Richard Bushman Reflects on His Life

Richard Lyman Bushman reflects on his life, and how his perception of Joseph Smith has evolved over time.

Richard Lyman Bushman is a noted historian who authored “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” and is the festschrift honoree of “To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman.”

What is the story behind To Be Learned is Good?

Richard Bushman: The collection grew out of a suggestion of Jerry Bradford’s for a festschrift in my honor.  We have been acquainted for many years, and he knew my work as an early American and religious historian.  Jerry was director of the Maxwell Institute during many of the years when it was sponsoring the summer seminar on Mormon culture that Terry Givens and I conducted.  The proposal was a good-will gesture of a friend and colleague.

In your essay, you write about a faith-crisis during your sophomore year in college and how your own perception of it evolved with time. Could you expound on the excerpt, “Was I really doubting during my sophomore year? Or was I only lacking for words”? 

Richard Bushman: For years I understood my sophomore doubt as a genuine faith crisis.  I had been reading Nietzsche and thinking about logical positivism then current at Harvard.  At the heart of my questioning, was the feeling that there was not enough evidence to believe in God.  I felt that agnosticism was the only sound position.  I was not angry with God, and I did not argue against Him.  It was lack of proof that worried me.

Late in life, after telling this story innumerable times, I confronted the fact that despite my supposed doubts, I went on a mission.  Moreover, I went without anguish.  There was no internal debate, no thrashing about.  I told my mission president I did not have a testimony, but still took the train to Nova Scotia to teach the gospel.

What kind of doubt was it that allowed me to teach the gospel to investigators while asking a million questions of Joseph Smith? My reservations could not have run very deep.  I must have known somewhere in my being that I would come back to my faith eventually—as of course I did.

I have now concluded, though it is at best a surmise, that I said I did not believe because I could not explain to people like my Harvard classmates or my sophomore tutor I.B. Cohen why I believed.  I had no words to sustain myself in educated company—which I experienced as disbelief.  After I learned to speak more intelligibly about my belief, my faith returned. Ever since I have felt compelled to find words to say when an objection is raised. But underneath it all, I am a believer and probably always was.

How does the proportion of women contributors reflect the number of women working in Mormon history? 

Richard Bushman: The gender ratio is still out of balance in terms of numbers, but the quality ratio is close to even.  Our best women are fully the equals of our best men in terms of originality, creativity, and insight.

Someone once approached you at an event and commented he thought you may have been raised up by the Lord for the purpose of teaching about Joseph Smith. Why did this observation mean so much to you? 

Richard Bushman: I shy away from thinking I have been raised up by the Lord; it feels presumptuous.  I simply try to do the best I can with whatever comes to hand.  But it would make me happy to feel that what I have done is worthy in some larger scheme.

Is there a danger in Mormon history of overcorrecting to compensate for hagiography and essentially approaching subjects with a “warts-only” mentality?

Richard Bushman: There may be a few instances of too many warts in portrayals of Church figures, but I don’t think it is a prevailing problem.  I am of the opinion myself that respect produces better scholarship about any subject than denigration.

As someone said of me, I practice the hermeneutics of generosity rather than the hermeneutics of suspicion.

How have you dealt with the anxieties that come when people attack not only your writings, but your character — especially when attacks come from groups for whom you feel such a genuine affinity?

Richard Bushman: I actually don’t feel that I have been attacked.  Doubtless there has been criticism, but it has not reached me.  People don’t come up and say: “I hate your book.”  It is more likely to be the opposite.

Could you tell us a little bit about your forthcoming book on the gold plates?

Richard Bushman: The book is a cultural study of the gold plates, that is, an investigation of how people have thought about the plates.  I begin with the first generation of believers and critics and work my way down to Tony Kushner and Angels in America.  My governing question is: How has this unlikely artifact, for nearly two centuries totally inaccessible to anyone, figured in the American imagination?  How is it useful in accomplishing cultural work?

The book is a long way from completion.  I am working at a leisurely pace and may or may not finish.

What are one or two of the biggest challenges facing historians of Mormonism today?

Richard Bushman: I think our biggest challenge is scope. We need to situate Mormonism in ever broader contexts to understand how it figures in Western Civilization and world religion.  This calls for more learning than most of us can muster.

I also think we need to incorporate Mormon arts into our thinking.  Who could survey Western Civilization without painting, music, and literature?  Yet we tell the Mormon story with scarcely a glance at the arts.

What would you say to sincere believers who are hesitant to read Mormon history out of fear it may occasionally contradict religious beliefs or traditions?

Richard Bushman: Until you face up to Mormon history, you can never be secure in your belief.  You will always live in fear of an unpleasant surprise.  I think the best policy is to charge right into the center of the presumed difficulties and deal with them.

How has your perception of Joseph Smith changed through the years?

Richard Bushman: I am more aware of his emotional contours and his courage.  He did not have guidance at every point in his life. Much of the time he had to fabricate policies on his own much as we do. 

But I find that independence and his ingenuity in solving problems admirable and pleasing. God was letting him learn by experience.

If you could go back in time and observe any moment in Joseph Smith’s life or ask him any question, what would you do and why?

Richard Bushman: I would probably ask Joseph Smith if he enjoyed being a prophet.  He loved the process of receiving revelations.  He was exalted by it. But the revelations made heavy demands on him.  He kept saying that now we have all the revelations we need; we can simply carry them out.

But the revelations kept coming, demanding more and more of him.  In a sense, he was the victim of his revelations. Down to the end he was struggling to make them all work.  Was that satisfying or more than he could handle comfortably?

Recommended resources

Learn more about the early history and theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Richard Bushman on testimony

Those who lose faith in Christ because they have lost faith in Joseph Smith have things backward. Joseph’s mission was to increase faith in Christ, not in himself.

Richard Bushman, BYU-Hawaii Devotional, November 15, 2016.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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