Bushman: "The Church Should Stay out of the History Business"

This is the conclusion of Part 1 of the Richard Bushman interview (there are 5 parts–about 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 Smith, his experience in the 1970s working with the Church to write a history of the Church, and why he thinks the Church should not write an official history.  It’s a great discussion.

JD, “Ok, let’s jump back for a bit if you don’t mind.  I’d like to talk a bit about a couple of the books that came out and then sort of the era of scholarship in the 1970s.  Let me start, when Faun Brodie, it sounds like she wrote No Man Knows My History right around the time you were in your Ph.D or graduating with your Ph.D.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “She published it in 1945.  I started college in 1949.”

JD, “Ok.”

Bushman, “But she was certainly a presence in my mind.  I was very much aware of the book.  I read it in great detail as an undergraduate, marked up everything I thought was in error in the book.  It was filled with red marks, my copy, so yeah, she has always been a presence.”

JD, “Did you read her book pre-mission then?”

Bushman, “Uh, that I could not tell you but it didn’t have any effect on my testimony as I recall.”

JD, “Now is that because you just— how is that possible? Like what I mean is, is it because you just discredited her as sort of anti-Mormon so you could just throw away everything she was writing, or were you just familiar with all the history that she was able to pull together that it was no news, you just saw it as biased spin?  How did you emerge the Faun Brodie experience unscathed?”

Bushman, “Well, I think Faun Brodie’s great virtue is she is a colorful writer, but that undermines her authenticity as a historian.  You have the feeling that she will do a lot of things for effect, so I would go through and question the facts that underlay some wild assertion or— I had a little code of letters that would indicate the nature of my critique so that— see I wasn’t like you.  I didn’t have-never had this idealized picture of Joseph, and then she’s just a smack in the face.  I knew that Joseph Smith was a contentious figure from the word go.  And this was just one more example of him being contentious.”

JD, “Hmmm. Ok.  Did you know Leonard Arrington, Lowell Bennion, and T. Edgar Lyon?  Can you talk a little bit about about (1) what you felt or experienced during what many call the Camelot years of church history, (2) how you got hooked up to help Leonard Arrington to work on the sesquicentennial series that he was hoping to write, and then (3) and (4) how you felt when that got cancelled and how you felt about the way that that era sort of concluded?”

Bushman, “Well, I didn’t know T. Edgar Lyon very well.  I knew his son very well, he was a bishop in the same building where I was.  We both had a young singles ward in Cambridge.  I knew Lowell Bennion only late in life. I didn’t come up to that university of Utah pattern, but Leonard I knew pretty well.  My first job was at BYU, and when I arrived, somehow he had gotten wind of it and knew I was a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and he wrote me a personal letter welcoming me to the state and the historical profession.

I realized that this is a person that takes responsibility for the whole direction of Mormon historiography, and that really was his style.  He was sort of the grandfather and dean of the whole operation, not just at USU, not just at the church, but everywhere.  Then I worked with him closely thereafter when my wife got started working with the Boston women on the pink issue of Dialogue, and founding Exponent II, he got wind of it and sent those women a small grant, 1000 bucks or so to help put out Mormon Sisters.  It was just a gesture those housewives needed.  They didn’t know if they could do it.  They were just amateurs.  Of course among them was Laurel Ulrich, a very skilled amateur, but they were not historians, and he knew that a little something would sort of confirm their hopes for this book, so I just felt like he was an encompassing figure of great personal magnitude.  I really loved him.  I would say he was one of the men I really loved during my life.”

JD, “What year was it that he gave this grant to your wife and other women who were writing for Dialogue.”

Bushman, “Ah, you’ve got me, but it would be somewhere in the 70s.”

JD, “Somewhere in the 70s.  So he was a church employee…”

Bushman, “By that time he was at the Church Office Building.”

JD, “So here was head of the Church History Department providing a grant for an upcoming Dialogue edition.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “It was really to produce the set of essays that became Mormon Sisters, which is a book of essays on 19th century Mormon women, still in print”

JD, “Ok.”

