Posts Tagged ‘Richard Bushman’
About a thousand other people and I enjoyed an evening with Richard Bushman last night. He spoke about Joseph and Emma for about 40 minutes and then entertained questions from the audience for another 40 minutes. While his insights on Joseph and Emma were interesting, I found the questions more fascinating, because they reflected a lot of the issues I blog about.
For those who don’t know, Richard Bushman is the author of Rough Stone Rolling, the 2005 biography of Joseph Smith that has become the definitive account of the prophet’s life as told from the viewpoint of a faithful historian. I took advantage of the opportunity to have him autograph my copy and was not the only one in the audience who waited in line to do so.
Open and honest discussion
It was wonderful to see so many people interested in learning more about this great man and the beginnings of the Mormon Church. Every time he finished answering a question a dozen more hands shot up. We could have been there for several more hours. I think that goes to show you how much we as a people appreciate someone who has studied the prophet’s life in such detail.
There were many questions that focused on the process of translating, the Urim and Thummim, the seer stone in the hat, polygamy, the three witnesses and the eight witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, the martyrdom, succession, Book of Abraham translation, Mountain Meadows massacre and folk magic. He welcomed every question and encouraged us to ask even the most difficult ones.
A well-qualified historian
One of the most refreshing comments I heard was his expression of appreciation to the church, specifically to the church historian’s office, Marlin K. Jensen and Richard E. Turley for the recent publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows. He then said that he hoped that the church would do the same with the issue of polygamy, treating it openly and with historical accuracy.
Burt what impressed me most about the evening was the obvious fact that Richard Bushman is a highly respected historian who probably understands the beginnings of Mormonism as well as or better than anyone else. Besides being the co-general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, he chairs the board of directors of the Mormon Scholars Foundation. He knows early church history.
Serving faithfully in the church
And yet, Richard Bushman has served as a bishop, a stake president, a patriarch and is currently a sealer in the Los Angeles temple. I would say that he is a faithful, believing Latter-day Saint, in spite of everything he knows about early church history. I bring this up specifically to make a point about a common response to my essays and how I can still believe when I know this stuff.
I recently had someone ask me how I was able to do what I do – serve faithfully in the church – in spite of all that I know about, as he called it, “the more disturbing facts of the origins of Mormonism.” I think maybe he might want to redirect that question to someone like Richard Bushman who knows so much more than I do and yet has been a faithful believer all his life.
Believing in spite of knowing
This individual asked, “How do you reconcile your belief and what the church teaches, with the history of things like the origins of the temple ceremony, polygamy, first vision contradictions, development of the story of the restoration of the priesthood, and other issues?” I answered him privately in an email but have been pondering this whole idea of believing in spite of knowing.
Frankly, it perplexes me. I think I have expressed this same sentiment several times in previous essays every time it comes up. What is so hard about studying and understanding our very early church history, warts and all, and then continuing to believe that Joseph Smith was an instrument in the hands of God to bring about the restoration of the gospel and his church in the latter days?
Shocked by our history
Are we supposed to be shocked, dismayed and overwhelmed with doubt every time we discover some new fact about the early days of the church? For example, last night we were reminded that beer and wine were used by the early saints, and sometimes even whiskey. Today, we would be shocked if we learned that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drank a glass of wine.
Yet in volume IV, page 120 of the History of the Church on the date of April 17 1840 we read, “This day the Twelve blessed and drank a bottle of wine at Penworthan, made by Mother Moon forty years before.” Things were different back then, weren’t they? The Word of Wisdom had been received in 1833 but was not binding upon the saints as a commandment like it is today.
History not being hidden
When Fanny Alger was brought up by Brother Bushman last night as an example of an early failed attempt by Joseph to obey the law of plural marriage, I’ll bet there were a few people in the audience who did not know that Joseph had married this sixteen year old girl in 1833. The revelation on celestial marriage had been received in 1831 but Joseph was hesitant to obey.
For some reason, the idea that Joseph participated in plural marriage is supposed to be shocking to us. This continues to be one of the most common tactics of our critics – to try to shock us with facts that are supposedly being hidden from us by our modern church leaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are always being encouraged to study our history and learn the facts.
