“To be learned is good,” with Richard Bushman [MIPodcast #75]
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The Book of Mormon warns against mistaking intelligence for wisdom, but adds a crucial caveat: “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). Where LDS founding prophet Joseph Smith declared that a person is saved no faster than they get knowledge, historian Richard Bushman adds a corollary: A person gains knowledge no faster than they are saved. Bushman believes historical inquiry has made him a better Mormon, but he also believes being a Mormon has made him a better historian, too.
In this episode, Bushman gets autobiographical about his biography of Joseph Smith, talks about the rise of Mormon studies, and offers his perspective on the relationship between personal faith and professional scholarship. Bushman is one of the most distinguished and respected historians ever to call The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints his religious home. It was a real treat to sit down with him to talk about his career, his personal faith, his difficulties and successes.
This episode coincides with the publication of To Be Learned Is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman. The book contains the edited proceedings of a 2016 scholars’ colloquium held in Bushman’s honor at Brigham Young University. Bushman wanted Latter-day Saint scholars to reflect on their work in the presence of non-LDS scholars, to think through the difficult issues in ways that spoke to larger questions about faith and reason. Learn more about the book or watch video of the presentations at mi.byu.edu/bushman.
Learn more about the Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture here.
Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University and author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. He occupied the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California from 2008 to 2011. Before joining the faculty at Columbia University, Bushman received his BA and PhD degrees from Harvard University and taught at Brigham Young University, Brown University, Boston University, Harvard University (as a visiting professor), and the University of Delaware.
Bushman has served as president of the Mormon History Association, as a member of the board of editors of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, as a council member for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, and as president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. He chaired the advisory committee to the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University, 1999–2004; and he chaired the board of directors of the Mormon Scholars Foundation until 2016. He is currently a member of the National Advisory Board for the Joseph Smith Papers project of the History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, having served as a general editor from the project’s founding until 2013.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Historian Richard Bushman joins us in this episode to get autobiographical about his biography of Joseph Smith, to talk about the rise of Mormon studies, and the relationship between personal faith and professional scholarship. Richard Bushman is one of the most distinguished and respected historians ever to call the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints his religious home. That’s one reason why the Maxwell Institute sponsored a scholars’ colloquium in his honor, inviting an excellent lineup of scholars to talk about scholarship and faith. The proceedings of that gathering were recently published in a book called To Be Learned Is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman. You can see video of that colloquium or learn more about the book at our website, mi.byu.edu/bushman.
It was a real treat to sit down with Richard to talk about his career, his personal faith, his difficulties and successes in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Send questions or comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast to firstname.lastname@example.org. And take some time to rate and review the podcast in iTunes if you haven’t done that yet.
I really appreciate reading people’s reviews. Here’s one we recently received from “MaCart75.” It says, “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the depth and variety of topics, as well as authors & guests that are presented on this podcast. It not only offers intellectual food for thought, but I find it interesting and not so ‘high browed.’” I was glad to hear that. We try not to be “low-brow,” we try not to be “high-brow,” we try to kind of be kind of “middle-brow” on the show.
MaCart goes on to say, “Plus I’m learning so much more about my own religion as well as the beliefs of many others. Occasionally I’ve not enjoyed a speaker, or sometimes the topic is less interesting, but for the most part, it is well done.” Well, MaCart75, sounds like we have a pretty good batting average with you. I’m glad you listen to the podcast and am thankful you took the time to rate it and review it on iTunes and hope that other people will do the same.
Alright, with that being said, we turn now to our interview with Richard Lyman Bushman. We are talking with him today about faith and scholarship in his career and his life in Mormon studies and all sorts of things. Thanks for listening.
BLAIR HODGES: Richard Bushman, thanks for joining us here on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
RICHARD BUSHMAN: It’s a pleasure.
HODGES: We are here today to talk about a book that just came out from the Maxwell Institute called To Be Learned Is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman. This is a book that was put together by Spencer Fluhman, Kathleen Flake, and Jed Woodworth. But I wanted to start with the fact that you’re about to put out another new book. This book is called The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History and is coming out on May 22. Tell us a little about this farmer project.
