It took more than a month, but I’m finally finished. This is the conclusion of John Dehlin’s 5 part interview with Richard Bushman. (I will post an index tomorrow of the interviews.)
JD, “Well if I can ever help, I’m just one small little voice but I’d love to help to that end. Well Brother Bushman, I just can’t thank you enough for the time you’ve been willing to take with me, but more importantly with the listeners to provide your very important faithful and still knowledgeable perspective. As we agreed up front I kind of hit you with a lot of hard question in serial, almost like a full frontal assault, but I wouldn’t feel good if we didn’t end by having you share with us what clearly is the most important aspect of Joseph’s work, no matter what your beliefs are and that the positive things that he did. I would love it and be honored if you might conclude with us a story or two that you feel captures Joseph as you’ve come to know him so intimately, and maybe even share with us your final feelings about Joseph in a positive affirming light.”
Bushman, “Well, there’s n awful lot to be said about Joseph and his achievements. Rather than try to sum up everything that he did which I think is an incredible list of kind of revolutionary developments in the religious world at his time, I’d just say a little bit about his character because in some ways that is the most interesting and perhaps most difficult about Joseph and that is what kind of a man was he?
I began my work on him with a sense of him being exuberant , supremely self-confident, maybe a little brash. There was much to confirm that view of him. Howard Korry his clerk during part of the Nauvoo years said that no matter who came to visit Joseph, no matter what their level of education or their standing in life, he could always answer their questions, he was always sure of himself. From all the other things I know I think he may have been the dominant room in every room he entered. He was the center of attention and was very quick on repartee, and had something to say usually kind of witty. Some people thought he was a little light minded, he told so many jokes.
So you sort of have that extroverted personality to the forefront, the way I thought of him for a long while, so it came as a surprise to me to discover that there was a sorrowful side to Joseph Smith. That in public, he was exuberant and positive as I had thought, but that when he was alone and left to contemplate, sorrows would come over him. He was like Abraham Lincoln who similarly was great on the hostings and always had jokes and was a great speaker, but when he was alone, Lincoln would descend into deep melancholy. A recent book it was argued this was the source of his real creativity were in these dark times.
I don’t think Joseph was quite as beset as Lincoln was. But he did have his melancholy moments. In fact in those times of inactivity almost always came upon him. We find out about them because those were the times he would write to Emma and tell her how he was feeling. One of my favorite stories has to do with one of these down times when he and Newell Whitney were returning from a visit to Jackson County in the summer of 1832, and as they were travelling along a carriage, the horse ran away. Joseph threw himself free of the carriage. Whitney tried to do the same but his leg was caught in the wheel and crushed, and Joseph had to nurse him back to health for a month. They were sort of trapped in Greenville, Indiana by his illness, by Whitney’s illness.
Joseph didn’t have much to do and he just went mad, just couldn’t stand the inactivity. He wrote to Emma that every day he would go out into the woods and pray and try to commune with the Lord and keep himself in touch and as he said in the letter he would give lent to all the feeling of my heart, and this are some of the words he wrote to her.
I’ve called to mind all the vast moments of my life and am left to mourn and shed tears of sorrow for my folly and suffering the adversary of my soul to have so much power over me as he has had in times past, but God is merciful and had forgiven my sins, and I have rejoiced that he has sent forth the Comforter unto as many as would believe and humbleth themselves before him.
It is very reminiscent of Nephi’s lament, this powerful young son leader of everything could lead every catastrophe and yet lamenting at the end of his life that Satan had too much power over him. This was sort of characteristic of Joseph, he would fall into regret and yearning and begin to speak of death, near the end of his life particularly, he spoke often of the tomb and how he wanted his family all to be buried together so they could greet each other on the resurrection day. In this letter to Emma in 1832 near the end he says,
I will try to be contented with my lot, knowing that God is my friend. In him I shall find comfort. I’ve given my life into his hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me, only to do his will.
I found that impressive because I sort of interpreted it as the under-painting of his life. You know how painters will put layers and layers of different pigments on the canvass before they put the final pigment on, and that top color is all influenced by the depths below it. If you look at Joseph’s scriptures, you look at his passages on Enoch, you look at Mormon’s lament at the end of his life, you realize that sorrow as well as joy and sort of understood the depths of human suffering and I think that this sort of underlies his whole gospel. I think Mormons themselves are sort of irreplaceably optimistic, maybe tending toward the smug and self-righteous. But under it all is the sense of the depths and the struggles and sorrows of human life, and that is what gives the gospel sort of its resilience and power over our lives, so I find Joseph and his teachings sort of deep and endlessly deep and profound.
I really think the next frontier in Mormon thought is to explore the depth of his ideas , I don’t think we’ve begun to understand just how they’ve rippled through our understanding of the universe and human history. We just have not produced scholars of sufficient depth and range to speak of all these implications, but they’re on the way. There are some promising young people who are coming along who value Joseph Smith’s thought and see how it helps us to understand the whole world. I hope that those people will have the freedom and the courage to keep exploring all those things. So that’s my great hope for the Church. I myself have always sort of thought in the Joseph Smith mode. It’s shaped my view of the world and my conduct.
I’ve prayed and paid tithing and gone on a mission and taken every Church call that’s come and been quite willing to give my all and to consecrate myself in the temple. All through my life has brought me so much goodness and brought powers that are so far beyond my own capacities which I consider to be very limited that I would just be foolish to give up on all these good things. I wouldn’t give them away for the world. That’s why I hold onto the teachings of Joseph Smith and why I hope that as a people we will be able to be worthy of them and to find out what their true meaning and possibilities are in understanding the world in which we live.
JD, “Well, Brother Bushman, Dr. Richard Bushman, author Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, let me again thank you again on behalf of all my listeners for sharing with us your very important insight, your scholarship, and most importantly your faith and your testimony. I can’t thank you enough. ”
Bushman, “Alright, it was my pleasure John. I’ve enjoyed talking to you.”
JD, “Thank you. [music plays] This program was been a production of Mormon Stories Podcast. TO comment on this episode or to peruse the archives of past episodes, please visit us online at Mormonstories.org. Also please consider supporting Mormon Stories Podcast by making a contribution today. Thanks again for listening.”
End of the interview