We’re continuing our conversation with Dr’s Richard & Claudia Bushman. I asked Claudia more about her writings on women in church history.
Women in History
Claudia: When I went to graduate school, I decided that I was going to do a study of women. I was the first person that ever had thought of that to myself. Now, of that, I don’t really say I was THE pioneer, but here I was, a woman, women didn’t get that much attention in the past. Alright, I’m meant to think about women and ordinary women, women that were like me, and I could use my own experience as a housewife and the kinds of things I’d done, that would give me a measure against those. So, in this American Studies program, it was quite possible to do that. The first thing I studied with any kind of seriousness was mill girls in early New England. I studied them because they were the first sort of regularly paid working women in the country. They were really interesting. One of the people that wrote the best book about mill girls, from her own experience, turned out to have a whole slew of papers in the library that was nearby me, near enough so that I could take my little boy to nursery school in the morning, go to this library and work for a few hours. Then I’d go pick him up and become a housewife for the rest of the day. So, I wrote my dissertation about her, Harriet Hanson Robinson, who’s a person that you never would have heard of her, though she was sort of a second / third-rate level feminist and well-known in Boston at the time. So that’s the kind of thing I’d do. But, it’s because of all these other circumstances that it worked to put it together. When I was in graduate school, I also wanted to learn how to do women’s work. So, I did things like, grow and process flax. I learned to spin and weave. I made cheese and soap, all that kind of thing, and all that sort of thing of the past, that I was really glad to know how to do. I’m very glad I didn’t have to do it.
GT: Soap making is dangerous, isn’t it?
Claudia: Oh, yeah, you can do all kinds of harm with those things. But, anyway, that’s the sort of thing. So, I did that book on Harriett Hanson Robinson. It was called A Good Poor Man’s Wife. At the same time, I was just editing this book for Mormon sisters, for my Exponent II book. So, suddenly, I had two books out. From then I could do anything I wanted. So, I just did the things that came into my hands. As I say, I wrote a book about Columbus. The title is America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero. It’s Richard’s title. I think it’s pretty good title.
Claudia: But, the story of how Columbus becomes famous in this nation is unknown. It isn’t from the very beginning. This was always a country that was from England. But, at the time of the revolution, Columbus was rediscovered by America to be the grandfather of the country. George Washington is the father, but Columbus is the grandfather of this country. Of course, then, all kinds of wonderful things are said about Plymouth. A lot of them were discovered to be somewhat false. So, they made a lot of Columbus that he didn’t deserve. So, what I say is that he didn’t volunteer for this, he can’t be too mad at him for being treated well in the past, because he was drafted for that job.
Have you read Claudia’s books? Do you agree with her about Columbus?
Some LDS scholars get in trouble with Church authorities: Michael Quinn, Maxine Hanks, Lester Bush, to name a few. Yet others like Dr. Richard & Claudia Bushman can write about controversial topics and not get into trouble. Why is that? I asked Richard & Claudia their answers to these questions.
Scholars Get in Trouble
GT: So, I have a question for both of you, especially because you know Leonard Arrington and you know, Eugene England. I look at people like Lowry Nelson. I don’t know if you knew him, from Utah State. Even, Lester Bush, it seems like certain people get in trouble. Michael Quinn is another one. [They] get in trouble for writing certain things. But there’s other people like you two, Greg Prince, Terryl Givens, people like that, that can write very similar things, but you don’t get in trouble. Can you talk about why some people get in trouble? Some people don’t. Do you toe the line better than Michael Quinn? How does that work? Or is it just luck of the draw? Or how does that work when you talk about sensitive issues with the Church?
Richard: Well, it’s a good question. My slogan is keep your heart pure, and let your mind run free.
Richard: That is, if you can purge out any desire to tweak the Church, to sort of correct the Church, and just desire to really say what you believe is true. That’s hard to do. A lot of people think they’re doing that. But, you can always sense in their writings, a desire to trouble people. I wouldn’t say that’s true for everyone who gets in trouble, but I’m just saying, you have to have a good attitude. Then, in my case, of course, I was taking all the Church jobs that came along. So, the fact that I was a bishop and stake president and now I’m a patriarch, sort of reassures people that my heart is in the right place. Because I think that’s what the Church leaders are most interested in. Are you really loyal to the Church? And that’s a hard thing to judge. Probably, people are misjudged on that count. But, that’s what I have to say on that subject.
GT: Does it help that you didn’t live in Utah? Did you have a little bit of a buffer, because you were in Boston and New York?