BUSHMAN: It’s strange because I have no farmers in my background until you go back three or four generations. But I became fascinated, starting with Joseph Smith Sr. and his ancestors. So I got into it in the first place because I was writing on Joseph Smith and wanted to recreate the world in which he lived. But I became absolutely enamored with farmers, loved to talk to them, loved to visit them, loved to watch them at work and so I sort of carried this farther than I had intended and really with no big question and no analytical purpose. I just wanted to recover the lives of the ordinary farmers in the eighteenth century.
HODGES: So that’s really a day-to-day thing? What kinds of records are you drawing on to get a picture for that?
BUSHMAN: All kinds of records. There are some good diaries. I use them when they’re available. There are some excellent letters. There are tax lists. There are a few almanacs. My aim was to use every kind of record that the farmers left behind in one form or another and extract from it what I could about their lives.
HODGES: Do you have to find yourself resisting the temptation of favoring a particular diary or something? Sometimes a historian will find this source that’s just rich and engaging and fun and it’s tempting to sort of just follow that down the rabbit hole.
BUSHMAN: Oh, I yield to that temptation entirely. I think that’s all you can do is to take your very best sources and make everything you can out of it. And of course it may not be typical, but there is no such thing as a typical farmer. So you just have to get little patches wherever you can and blow them up and make them as good as you can make them.
HODGES: So out of the several monographs that you have written, where would you position this one in terms of being driven by your own personal interest? Compared to, say, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling or compared to your earlier book, Puritan to Yankee, is that the name of that? Were they all growing out of your own personal drive? Or is one more personal to you than another?
BUSHMAN: Well my wife tells me that everything I write is autobiographical, and that is true. You can find reasons why I did it coming out of my biography. Probably Farmers is the least of these. I think Farmers was moved primarily by just an interest in knowing them. I wanted to talk to them about “what worries you? What do you hope for? What are your problems?” I can’t find anything deeper than that, but I did fall in love.
HODGES: Another project you’ve been working on for several years now is a cultural history of the golden plates, the record that Joseph Smith, Latter-day Saint prophet and founder of the church, said that he found in a hillside and is what became the Book of Mormon. How is this project coming along?
BUSHMAN: It’s coming along pretty well. I have about four chapters. Right now I’m working on a chapter that talks about trials of the plates, that is an effort to determine validity of the plates’ existence and Joseph Smith’s authenticity as a prophet. So I’m talking about all these efforts to go back and see the three witnesses after Joseph is dead and going to his home. People would gather in crowds around Martin Harris and have him bear his testimony to them. So I’m trying to figure out what that means.
But then I look at other attempts to test Joseph, the Kinderhook plates, Henry Caswall’s efforts to prove Joseph was phony by tricking him into pretending to translate a Greek psalter. Then finally James J. Strang’s plates. So they’re this whole collection of evocations of plates in one way or another that were aimed at the question of determining validity of these people. So that’s the chapter I’ve got in my mind right now and I’ve done a few others and I’ll probably forge on for another five or six chapters.
HODGES: Do any of the chapters talk about the plates as discussed within the text of the Book of Mormon as well?
BUSHMAN: Yes, I’ve done some of that. I’ve actually published an essay or two on the plates, which have an entirely different life inside the Book of Mormon than they do in Joseph Smith’s time. They’re not a sacred object in the sense of being unavailable to look at. They’re not guarded. There’s no sort of trespassing gaze to be worried about. They have other functions in the Book of Mormon. I’m very, very interested in that.
HODGES: When you do a project like this, your chapters are going to address a lot of different issues. Are there any particular chapters or topics within the context of this overall project that you’re particularly drawn to? Or that you personally are really interested in more than any other aspect?
BUSHMAN: Well I’m interested in all of them but I am interested in the conjunction with evidentiary Christianity. That is, the attempt to demonstrate the scientific truth of Christianity that there are scores of books of that kind. The plates get involved in that whole process of “how do we prove that God lives?” And that’s interesting to me because for me that is the essence of the conflict with modernism.
Modernism is the moment when the world is disenchanted, when we no longer believe the universe speaks to us, that there is no God out there, and that’s been an overarching cultural issue for 250 years now. So I’m quite interested in the point where the plates enter into that discussion and debate.