Bushman, “And then about that time, he asked me to write the first volume of the 16, projected 16 volume history of the church.  The interesting thing was years before that time, I had written him a letter telling him I thought now is the time to repeat B.H. Robert’s work of 1930, the centennial history of the church.  He took up that idea and really ran with it, asked me to do the first volume which I was quite willing to do.  He asked/actually approached me about coming west and my scholarship on the American Revolution at that time was bogged down, and I very seriously considered for a time moving west, but I figured I just couldn’t get out of the conundrums that were paralyzing me in some of my other work, but I did write that history.

The interesting thing is the first volume, which was Milt Bachman’s The Heavans Resound, had gone through the committees, been read by everybody who had to read it, and they were rolling along, then came along my volume, the beginnings of Mormonism, and after it was cleared by Leonard and all of his group, then it went up to some unknown group of General Authorities to read, never got a word back concerning it, but one day Leonard and I, I happened to be in Salt Lake, we were called in I think it was Lowell Durham.  I think he was the head of the Deseret Book then, and the news was delivered that they were cancelling the series.  They had given big advances to all of the authors, so they were into it financially in a big way, but they cancelled the series.

Leonard was dumbfounded and horrified and it was really a terrible blow to him.  I actually didn’t mind it because I felt this series was not going to work. The problem is that it comes out as an official church history.  Then they have to read everything and they have to take responsibility for everything that’s written, and they would be constantly trying to censor what I’ve said.  They couldn’t just let me write whatever I wanted, because who knows what I or someone else would write, so I felt like all things considered, it was better for the authors to work independently, but Leonard didn’t see it that way.  He was really set back a long way.”

JD, “And just to, a lot of our listeners will have no idea what we are talking about. So basically the idea was 150 years of church history, do a book for every 10 years or so, and have sort of the scholar for that time period write that part of the book.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “Well close to that.  It wasn’t every decade.  It was, there would be a book on the western migration.  There would be a book on the church in Europe and a book on the church in the South Pacific, and a book on New York and one on Kirtland, and one on Missouri, and one on Nauvoo, so you just divvied it up in fairly conventional way, the way we think of church history.  Tom Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition was one of the books, 1890-1920.”

JD, “One of my professors at BYU Lamond Tullis had been asked to do the Latin America book, right?”

Bushman, “Yeah.”

JD, “So what you’re sort of saying is that the church shouldn’t get into the history business?”

Bushman, “Well I, yea, I think they get into all sorts of conflicts because they’re endorsing.  I think that they themselves, I’m basing this on conversations with individual General Authorities, wish that there was some middle tier where church historians could write their work, take chances, explore this or that and the church wouldn’t be held responsible for it.  But it’s very hard to get that distance, if you’re at Deseret Book, there are just going to be loads of Mormons that say if it’s at Deseret Book, it must be the Church’s view.  Even BYU has a certain imprimatur to it.  So it’s a bit of a problem in the church.”

JD, “Because as I understand it, they started by saying we’re getting our clock cleaned by secular historians, we have to get in the game here and that was the intellectual impetus to calling Leonard Arrington to be Church Historian, right?”

Bushman, “That’s right, that’s right.”

JD, “But you’re saying, and it sounds like the lesson learned from that whole era was, that the church needs to stay out of the Church history business and leave it to the historians?”

Bushman, “Yeah, I think you could say that is the lesson learned.  Whether it can be learned permanently is another question.” [JD chuckles, Bushman continues]  “Because there’s always a great desire to create a history that will really speak for the Church, because we value our history.  It’s part of our doctrine almost.  So the problem is, can you write a history that will have any validity to a general audience that also tells the church story straight?  So we’re trying again with Mountain Meadows.  We’re trying again with the Joseph Smith Papers, and…”

JD, “So there’s a bit of a pendulum going on.”

Bushman, “Yeah, I think that’s right, that you go to a certain point, then you realize you’ve gone too far, and it swings back, there we go.”

JD, “So how did you feel about the way Leonard Arrington’s time concluded, and I’ve read Adventures by a Church Historian, and it paints this picture, this really sad picture at the end that even though he was called as Church Historian in General Conference, when they released him, they released him quietly, and that now somewhere in church headquarters there’s a mural of every church historian, but his mural isn’t there.  And it just gives you the sense that here’s this wonderful man that I love through text, you love through personal experience that just wasn’t treated in a loving way, in a way that things were ended.  I know that that’s an oversimplified view.  When I want talk to Hugh Midgeley, he basically claims that Lavina Fielding Anderson wrote Leonard Arrington’s autobiography and that wasn’t what Leonard Arrington would have wanted us to believe at all.  Can you help fill in the pieces there for someone like me who’s feeling sad for the way that ended?”

