New book out of BYU celebrates legacy of ‘disciple-scholar’ Richard Bushman

Spencer Fluhman will never forget the summer of 1999. The 26-year-old college student was a participant in one of the first summer seminars ever conducted by Richard Bushman, the noted Columbia University historian and biographer of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

The class members spent their time discussing critics of Joseph Smith, and Fluhman was eager to supplement his faith with sound academic reasoning. In one of the sessions, Bushman presented a strategy for dealing with troubling issues.

“He said something like, ‘We don’t work around problems, we work through them,’” said Fluhman in an interview with the blog, From the Desk of Kurt Manwaring.

Spencer Fluhman is the director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU. Photo by Aaron Cornia/BYU
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“His courage and candor had a profound influence on me,” he continued. “He reminded me of Elder (Neal A.) Maxwell, who insisted that the truth can stand scrutiny. Richard’s confidence and calm just infused that summer, and it’s never left me.”

Bushman’s own combination of faith and scholarship stemmed from a trial of faith earlier in his life. His college years were filled with questions rooted in a belief there was not enough evidence to truly believe in God.

And yet notwithstanding his doubts, Bushman lived the life one might expect of a believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Later in life, after telling this story innumerable times, I confronted the fact that despite my supposed doubts, I went on a mission,” Bushman said in a recent interview. “More, 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.”

As the years went on, Bushman began to realize he was wrong to think there was a time he did not believe.

And yet notwithstanding his doubts, Bushman lived the life one might expect of a believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Later in life, after telling this story innumerable times, I confronted the fact that despite my supposed doubts, I went on a mission,” Bushman said in a recent interview. “More, 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.”

As the years went on, Bushman began to realize he was wrong to think there was a time he did not believe.

“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,” said Bushman. “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,” said Bushman. “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.”

Richard Bushman is a prominent historian and author of several books, including “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.” He participating in “10 questions” in April 2018. Photo provided by Richard Bushman.

Finding a way to summarize Bushman’s career and influence is a difficult task. He is renowned within both academic and Latter-day Saint circles. He is the winner of the Bancroft Prize for a secular book and the author of “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.” He has taught at college campuses around the country and served as a stake president and stake patriarch.

No matter how you approach his life, it is nearly impossible to separate Bushman’s faith from his scholarship.

This duality is the focus of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University.

“The institute’s mission is to gather and nurture those we call ‘disciple-scholars,’” said Fluhman, who now serves as the organization’s director. “That hyphenated title comes from our namesake, of course, and we draw much inspiration from Elder Maxwell.”

“To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman” is one of the institute’s recent publications designed to encourage discipleship and scholarship.

Fittingly, it came about during a summer gathering at BYU nearly 20 years after Fluhman’s impressionable encounter with Bushman.

“We invited scholars to participate in a colloquium held at BYU in 2016 and grouped their essays by topic once they came trickling in,” Fluhman said. “We formed colloquium sessions out of those related topics, and those sessions in turn became the book sections once we moved to the editorial stage.

“It’s remarkable how well the various pieces work together,” he added.

The book is divided into seven main sections, with titles such as “Historians are Never Innocents,” “Scholarship in Its Purest and Best Form” and “It Is Much Better to Err on the Side of Generosity.” The contributors constitute a veritable who’s who list of religious scholars, including Patrick Mason, David Holland, Matt Grow, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich — and Bushman himself.

The essays and editorial content “embody Richard’s own priorities and fashions,” the editors explain in the book’s preface. “They are scholarly, rigorous, and faithful. They probe meaning and significance through reflection, experience, and comparison.”

Fluhman and his co-editors hope the book will enable readers to participate in something akin to a virtual summer seminar with Bushman.

“Richard’s influence pervades the work of contemporary LDS scholars but was established one seminar, one workshop, one student at a time,” the preface continues. “We are grateful recipients of his friendship and intellectual and spiritual gifts and we hope the conference out of which this volume arises contributes to that legacy.”

* This review originally appeared in the Deseret News on Sept. 27, 2018. 

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