HODGES: I’m really looking forward to that. I know you’ve been working on it for a while. In fact, some of the Summer Seminars on Mormon Culture that have happened here at the Maxwell Institute have revolved around that subject. Maybe spend just a second talking about those experiences, now that you’ve moved on from the Summer Seminar. What did that opportunity mean for you as a scholar, to be able to do those seminars?
BUSHMAN: Well it was fabulous, because it’s a great mistake to just do your scholarship within your own head because you can get confused and mistaken. So to be able to bring in ten or twelve really eager young people to talk about one aspect of the plates or another is really exciting and they dig up stuff that you’d never dream. Chris Smith found people in the late twentieth century who were hunting for plates, and even in the early twenty-first century people are still going out and trying to replicate the Joseph Smith experience by discovering plates that an angel leads them to. And I never knew that existed, and they found it. It’s great.
HODGES: Yes, you get all these extra eyes for looking at the same types of questions you want. People can check those papers out, by the way, they’re on the Maxwell Institute website. I’ll leave a link in the show notes if people want to see research that grew out of Richard’s Summer Seminars on Mormon Culture.
We’re talking today with Richard Bushman. He’s the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University. You probably know him as the author of the popular biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. We’re speaking with him today in recognition of a festschrift that was released today, To Be Learned Is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman.
One other question on your current work and the shape of it over your career. I want to talk to you about aging and scholarship. Do you think as you’ve aged, you’re now an older and distinguished scholar, has your approach to scholarship changed much as a result of just getting older? Do you see yourself working in different ways or do your familiar patterns become less useful over time?
BUSHMAN: I suppose so, though old people don’t like to think of themselves as old, they like to think of themselves as the same young whippersnappers they were when they were 25. I think what happens is you get a little more confident in the personal voice. When you’re young you don’t want to make one misstep. Every word has to be sustained by a footnote, and I was very, very empirical. I didn’t like to say anything that I couldn’t demonstrate. After you get older you realize, you come to appreciate the novelistic side of history writing, that you’re really creating a time and a place and personalities, and you give yourself a little more leeway in venturing where your instincts lead you. And of course readers love that, because it makes it a little more real and they like to see you exposing yourself and when you’re old and you’re not booking for tenure anymore, you can just take the chance.
HODGES: Cool. Let’s talk about Mormon studies a little bit now and how the academic study of Mormonism has changed during your lifetime. Do you see your own career tracking alongside Mormon studies? Because in some ways you did a lot of things before you actually got into Mormon studies in particular.
BUSHMAN: Yeah. I always felt like I lived a bifurcated life. I was essentially a colonial historian, an early American historian, that’s how I was hired, that’s what my scholarship was.
HODGES: Was that happenstance? Or did you know this could also lead to Mormon stuff?
BUSHMAN: I had in my mind that if I could gain some mastery of the period where Joseph Smith came forth it would be useful, but I didn’t do a lot of Mormon scholarship until Leonard Arrington asked me to do the early biography of Joseph Smith.
HODGES: Right, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, I believe.
HODGES: So you’re kind of establishing yourself in this career while Mormon studies is growing up. Where do you see Mormon studies— where has it come from? What kind of developments have you seen through the course of your own career?
BUSHMAN: Well the first part, I think, was for Mormon historians to win the respect of other historians. We all know how bifurcated history was before, say, World War II. Actually Fawn Brodie was one who started to bring it together. Mormons don’t like No Man Knows My History, but it really was one of the more sympathetic biographies of Joseph Smith. After that time you have Leonard Arrington writing about Mormonism in the grand style of a huge monograph on the economic history of the church in a way that was widely admired. It was our young PhDs, Tom Alexander and Jim Allen and so on, who learned to speak in that way so that you could write and be respected and join in rather than debating or clashing with academic scholarship, which had always been true; it always was a clash before World War II. So that’s been a pleasure to see that happen.
