Richard Lyman Bushman: A Mormon historian reflects on his biography of Joseph Smith

Historians in the News

Most reviews of my recent biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, mention that I am a practicing Mormon. The Sunday New York Times titled its review, "Latter-Day Saint: A practicing Mormon delivers a balanced biography of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith." Perhaps a little oversensitive, I wondered why this was news. Was a Mormon telling the story of the church’s founding prophet with a degree of objectivity something like man bites dog? Did the editor mean that a mind capable of embracing Mormonism would surely be incapable of a balanced portrayal? Or that Mormonism evokes loyalties so deep that a dispassionate approach to Joseph Smith would be impossible for a church member? One reviewer spoke of my walking a high wire between the demands of church conformity and the necessary openness of scholarly investigation. Another, surprised by the balance of the book but unwilling to trust me entirely, said it achieved a "veneer of credibility."

The nearly universal notice of my religion got me thinking about passion, commitment, and balance. What is the place of personal values and beliefs in scholarship? Our personal commitments are certain to bias our work, and yet is that necessarily bad? Historians write with passion about slavery, race, women, war and peace, freedom, and injustice. Is their work marred by their belief? Beyond question, their values shape the work. After the civil rights movement, we write differently about women and race than we did a half century ago. Are the biases that play about our scholarship prejudices to be purged, or are they powerful and useful motivations?

An impassioned graduate student once announced in a seminar that she could find traces of gender on a blank wall. Her commitment had sharpened her eye for evidence that less engaged researchers missed. I can remember the time when historians sighed that since so little evidence about slaves survived slavery, slave lives, regrettably, could never be recovered. Nowadays one would pause before saying that about any subject. As the Gospels say, those who search, find. Passion may introduce bias but it also produces persistence—and data.

Okay, that may be true, we say, for gender studies or investigations of race, but does it work for Joseph Smith with his angelic visitors, gold plates, and a Urim and Thummim? Isn’t that a different kind of commitment that borders on the crazy? How can belief in such oddities be allowed any place in scholarship?

I would be the first to admit that my account of Joseph Smith shows greater tolerance for Smith’s remarkable stories than most historians would allow. I write about the visits of angels as if they might have happened. I do not assume, a priori, that Joseph Smith’s stories are fraudulent, any more than I would automatically write about Mohammad’s visions or the biblical miracles as obvious deceptions. But I hope that my readers see that my writing as a believer is not just a personal indulgence. I would like them to understand the benefit for historical inquiry as a whole in writing out of my convictions. The bizarre nature of Joseph Smith’s stories makes historical work by a believing historian all the more useful.

One reason is that skepticism about the gold plates and the visions can easily slip over into cynicism. The assumption that Smith concocted the stories of angels and plates casts a long shadow over his entire life. Everything he did is thrown into doubt. His exhortations to godly service, his self-sacrifice, his pious letters to his wife, his apparent love for his fellow workers all appear as manipulations to perpetuate a grand scheme. Cynicism has its advantages in smoking out hypocrisy, but it does not foster sympathetic understanding. Every act is prejudged from the beginning....
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