047: Richard Bushman Part 1 — Experiences as a Mormon Historian

January 22, 2007
By

In part 1 of this multi-part interview, Dr. Richard Bushman, the world’s foremost scholar on Joseph Smith and early Mormonism and the author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, discusses his years as a Mormon historian–including his struggle with faith as a Harvard undergraduate, his decision to get a PhD in history, and his experiences with Leonard Arrington, Dialogue and Sunstone. He also discusses the role of candid, honest history within the modern LDS Church.

To access this interview, subscribe via iTunes, or click here to listen to the audio directly.

===================

As a side note, I’m simultaneously elated and a tad bit ill about this interview. I’m elated that Dr. Bushman was willing to do an extended interview with me on Mormon Stories podcast, and that his commentary was so incredibly interesting. I’m ill because the audio quality is not as good as I’d have liked. Basically, Dr. Bushman has had a cold recently–and his voice was so low in the interview that I had to increase the volume to such an extent just to hear him, that there is a slight buzz in the interview. Anyway, what he said was so interesting to me that I had to publish it anyway. I hope you enjoy.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

26 Responses to 047: Richard Bushman Part 1 — Experiences as a Mormon Historian

  1. Mark IV
    January 22, 2007 at 6:40 pm

    Outstanding work, John. And don’t sweat the audio quality, it is more than adequate.

  2. John Dehlin
    January 22, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks, Mark!! More soon.

  3. why me
    January 23, 2007 at 7:59 am

    What is unfortunate is that critics and antimormons can use this honesty against the lds church. And although, this honesty shows that the lds church is not a morg organization made up of Morgbots, the critics and the antimormons will not see the light and will continue to think in their own darkness about the lds church. And yet, as your podcasts show, mormon thought and vitality is alive and well.

    I want to thank you for your podcasts and the interesting information that these podcasts contain.

  4. WH
    January 23, 2007 at 8:56 am

    I agree with Why Me on this. Honesty can be used for fodder with anti groups. I had a friend who listened to a trusted leader who was open about his doubts with her and several students. This teacher put them in the awkward position of questioning their faith in what was supposed to be a “learning” evironment.

    The good thing is she saw what was going on and now wears the Hijab and Burka faithfully. Thanks be to Allah.

  5. Wes
    January 23, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Great interview John. One term that was used in the interview was “anti-mormon.” I always scratch my head when I hear that term because I am not sure what it means. It seems people apply that label to anyone who raises legitimate issues concerning the foundational claims of mormonism and demonstrate the huge gulf between concrete evidence vs. the claims of “The Brethren.” Very interesting…….

  6. January 23, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Wow, John… you’ve landed your biggest fish yet!

    There probably isn’t another person in Mormon Studies who, for me at least, has achieved must-see, must-read, or must-listen status like Dr. Bushman. Can’t wait to “sink my ears” into this one.

  7. January 23, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    First off, let me say that this Podcast with Richard Bushman was excellent. I can’t wait to hear more.

    I’ve seen Dr. Bushman speak in person a half dozen times. His prepared remarks are always excellent, but it’s his ability to speak “off the cuff,” (usually during a Q&A session following his prepared remarks) that always impresses me the most. Like those Q&A sessions, this Podcast highlights his remarkable ability to make articulate, extemporaneous responses— always in complete sentences with nary a stammer or digression… responses that have logical beginning, middle, and end… responses that are neither clipped short nor go on and on and on like this sentence…

    I also thought I’d mention Bushman’s somewhat recently published collection of essays “Believing History” as a great companion piece to this Podcast. Richard and John refer to at least one or more of the essays during the Podcast that also appear in Believing History.

    Unlike many/most “believing” Latter-day Saints, Richard Bushman is as conversant in the arguments (whether philosophical, psychological, or historical) for believing in Mormonism as against. I find it refreshing that he is so candid about the foundation of his testimony: the “goodness” of the LDS people/church. He says, “I, above all things, want to go where things are good… where there’s an incentive to improve and grow better.” If his spiritual confirmations were given voice they/it would say, “This is right,” as opposed to “This is true.”

    That said, this “goodness” foundation does not mean that Bushman blindly accepts historical or doctrinal “whoppers” — the foundational story and the doctrine must at least be plausible, and while one can quibble about this or that doctrine or historical point, in general, the doctrine or story of Mormonism is no less plausible than that found in Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, etc… all are faith-based and rely on miraculous interaction of “God(s)” and humans and how to live one’s life to ensure happiness here on earth and salvation in the next life.