Richard: Yes, it helps a lot. The trouble is, if you live in Utah, you write, aware of General Authorities looking over your shoulder. You can’t do that. You can’t write to please the General Authorities. You’ve got to write what you think is true. It’s just very hard to do in Utah, because there’s such a presence. You say you’re writing a book, or doing this or doing that, and they always want to know, “What do the brethren think?” And if you just get that in your head all the time, it’s very hard to think clearly. So, I’ve done most of my writing in Boston and New York, and it’s been much easier. Also, when I write, I don’t I write just for the Church. I always write for people outside the Church. I always want to talk in a way that–I often imagine myself giving a talk to the faculty at Colombia, and what could I say about the Church, say it in a way that would make sense to them. So, it helps that way, too, to be in another society where you’re aware of other demands.
GT: Claudia, do you have any thoughts there?
Claudia: Well, I think–I’ll do anything if they tell me straight out that I’m not supposed to do something. I won’t do it, and that’s happened a few times. But, I don’t think that–I have never been in the business of criticizing the Church. I don’t want to try and reform it. I don’t threaten to leave if they don’t do something or other. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything that goes on, but, I just think there is no point in fighting authority in that way. So, I just don’t do that. I know there are a lot of people that are dubious of the things I say and do. But, on the other hand, I’ve done an awful lot of things for the Church, too. Lots of my projects are very devoted and so on. I have no desire to leave the Church, even if I’m not ever going to change it or reform it. It’s very important to me.
GT: I think Lavina Anderson felt the same way. They kicked her out anyway.
Claudia: I feel very sad to see people feel that they must resign in the Church. It’s unfortunate in every way. I think we can live with it. I mean, also, I feel like I have a great deal of power in that Church. I don’t have the priesthood. But, I’ve got a lot of [influence.] Things I say make a difference to the local people as well as to myself. I don’t feel bad about my position in the Church. I’m a good member, aren’t I? I pay my tithing.
Richard: Claudia’s view is if you’re discontent with your position in the Church, ask yourself, “What would you like to do in the Church?” And when you’ve figured that out, then just do it.
Claudia: Yeah, do it anyway. I do a lot of that.
What do you think of their responses about how scholars get in trouble?
Dr’s Richard and Claudia Bushman’s latest project involves promoting LDS artists. I asked about how they got involved, and whether LDS art is getting more historically accurate.
Is LDS Art Getting Better?
GT: Do you think LDS art is getting better? I know some critics have complained that, especially, like with Joseph Smith translating the plates he’s putting his finger like he’s going across line by line. Other people have tried to put him in a hat, to be more historically accurate. Do you think LDS art is getting better than it has been? Can you address those issues of whether those artists intentionally led people astray on the translation process and things like that?
Richard: There was no leading astray. There wasn’t leading astray by Church historians or Church leaders or anyone. Everyone believed that he translated using the urim and thummim. Then, gradually these other accounts came up of him looking at a stone in a hat. But the artist who has done more Church history paintings than anyone, George Smith, painted him doing it one way. Then, when he learned that the historians were giving us another point of view, he started doing it the other way. So, I think we’ve come along pretty well, in keeping up with historical knowledge, as it’s been accepted by the Church.
Claudia: We have more and more better painters, really, we do.
Richard: I mean, you’re talking about the art as being historically accurate. But the question is, is the art artistically significant? I think we’re getting to the position where it is that we’ve got some pretty good artists doing some pretty lovely work. We just had a show on the sacred feminine in Mormon, theology and art that had beautiful work, depicting Mother in Heaven, and trying to express feelings. So, I think we’re certainly getting a lot more art, a huge amount of art is being produced these days, by Latter-day saint artists around the world, and it’s getting better, I think.
GT: I was in the Church History Museum just a week or two ago. One of the things that kind of struck me, we always think of Adam and Eve as very white. But these Adam and Eve had kind of a little color to them. So, I was happy to see that.
Richard: Yeah, no, that’s right. We’re beginning to give a little ethnicity to people. One of our papers at the Mormon History Association meetings is going to be on the white Jesus, and how we’re beginning to depict Jesus with different ethnic views. So, I think those changes will occur.
Do you agree?
Rick, I heard years ago that Richard Bushman was working on a cultural history of the gold plates. Was there any mention of that or was that a rumor?
Yes, he mentioned that at the end of part 6. It should be out next year in the for the 200th anniversary of the 1823 vision.
Nice questions, and great thought shared by the Bushmans. I think the questions of whether a particular scholar gets in trouble or not is somewhat luck of the draw — whether or not a senior GA gets upset about a particular article or book (generally by word of mouth, not from actually *reading* the piece!) and whether the scholar gets support from their local leaders or gets hung out to dry.