HODGES: And back in the Arrington Era, if we want to call it that, he also made an effort—and other people made efforts—to get more women involved in scholarship, and more women involved in Mormon studies as it came about. What are some differences you see between the kind of work that’s being done now on Mormonism and women versus how it kind of began? Because it’s not just—All these great new studies didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They are important and new, but there’s also a genealogy there. Talk a little about that genealogy.
BUSHMAN: Well you have the wrong person behind the microphone there; Claudia [Bushman]’s the one who lived that. And as Laurel Ulrich has pointed out, the Mormon women in Boston were in the vein of feminism in the 1970s when they got together, began to talk about their lives, but also research the history of their people, and writing about the world and the church from a woman’s perspective. And that’s got stronger and stronger as time’s gone by.
There was an interesting event in there that I think is relevant to this question, they were asked to do an issue of Dialogue, these women in Boston who were writing and gathering and talking, and they did. And they submitted it to Dialogue and the editor at the time said, “Well this is all fine, but you haven’t talked about the important issue: women and the priesthood, and polygamy.”
I think that was a relevant comment because it represents the two sides of Mormon female historiography. One is just trying to recreate Mormon life as it’s lived, and the other is sort of activist reforming feminism, it tries to change the church, or change the lot of women. I think those two were not there very much at the beginning. They’ve become more present in recent times.
HODGES: I want to ask as well, you’ve been involved with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, your involvement has decreased over the years, but you have been with this project for a long time. I was wondering— A lot of things have come out since you published Rough Stone Rolling. A lot of new things in terms of what the public has been able to easily access, maybe I should qualify that. But has your view of Joseph Smith, and your biography itself, changed very much given the additional information that has been made more available?
BUSHMAN: It’s a tremendous project and beautifully edited. The annotation is fabulous; it’s almost unmatched in the scholarly world. It will be a huge benefit, and a huge burden, to future biographers of Joseph Smith. I’m afraid I’m a little bit too stuck in my own view of Joseph Smith to really be reshaped. It is true I read every volume before it’s published, and I read with great fascination and keep finding things I didn’t know. But it hasn’t reshaped my view of Joseph. Someone will have to do that later on.
What it has brought out is that the most signal extension of our knowledge is in the legal realm. We find he was party to a suit—so much of his life is constantly in court or scheduled to go to court, and the impact of legal language, I think, could be traced in all sorts of things, from sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, to the temple, to many parts of our literary heritage.
HODGES: That’s fascinating. The legal papers aspect of the Joseph Smith Papers continues to roll out and I guess people can keep an eye on that. That’s a fascinating question, to see how those interactions shaped the language and some of the ideas of the early church.
When it comes to modern Mormon studies or Mormon studies right now in the academy, people hear about the establishment of Mormon studies chairs. You held one of these chairs at Claremont. I believe it was the first Mormon studies chair, is that right?
BUSHMAN: The chair at Utah State University preceded it in its establishment, so Phil Barlow really takes that honor.
HODGES: I should have known. He’s here in the building! Apologies, Phil.
BUSHMAN: But yes, then I was at Claremont.
HODGES: For people who aren’t in the academy, how would you explain what a Mormon chair even does? What’s the significance of one and why are they useful?
BUSHMAN: Well the idea of a chair is it’s endowed, which means it’s in perpetuity, which is a bet or a gesture, both by the university and by Mormon donors, to the effect that Mormonism always will deserve a place in academic discourse in a university, which is a huge forward step. It would be a lecture, or a sidelight, but now we are going to say it deserves study the way other cultural groups deserve study. So we have them at Utah State, the University of Utah, Claremont, and the University of Virginia, with others in the offing. It’s something that’s taking hold all over the country.
Claudia, again, was the one who thought of the idea when she found that at Columbia there were four chairs of Jewish studies. Why couldn’t we have one somewhere in the country? Now we have a few more than that.
HODGES: Do you see a time when that will kind of even out? The trajectory right now has been headed upward. Do you see that topping off?
BUSHMAN: I think that’s a question that has to be answered. Jewish studies, of course, are all over the country, and it’s a subject because Jewish culture is much longer and richer than ours. So there may be other ways to use that money; research centers or post-doctoral fellowships. We have to think through what is the next logical step.
