John Dehlin of Mormon Stories interviewed Richard Bushman for 4 1/2 hours back in 2007. Â I’ve posted transcripts of the first 50 minutes of this interview (Part 1) in 3 separate posts because it was so long.
- Growing Up as Richard Bushman
- How he chose to become a Historian
- 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). Â 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, â€œWelcome to part 2 of our multi-part interview with Dr. Richard Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.Â 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.Â 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.Â Please forgive the annoyance, but I felt that his points were so important that I could not bear to edit them out.Â After the first two minutes or so, it becomes much more bearable.Â Now to the content.
In this episode, we tackle four main topics:Â first, Brother Bushman provides a high level review of the major Joseph Smith biographies that proceeded Rough Stone Rolling, including Faun Brodieâ€™s No Man Knows My History. Â Next, brother Bushman discusses the art of writing history, and the challenges involved in trying to arrive at â€˜the factsâ€™ and â€˜the truthâ€™ 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 Smithâ€™s First Vision Story, and second Joseph Smithâ€™s involvement in folk magic and treasure digging.Â Joseph Smithâ€™s story, and your story today on Mormon Stories.â€
[introductory music plays]
Bushman, â€œWell 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.Â I didnâ€™t consult it for information, but I think it sort of stands in the historiographical sequence.
John Henry Evansâ€™ 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â And then of course Faun Brodie, which Iâ€™m now beginning to see could be thought of as a positive work.Â Mormons couldnâ€™t stand it of course.Â But in terms of non-Mormon books written about Joseph Smith, it was a relatively sympathetic portrait.Â 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.â€
JD, â€œI see what youâ€™re saying.Â I left No Man Knows My History thinking that he was brilliant, that he was a genius and a was a good-hearted man.â€
Bushman, â€œYeah, well, thatâ€™s exactly what I wanted to say.Â 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 Josephâ€™s thoughts.Â 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.â€
JD, â€œYouâ€™re a humble man so youâ€™re not going to grasp this, but were you hoping to write the definitive biography or is that just a silly word altogether?â€
Bushman, â€œItâ€™s a silly word.Â No one can ever define Joseph Smith permanently.Â I was very conscious that this was just one view of Joseph.Â 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.Â 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 youâ€™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?Â 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 Mormonsâ€™ point of view.Â But thatâ€™s just one angle.Â There are lots of other ways of telling that story.â€
JD, â€œSo this presents a bit of an interesting dilemma because I agree just focusing on the negative not only doesnâ€™t tell the full story, but it also comes across as being negative.Â As I talked to you before on how we might approach this podcast, I set it up from my own experience, and Iâ€™ll just recount that because it sort of sets up how weâ€™re going to approach this podcast.
Basically, I grew up with a white-washed view of Joseph Smith.Â I have to admit, I didnâ€™t have parents who could school me in the nuances of history and of perspective and of depth.Â They are wonderful smart people, but we just didnâ€™t have those types of conversations growing up really about the church or church history.Â I had to rely not on what I read because I didnâ€™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 didnâ€™t have any subtle nuanced perceptions of Joseph Smith at all.Â I just have to be honest.Â 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 didnâ€™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 thatâ€™s the view I have of Joseph Smith and of course itâ€™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 donâ€™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 canâ€™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.Â If thereâ€™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 Iâ€™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.Â So thatâ€™s the context that I was hoping to have this conversation around, and so I pickedâ€”oh good, did you have something in before I launched there?â€œ
Bushman, â€œWell I would just say that I concur in your judgment that this is a major problem.Â I run into this all the time, and the trouble is youâ€™re not just shocked by the new facts you learned, but you being to question the whole teaching structure.Â You wonder why you were so deceived, and so it casts a shadow back on your teachers and everyone who runs the church.Â So somehow or other weâ€™ve got to give people growing up the whole story, or theyâ€™re going to be in a precarious position, because who knows when theyâ€™ll go out on the internet sometime and get hit with all this stuff?â€
JD, â€œSo you do have people coming to you a lot?â€
Bushman, â€œA lot!â€
JD, â€œHow does that happen?â€
Bushman, â€œOh they just write me, tell me the story like you.Â You know theyâ€™ve read the book and itâ€™s a problem for them.Â They feel relieved.Â They feel like the book helps them out a little bit.â€