I really enjoyed Claudia’s book Contemporary Mormonism (2008), which could use a second edition given how much has changed and developed in the intervening 15 years. The Mormon Moment has passed and we’re sailing straight into a new age of retrenchment. History can of course enlighten us to a certain extent on our current situation (whatever that may be) but we need more scholarship looking closely at our current moment. It’s a trickier endeavor, but it is sorely needed. I’m sure I’m not the only one who observes current LDS events and says, “What on Earth is going on? How did it come to this?”
I was disappointed by the response to your comment about Lavina Fielding Anderson. It was pretty much ignored. It’s not like she resigned yet that’s where the conversation went.
Also, I guess I just don’t understand the whole “loyalty to the institution” thing. So that grated. I’d be interested to know the “why” on that.
Re: the art comment “There was no leading astray. Another disapointing answer. Maybe the artist was not intentionally leading anybody astray, but the leaders that commissioned and purchased the art knew exactly what they were doing (Leading people astray)
Do you have evidence to support this?
There was a rock in the FP vault for a 100 years. They knew what it was used for and why it was there. They then walked through church buildings and saw paintings on the walls and in church magazines, knowing that was not the right depiction. They could have stopped it at any time.
We got into it last time and it’s going to happen again. The Bushmans are not only historians, but they are also apologists for the Church. And not only that, they are apologists for the Brethren. We can act like it’s some kind of mystery as to why some historians get away with writing controversial things while some others do not. But it isn’t that mysterious to me. If an historian is on the fireside circuit for/with the Church, he or she is a virtual part of the institution. He or she is basically an insider. And that person is going to be given latitude that an historian from the outside who does not work with the Church isn’t going to get. I won’t say “virtual payroll” but you know what I mean.
And their comments about art were laughable. He says “there was no leading astray” and she says “we have more and more better painters”. Are you kidding? This isn’t about the quality of the painting. This is about images that we have all seen on Church walls and Church magazines and Church library art handouts that depicted BOM translation as a process that is unrecognizable from the historical record. And meanwhile, Joseph McConkie (BYU) and Joseph Fielding Smith (Church “historian”) were telling us that there is nothing to the story about the rock in the hat.
The Bushmans are probably very nice people and maybe even sincere. But we can’t allow them to perpetuate inaccuracies on W&T.
josh h, once you (meaning anyone, not you personally) have given up the naive idea that there is One Shining, Objective Truthful Historical Account — of any historical subject — then you are left with the reality that there are multiple perspectives historians bring to a subject that nevertheless can be considered objective. And the perspective that Bushman (either of them) bring to LDS history is definitely not apologetics. When issues of facts are uncertain, they are willing to give the Church view some leeway, or to present both sides of an uncertain or contested issue. Being fair to the LDS view when warranted is a far cry from doing apologetics.
The mixed reception of Rough Stone Rolling is strong evidence against a claim Richard Bushman was doing apologetics. Both critics and mainstream LDS (including some in leadership) were to various degrees unhappy with the book. Which shows that it successfully landed somewhere in a relatively objective and balanced middle ground — the messy middle ground that good historical work generally ends up in. Objective and fair history rarely satisfies dedicated partisans on one or the other side of an issue.
I’m with Josh on this one. And “keep your heart pure”? And you can “sense in their writings, a desire to trouble people”? Please. So the people who get in trouble lack a pure heart and desire to trouble people. Right. Got it.
Agree with Dot and josh h. I respect the point that Dave B. makes about objectivity and in the main, I agree with him about objective and fair history. Having said that, some of the Bushmans’ language is troubling, as Dot points out. Keeping one’s heart pure has literally nothing to do with the practice or occupation of being an historian; dispassionately sifting historical evidence? Sure. But purity has nothing to do with it. And the “no leading astray” thing is just bullsh*t. As others have pointed out, there could easily have been some correcting done and there wasn’t. Art that affirmed the LDS version of “history” was allowed to stand since it corroborated the church’s truth narrative.