HODGES: You published a column in the Deseret News, an opinion piece on radiant Mormonism, and one of the things that might surprise people is you took a little time in there to talk about the philanthropic side of Mormonism and how through the Mormon studies chair at Claremont you really became more aware of the possibilities, and also some of the things that Mormons who have means are deciding to do with their money, aside from supporting Mormon studies chairs and things.
BUSHMAN: Yes, it’s largely invisible, that there are Mormons taking care of lepers, children in India, that there are schools, there are nutrition systems, all over the world in one way or another. It’s not measured or even really conceptualized but there are in so many places, so many venues, so many fields, Mormon influences
HODGES: That’s Richard Bushman. We’re talking with him today about Mormon studies and other issues.
Richard, I wanted to talk to you a little about the shape of your own devotional life as a practicing Latter-day Saint. Most active Mormons do things like say prayers, read scriptures, that sort of thing. Tell me a little more about the shape of your own personal devotional life, if you would. Maybe things you read for devotion, or ways that your relationship with God plays out in your own actions.
BUSHMAN: Well I’m always dissatisfied with my devotional life. It seems like I can never do justice to the subject or the importance of it. I pray a lot. The sacrament prayers for me are the heart and core of Mormon devotion; remembering the name of Christ and putting his name upon us.
I have a problem, and I have a hope. The problem is that the academic life kind of taints the devotional life because you become so accustomed to reading texts critically and aggressively, so you’re always reading against the text. So I’m reading in Luke now. When I read about the whole world should be taxed and everyone had to go to their own country, their own city, I think, really? Is that the way they did taxation? Were they really making people run all over the country? So it becomes a historical problem rather than the story of a couple who were put under difficult circumstances of the time and the birth of a child.
So many versions of that trouble me. I try to stop that, but I can’t. That’s just the way I read. I keep notes, I read the scriptures every morning and keep notes of my thoughts as we go along. But that’s the problem side. Do you want to hear the other side?
HODGES: Yes—[laughs] It’s good to hear the problem side too, I’m sure some people can relate to that, so it’s nice to hear. But yes, let’s hear the bright side.
BUSHMAN: The other side of it is a sense that Charles Taylor, the great Catholic philosopher of our day, speaks of flourishing. That is, these moments when you feel like there is something beautiful, really gorgeous, really desirable beyond measure, some kind of intense goodness and beauty, and if you just live in the right way, or manage your mind, or say some words or perform some actions, you could participate in that beautiful life. I can’t find words for it. Christ calls it “the pearl of great price,” some people call it “testimony.” I think the experience Mormons have when they say “I have a testimony,” where they’re often moved to tears, they just feel their body transformed as close to what I’m saying, that it’s this promise of something that’s truly godly. That yearning to partake of that is very strong; I can’t live without it, I can’t drop it, and it overshadows all sorts of other supposedly rational considerations about faith, because anything that leads in the direction of that kind of wonder and beauty is very attractive to me.
HODGES: Has that changed over time for you much? It seems that, I might say, it sounds like you’re kind of expressing the core of your experience of Mormonism, or what keeps you “coming back to the well.” Has that been similar for you throughout your life? These types of experiences keep you coming back?
BUSHMAN: I didn’t have a word for it, I could not have described it the way I have, but looking back I can see that that is there. I have this experience, it’s one of those stories I’ve told a million times, talking to the dean of the School of Religious Studies at Claremont, asking me why I’m a Mormon. My quick answer was, “Because when I live the Mormon way I’m the kind of man I want to be.” That sense—that I somehow was a better husband, better father, my scholarship was better, I was just a better human being—has been there for a very long time.
HODGES: You relate that story in your contribution to the book To Be Learned is Good. Your essay “Finding the Words” relates your experience with faith over your lifetime, especially from the time just before your mission, through your mission, and then after your mission, and finding the right words to understand your own faith. This is where it seems to me that the life of the mind can assist the experience of your own soul, your own spirit. You talk about the downsides of thinking about things too much, or questioning things too much, but at the same time is there a benefit for you to be able to sit back and even take a bird’s eye view of Richard Bushman and think about your life like a historian might? Do you think of doing that at all, and is that related to this idea of “finding the right words” to articulate what your faith looks like?
