Growing up as Richard Bushman

John Dehlin interviewed Richard Bushman in a wonderful 5-part series back in 2007.  Since the interview is so long, I decided to split it up into parts and will publish these serially as I complete the transcription.  In this first part, Bushman describes growing up in the church.  I’ve abbreviated John Dehlin as JD.

JD, “In my estimation, Dr. Richard Bushman is one of the most important figures in both 20th and 21st century Mormonism.  Born and raised a member of the LDS church, attended Harvard as an undergraduate and graduate degrees, culminating in a Ph.D. in History, struggled with his own faith while attending Harvard, worked through these struggles to eventually become not only the world’s foremost scholar on Joseph Smith and the early years of the LDS Church, but also a faithful, devout believing member, father of six, who has served as bishop, stake president, and now patriarch for the LDS Church.

There isn’t an anti-Mormon alive who can claim to know more than Dr. Bushman about Joseph Smith, warts and all.  And yet, Brother Bushman still chooses to believe that Joseph Smith was an inspired prophet of God.  In this multi-part series, we will discuss with Richard Bushman at length, his experiences as a Mormon scholar, and we will attempt to delve deeply into each of the toughest issues surrounding Joseph Smith and the founding of the LDS Church, including the First Vision story, treasure digging, peepstones, polygamy, masonry and all the rest.

In part 1 of this series, Dr. Bushman discusses his early years, his career as a Mormon historian including his interactions with both Leonard Arrington and Sunstone and Dialogue magazines, and his perspectives on the role of history, thought, and candid dialogue within the modern LDS Church.  Your story, today on Mormon Stories.

[intro music plays]

JD, “Doctor Richard Bushman, thank you for coming on Mormon Stories Podcast.”

Bushman, “It’s good to be here.”

JD, “It’s sort of a tradition on Mormons Stories Podcast that we begin by having the guests tell a little about their story.  So if you don’t mind, I’d love for our listeners and myself to learn a little bit about your childhood, the early years, and then we’ll go from there.”

Bushman, “I was born in Salt Lake at the beginning of the Depression, and my family like so many others was part of the diaspora that left Utah because the economy couldn’t support the population, and instead of ending up in California like my wife’s parents, we ended up in Portland, Oregon.  I grew up there until I left high school in Portland when it was one stake covered not only all of Portland, but south all the way to Eugene, east to the Dalles, so it was virtually the entire state, northeast and west quadrant across the state. I think it had a great effect on my intellectual outlook because I never thought that Mormonism was powerful.  I thought it was weak.  This little church just struggling to get a toehold and so I didn’t in those years when people try to break free of something and establish their our own identity.  Mormonism wasn’t strong enough to become a worthy opponent for me.

My parents were both faithful to the church.  My dad was in the bishopric, and we were pretty much a faithful family, but I never felt the need to rebel.  Where I rebelled was when I got to Harvard as an undergraduate in 1949 and my tutor there in my sophomore there, a very distinguished scholar, informed me in a gentle and kindly way that lots of people around there thought of Mormonism as garbage, and my first response was indignation.  It was that massive eastern academic culture that seemed to me to be the dominant force, and if there was any rebellion in my heart, it was against that rather than against the Latter-day Saint Church.”

JD, “Right.  So it was almost defensive.”

Bushman, “Pardon, defensive?”

JD, “Yeah.”

Bushman, “Yeah, I guess so.  I didn’t want them beating up on my family.  I knew they were good people and to say they were foolish for believing such garbage was very offensive.  I thought it was a very coarse comment for a Harvard faculty member to make.”

JD, “So how did you respond to it?”

Bushman, “I didn’t fight him at the moment, I just sort of took it, soaked it up. I’ve told this story a hundred times.  I didn’t realize how much the incident meant until late in life.  I began relating it as the characteristic event in my early maturation.”

JD, “So he said this during class, in a classroom setting?”

Bushman, “No, this was a private tutorial, just him and me sitting together and talking about books.”

JD, “So afterwards how did you respond personally?”

Bushman, “Well I was enthusiastic about the church and Harvard kids there would get together every Sunday and we would talk about anything we wanted to.  We were great speculators, a number of very interesting people were there and since we felt absolutely no inhibitions on what we discussed, I’ve always felt very free in Mormonism.  I never felt like there were constraints because I’ve always live in free zones of Mormon culture where we talked about anything.”

