Why Bushman Became a Historian

This is a continuation of the previous post Growing up as Richard Bushman,  John Dehlin asks Richard Bushman why he became a historian.

JD, “Well, let me ask you, how did you become a historian?”

Bushman, “You know, I can hardly give an answer to that question.  I started at Harvard planning to do science.  I started in physics, and then I migrated to math. By my second year I was doing history and science, but meanwhile I was taking some really terrific courses that made me realize that you can think about history.  It’s not just a matter of remembering everything that happened, but you can conceptualize it.

So by the time I got back from my mission after I completed two years before I went, I decided I would do history and you know it was a huge decision, but I don’t even remember wrestling over it.  I just sort of backed into it.  It was strange because the worst grades I got in college were in my American history course, but I went into it anyway.  It was just kind of blind luck, because it turned out to be very useful for me.  My own feeling is that for anyone making decisions, the best evidence that it is right is that it is self-justifying.  That is in the process of doing history, I found it enjoyable.  It wasn’t reading history, I never have been very great reader of history books, but of doing history, thinking about things, putting that evidence together.  I really enjoyed that so it just kept reinforcing itself.  I went immediately on to graduate school, and got my Ph.D.”

JD, “Where did you go to get your Ph.D?”

Bushman, “I stayed at Harvard, finished up there.”

JD, “And you chose colonial American history, is that right?”

Bushman, “Yeah, at that point my religion came back into the picture.  I had a dickens of a time, not just believing that I was doing right myself that I was doing history, but in justifying it to others.  Our ward in Cambridge was filled with all these Latter-day Saint business school types, and they knew what they were there for.  Everything was practical in their degree.  What in the world was history for?

So I got an idea that maybe what I would do, spend the early part of my life working on sort of the cultural background of the restoration, starting in the 18th century, working my way up into the 19th, and then sometime later in life do something on Joseph Smith. I had no idea what.  So that’s what I did.  I got very, very interested in early American history, wrote three books on various aspects of it, and then finally late in life decided now is the time to do Joseph Smith.”

JD, “So you kind of mapped out conceptually, the fact that you were going to pursue colonial American history, so that you could have a firm understanding of the cultural and historical background that led to the formation of the Church, and then you would follow it through.”

JH, “Yeah.  Well, yeah.  Mapping is maybe too strong a term.  It was a thought at one moment.  I could go five years at a time and never think of that thought. In 1992, I thought well maybe now is the time to do Joseph Smith.  I had just finished a book and was ready for a new book, but I decided no, I’m more interested in early American farmers.  So I actually steered away from Joseph Smith, thinking that Donna Hill was run for the purposes until Ron Esplin at the Smith Institute said that we really needed one and sort of pushed me back towards Joseph Smith.

So it’s not something that governs my life.  I was truly interested in these other books.  I loved them.  I was finding stuff that was useful and true, and that they had kind of a religious inter-core to them and I didn’t feel any great need to go back to Joseph Smith until Ron Esplin came along.“

JD, “What year was that?”

Bushman, “I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was 1994 that he came to me and then I started work in earnest in 1997.”


8 comments on “Why Bushman Became a Historian

  1. This is fascinating and matches much of my story so far. The part about history I love isn’t memorizing lots of facts but rather the ability to create new knowledge and add to the field. It wasn’t until grad school that I realized I could apply to my skills to the BoM. It has been very fulfilling ever since. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Morgan, good to see you. The one thing I found ironic was that bushman said he didn’t like reading history. Yet doing history requires reading quite a but doesn’t it?

  3. It does. I don’t know exactly what he means but I often have to push my way through books and various sources. Sometimes I go half blind searching through various sources. I wouldn’t call that fun but when you have a great paper with lots of great sources it is very rewarding.

  4. A big-time thank you goes out to Brother Esplin for getting Bushman interested in researching Joseph Smith. Esplin has done some great work also, but RSR was a fantastic contribution from an eminent scholar that cannot be easily overlooked.

  5. […] 5 hours total).  I’ve previously talked about Growing Up as Richard Bushman, and How he chose to become a Historian.  In this last section of Part 1, Bushman talks about the important, major biographies of Joseph […]

  6. […] 5 hours total).  I’ve previously talked about Growing Up as Richard Bushman, and How he chose to become a Historian.  In this last section of Part 1, Bushman talks about the important, major biographies of Joseph […]

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