    Where the doctrine/history strain plausibility, Bushman either quietly disbelieves (i.e. possibly—I don’t know, only speculating—the one-time exclusion of Blacks from the priesthood, or the necessity of Celestial/Plural Marriage for exaltation, etc.), or exercises faith (i.e. the First Vision), or ignores or minimizes its importance (i.e. exclusiveness of Mormonism’s claim to be “the one true church.”). As he says in the Podcast, “I’m not someone who has a simple faith where everything is an absolute truth.”

    But the marginal losses such mental paradoxes or contradictions or gymnastics require are far outweighed by the marginal gains he receives from partaking of the “goodness.” Besides, as Dr. Bushman explains, living with contradictions cannot be avoided in life, they are part of the human experience — were he to substitute a new belief system (even atheism) for Mormonism he could not escape such paradoxes.

    Because his feet (again, unlike many/most Mormons) are so firmly planted in the World, especially Academia, Bushman’s books/essays/articles/research have been devoted towards closing the divide that separates the Worldly and Mormon opinions of Mormonism, without upsetting the basic “faithful” premise. It seems like he’s been pretty up front about this obvious bias, which I find refreshing. This separates him (and others I could cite) from some of the people at FARMS (I know I’m generalizing) who seem to suggest that their conclusions are unbiased, that the supporting facts of Mormon History are unassailable, that alternative theories are inferior. In contrast, Bushman has always classily acknowledged the alternative theories, tipping his hat to their scholarship and possible viability, but with a simple smile, essentially says, “But I’m going to believe my theory.”

    The question for me is “Why”? Or maybe the questions is “How”? As John brings up in the Podcast, there are a lot of people (myself included) who would like to be a part of this “Goodness,” but for whatever reason find it more difficult than Richard to “believe” (and/or quietly disbelieve, exercise faith, or ignore the parts that strain credulity). Why/How can Richard do it, and others cannot?

    Maybe Richard provides the answer himself when in the Podcast he says, regarding belief/faith: “You never know how these things happen. Who knows why we believe what we do, it’s a mysterious thing. We all have reasons, but who knows what the real reasons are?”

    Obviously, his comments throughout the Podcast make one realize that belief/faith is at least partially a choice; but other comments, like the one above, make me also wonder if some percent of belief/faith is not a choice, something of an ineffable mystery.

  8. Jake
    January 24, 2007 at 9:00 am

    Brilliant podcast as usual, John.

    I’m interested in knowing how Dr. Bushman perceives the truth of the Book of Mormon. As much as possible, I’d like to understand what he might mean by “true,” and how that compares to his perspective on historical truth. Perhaps this will emerge in another part of the interview.

    Thanks.

  9. John Dehlin
    January 24, 2007 at 9:40 am

    These are all great questions and comments. I will incorporate in my next interview(s).

    Keep them coming!!!

  10. January 24, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    First, kudos to what Matt Thurston said above.

    As a post-Mormon I applaud Bushman’s honest approach and while my own study of LDS history has led me to reject the central claims of Mormonism I respect Bushman’s attempt to remain faithful while not checking his brain at the door of his ward.

    I haven’t read all of his book Rough Stone Rolling but I did spend a few hours reading the sections where he covers the seer stone and polygamy and thought to myself,“wow, he is being honest about this stuff!” Rather than form a conclusion though, like the Tanners and Brodie, Bushman asks his readers questions about Smith’s extramarital affairs thus not passing judgment per say but bringing it to his reader’s attention for reflection. This is genius, for it offers full disclosure but does not get himself in trouble with the leaders. At least not like it got Grant Palmer in trouble, who did voice his opinion in his book.

    We need more Bushmans and less Peterson’s (of FARMS) who attack exmormons as lazy for not knowing (after growing up Mormon) about Smith’s rock in the hat act (see http://mormonstories.org/?p=130 for Peterson’s comments where he attack LDS who don’t know about the seer stone and my comments to Peterson).

    I wonder if he does get flack from the leaders for being too honest? I also wonder if he believes the Book of Mormon is a true historical record, or is it rather in his mind a good book, that teaches righteousness, making it’s historical veracity irrelant?

  11. January 25, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Nice interview, John. Thanks for making it available.

    Bushman relates that when his JS manuscript went to a committee of General Authorities, he did not receive any response. At some point thereafter, the 16-volume series was cancelled. I couldn’t tell if Bushman was suggesting a cause-effect relationship, i.e., some General Authorities had problems with his book and the cancellation of the entire series was the result (or that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back).

  12. John Dehlin
    January 25, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    I’ll try to ask him for clarification in my next interview.