BUSHMAN: Well maybe you can think too much, but it’s impossible for me not to think. It’s the form of my devotion. I would never tell someone, “Don’t think too much.” I think you have to face up to your problems and your needs and you just have to hope that your thought will be infused by godly influences of some kind that will bring satisfaction and rewards.
So my own confrontation begins when, you know, a Mormon boy from Portland, Oregon, raised in the classical Mormon way in a good loving family—family prayers, the whole works—and with faith in seeking, a seeking high school student who wanted to know God, lived better. When I confront Harvard College, which I saw as this immensely learned place, very well-informed, powerful minds, gathered together, and I had to find some way of finding my place because in the end I tried to join that culture, that academic, intellectual culture.
But at the first encounter I quickly came to realize that my Mormon faith was not at home, it was alien, and they were thinking, “Foolishness! Garbage!” as one professor told me. So I had to find a way, and for a while the way was doubt. I thought that I couldn’t believe anymore. Harvard wouldn’t allow me to believe.
HODGES: They needed a different type of evidence to make it worth believing kind of a thing? Is that what it was or just—
BUSHMAN: Well can you blame them? A prophet who finds gold plates in a hill? I mean it’s ridiculous. It didn’t have to be refuted it is just so out of the question on the surface of it. For them, of course, the same thing is true for most beliefs about God. So I thought they had beaten me out and that the best I could do was be an agnostic.
But I came to realize, as I describe in this essay, that I wasn’t disbelieving. I don’t think I can disbelieve, I’m just built in a way that I have faith, it’s just necessary for me. But then I couldn’t find a way to explain to them what my faith was, and so it really was a matter of finding words, not to persuade them, never dent the doubts of that culture, but to make myself a reasonable partner, or conversational accomplice, someone who could enter into the discussion in a way that would make sense. So my whole life really has been devoted to finding the language that would permit me to talk to people from that culture.
HODGES: In the book To Be Learned is Good, you helped organize this conference, or helped define the shape of it, that led to the book. We have people in this book who are Latter-day Saints, but we also have scholars in this book who are not Latter-day Saints.
So we have a stereotype of sort of the unbelieving academy—and there are plenty of people in the academy who don’t experience or adhere to religious faith. What about this other side of the academy?
BUSHMAN: The desire to find God is so powerful, so lasting through many centuries of civilization that I think that yearning is there. I do have colleagues who have confessed to me that they are believers in some form or another. But I think at this moment it’s very hard to find language that for them, and Mormon language won’t do of course, but for them to find language to express their need for God.
HODGES: And at Georgetown I was blessed with the opportunity to meet several really thoughtful and engaging scholars and professors, who also adhere to religious faith—at Georgetown most of them that I met were Catholic. We didn’t expect each other to convert to each other’s faiths, or to see eye to eye on every issue, but that almost mattered less to us than just being a believer alongside someone else, having that community.
BUSHMAN: I agree with you. I think it used to be that we were in competition with other denominations, you know, us versus the Catholics, or us versus the Baptists, but I think that the lines of battle have changed now so that our allies are believers of all kinds. And certainly believing Catholics we feel a kinship to. I feel a kinship to believing Jews, and I have had many very good moments of communion with people in that kind.
HODGES: Elder Neal A. Maxwell coined the term “disciple-scholarship,” a “disciple-scholar.” How would you describe what that means? What does that mean to you?
BUSHMAN: Well, I guess I would call myself a disciple-scholar. I have always been a believer. I have been active in the church and never wavered from my activity, never been really tempted to leave the church. In a strange way I don’t think that as you set out to say, “I’m going to use my scholarship to demonstrate the church is true,” either through the Book of Mormon, or through Joseph’s life, that somehow that will distort things, and you won’t succeed what you’re trying to do.
What you have to do is to say, “I’m just going to try to find out what’s true. I’m going to give my mind full reign. I’m going to look at every problem, every difficulty.” And while you’re doing that, try to keep your heart pure so that you’re speaking to God; so you’re praying to God, you’re doing your duty. You’re paying your tithing and doing everything you can to be a good person the way the church wants you to be, and then you just trust your mind. Just let it go wherever it wants. I think the results will be much more effective in every way, for church members and non-church members, if you follow that system.
