From a recent reddit forum with Mormon historian Richard Bushman, I extracted 9 tips for those who are concerned about church history and how to deal with sticky issues.
On what to do when confronted with history that doesn’t match the church’s story.
Question: There are many people with a fraction of your knowledge of church history that throw up their hands and give up. They say looking any further into the truthfulness is futile, because what they’ve come to know negates the possibility of truth. What fundamental difference is there in those who let the knowledge negate their faith and those who let knowledge sustain it?
Bushman: For me that is the question of the hour. It is hard to explain. People on each side dream up explanations of the other. The believers say you must be sinning; the unbelievers say you are biased by your background and emotional factors. I don’t know the actual answer. I have come recently to ask people how they feel about Christ. If they still value him, I think they will be okay. But many have given up on Christ and even on God. Their problem in other words is a Christian, not just a Mormon, problem. I don’t know why that happens. People are left without a spiritual anchor of any kind. My hope is that wherever they land they will have the strength to reconstruct a belief they can live by. I don’t like it when anti-Mormonism becomes their religion. That is not a good way to live.
Question: It seems that if the organisation that taught you who and what God is turns out to be a fraud, the the credibility of the existence of said god comes into question. What would you say to those who feel they can’t believe in God or Christ because they think Joseph Smith made this whole thing up?
Bushman: I believe that is what indeed happens, but it implies Mormonism is the whole world for people. When the Mormon world cracks, everything crashes down. Lots of people believe in God and Christ who are not Mormons. Are they all as flawed as the Mormons?
I will say something a little abrasive in hopes of being informed. Should not Mormons have a connection with God that goes beyond the Church? Do we worship God or do we worship Mormonism? What should we teach our people to protect them from this vulnerability?
PROTIP 1: Avoid Mormonolatry. Stay spiritually anchored in Christ, not just Mormonism. Don’t let anti-Mormonism become a replacement religion.
On the Book of Mormon as a historical document and book of scripture.
Bushman: The Book of Mormon has a lot of nineteenth-century Protestant material in it, both in terms of theology and of wording. I am looking for an explanation of how and why it is there. I don’t think it is enough to say JS absorbed it from his environment. It is too complex and to far beyond his cultural range. But it is there, and we need to explain why and how. Right now it seems possible that the Joseph gave us exactly what he got by his inspiration, but that what was given him went beyond what the Nephite prophets wrote on the plates. The text was augmented in some way.
Question: Can you expound on the “nineteenth-century Protestant material”? Examples?
Bushman: Ah, you catch me unprepared. I said in another post you should not challenge standard belief without evidence in hand. All I can say here is that while reading Alma in the Book of Mormon I began to google long phrases from the sermons, and they came up in sermons in very much the same doctrinal context. All the talk about Jesus in the Book of Mormon, its glory we would say, has a 19th century ring to it. In my opinion, we should become the experts on this material and figure out what it tells us about translation and the nature of the text.
Question: Do you agree that the production timeline for the Book of Mormon along with Joseph’s level of education provide compelling evidence for the divine origin of the book? Why or why not?
Bushman: I think the Book of Mormon is a marvel. I don’t think you can make a case based on historical evidence that Joseph Smith could have written the book. It is entirely too complicated and produced with so little experience. In my opinion that does not allow you to jump immediately to the conclusion that the book was divine. I tell people it was either a work of genius or it was inspired. By genius we mean something that exceeds normal human capacities. That is certainly true for the Book of Mormon. See Wallace Bennett’s book, Leap of Faith for an extended presentation of this view.
PROTIP 2: (Implied) Don’t draw hasty conclusions about complex material.
On evaluating the accuracy of historical stories.
Question: If I remember correctly, in RSR you did not include the story about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail commanding the guards to be silent as recounted by Parley P. Pratt (and included in the 2011 Relief Society/Priesthood Teachings of Joseph Smith manual). Why did you omit this? Is there anything inherently untrustworthy about Pratt’s account? Or is it that there aren’t any sources other than Pratt?
Bushman: I will confess I am a little suspicious of overly dramatic accounts. We are all so inclined to embellish our stories. In general I tried to avoid accounts written long after the fact. To use them properly you have to consider all the forces bearing on the story-teller when he finally put it down. I leave out a lot of material written in the 1860s and 1870s for that reason. A second account of the incident would have made a big difference.
Bushman: We are in a period of transition with regard to our history. The narrative is in the process of reconstruction. Right now that means there is the standard, comforting story, and then a series of controversies. Teachers are wondering how many of the surprises can be brought up in Sunday School without disrupting the spiritual purposes of the class. In time I think this problem will go away. All the controversial questions will be absorbed into the standard narrative and we won’t have a sense of two tracks. We will explain that Joseph Smith looked in a hat to translate just as now we say he looked in a stone box to find the gold plates. There are already lots of surprising things in the standard narrative. We will simply flesh that out. We must, however, not relent in getting all this material included. We want the story we tell each other to be based on the best possible historical evidence. Any shrinking from that mandate will only lead to more problems down the road. I think the Church is trying to create that kind of comprehensive, accurate narrative. In a few years there won’t be any more surprises.