  13. Me
    January 26, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    John, I just learned last night (thanks to your post on the exFAIR board) that you are back up and running and I was glad to hear it. And with an interview with Bushman! May you get ever more quality interviews like this and the others you have done.

    wkempton: not being anyone of note, I can say that I have it on very good authority that Bushman did (and does) “get flack” from Church HQ for the book, though I’m not sure if it is coming from mainly general authorities (if at all) or merely the professionals who work there. Why? Precisely because it is not the book the Church can write for precisely the reasons Bushman touches upon in this interview.

  14. Clay
    January 26, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    My faith is in a very similar place to Dr. Bushman. This is a great interview and I’m discovering new heroes all the time through your Podcasts, John. Lowell Benion, Leonard Arrington, Richard Bushman, and so on.

    Although I’m committed to my activity in the church as a vehicle to serve my community and draw closer to God, I am growing more apart from the outward image of most of the church members. I wonder how many exist around me that have this more dynamic understanding or perspective of the gospel? Its sad that the hyper-orthodoxy of the church have made exploration and even spiritual journeying a “weakness”.

  15. John Dehlin
    January 26, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    I think it’s changing Clay. I think folks like you and Bushman are growing in number. It’s only gonna get better from here, I believe.

  16. Paul
    January 27, 2007 at 3:42 am

    Great interview John and Dr. Bushman. Thank you.

    I find the “goodness” argument for staying in the church in spite of the warts compelling. I think most members do too. When you really get to the core of it, members are as motivated by the “goodness” of the church as they are about its doctrine. In fact, I think that many members rely on the “goodness” as a coping mechanism for dealing with the troubling aspects of the church when they encounter them.

    Personally, I used to be motivated primarily by doctrine and secondarily by the church’s goodness. Now, I have difficulty with most of the doctrine and find myself almost exclusively motivated by the goodness (recognizing there are problems too.)

    Being motivated primarily by goodness has affected my activity in the church. On the one hand, I can’t bear testimony of the notion of “one true church” so I wouldn’t accept a calling as a ward or stake missionary. On the other hand, I love my LDS friends and strive to serve them and the broader community as best I can. I’m concerned about the way the church accounts for and spends money so I have difficulty feeling good about paying a traditional tithing. However, I feel very good about donating a tithing’s share of my income to a broad set of worthy charities that includes the church. I think the Word of Wisdom is worth following regardless of its doctrinal status and I think family home evening is a terrific program that has made a real impact in my family.

    In my experience, active members whose motivation is primarily “goodness” tend to be cafeteria Mormons and are often non-orthodox in some ways.

  17. John Dehlin
    January 27, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Paul,

    Your commentaries are always brilliant.

    The only thing I’d add is: who is not cafeteria Mormon, and who really is orthodox? I’d like to meet this person.

    :)

  18. Paul
    January 27, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Correct as usual king Dehlin. We are all cafeteria Mormons to an extent (even the non-Mormons ;)

  19. January 28, 2007 at 9:55 am

    John,

    Another job well done. I listened to this on the drive up to Portland this weekend and enjoyed this immensely.

    I really appreciated Dr. Bushman’s comments on the “one true Church” paradox, the tension that exists between the exclusivenesss and universality of LDS doctrine and salvation. Very interesting. I think it fits quite well with the arguments that Armand Mauss made in his book, the Angel and the Beehive, and in the Sunstone podcast you did with Dr. Mauss. The exclusiveness “one true church” doctrine would correlate with Dr. Mauss’ argument on retrenchment, while the universality would correlate with the argument on assimilation. Ultimately, the paradoxical tension between universality and exclusivity represents a paralell subset of the Mauss’ tension between assimilation and retrenchment.

    I also was surprised with Dr. Bushman’s criticism of Sunstone as becoming myopic to people “working out their problems with the Church.” I am new to Sunstone. I have not been to the Symposium, but I do read the site, the blog and the magazine. What was everyone elses reaction to this??

    I have more feedback, but I must go and judge some debate rounds for Utah State. I’ll be back later.

    Again, John, your work is amazing and will be used and appreciated for decades to come. You have become a giant in Mormon Studies making extraordinary contributions to Mormon community and understanding.

  20. June 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Thanks John for these podcasts. I wasn’t able to get this one on my iphone for some reason. Curiosity has taken me down this rabbit hole and as a card totin Mormon, I didn’t know how to take it. I really thought I was going crazy. Thanks to your openness and the openness of others you’ve interviewed, I’ve come to find that I’m OK. Thanks again.

  21. July 1, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    If anyone is interested in a transcript, I put together a transcript of all the podcasts. See http://www.mormonheretic.org/2012/06/30/the-bushman-interviews/

Support

Monthly Subscription

One-Time Donation

Subscribe

Subscribe to podcast

RSS Feed

  • Podcast Feed

Facebook Support Group


Mormon Stories on Facebook