Selling the Book of Mormon Copyright
Another example that our critics like to throw at us is the failed attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada. Until recently, the only source for this event was the memory of David Whitmer who was not present when Joseph sent the brethren on their mission. Joseph never said that it must have been a false revelation as Whitmer claimed he said upon their return.
We’re then supposed to conclude that if we can’t trust a revelation from Joseph then how are we supposed to know what is revelation from God. I’m not an apologist but I’m grateful that there are people who dig into these things to get the facts and present them for our review. Of course, the same facts can be presented in favorable or unfavorable light, depending on where you go.
Consider carefully the source
For example, you can read the story of the copyright mission to Canada on MormonThink as supposed evidence that even Joseph Smith didn’t know when revelations were from God and when they were from the devil. Yet you can read the same account in greater clarity and detail from a more trustworthy and reliable source like FAIR and come away strengthened in faith.
We could go on and on with hundreds of things that are supposed to be shocking to us modern believers of the faith because they seem so out of character with what we’ve been taught about Joseph or other leaders of the early LDS church. If we are bothered by something, then we need to do our homework and get all the facts as part of the process of confirming truth for ourselves.
Get the facts straight
If I were concerned upon reading that Joseph Smith was supposed to have said that even he didn’t know when a prophecy came from the Lord or that he is supposed to have said that a revelation he received must have come from the devil, as David Whitmer said he did, then I would want to read more about this and would be very careful about the source that I study.
Because if I believed that Joseph really said this, then that might lead me to conclude that if even prophets have a hard time understanding revelation, how can I really be expected to understand or know the truth of revelations that come to me, especially revelation that I think is telling me that the church itself is true? Do you see how important it is to get the facts of certain matters?
The Joseph Smith Papers
Of course Joseph never said that he must have received a false revelation. In fact, according to more recent information discovered, the brethren who went on the mission to Canada in an attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon felt that they were successful on their mission and that the Lord was pleased with their efforts. The promised sale was conditional.
I’m grateful for brethren like Richard Bushman, who are helping to bring us the Joseph Smith papers. In volume 1 of the Manuscript Revelation Books, we have the full copy of the mission to Canada revelation. It can be read there. The criticism that Joseph later claimed that the revelation had not come from God is in all likelihood the product of a false memory by David Whitmer.
We can believe the prophet
As I wrote in a previous essay, I believe it is our lifelong pursuit to understand revelation and to come to know how the Lord communicates with each of us. We can rely on the promises of the Lord to lead us, guide us and walk beside us because we have the gift of the Holy Ghost. I hope we cherish this gift and live worthy of the constant companionship of this promised revelator.
Joseph Smith knew when the Lord was inspiring him and so did most of the brethren who were with him at the time when he received revelation. We can trust that the Lord will help us to have the assurances we need to believe in the mission of the prophet Joseph Smith. Someday, we will meet Brother Joseph and if we still have questions about his life we can ask them to him directly.
I have been listening again to John Dehlin’s interviews with Richard Bushman on my iPod on the days that I travel to the office. Thanks again John, for bringing the archives back. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: those podcasts are now an invaluable part of history. I’ve enjoyed each one and have listened to some of them multiple times, including the Bushman interviews.
I have also been re-reading Rough Stone Rolling, especially the early chapters dealing with the First Vision, the visit of the angel Moroni and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. I have thought deeply about this fascinating part of our early LDS history but John’s probing questions to Richard Bushman have got me thinking again about several of these rather complex issues.
The difficult questions of history
If you’re a student of our history then you know what the questions are and have most likely formulated your own answers long ago. I know I have. Through my blogging activities of the past couple of years I have been able to present my own answers to many of those more difficult questions. I have also been called on to defend my answers by those who don’t agree with them.
Here are just a few of those issues I have blogged about: multiple versions of the First Vision, God is an exalted man, God has a body of flesh and bone, the seer stone in the hat, objections to the Book of Abraham, the burning of the bosom, Joseph Smith was a Mason, plural wives of Joseph Smith, the new Mormon history, the only true and living church and Mountain Meadows.
Not taught in the classroom
As I’ve written in several of my blog posts of the past, I feel very blessed and grateful that I had an advantage that many who have studied our history did not have. I was exposed to almost all of the troublesome issues early in life and had come to understand even in High School that what is taught in the LDS classroom does not always tell the whole story of what really happened.