Bushman, “I don’t think I can fill in any pieces.  I wasn’t close enough to know what was going on.  My view comes almost directly out of Leonard’s autobiographical writings.  I know it was a terrible disappointment to him, and I suppose it could have been handled more gracefully and I feel very sad that he was wounded by the whole experience.  But in long run I don’t think it’s going to detract from his actual achievement, because a lot of fabulous work came out of that period and out of his own mind, so I see that as kind of receding as a significant event.”

JD, “Some would look at the anti-Mormonism, especially on the internet that exists today, and say that they have Leonard Arrington to thank for it, because he was given access to Church Archives, all these cans of worms got opened up, and that has become the fodder for— you know Michael Quinn came out of that and a lot of the writings, probably Grant Palmer’s entire book came, a big chunk of that out of what was unleashed out of that ten years.  What if someone were to say that that whole era was just one big mistake, the Church will be forever damaged by all the stuff that came out of that period?  I’m sorry if it sounds dramatic, but I sometimes wonder that.”

Bushman, “I think that until you get down to the bedrock of the source material and what’s there, you never are safe.  You’ve got to base everything you write based on what’s there in the sources, and insofar as we have created a picture of Joseph Smith that wasn’t based on the sources, doesn’t take those things into effect, we are in a very precarious position.  I mean you yourself have gone through this disillusionment, and it comes from suddenly it’s all there.

So yeah it’s painful, and there are people who think we are giving comfort to the enemy by turning out all this stuff, but we’ll never be secure until we can go out and talk about the sources and what’s really in the historical record alongside all the critics of the Church.”

JD, “Ok.  I think your book Rough Stone Rolling is a demonstration of that belief that ultimately truth will prevail, and goodness will prevail, and while we need to be sensitive, we don’t have to fear the facts.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “That’s right.  That’s right.”

JD, “So really quick, before we jump into Rough Stone Rolling, I just have one more series of questions.  Dialogue was started in the late 60s, and then Sunstone in the mid-70s.  A lot of people who just aren’t plugged into the whole deal would be shocked to know that you yourself have presented at Sunstone symposiums, you’ve probably written articles for Sunstone and Dialogue, and there was a time where Sunstone and Dialogue probably didn’t have the reputation that it has now, the negative reputation.

I would just love for you talk about, you know, because there’s a— your perspective is so important.  Here’s a guy who knows all the facts, and he’s willing to talk about them openly but he’s also a believer.  There’s no one who can claim that you don’t know Nietzsche, you don’t know Kant, you don’t know peep stones, and at the same time, there’s no one that can argue that you’re a believer.  Well, role models like this seem to be in abundance in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and even 80s.  We had Lowell Bennion, we had T. Edgar Lyon, we had Eugene England, we had Leonard Arrington, and all the others, Chase Peterson.  And it was Dialogue and Sunstone that seemed to be the fulcrums around which these personalities emerged.

But now that Sunstone and Dialogue have been given, been denounced, and sort of been given a bad reputation, and Sunstone more than Dialogue, where are these people today?  They don’t seem to exist.  So I’d love you just to talk about how you view Sunstone and Dialogue in the 70s and 80s.  I don’t want you to condemn Sunstone or Dialogue, I’m not asking for you to publicly challenge them, but any thoughts that you have about whether you think they did have a positive role, on whether you think they may have served their purpose or even gone astray.  Help us work through whether we should just see that as a whole horrible thing, the whole Dialogue/Sunstone thing, whether it has a purpose, and today, what we have that could be comparable for a new generation of thinkers and believers to coalesce around.  That’s a compound question.”

Bushman, “I got involved as the book review editor.  I’ve known Gene England for a number of years and he asked me to start out.  I thought it was kind of fun.”

JD, “This is for Dialogue. This is for Dialogue, right for our listeners.”

Bushman, “For Dialogue, yeah.  I didn’t see danger in it, because you know I came out of this Harvard environment where you just chatted up everything.  You didn’t worry about dangerous ideas that might poison you.  So, I was warned quite vigorously by Robert Thomas, with whom I was working on a program at that time to steer clear, it would be too much, and that my name would be stained by this association, that church leaders would never trust me again and all this and that, but I have a kind of a blithe confidence that if you try to do what is right and just go into every situation with an open mind, that you come out alright.  I was willing to give it a try.