JD, “Do you mean non-Utah culture mostly?”

Bushman, “Well I never did live in Utah, so I can’t make a comparison, but the places where I land, mainly Cambridge, Massachusetts and Portland, Oregon had no sense of it being constrained to toe the line, there were things you couldn’t talk about.”

JD, “So with those students you would have this free inquiry and discussion?”

Bushman, “Right.”

JD, “And what came out of that for you?”

Bushman, “Well, a sense of the richness and the mysteries of the gospel.  We were in some ways sophisticated and in some ways very naïve.  We were not putting Mormonism up against elaborate systems of philosophy. We weren’t comparing it to Spinosa or Kant or Freud, though I was taking courses where I was getting those kinds of people and sort of did a little comparison, but mainly we were like missionaries who like to investigate the mysteries trying to figure out what this scripture or that scripture meant.  It wasn’t profound, it was very much in-house Mormonism, but it wasn’t skeptical.  We were all believers which we took for granted.  We all believed the gospel find it marvelous and true.  I’ve often said I trust my children at Harvard more than at BYU, because there’s so many smart people there really devoted to the church.  It was a wonderful atmosphere in which to grow up Mormon.”

JD, “Would we recognize any of the names of the people you used to have these little study groups with?”

Bushman, “Well, you might remember Chase Peterson.  He became president of the University of Utah.”

JD, “Absolutely.”

Bushman, “Carlfred Broderick who was a very powerful plied psychologist, a very eminent scholar.  Jim Sandmeyer, who about 15 years later came out and became a very prominent gay minister in San Francisco.  You probably wouldn’t know him but he had a lot of notoriety in his time.  My own roommate, his name was Joe Hubbard became a neurosurgeon in California.  You wouldn’t know him.  It was just a lively group.  We had a lot of fun together.”

JD, “I read an essay you wrote about your faith, that you did in fact have a crisis of faith during your pre-mission time at Harvard.  Would you mind talking about that, because I know that a lot of my listeners have either experienced that or are experiencing that now.”

Bushman, “Yeah, well, you know you never know how these things happen.  Who knows why they do what they do.  It’s a very mysterious thing.  We all have reasons.  Who knows what the real reasons are.  Somehow I just began to lose my confidence in my second year.  Maybe I was sinning, maybe it was a really an oppressive atmosphere of skepticism at Harvard.  This is the time Bertrand Russell’s logical positivism that wouldn’t accept  any kind of spiritual experiences having the least bearing on discovering the nature of reality.

Then I remember writing this paper comparing Freud and Detcher for a social science course I was taking.  Freud was Deitcher was making the case that Christianity is the religion of the weak, it is a slavish religion because you debase yourself before God.  There’s just a series of those things, playing upon my fears.  I don’t know how much my faith was affected, but I couldn’t say when I went on my mission that I knew the gospel was true.  I was sort of in this limbo of uncertainty about everything.”

JD, “I thought it was interesting in your book that when you were struggling, for you it was never a question of some historical fact of Joseph Smith or some Mormon doctrine.  It was either God or nothing.”

Bushman, “Yep, that was the issue, because that was the issue at Harvard.  No one was talking about history of the church or all that kind of stuff that riles up younger people at BYU.  It really was the whole question of faith at all.  I think that in a way I’m out of step with lots of young people in the church who worry about mistakes church leaders make, or worry about the fact that Joseph Smith worked with a seer stone.  That all seemed sort of details to me.  The big issue was the any divinity of the personal—[Bushman starts coughing]

JD, “So how did you become a believer again, or re-find your believing-ness?”

Bushman, “Well, I probably never recovered it all.  I’m not someone who has a simple faith that just everything is absolutely true beyond any doubt.  During the mission I worked like crazy if you read that little essay of mine, you know that I worked like crazy to figure out whether or not I could believe the Book of Mormon.  Finally after some weighing everything I had at hand, which was limited, I just had this affirmation, and it wasn’t a proof, it wasn’t a set of historical proofs. It was just an affirmation that yes this is right.  I didn’t even say this is true, I said this is right, I had no idea whether it was, but that’s the way it came out.

