Richard Lyman Bushman: Explains the challenge a Mormon faces in writing about Mormon history

Historians in the News

In his new biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon historian who taught at Columbia until his retirement, faces the hard questions asked by critics. He addresses questions about the provenance of the Book of Mormon, the Golden Plates and the stories about the angel Moroni. In an article in the current issue of the Journal of American History he acknowledges the tension he experienced as both a believer in Mormonism and a practioner of professional history, but he says there's no escape from it :

I recognize that in writing about Joseph Smith in a balanced, sensible voice I may perplex readers. They will naturally ask: How can an educated, scholarly person believe Smith's stories? The seeming disjuncture is, however, an aspect of contemporary cultural diversity. The man who pumps our gas may pray to Mecca five times a day and believe that Gabriel carried Muhammad to Jerusalem in the night. The shoe salesman may think Christ will come again and take his saints into heaven. Lots of people believe Jesus was resurrected two days after dying on the cross. We have to make conversation, neighborly or scholarly, with people who harbor beliefs we do not countenance. It is more difficult for scholars with their severe convictions about rationality to converse with people they think are beyond the pale, but the social realities of our time require it.

In a review of Bushman's book, Jan Shipps, Professor Emerita of History and Religious Studies at Indiana University–Purdue, traces the difficult path of the new Mormon historians in the post-war era.

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.

And Bushman? He wanted to write the first of a projected 16 volume history of the Mormon Church. Deseret Books wanted to publish it. But then, says Shipps, Boyd Packer, a Mormon apostle, squelched the idea:

[Packer] apparently spoke for several of the Brethren when he issued a strong word of counsel to those writing in the new mode. Presented as a public address at BYU in August 1981 and afterward published in BYU Studies, his"The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect" cautioned that"there is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work." He said that"some things that are true are not very useful." Some things"are to be taught selectively and some ... are to be given only to those who are worthy." Packer warned that scholars who follow the tenets of their profession"regardless of how they may injure the Church or destroy the faith of those not ready for 'advanced history' [place themselves] in great spiritual jeopardy."

Nonetheless, says Shipps, Bushman persisted in writing professional histories of the Church. After his retirement from Columbia he joined the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History. In his biography of Joseph Smith Bushman, says Shipps, puts Smith in the context of his times better than anybody else ever has.

Still, Bushman's account has generated a very mixed response among Latter-day Saints. Traditional scholars who are DNA Mormons, such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Richard Bennett, and Martha Taysom, regard the book with unusual reverence, seeing it, in Mormon terms, as"a marvelous work and a wonder."51 Yet perhaps because it is so forthcoming about the parts of the prophet's life that do not fit into an essentially benign account of the beginnings of Mormonism, the book has generated remarkable angst among Latter-day Saints at BYU and elsewhere, including the halls of the LDS Church's administrative offices and the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.52 A prophet who had an alcoholic father and who married ten women who were already married to other men simply cannot be squeezed into a movie designed for potential converts or even into a public relations portrait of the man who was responsible for the production of a"New Testament of Jesus Christ." At a less obvious but equally angst-inducing level, Bushman's frank discussion of the unconventional beliefs that separate Mormonism from every other existing form of Christianity creates difficulty for the Saints who are anxious to show that the divide between Latter-day Saint Christians and evangelical Christians is not very wide.

Read entire article at HNN Staff

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