And the comments about Columbus are rather odd. Was the tape interrupted or was there a framing question that was left out leading up to that conversation? Claudia is right about Columbus not choosing to be one of America’s “heroes”, but things are a lot more complicated than she lets on. Also, the notion that “this was always a country that was from England” isn’t really accurate, particularly considering the significant efforts that both Spain and France (among others) made to colonize the Americas. And there is at least some information available about how Columbus came to be viewed as a hero. See this article in Smithsonian Magazine, e.g.: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-christopher-columbus-was-perfect-icon-new-nation-looking-hero-180956887/ . After watching the videos in this post, I emerge with a suspicion of the Bushmans; not that I’m suspicious of their motives or that they seem to be deliberately cunning liars, but rather, I am suspicious of their scholarly approach to history. A lot of the language in these videos is imprecise and obscuring, rather than precise and clarifying. They just don’t talk the way that most historians talk. That doesn’t automatically mean they’re always mistaken, of course, but it does make me a bit skeptical. And that makes me less likely to think that their work in general passes the smell test, though obviously, it’s important to read each text closely and judge for one’s self.
Hopefully you’ve noticed that I don’t throw around smears like “apologist” or “anti-Mormon.” I strive to use neutral and fair words and let the scholars (pro or con) speak for themselves without my commentary. Let the audience decide.
Having said that, if you look at the Bushmans or Givens or people like that and call them apologists, that’s a you problem. You’ve betrayed your partisanship. I could even call you an anti-Mormon, though I try hard to avoid the term.
Once again, if you can’t respect a so-called faithful scholar, you’re simply a partisan who isn’t interested in fairness. You’re interested in promoting your critical views.
I’m with Brother Sky. This interview left me with the sinking feeling that they have been less than forthright both in their written work and in their public personae.
“Apologist” is not generally considered a smear. If you think it is, that might be a you problem. Or maybe we should actually discuss what it means, why you think it is a smear and I (we?) don’t. I doubt that the Bushman’s consider it a smear, but I’m less certain on whether they consider themselves apologists or not.
But I’ll admit that sometimes the term is used inappropriately to discredit people.
Since “apologist” sort of describes a person defending a controversial or minority opinion, you could argue that calling someone an apologist as a debate tactic is a combination of bandwagon and ad hominem fallacy. But if one isn’t using it to prove or disprove an argument I don’t see any problem with saying someone is defending a controversial or minority position.
Brother Sky, you can watch the video. It wasn’t interrupted. Claudia’s point about Columbus is that the 13 colonies were generally all from England. As such, the revolutionaries didn’t want to call King George the grandfather of the country, and so they turned to Columbus. George Washington is the father of the country, and the Italian/Portugese explorer Columbus is the grandfather, so as to take that credit away from England. That’s why an Italian explorer became important, rather than an Englist discoverer.
I don’t think you can say “let the audience decide” and then be mad when they decide. Just saying.
I’m trying to elevate the conversation out of polemics, but the audience is soooo used to throwing mud, it’s hard for some. I still don’t like mudslinging. Other channels are open to that. I’m not.
Rockwell, I don’t know anyone on this site who uses the term apologist in any other way than to denigrate the person to whom the label is applied, including this conversation. It’s used by critics as a pejerative term. Not even Brian Hales likes to be called an apologist because it is used to smear.
There are a few people at FAIR that don’t mind being called an apologist, but no historian at MHA would like to be called that term.
Rick B, I really liked the Columbus stuff. That was all new to me. Did she have an opinion on Columbus as a person, and what he did with the indigenous people when he got here?
Yes, it was new to me as well. My impression was that she understood the modern-day issues about Columbus. But remember, in the 1700s, slavery was legal and wouldn’t have been an issue to the colonists, looking to divorce themselves from British rule.
Asking the Bushman’s why they have escaped scrutiny from the Brethren while others haven’t been so lucky is not a great question. Unless the Bushmans were able to say “we actually asked Elder so-and-so why our work hasn’t gotten us in trouble and he said X”, then they should have simply said “I don’t know” which is a completely acceptable answer. Instead they tried to answer, calling into question other people’s purity and intent, which is not cool. I’m willing to give some grace, assuming they provided a clunky answer to a question that caught them off-guard. As I stated in your last episode, my gut feeling is that the Bushmans are trying their best to live honestly and faithfully to the religion of their ancestors. But how can anyone really know the answer to this question? The Bushmans are not mind-readers.
Also, the Bushmans HAVE been responsible for providing information that has led people out of the church. So there’s that.
And for the record, I personally do not use the term apologist with disdain. It’s a term I use for people that are trying to fill in the gaps prophets of God won’t. Some are better than others. Some seem to be more thoughtful in their approach. YMMV.
The next time I have Dan Vogel and Sandra Tanner on, I will introduce them as anti-mormon apologists. It’s a descriptive term and I’m sure no one will object.
Rick @8:12 that’s a mostly fair point. Many folk here dismiss apologetics. I myself generally prefer the scholarly consensus, when I know what is, and apologetics are almost by very definition opposed to the scholarly consensus.
