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Believing History

Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays

Richard Lyman Bushman
Reid L. Neilson
Jed Woodworth
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Believing History
    Book Description:

    The eminent historian Richard Bushman here reflects on his faith and the history of his religion. By describing his own struggle to find a basis for belief in a skeptical world, Bushman poses the question of how scholars are to write about subjects in which they are personally invested. Does personal commitment make objectivity impossible? Bushman explicitly, and at points confessionally, explains his own commitments and then explores Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon from the standpoint of belief.

    Joseph Smith cannot be dismissed as a colorful fraud, Bushman argues, nor seen only as a restorer of religious truth. Entangled in nineteenth-century Yankee culture -- including the skeptical Enlightenment -- Smith was nevertheless an original who cut his own path. And while there are multiple contexts from which to draw an understanding of Joseph Smith (including magic, seekers, the Second Great Awakening, communitarianism, restorationism, and more), Bushman suggests that Smith stood at the cusp of modernity and presented the possibility of belief in a time of growing skepticism.

    When examined carefully, the Book of Mormon is found to have intricate subplots and peculiar cultural twists. Bushman discusses the book's ambivalence toward republican government, explores the culture of the Lamanites (the enemies of the favored people), and traces the book's fascination with records, translation, and history. Yet Believing History also sheds light on the meaning of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon today. How do we situate Mormonism in American history? Is Mormonism relevant in the modern world?

    Believing History offers many surprises. Believers will learn that Joseph Smith is more than an icon, and non-believers will find that Mormonism cannot be summed up with a simple label. But wherever readers stand on Bushman's arguments, he provides us with a provocative and open look at a believing historian studying his own faith.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52956-3
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Richard Lyman Bushman
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xviii)
    Jed Woodworth and Reid L. Neilson

    The seventeen essays reproduced here were not written to be read together. The first was published in 1969, the last in 2001. Each set out to answer a particular question or series of questions. Most of the essays were published in journals with large Mormon readership, but one appeared first as a book chapter, another as a commencement speech. Structurally the essays are miles apart. Some are heavily footnoted, others read as lunch talks. Those in the first section are personal essays, while those in the second and third sections are history with a touch of literary analysis. Though differences...

  5. PART I: Belief

    • 1. Faithful History
      (pp. 3-19)

      Written history rarely survives the threescore and ten years allotted those who write it. Countless histories of the French Revolution have moved onto the library shelves since 1789, and no end is in sight. The same is true of any subject you care to choose—the life of George Washington, the medieval papacy, or Egyptian burial rites. Historians constantly duplicate the work of their predecessors, and for reasons that are not always clear. The discovery of new materials does not satisfactorily account for the endless parade of books on the same subject. It seems more that volumes written even thirty...

    • 2. My Belief
      (pp. 20-29)

      When I was growing up in Portland, Oregon, in the 1930s and 1940s, I always thought of myself as a believing Latter-day Saint. My parents were believers; even when they were not attending church regularly, they still believed. All of my relatives were Latter-day Saints and, so far as I could tell, accepted the gospel like eating and drinking, as a given of life. In Sunday School I tried to be good. I answered the teachers’ questions and gave talks that brought compliments from the congregation. From the outside, my behavior probably looked like the conventional compliance of a good...

    • 3. Learning to Believe
      (pp. 30-36)

      We call the occasion of our meeting today a commencement to recognize the new lives you are about to begin. You are scattering in a thousand directions and within a short time will be caught up in new worlds, some of them far from here and quite different from the lives you have known in Provo. But beginnings must also be endings, and today you are ending something, too. You are ending your lives as students, leaving familiar places, good friends, and a particular kind of community, the community of scholars. My thoughts on this occasion might better be called...

    • 4. The Social Dimensions of Rationality
      (pp. 37-44)

      I recently attended a conference on religious advocacy sponsored by a group of Christian scholars who feel that religious belief is unduly restricted in academic discourse. The starting point for the conference was the evident fact that political convictions are freely advocated in classrooms and scholarly writing. These political positions are ideological and value laden, so why not introduce religious views too? If history can be taught from a Marxist perspective, why not from a Christian viewpoint?