From the time I was fifteen I realized that there are some issues that are not taught in depth in our Sunday Schools, Seminaries and Institutes and certainly are not brought up from the pulpit. This was not a problem for me. I learned about the rest of the story by reading books that my mother provided for us in the family library. Although a convert, mother loved our unique LDS history.
Information from other sources
I hope John doesn’t mind, but I think his story is illustrative of what has happened to many of our young people in the church who have discovered at a later point in their lives things they didn’t know about our history. After the shock wore off, a feeling of betrayal replaced it. As John said, this feeling came because they loved and trusted the church too much, not too little.
In John’s case, he discovered many of these troublesome issues when he was called on to teach seminary. He studied the material in great depth in order to be prepared as he taught. He also supplemented his study of the official CES material with what he discovered on the Internet. And there is the big difference between my experience with this difficult material and John’s.
Learning Mormon history
You can learn more about the issues that trouble some of our members and investigators through a simple Google search than I could through many years of reading selected books provided by my mother. However, what you usually find on the Internet is someone’s interpretation of what they read and very little original research. That can taint the way you learn Mormon history
From mother’s library, I read books like No Man Knows my History by Fawn Brodie, Family Kingdom and the Kingdom or Nothing by Samuel Taylor, Great Basin Kingdom by Leonard Arrington and Joseph Smith, the First Mormon by Donna Hill. We also had the History of the Church and the Journal of Discourses in our home library in which I looked things up.
Learn details of history in personal study
My point is that I had the luxury of slowly reading one of these historical books, discussing what I had learned with my mother and then pondering why I had not learned these kind of details in my seminary classes. I came to the conclusion that there just wasn’t enough time to bring up in that 50 minute early morning Seminary class some of the more interesting stuff that I had read.
Having taught Seminary later in life, I have been impressed with the clear direction from CES that we are not to teach some of the more complex and difficult parts of our history. I think I can understand why and in fact, agree with this direction to teach our history in a manner that is both uplifting and faith-promoting. But leaving major parts of it out can cause problems for some.
It is human nature to discuss
One of the methods of those who are opposed to the work of the LDS Church is to present us with shocking statements about our faith, our beliefs or our history and then to accuse us of not wanting to accept the truth. It doesn’t matter how we respond – shock, indignation, dismay, anger, or even kindness, their desire is not to help us understand the truth but to destroy our faith.
That’s the problem with researching the church on the Internet. It’s common to want to discuss our new discoveries with others. That’s how we solidify our understanding – by sharing things with others and evaluating their response. Our young people turn to online discussion groups or forums because many of the older members of the church have never learned about these things.
True believing Mormons who know
Unfortunately, it is rare to find someone online who knows our history well and has no problem with the more difficult parts of that history. In fact, it is rare to find someone in your own circle of contacts who really knows our history. We are a church of lay leadership. There is simply no requirement that you know the history, only that you believe, are worthy and want to help others.
That’s why John’s interview with Dr. Bushman is so helpful to those who are struggling with understanding and accepting all the warts and imperfections of our history. Rough Stone Rolling is a great resource that tells our story without trying to whitewash it or cover anything up. Dr. Bushman is careful to provide the complete story with contemporary sources from that time.
A safe place to discuss our history
I don’t know if John has found the answer to what I feel was his best question. He asked, “Where can we go to find a safe forum in which to discuss our history?” In my experience, Sunstone is not the place. I think they tried forums but they didn’t take off. And the Mormon History Association has wonderful conferences and publications, but no online forums.
There are a plethora of online forums to which we can turn to discuss the church. I have listed them in a previous essay. You just have to choose what level of moderation you are going to accept. Some strive to keep the disaffected Mormons out, but what if you are simply going through a temporary crisis of faith? Who can you trust to guide you through your explorations?
Summary and conclusion
The Internet has done amazing things for the church. It has helped us share the message of the restoration in a way that allows us to reach millions, even billions with the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. It allows us to present our faith, our doctrine and our history in a manner that is faith-promoting and uplifting. That has been my objective in the essays I write.
John prepared and shared a wonderful presentation on how to stay in the church in spite of the loss of faith. I highly recommend it to all, no matter what your current level of belief. An updated version is available at the staylds forums, which I missed when I compiled my list of LDS-related forums. Thanks to John Dehlin for his work in helping those with a crisis of faith.