PROTIP 3: When evaluating history be more skeptical of accounts that are overly dramatic, told decades after the fact, and those told by a single source.
On the recent improvement in transparency and relaying a more accurate historical account.
Question: As a follow up question, what do you think is spurring this change in focus for including the more controversial aspects of the history when it has previously not been a priority?
Bushman: Doubtless the blast of information on the internet changed the situation drastically. The Church had to face that fact that information of all kinds was now in the public realm. But I would like to think it has something to do with maturation as well. Many church members have enough confidence in their belief that they feel they can take the facts straight. They want to know the reality. I think secretly they felt their belief would have to get down to the full story before they could be secure. I can say that many General Authorities, perhaps not all, feel much better about telling it all.
Question: Is there a consensus among the brethren about the history of the church? Are they usually fairly informed about the issues?
Bushman: They were not for many years, but recently they have had to get up to speed. The recent Church historians have done a great job of informing the Brethren. The gospel topics were a surprise to many. They are often charged with concealing the truth. I think the fact is the old narrative was all they knew. I don’t think that all believe we have to tell the whole story. Why bring all that up they are wont to say. But those on the side of transparency are prevailing.
The gospel topics were a surprise to many. They are often charged with concealing the truth. I think the fact is the old narrative was all they knew.
PROTIP 4: Don’t assume a conspiracy among the leaders to hide the truth. Information has never been more accessible than it is now.
Question: I find it troubling that many people feel that if you dig deep academically (in any field really) that you risk losing your faith. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
Bushman: Yes you do risk losing your faith if you dig deep. It has happened to lots of people. But that does not mean you should not dig. You don’t want to feel that if you turned over every stone, somewhere there would be a snake. You have to be willing to look at everything or your faith will be shaky. My own belief is that if you run into a problem, you should plunge right into the center of it and learn all you can. Problems that are lit up with knowledge are often less scary than problems lurking in the shadows.
Problems that are lit up with knowledge are often less scary than problems lurking in the shadows.
PROTIP 5: Faith requires trust. Digging in and being open-minded is the only way to build a faith on a foundation of trust. But due to the complexity of the records, don’t draw conclusions hastily.
Question: It seems to me that there is a certain amount of social stigma associated with addressing the more difficult issues in mormon history. Many members of the church (myself included) feel that we can’t openly discuss church history without being accused of promoting “anti-mormon” or “faith-destroying” ideas. In your opinion, how can we can address these issues in a way that is more palatable to those who may not be aware of some of the more troubling issues in mormon history?
Bushman: Contradicting the standard narrative of church history is a delicate matter. People get disturbed and the questioner feels rebuffed. I ran into this problem at Claremont where the graduate students offended Church members with their expert knowledge on the New Testament when it ran against the standard views. I think two things have to be kept in mind. If your secret wish is to be an iconoclast, to break the images, church members will sniff that out. Or if you want to parade superior knowledge as some of the Claremont students did, you will meet resistance. If your wish is to help people understand our history better, you are more likely to be accepted. My second suggestion is be prepared. In a sense you have to begin each comment with the phrase “there is reason to believe . . . ” If you challenge someone’s long held opinion, they will want to know where you got that. What reason do you have to make such an assertion. You can’t simply tell them it is well known, or you found it on the internet, or that some critic came up with this information. You need to know where in the sources this new data can be found. If you are claiming JS looked in a hat to translate you had better know that Emma Smith said this in an interview with her son. That will not only add authority to what you are saying, but take the sting out of your claims. Then you can look at the document together and figure out what it means.
Even the honest must recognize they are dealing with very strong feelings and should not expect to be greeted joyfully when they bring up a sticking point. We have to try to understand each other. If you feel hopeless, move to Manhattan. We love questioners.
PROTIP 6: Check your motives for sharing a more accurate depiction of history that contradicts church versions. Are you trying to help others understand (yes), being an iconoclast (no), or trying to demonstrate your superior understanding (double no)? Realize that people have strong feelings and don’t like to find out they are wrong.
PROTIP 7: Know your sources, not just vague things like “it’s well known,” “internet,” or “read it somewhere.” Know and share the historical reference.
PROTIP 8: Move to Manhattan!
Question: Where can a layperson, such as myself, easily gain access to primary sources (preferably on the internet)?
Bushman: Look at the footnotes of the books you are reading. If they don’t have footnotes, get another book. The Joseph Smith papers are a trustworthy source for lots of stuff.
PROTIP 9: Don’t just rely on secondary accounts or summaries on internet sites. If you really want to know history, dig in to the Joseph Smith papers.
Are these tips helpful? Does Richard Bushman’s perspective give you more hope for the future of our curriculum and the increase in transparency?