HODGES: There’s a candid thing that you wrote in a book called On the Road with Joseph Smith, this is a little book you put together after Rough Stone Rolling was published and you kind of went on a book tour—which was the first time that I ever encountered you and found out who you were, at Weber State University. In that book you talk about how you had this hope that the biography of Joseph Smith would be able to reach believing Latter-day Saints and that it would also be able to reach non-believing Latter-day Saints and form this bridge where people could really understand each other. There’s a candid remark in there too where you said in some ways you had failed at that goal. Do you remember writing that?
BUSHMAN: I did, in the sense that the response to the book is not people saying, “Okay, you’ve given me Joseph Smith.” What they say is, “You’ve given me one Joseph Smith.” It’s a Joseph Smith they can understand and get inside, but it’s not the Joseph Smith they’re willing to accept. They’ll go to Fawn Brodie, probably, for a Joseph Smith that is in their reality. It’s just too much to bring them inside my world of belief and to accept the Joseph Smith that I present there.
HODGES: One of the ways you tried to do that in Rough Stone Rolling was to represent Joseph Smith according to how Joseph Smith seemed to have understood what he was doing, right? And that’s through records he had created with no intention of public reception or anything like that?
BUSHMAN: I’m not disappointed with this outcome. I think it’s a good outcome. It provides a basis for conversation, and that’s the preparation for Mormon studies chairs. That Mormons can talk in a way that works inside an academy. If you can’t do that you’ll never be a Mormon studies chair anywhere. But I was reading Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad, and I was taken by it. I got inside Muhammad. I didn’t become a “Muhammadan” [Muslim], I’m not sure I believe that Gabriel appeared to Muhammad, even though it’s quite possible, but she had got me inside that world. For me that was a great achievement of hers, and I tried to emulate her.
HODGES: Rough Stone Rolling is still a really important book in the historiography of Joseph Smith. Do you think at some point or another a biography will come about? Do you think Joseph Smith has been covered pretty well?
BUSHMAN: No. He’s too large a figure to be ever covered pretty well. I mean it’s like Jefferson and Washington or Hamilton. How in the world can anyone start out to write a new biography of Washington? But they do it all the time.
HODGES: Maybe a musical too, with Hamilton. A different kind of musical than The Book of Mormon Musical.
BUSHMAN: That’s right. I have a grandson who’s an actor, I’ll—Or it may very well turn up in a TV series, a lot of people would love to do that.
HODGES: Yeah. I also wanted to ask you, you’ve been meeting Latter-day Saints in various places throughout the country, sometimes in the context of a devotional setting or fireside type setting, where people are thinking about faith and their questions and concerns. Have you noticed any common themes that tend to come up when you’re taking questions from people?
BUSHMAN: Well there are a lot of questions, but it’s sort of a matter of personal taste. Some can’t stand the fourteen-year-old bride, some were really knocked for a loop by the Book of Abraham not being what Joseph said it was, polygamy still troubles lots of people. It just seems like people attach themselves to something that’s distinctive to them.
So the big question for me as I’ve talked to these people—and I never can get from them an answer that truly satisfies me—is: Is there any of those things that would totally disqualify Joseph Smith from receiving a revelation from God? If he married a fourteen-year-old girl does that mean he really could not have been a prophet of God? Or if he thought the scrolls of Abraham were the writings of Abraham rather than a funerary script of some kind, does that mean the Book of Abraham could not— So I’m always asking that question and I never get a fully satisfying answer to it.
HODGES: What kind of ideas or thoughts do you offer to people who have decided to step away from the church, decided to step away from Mormonism? And also to loved ones of people who stepped away?
BUSHMAN: People will often come to me when there’s a son-in-law on the verge of leaving the church and they are hoping that I can say something that will turn them around. I’ve decided after a decade of doing this that I can’t. There’s no argument that I can give. If I try to argue with them it goes nowhere. It’s like bible bashing in the mission field. It never gets anywhere.
