Acknowledging Tough Church History

John Dehlin of Mormon Stories interviewed Richard Bushman for 4 1/2 hours back in 2007.  I’ve posted transcripts of the first 50 minutes of this interview (Part 1) in 3 separate posts because it was so long.

  1. Growing Up as Richard Bushman
  2. How he chose to become a Historian
  3. The Church Should Stay Out of the History Business

In this portion, Dehlin introduces Part 2 and apologizes for some audio problems (which I thought were minor).  Bushman continues talking about some Joseph Smith biographies that he had discussed in the previous post, and then they discuss whether some issues that Mormons have trouble with are “legitimate”, and how Dr. Bushman has responded to these people.

JD, “Welcome to part 2 of our multi-part interview with Dr. Richard Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.  I want to begin with a bit of a disclaimer. Some of you will notice that the audio quality on these two interviews have not been quite up to par, and I wanted to briefly explain why.

Brother Bushman was a real gem to conduct this interview while fighting a cold, but because his voice was a bit weakened, I had to turn his volume up very high to make sure his points were heard.  As a result, you will hear a continual buzz throughout the interview, although it is somewhat slight, and some heavy static for the first 2 minutes or so of the interview.  Please forgive the annoyance, but I felt that his points were so important that I could not bear to edit them out.  After the first two minutes or so, it becomes much more bearable.  Now to the content.

In this episode, we tackle four main topics:  first, Brother Bushman provides a high level review of the major Joseph Smith biographies that proceeded Rough Stone Rolling, including Faun Brodie’s No Man Knows My History.  Next, brother Bushman discusses the art of writing history, and the challenges involved in trying to arrive at ‘the facts’ and ‘the truth’ for both historians and readers of history.

Finally, we discuss in depth the first two of our top ten tough Joseph Smith issues, the first being the multiple accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision Story, and second Joseph Smith’s involvement in folk magic and treasure digging.  Joseph Smith’s story, and your story today on Mormon Stories.”

[introductory music plays]

Bushman, “Well there are interesting and valuable biographies in their own way, starting with George Q. Cannon who wrote a very idealized picture of Joseph Smith in the 19th century, one of our eminent intellectuals of that period.  I didn’t consult it for information, but I think it sort of stands in the historiographical sequence.

John Henry Evans’ biography was the book more than any other turned Leonard Arrington toward church history, because Evans, he did it all with writing style, with his prose.  He was just as laudatory as Cannon, but he wrote it kind of a down to earth journalistic language that made it sound like Joseph was a real guy who had a lot of virtues and talents, and so it was an appealing book.

I would bridge Riley at the turn of the century and his psychological portrait of Joseph Smith, a Yale Ph.D., and it really laid out the arguments, the anti-masonry, anti-Catholicism arguments that Faun Brodie picked up on later.  It was marred by its unrelenting sarcastic tone, he was just scornful first word to last, but he actually had a lot to say, and so it has to go on the list.  And then of course Faun Brodie, which I’m now beginning to see could be thought of as a positive work.  Mormons couldn’t stand it of course.  But in terms of non-Mormon books written about Joseph Smith, it was a relatively sympathetic portrait.  I still have friends who say they think it is a very sympathetic portrait of Joseph Smith and of course Mormons are mystified by how anyone can say that.”

JD, “I see what you’re saying.  I left No Man Knows My History thinking that he was brilliant, that he was a genius and a was a good-hearted man.”

Bushman, “Yeah, well, that’s exactly what I wanted to say.  The final book I put on the list would be Donna Hill, which I thought was a lot of historical substance there because Marvin Hill, her brother was helping her, and a nicely written piece, but not much on Joseph’s thoughts.  Through it all, that is what I felt was missing was his religious life and theological mind, and so finally I decided that was why I needed to write a book that would fill out that side of his character.”

JD, “You’re a humble man so you’re not going to grasp this, but were you hoping to write the definitive biography or is that just a silly word altogether?”

Bushman, “It’s a silly word.  No one can ever define Joseph Smith permanently.  I was very conscious that this was just one view of Joseph.  Someone can go through and tell another story entirely. But I wanted it to be a view that would explain why so many really substantive people joined the church, and could continue to believe that Joseph Smith.  The great dilemma in writing about Joseph Smith is you start with the gold plates and end with polygamy, he really comes across as a scalawag, and a fraud, but then you’ve got the problem, why did so many people believe in him?

The substantive, sensible people like Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff, and why do they still believe today?  I wanted to be able to tell the story that would deal with all the facts but write it empathetically so that you could see the world from Joseph Smith and the Mormons’ point of view.  But that’s just one angle.  There are lots of other ways of telling that story.”

JD, “So this presents a bit of an interesting dilemma because I agree just focusing on the negative not only doesn’t tell the full story, but it also comes across as being negative.  As I talked to you before on how we might approach this podcast, I set it up from my own experience, and I’ll just recount that because it sort of sets up how we’re going to approach this podcast.