Then over the years, I could always hear these questions as I mentioned in that essay.  I’m a person who lives in this divided world.  I’m very conscious of arguments against God and religion, which is to some extent against the church.  I always am hearing those questions and engage constantly in these internal debates where I try to make a point against imaginary contestant of some kind.  But what really comes around to me is a very simple thing.  The big word for me is goodness.  I above all things want to go where things are good and if I turn away from what I know is good, because of some philosopher who tells me that this can’t be, or some little fact in history of the church is disruptive, that’s not enough to throw me out of the saddle.

I want to go where I find goodness, where I want to be where I have brothers and sisters that I love and admire and want to work with, and where I live in a universe where I have an incentive to improve and grow better sometimes, and I just get that over and over with church.  I can’t possibly turn away. It’s more like planting a seed image of a testimony in Alma 32.  The seed is good.  I can’t deny that so I stick with it.”

JD, “Now I just have to ask you a bit about that because I like to characterize my faith in a similar way, and I know that there’s a lot of people out there who would want to be able to say that good is the criteria—is enough.  There are a lot of anti-Mormons against the church who say there is no good in the church and the leaders are all dumb, and the history is all fraudulent.  I think that’s hogwash.

But there’s also another strain of people who say the church doesn’t allow goodness to be the measure necessarily.  The measure is absolute truth relative to other religions, faiths, texts, prophets, etc.  In other words, to sort of throw your cards into the Mormon Church, there’s a perception that you have to then say that ll of the churches are false, all other churches are an abomination, all other scriptural texts are inadequate, and this small population of less than one-half of 1% of the world’s population is God’s one and only true people.  There’s sort of a pressure to say it’s got to be all that or nothing.  How do you help someone see that maybe there is a middle way?”

Bushman, “Well, I don’t hear much of that in the church anymore.  I don’t hear the word abomination.  It may be just the places I happen to live, the people I know.  I think as a church we’re sort of lightening up on that.  I don’t hear that as much in General Conference.  There is kind of a bogeyman view of the church that haunts people where it really is a fanatical organization, we think that is the church in its essence, but I don’t think so.

I think the church is much more complicated, some people feel that way, but I would say this.  There is a paradox here. To be zealous and striving and eager about anything that you’re involved in, you have to believe in it.  You have to believe it really is good, that people really will benefit with it, and that’s true whether you’re trying to teach people to drink clean water in Africa, or trying to teach kids they’ve got to do their schoolwork or whatever.  You’ve got to really believe it’s going to make a difference and for Mormonism to be an energetic and effective organization, it has to have that kind of zeal that does come out with language like the only true church, or this is God’s way, and so on.

But there are also scriptures in Mormonism which as you know are prominent and easily found that says the spirit of Christ is given to every person, that God reveals to every person in their language what is good for them, what is truth for them, as if Heavenly Father is watching over his children in every little corner of the earth, testifying to them that God is leading them along, sending them prophets of a kind, so I think we just have to live with that fact that we’re both universalistic, allowing God’s spirit to reign over the whole earth and bless all people everywhere and particularistic, that ours is the true and good way.  If you’re uncomfortable with that, you’re going to be uncomfortable in Mormonism because that’s just the way we think.  We’ve got both poles in our minds at once.”

JD, “So you’re acknowledging that that’s paradoxical?”

Bushman, “It is paradoxical, right.”

JD, “Do you find some beauty in that, or it’s just how things are?  Help people come to a place if you can, where they can say, ok I can live with that.”

Bushman, “I think I find beauty in that.  I think any scheme of life that is not paradoxical cannot do justice to life.  Life is paradoxical, and if you think it’s going to be one simple, clear plan that you can impose on the world and that is it, you’re doomed to disappointment.  Paradoxes are everywhere.  Terryl Givens is coming out with a new book on the cultural history of Mormonism in which he describes Mormon theology in terms of five sets of paradoxes, and I think that’s a very helpful way of, not a set of principles that we struggle with all the time.”

JD, “I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.  Thanks for sharing that.



6 comments on “Growing up as Richard Bushman

  1. Thanks for the transcription. I would love to read the rest of the interview, when you get a chance to transcribe it.

  2. Once again, thanks for the transcription. The final quote – again, a cincher.

  3. […] any sources). But here’s something I can pull up from a Bushman Mormon Stories interview (transcript via Mormon Heretic): I’m a person who lives in this divided world.  I’m very conscious of arguments against God […]

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