I liked the idea that these journals have sparked a lot of thinking. It’s like FARMS [Foundation for Apologetic Research and Mormon Studies].  I really like the fact that a lot of people are putting their minds to work on gospel subjects, because they’re so eager to prove the Church and FARMS and Dialogue brings forth a similar kind of intellectual energy.  So I feel pretty good about that.  I am enough of an open minded person to recognize that I could be wrong, and that my confidence that we can talk about anything and we can talk about it openly may be naïve, and that there are dangers down the road that I can’t foresee.  So when the Church comes out and says don’t get involved in Sunstone, don’t get involved in Dialogue, I’m willing to say, alright you may be right, and I go along with it, though I have been involved in modest ways here and there.  This is one where I’m willing to put the judgment on the shelf and just let it go.  Your larger question though is do we need those kind of journals to bring forth our best intellectuals?

I just think you can’t repress Mormon intellectuality. There is so much energy that’s sort of captured in our Mormon faith, and anyone who has intellectual inclinations at all is just going to think about things and talk about them.  I think the blogs are an example of how there are people who spend hours each day just chattering about Mormon subjects, though I think a lot of that is a waste of time, I think that there are some very serious Mormon intellectuals coming along at Notre Dame, at Harvard, at Duke.  We’re having a conference for graduate students in religious studies at Yale next month, a lot of very thinky good people there, who are trying to figure out what their Mormonism means in these days. Maybe we don’t have a roster of giants that we can turn to, but I’m never one who thinks we’ve lost— the great generation is now behind us and we have to content ourselves with pygmies.

There’s some very powerful people coming up and I’d like to find ways to get them together and get them thinking.  This summer seminar that Terryl Givens and I run has brought together over 50 young Latter-day Saints, really potent people, very active, very effective.  I hope we can keep assembling them one way or another.”

JD, “So are these Ph.D.’s then that you’re bringing together?”

Bushman, “They’re usually graduate students. Even some advanced undergraduates; we find some of them.  Probably the smartest guy in the Church is a guy named Jared Hickman who came as an undergraduate from Bowdoin.  His undergraduate honors essay would just knock your socks off. It could be a book.  It probably will be a book. He’s at Harvard now doing marvelous work.”

JD, “What’s the name again?”

Bushman, “Jared Hickman.”

JD, “Jared Hickman, and he’s going to be a historian?”

Bushman, “He’s in literature, but you know people who do literature also do kind of history too. So there are a lot of these powerful people around.”

JD, “So new societies like Sunstone will emerge, you’re saying, and they’ll probably go through a similar lifestyle, where they’ll get their energy, they’ll be formed, lots of great discussion will happen.  Isn’t there always the risk that they’ll stray and maybe be denounced again, and they’ll be just like you talked about the Church’s tendency with history, the Church’s tendency with symposia to sort of be hot and cold to it?”

Bushman, “Yeah, well maybe.  But the people I know, I don’t think so. I will confess a little impatience with Sunstone.  I read through the list of sessions at their symposium, and think ugh. It just tires me out, all these people working out their problems with the Church, chewing away at some issue that troubles them.  I am more of a positive person.  I want us to start exploring the potentials of Mormonism.  What are its depths and its heights?  Where can it go?  How can it help us to understand the world better?  We should have an art critique that comes out of our Mormonism.

That’s where this new generation is going.  They’re not just fighting through their doubts.  They’re sort of exploring, trying to find out what he potentials are, so they could all go sour at a time, and I guess people worry about it but not me. I like to let these guys roll, and if they get off into some heresies, that’s not so bad.”

End of Part 1.  What are your impressions?

5 comments on “Bushman: "The Church Should Stay out of the History Business"

  1. I don’t have a lot of patience or the right environment to enjoy podcasts, but I LOVE these transcripts. Thanks so much. I would never have made it to the tidbit at the end that verifies my own MO without a transcript. Awesome.

  2. More, more, more. What a great interview.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement. I am probably spending too much time on these, but I think this will be a valuable resource when finished.

  4. […] The Church Should Stay Out of the History Business […]

  5. […] The Church Should Stay Out of the History Business […]

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