So I don’t do much of that. I agree with the facts of what people say, all those things did happen, so I don’t confute those things. What I wanted them to see at first was there might be another possible way of looking at them, that you don’t have to see them as damning. But now I think more about this person’s life, and what that life is going to be like if they leave the church. How are they going to fill that hole, mend the relationships with their spouse or their mother, or someone or other? And how do they sort of complete their personal life?
So my most common question nowadays is “How do you feel about Jesus Christ?” If they say, “He means everything to me,” I say, “You’re gonna be alright. Don’t worry about all this other stuff. Fiddle with it if you’d like, and worry about it, but if you can hold onto Jesus Christ you’ll be okay.”
More often than not, people give up on everything. They give up on God, they give up on prayers, they give up on Christ, and that’s a great concern to me. So my hope is that they’ll find some other way to anchor their lives and listen to their spiritual impulses, because to shut them off entirely, I think, distorts their personalities. So that’s the direction I go.
HODGES: How do you respond to Mormons who remain in the church that have loved ones leave? What kinds of things do you advise there in terms of how to keep—you mentioned relationships, how important those are.
BUSHMAN: The greatest fear of these people when they leave the church is they’ll break the heart of their mother, or somebody. You’re afraid of what it’s going to do to your family relations. So we’ve had children who are no longer active in the church and we have this motto that “you can leave the church, but you can’t leave the family.” And that has to govern everything. You can’t let your kids leave the family. You can’t do things that will drive them out of the family by annoying them or trying to argue with them. You just have to keep them in the family. That’s the number one priority that exceeds all others by light years.
HODGES: That’s Richard Bushman. We’re talking with him today about his work on things like farmers, things like the golden plates, on a book that just came out called To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman.
Before we go I also wanted to talk to you about one more thing, the Mormon Arts Center. You and your spouse, Claudia, have both been involved in the creation or development with other people of a Mormon Arts Center in New York City. So talk to us a little bit about this Mormon Arts Center efforts of yours. And by the way, Phil Barlow told me that he had a really hard time getting you to read a novel with him, so he thinks it’s really interesting that now you’re kind of hopping into the arts at this point.
BUSHMAN: Well it does seem strange. I’ve devoted my life to history of all sorts, and ending with church history, but suddenly when someone said to me, “What is the greatest cultural need in the church?” I spent a few months thinking about it and talking to people, I finally came to the conclusion that developing our artists, and appreciating our artistic tradition was, so that Mormons are seen as artists or appreciators of art, that that was the goal that was worth working on for the time being. So there’s someone in New York who has been doing this for years and we hooked up, Claudia is involved, and we’ve brought a few others into it.
Our motto is “Illuminating and Celebrating Mormon Arts.” So we are trying to go back to the beginning in 1830 and discover the artistic traditions and make ourselves aware of it because we are hopelessly ignorant of our own artistic tradition. We have discovered 1600 Mormon composers, 100 of them have PhDs in music in one form or another. We had an arts festival last June; we have another coming up. We’re bringing an Angolan Mormon, who has shown his work all over Europe. He’s been in the Venice Biennial twice. He’s an eminent artist and he says his art is his expression of God and the spiritual forces of the universe. So we are going to put up his art. We are going to bring in a Chinese composer who has earned the Prix de Rome, which is the highest prize given in music. She will be there and her work will be performed.
So we are doing the best we can to bring this work forward and to help us to realize that we’ve got something that is truly wonderful in our artists, in the past and now.
HODGES: Where can people go to learn more about these efforts?
BUSHMAN: We have a website, mormonartscenter.org, and we will have our festival on the Columbia University campus on June 28-30. The Tabernacle organists are going to come out to perform on Columbia’s great Aeolian-Skinner organ in St. Paul’s chapel. We will have a two-day series of events, all of which citing at the Casa Italiana on Columbia University campus. It should be a great occasion.
HODGES: It sounds like it will be a lot of fun.
BUSHMAN: A lot of fun.
HODGES: Well, Richard, we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BUSHMAN: Thank you. I think you do a great thing here, Blair. You’re to be congratulated.
And thus concludes episode 75. We made it to 75, can you believe it? Take some time to rate and review the show on iTunes. There’s never been a better time than the present.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)