I hold a Relief Society Book Club in San Diego, CA. I feel terrible because I recommended our group read Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman. I just finished reading it and I think it is likely to weaken testimonies of the prophet. The book is interesting and educational, and it could be viewed as objective, but I think the potential to damage faith makes it a dangerous book. How should I proceed with my book club next week?
I can certainly relate to your concern about Joseph Smith’s biography affecting someone’s testimony. I imagine you have a specific sister in mind. I’m reminded of an experience I had when I was younger. A woman I knew and respected confided in me that she usually enjoyed reading the scriptures, but really struggled with the Doctrine and Covenants. She preserved narratives and there is very little story in that volume of scripture. I mentioned to her that the ward library had a copy of The History of the Church, which essentially tells the story of the founding of the Church and includes the revelations, thus providing some level of context plus a narrative she could follow. I learned this by thumbing through one of the volumes one day.
The following Sunday, I figured I’d check it out and take a look. A few pages into it I found a story that caused me to bug my eyes and let out a laugh. Then I thought about this woman who would be reading the story shortly. How would SHE react to it? I fretted about it until we had dinner together. Trying to sound casual, I asked her what she thought about what she was reading. She replied quite energetically how much she loved it. She was already through a sizeable portion of it and found it quite readable. Turns out my fears were unfounded.
I imagine that many of your fears will also likely be unfounded. Those things that you suspect may be troubling may not even be noticed at all. In fact, before reading “Rough Stone Rolling”, I’ve asked others what they thought of it. The response was universally the same: it’s honest and fair. It paints a portrait of the prophet that is human but accurate. They would usually tell me (much like you have) that Bushman is not afraid to mention something controversial or challenging, but that he would simply tell it like it is and move on without moralizing it (or demoralizing as the case may be). When I follow up by asking for specific portions that are particularly challenging or controversial, I see them think for a minute but struggle to come up with an example. My point is, that when my friends have read this book, they felt as you do, but the “weakening” portions weren’t powerful enough to really leave a lasting impression.
General principles to moving forward
For what it’s worth, I have read the book as well. I have a guess at which aspects concern you (in behalf of others), but those would just be guesses. As such, let me talk about some general principles of what you can do moving forward. For starters, follow up. Especially follow up with that sister that you are particularly worried about. Just ask if she’s read and what she thinks about it. It’s a book club, so discuss the book. Ask the group about their response to a particular event that you think would be shaking. The idea here is to gauge how much it affected them. You may even need to call on some of them individually to get them to respond. If you do think one of the sisters was adversely affected by reading this book, schedule some one on one time with her to talk about it. Before addressing any concerns, make sure you understand just what exactly the concern is. Remind her of what her testimony is based on. If you don’t think you can properly address her challenges, feel free to let the Relief Society president know that she is struggling with some things she’s recently learned so she can help accordingly. There’s nothing wrong with recruiting help. By all means, stay her friend and be there for her. Sometimes, a person just needs time to process new information.
I don’t think there’s any cause for alarm here. But should the need arise, you can take a lesson from the life of Joseph Smith, who was “persecuted by those who ought to have been my friends and to have treated me kindly, and if they supposed me to be deluded to have endeavored in a proper and affectionate manner to have reclaimed me” (Joseph Smith-History 1:28). Exercise the principles of friendship: kindness, propriety, and affection.