      At the conference, scholars with a wide range of personal outlooks, some religious, some not, addressed the question of how their personal beliefs...

  6. PART II: The Book of Mormon and History

    • 5. The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution
      (pp. 47-64)

      The Book of Mormon, much like the Old Testament, was written to show Israel “what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers” and to testify of the coming Messiah.¹ Although cast as a history, it is history with a high religious purpose, not the kind we ordinarily write today. The narrative touches only incidentally on the society, economics, and politics of the Nephites and Jaredites, leaving us to rely on oblique references and occasional asides to reconstruct total cultures. Government is dealt with more expressly than other aspects, however, perhaps because the prophets were often rulers themselves and...

    • 6. The Book of Mormon in Early Mormon History
      (pp. 65-78)

      Was Joseph Smith a magician? That question has always lingered over the early history of Mormonism, but in recent years interest in the issue of magic has been renewed. The flurry of excitement over the short-lived Hofmann letters, with their evidence of a magical outlook in the 1820s, turned the attention of Mormon historians as never before to the broader scholarship on folk magic. There we have found a growing literature on an underground world of magical practices among Christians throughout the western world. Keith Thomas’s massive work Religion and the Decline of Magic demonstrated beyond question the prevalence of...

    • 7. The Lamanite View of Book of Mormon History
      (pp. 79-92)

      History is one of the spoils of war. In great conflicts, the victors almost always write the history; the losers’ story is forgotten. We remember the patriots’ version of the American Revolution, not the loyalists’; the Northern account of the Civil War, not the Southern story of the War between the States; the Allies’ story in World War II, not the Axis’s. Ordinarily the winners’ account of events commands our memories as completely as their armies controlled the battlefield. The reverse is true of the Book of Mormon. The Lamanites vanquished the Nephites and survived; yet by virtue of a...

    • 8. The Recovery of the Book of Mormon
      (pp. 93-106)

      All the events connected with the recovery, translation, and publication of the Book of Mormon took place in a six-and-a-half-year period from September 1823 to March 1830. The time of most intense activity was even shorter. During the four years from September 1823 to September 1827, the only significant happenings were the annual visits to the site where Joseph Smith first saw the plates. The bulk of the important occurrences—the removal of the gold plates from their hiding place, the struggle to preserve them from thieves and the curious, the consultation with scholars in New York City, the translation...

    • 9. The Book of Mormon and Its Critics
      (pp. 107-142)

      By any standard, the Book of Mormon is a narrative of unusual complexity. Scores of characters such as Ether and Moroni, Jared and the brother of Jared, move through the story. The pronunciation guide in the current edition lists 344 proper names: Paanchi, Pachus, Pacumeni, Pagag, Pahoran, Pathros, Pekah, Rahab, Ramath, Rameumptum, and on and on. Intricate and shattering events are compressed into a few sentences. Migration, war, and intrigue alternate with prophecy, sermon, and conversion. Mormon, as warrior, historian, and prophet himself, interweaves political and military events with the history of salvation.¹

      Besides the intricacy of plot, the narrative...

  7. PART III: Joseph Smith and Culture

    • 10. Joseph Smith and Skepticism
      (pp. 145-160)

      Robert Owen, the wealthy Welsh industrialist and reformer, is best remembered in United States history for having invested a fortune in an unsuccessful utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana. In his own time, he was also notable for his religious agnosticism. In the New-Harmony Gazette, which he began publishing in 1825, he propagated infidelity along with socialism, and as he stumped the country to spread his ideas, he frequently criticized Christian belief. In New Orleans in 1828 he offered to debate anyone on the proposition that religion was founded on ignorance and was the chief source of human misery. The...

    • 11. Joseph Smith in the Current Age
      (pp. 161-172)

      What is the place of Joseph Smith’s teachings in our time? What do his writings have to say in a world so different from the one in which he himself lived? If Joseph Smith were alive today, he would be 186 years old.¹ Most of his writings have been in circulation for over 150 years. During that century and a half, vast changes in government, the economy, philosophical outlook, and popular values have transformed society. After all this, what do Joseph Smith’s teachings have to say about the problems of late-twentieth-century society? We do not expect his writings to illuminate...

