yes, she could not have been--the church couldn't do anything but excommunicate her. It was painful to excommunicate the niece of a great president like David O. McKay.

CONAN: Kaile, thanks very much for the phone call.

KAILE: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's get one last caller in, and this will be Brad. Brad, calling from Cedar City in Utah.

BRAD (Caller): Oh, thank you. Your program's excellent. Many of us in--when we think of Mormonism what comes to mind--polygamy. I'd like to ask Mr. Bushman if in his book he covers the practice of polyandry, whereby of Joseph Smith's 33 wives, 11 were married to other men. I'm on the church's Web site right now, and one such lady was Mary Elizabeth Rollings and she's married to Joseph Smith and also at the same time to Adam Lightner.

CONAN: Professor Bushman?

Prof. BUSHMAN: Yes, it is covered in the book. There's a debate about numbers. My numbers are slightly lower than yours: 30 and--plural wives and 10 married to other women. This is the most difficult part of Mormonism for Mormons themselves to understand, partly because Joseph Smith did not explain what he was up to. All that he said was that he was attempting to restore an aspect of the Bible that has been lost. Just as he restored priesthood and temples, he believed he was commanded of God to restore plural marriage in the way of Abraham and Moses and other figures in the Old Testament. And there was some indication in the Scriptures that this was for the purpose of what was called raising up a righteous people. And Mormons today, of course, don't practice it--haven't for over a century--and repudiate those who do and are mystified by just how it fits into their plan since it's so contrary to our own way of life, but are still grateful to those ancestors who produced us. I'm a product of many plural marriages and somehow those were very good people and they really were the ones who created Mormon society in Utah.

BRAD: Actually Mormonism still believes in polygamy although it's in a next life. Is that correct?

Prof. BUSHMAN: Well, it's true. You can marry two women in succession in this life and be sealed to them for eternity. That's correct.

CONAN: Brad, thanks very much for the call.

BRAD: Thank you.

CONAN: And, gentlemen, thank you so much for your time today, an interesting conversation. Mario DePillis is professor emeritus of American social and religious history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He joined us today from the studios of our member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us.

Prof. DEPILLIS: OK. You're welcome.

CONAN: And Richard Lyman Bushman, author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" and Gouverneur Morris Professor of history emeritus at Columbia University, was with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Prof. BUSHMAN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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