Rick @9:13. Um. lol. I think. Never heard of an anti Mormon apologist. I think that would describe someone defending Boggs’ extermination order, if anyone ever does that. Perhaps there are some less extreme examples.
It’s probably good that you defend your interviewers from attacks. The comments on this site can be a quite different to everyone from your gentle interview style.
I have liked Richard Bushman’s work. RSR was probably the first serious church history book I read. I think it is good history, with a bit of a slant towards apologetics which he pretty much admits to in the preface, without using the actual term.
I don’t know Claudia Bushman’s work as well.
On the subject of church discipline, I agree with several commenters above. It’s no mystery why the Richard Bushman has not received church discipline.
I should really watch these videos before I comment further.
Rick B: As a follow up to my comment last night, I appreciate these interviews and your posts on W&T. I’ve learned new things as a result. I meant no personal attack on you personally. I just think that the question is an impossible one for the Bushmans (or any of us on this blog) to answer.
In the circles I participate in, I normally hear people say things like “bad apologetics” or “good apologetics” so I just meant to say that the term apologetics, from my perspectives, is used neutrally and not as a pejorative term. Others may participate in circles where the term is used only negatively.
This interview was deeply troubling. The list of people I admire in the Church keeps shrinking. Holland’s talk last Fall at BYU took the apostle off my list. The Given’s clan is off because of their anti-abortion screeds and their strange “radical orthodoxy.” Renlund has become problematic after his bizarre HM talk in the recent GC. Eyring is off because of his unwillingness to talk about anything that matters. The book is still out on Gong. Unfortunately, Uchtdorf is now on the B-team.
Still at the top of Church leaders I admire list is (drum roll): sister Eubanks. Uchtdorf is number 2 and I have hopes for Gong.
@roger Hansen I gave up on Gong when he asked his son not to post a pic of them at dinner with his son’s boyfriend.
Re RSR, I realize it presented information that led people out of the Church but I thought it was a bit slippery on the issues of multiple first vision accounts and the priesthood revelation. I get that he admits it’s biased and that he’s telling from the perspective that Joseph Smith believed what he said, which is a useful lens for analysis, but I was ultimately disappointed in some of the gymnastics.
Elisa, I think Gong might be getting a bad rap about the photo. I, for one, could see me not wanting my family discussions/get togethers publicized or politicized. I’m mostly a private person, particularly in regard to my family. I think we need to give Gong a pass on this controversy.
I still hope he can provide a more progressive edge to the Q15. There still may be hope for Renlund. I fear Holland is a lost cause. I really want Eyring to speak up. And hopefully sister Eubanks will not disappear.
I’m sure the Bushman’s are nice enough people…..If I were making such a comfortable living “milking the Mormon narrative” for all of my adult life….I probably wouldn’t rock the boat much either. As for representing people I look to for spiritual fulfillment….not so much!
Roger Hansen – Sharon Eubank was released in April conference (duties end July 31), so, unfortunately, we won’t likely be hearing from her in conference again. Our loss.
Although Sharon Eubank was released from the Relief Society general presidency, I suppose she will continue in her professional life as Director of Latter-day Saint Charities. Her biography says she has been a church employee since 1998.
@roger Hansen, maybe, but I think Gong is the one who politicized it by requesting it not be posted. His son was certainly not thrilled and has said repeatedly that if people are hoping there are secret queer-affirming apostles, Gong is not their guy.
To be clear I used to love Gong, he was my stake President and brilliant, but I’ve not loved him as an apostle.
It’s early in Gong’s apostleship. And he has had positive moments. Certainly his talk on singles, unmarried, etc. was important.
If my father had asked me to do something similar, I would have tried to comply. I pretty sure I wouldn’t have thrown him under the bus. My father and I disagreed on lots of stuff, but those disagreements were between us. Not fodder for either of our causes.
Gong and Uchtdorf are currently our best hope for a more progressive Church. Hopefully the Q15 will still look to Sister Eubanks for advice.
“Apologist” may carry an unfair bias, but Richard himself used the word “ loyal.” They are “loyalists “ to the extent that they hold back or spin certain conclusions in unnatural directions. As honest as rough stone rolling was with historical facts, the interpretation of the facts and the conclusions always felt awkward to me. For example , in one breath he shared that Joseph was a a glass looker , hired to search out burried treasure , and in the next breath concluded that it was preparation for being a prophet. He often spun troublesome information into a positive light in a way that felt like he was easing the blow to a believer. I don’t think the “Columbia University audience” idea won our often enough in his book. But, it’s the most honest work I’ve seen from a believing , loyal member.