Basically, I grew up with a white-washed view of Joseph Smith.  I have to admit, I didn’t have parents who could school me in the nuances of history and of perspective and of depth.  They are wonderful smart people, but we just didn’t have those types of conversations growing up really about the church or church history.  I had to rely not on what I read because I didn’t read much, so I relied on what my seminary teacher taught me, and what my Sunday School teachers taught me and I happened to have a seminary teacher who grew up in Salt Lake, and was a Bruce R. McConkie/Joseph Fielding Smith Mormon if there ever was one.

I didn’t have any subtle nuanced perceptions of Joseph Smith at all.  I just have to be honest.  I think that people who are growing up in the Church today who rely on the Church Education System and General Conference talks and Ensign articles or even New Era or Friend articles about Joseph Smith as their primary forms of input, get the same sort of perspective that I did, which is here is this wonderful boy who was courageous and didn’t drink alcohol when there was surgery happening to him, and he cared about God at a young age and prayed and had this miracle, and then for the rest of his life built this church as was always being thrown in jail for his spiritual views and he was always being persecuted for his spiritual strength and wisdom to the point where he was ultimately martyred.

You know that’s the view I have of Joseph Smith and of course it’s a silly, infantile view, but I got to age at least 25 with that view, somehow while still getting almost a 4.0 at BYU, so I don’t think I was a dummy, but there are just so many thousands and thousands of people today, every day on the internet who grew up with a view like that, and then they are confronted with Faun Brodie or exmormon.org or some website, and it just blows them apart because they can’t deal with it, so while you and I discussed with time-limiting, whether we should sort of try and do a balanced podcast where we talk about the good and bad or whether time would be best served by just attacking the tough issues, we decided that we were just going to tackle the tough issues head on.  If there’s time and we end up wanting to, we can come back at the end and do some of the more inspirational/uplifting stuff, but I’m just going to ask our listeners to bear with us as we try and optimize this podcast for a certain audience which is those who are shocked and disturbed by a lot of what they have read, either through Grant Palmer and Michael Quinn or Faun Brodie or whatever.  So that’s the context that I was hoping to have this conversation around, and so I picked—oh good, did you have something in before I launched there?“

Bushman, “Well I would just say that I concur in your judgment that this is a major problem.  I run into this all the time, and the trouble is you’re not just shocked by the new facts you learned, but you being to question the whole teaching structure.  You wonder why you were so deceived, and so it casts a shadow back on your teachers and everyone who runs the church.  So somehow or other we’ve got to give people growing up the whole story, or they’re going to be in a precarious position, because who knows when they’ll go out on the internet sometime and get hit with all this stuff?”

JD, “So you do have people coming to you a lot?”

Bushman, “A lot!”

JD, “How does that happen?”

Bushman, “Oh they just write me, tell me the story like you.  You know they’ve read the book and it’s a problem for them.  They feel relieved.  They feel like the book helps them out a little bit.”


7 comments on “Acknowledging Tough Church History

  1. I have never had a problem with “new facts” that supposedly make for tough sledding through some parts of church history. Why? Not because I am totally naive and think that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young could do no wrong. Far from it. Joseph Smith is on record that he was not a perfect man.
    But I have read the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Pearl of Great Price, I have read about Prophets that got drunk, Noah for example. Prophets that were deceptive in order to protect themselves, (Abraham and Isaac with Abimilech and Abraham with the Egyptians). I read about a prophet who procrastinated circumcising his son and was about to be destroyed but was saved by his wife who took performed the circumcision with a stone. (Moses) I read about a prophet who tried to sidestep his calling, but did so after some bit of “persuasion” by the Lord. I read about prophets who had multiple wives. I read about prophets who were deceived. (Isaac, for one)
    I read about apostles that disputed among themselves who was going to be “the boss” when Jesus was gone (Peter, James and John whom Jesus had personally picked.) I read about apostles who got into contentious arguments among themselves while on missions. I read of one apostle bragging that he was not a “whit behind the very chiefest apostles.” I could dredge up more examples but I think what I have should suffice.
    The point is that I did not have an idealized picture of the prophets of old. I had become acutely aware that Jesus Christ was the only man who has ever lived a perfect life here on this earth.
    So, when I was faced with some “tough” history of the church, I was already prepared to find that the past and present leaders of the church were and are imperfect human beings.
    None of the ancient history that i read nor the newer history has impacted my testimony of the gospel, because that testimony did not come from any of those past or present prophets.


  2. […] is a continuation from my previous post where John Dehlin interviews Richard Bushman.  While some people talk about […]

  3. […] is a continuation from my previous post where John Dehlin interviews Richard Bushman.  While some people talk about […]

  4. I’m a convert so I didn’t get the version of church history that others have but my children have. Like Glen, when questions have come up about early church history , I remind my children and myself that God works through mortals. And mortals are imperfect. It would have been simple to give Adam and Eve an Encyclopedia of Mormonism or a Gospel Principles book. Instead we learn precept by precept and walk by faith.

  5. I have the same perspective as both of you, but I have found that when I point it out, some people aren’t persuaded by that line of reasoning.

  6. I agree with the above posts. When people point out “incriminating evidence” that so-and-so could not have been called of God because of x, y or z mistake (or whatever), I just say, “Well, I sure as heck hope he repented.”

  7. Glenn Thigpen nailed on the head. My thoughts fits with his.

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