    • 12. Making Space for the Mormons
      (pp. 173-198)

      The organizers of this event are to be commended for initiating a lecture series named for Leonard Arrington, and I truly hope I can do justice to the occasion. I am tempted to devote the time to Leonard himself, for though his immense talents are widely appreciated, we always feel they are not appreciated enough.

      I met Leonard in 1960 when I took my first job at BYU as a new Ph.D. To my surprise one day in the fall, an envelope from Utah State appeared in the mail, and in it was a letter from Leonard welcoming me to...

    • 13. The Visionary World of Joseph Smith
      (pp. 199-216)

      In the fall of 1829, when the first proofs of the Book of Mormon were coming off E. B. Grandin’s press in Palmyra, Solomon Chamberlin, a restless religious spirit who lived twenty miles to the east, broke a journey to Upper Canada, stopping not far from the residence of Joseph Smith Sr. Born in Canaan, Connecticut, in 1788, Chamberlin had joined the Methodist Episcopals at age nineteen, moved on to the Reformed Methodist Church about seven years later, and then tried life on a communal farm where property was held in common, following the New Testament pattern.

      Dissatisfied with the...

    • 14. Was Joseph Smith a Gentleman? The Standard for Refinement in Utah
      (pp. 217-232)

      Frances Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope, came to America in 1827 with her husband, a failed barrister and farmer, to open a fancy-goods shop in Cincinnati. While her husband kept shop, Frances traveled about the country, observing the American scene. After still another business failure, the Trollopes returned to England, and in 1836 Frances Trollope published The Domestic Manners of the Americans. Although it was an immediate hit in England and was subsequently translated into French and Spanish, the book infuriated readers in the United States. Everywhere Mrs. Trollope looked, she had found vulgarity, which she depicted in...

    • 15. Joseph Smith as Translator
      (pp. 233-247)

      The books and essays on Joseph Smith’s translations, many of them by skeptics who doubt he translated at all, overlook one large question: How did Joseph Smith come to think of himself as a translator? Laying aside the accuracy of the translations, the preceding question asks where the idea of a translation of any kind originated. No other religious young man in nineteenth-century New York—or anyone else for that matter—offered a volume of translated reformed Egyptian as his initial claim on the public’s attention. What inspired Joseph Smith to think of himself as a translator? Ethan Smith, author...

    • 16. The “Little, Narrow Prison” of Language: The Rhetoric of Revelation
      (pp. 248-261)

      I want to raise an old question about Joseph Smith’s revelations, one that came up early in Church history when plans were first being made to publish the compilation of revelations called the Book of Commandments. The question is about the language of the revelations. Joseph noted in his history that at the November 1831 conference in Kirtland, Ohio, where publication was approved, “Some conversation was had concerning revelations and language.” This was the occasion when William E. McLellin, apparently the leading critic of the language, was challenged to make a revelation himself, and failed. Joseph said the elders at...

    • 17. A Joseph Smith for the Twenty-first Century
      (pp. 262-278)

      Since Henry Caswall published The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century in 1843, a year before Joseph Smith’s death, nineteen book-length biographies of the Prophet have appeared in print, more than half of them since 1940.¹ They differ wildly in tone and perspective, as might be imagined. Several are still worth considering by serious students of Joseph Smith’s life. Among the more notable, I. Woodbridge Riley’s The Founder of Mormonism is severely critical but ingenious and original, the first biography to attempt a scientific explanation of Joseph Smith’s revelations.² Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History is a magnificent piece of...

  8. AFTERWORD: Reflections on Believing History
    (pp. 279-282)

    Soon after publishing Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, I was invited to Notre Dame to discuss the book.¹ Questions were coming from all directions, and one person asked why I had not mentioned that Joseph Smith’s father sometimes drank to excess. I was caught off balance because I was not sure why this fact had been omitted. Perhaps I had not been aware of the drinking when I wrote those parts; perhaps I had just overlooked it. The questioner took some satisfaction in my embarrassment, because he thought he had caught me off base as well as off...

  9. Index
    (pp. 283-291)