Columbia University Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus Richard L. Bushman descended upon my stake the other night for a “fireside” presentation on Joseph Smith. I joined about 250-300 others in the chapel of the stake center to hear what the man who recently published Rough Stone Rolling had to say about the man millions believe was a prophet of God. I begin with the end because this is a long post that some may not want to finish. Toward the end of the fireside, Bushman made two separate remarks that I found outrageous.
First, he said that his purpose in writing for Latter-day Saints was to show that they could look at the “whole record” of Joseph Smith and not find anything that would disturb their testimony. This offends me for two reasons. First, his book does not contain the whole record of Joseph Smith. It contains much information, but there is much that is excluded. If I had asked a question of Bushman, it would have been “why did you include information about polyandry but not a word about Helen Mar Kimball?” Second, I find it offensive that Bushman has essentially taken it upon himself to decide what information one ought to find disturbing about Joseph Smith. Maybe Joseph’s money-digging, temper, 33 marriages (at least ten to married women and several to teenage girls and many accompanied by lies regarding same), invention of the Book of Abraham, fabrication of stories about ancient America (Zelph ring a bell?), and crowning himself King of the World are not disturbing to Bushman, but does he really have the right to make that determination for every other Latter-day Saint who may view this information differently? I think not.
The last remark Bushman made that I found truly outrageous was in his closing testimony, in which he affirmed his belief in Joseph as a Prophet of God and said that, in his estimation, Joseph was incapable of writing the Book of Mormon and that the only explanation for the existence of the Book of Mormon is that God inspired Joseph in its translation. Now, that’s not the offensive part. Bushman is free to believe what he wishes on that point, and his belief is squarely within what one would consider orthodox LDS opinion. What was outrageous was his next comment, that his belief that God inspired Joseph in the production of the Book of Mormon was based on his historical judgment. In other words, as an historian, not merely as a member of the church, he thinks the Book of Mormon is a work of God and angels and not the product of Joseph Smith. He believes this not because of a spiritual experience, but as a result of his historical expertise. Of course, this is nonsense of the highest rank. It is the same as if a Muslim historian said he believed Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse not as a matter of faith but as a matter of historical record. Or a Catholic historian saying she believed in Jesus’ resurrection based not on faith but as a matter of history. It was an ridiculous remark and one that, I am quite sure, Bushman would not repeat in front of non-LDS audiences filled with fellow historians.
Now, going back to the beginning of the fireside, I was struck first by Bushman’s avuncular style. He reminded me a bit of Ronald Reagan, with an unassuming “aw shucks” demeanor. He began, as is customary in LDS circles, with a lame joke. This one was about Beethoven, where two musicians visit his grave and hear music playing softly. One remarks to the other: “it sounds like one of his symphonies played backwards.” The other responds, “of course, that’s just Beethoven de-composing.” As is also customary in LDS circles, the audience laughed with an enthusiasm inversely proportional to the funniness of the joke.
spent the next twenty minutes or so sermonizing on the Prophet Joseph
Smith. The discourse was decidedly
nonlinear, and Bushman appeared to lose his train of thought in a couple spots
(more Reagan flashbacks). He is 75,
however, so I will forgive him the occasional mental lapse.
professor spoke first on Joseph’s relationship with God, making the unoriginal
point that Joseph’s relationship with God was a personal one in which he
experienced a vision of the divine. Bushman mentioned the First Vision where Joseph saw “the Father and the
Son” but did not mention at this time that there were multiple accounts (he
would mention it later).
Bushman said how impressed he was with the number of angels that were part of
Joseph’s ministry. He mentioned how
Joseph’s angels were theologically distinct from the angelology familiar to
much of the Christian world in that Josephs’ angels were, and had been,
connected with the earth. They were of
the same class of being as mankind, not something wholly other and
distinct. Bushman did not mention
whether this idea was unique to Joseph Smith or whether there were others in
the early 19th century who might have viewed angles similarly. The professor mentioned the restoration of
the Melchizidek Priesthood by Peter, James, and John as an example of Joseph’s
association with angels. Somewhat
surprisingly (because he does discuss it in the book), he failed to say
anything about the many historical problems with the Melchizidek Priesthood
Next, Bushman observed that Joseph Smith, while a visionary man, was often left to his own devices to figure out what to do. Bushman compared him to Bishops who are given a basic handbook and some guidance but are largely left on their own to determine their course of action. To illustrate, Bushman used Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon, which, incredibly, he said was accomplished through the Urim and Thummim (again contradicting the historical record as discussed in his own book.) Bushman said Joseph lacked confidence in his own abilities, which is why he sent Martin Harris with the characters to see Charles Anthon—Joseph wanted validation that his translation was correct. I must say this example left me scratching my head. If Joseph had had the First Vision, where God appeared to him, and had had the multiple experiences with Moroni, and was engaged in a translation by the “gift and power of God” where words appeared to him on a magic peep stone placed in his hat, why would he have any doubts about the accuracy of the translation? Bushman then said that Joseph was “uneasy” about his own ability to fulfill his own calling, again leaving me to ask myself, why?
concluded the sermon portion of the fireside by saying that Joseph related to
God the same way we do. His first prayer
was for forgiveness and salvation. Now
the professor mentioned that there were multiple accounts of the First Vision
and he quoted from one in which the first words spoken to Joseph by deity were
“Joseph my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.” Despite this, after three years, Joseph again was concerned for his soul
when he offered up the prayer that was answered with an angelic visitation
(whom Bushman assuredly identifies as Moroni, with no discussion of the
conflicting accounts in which the angel was identified as Nephi).
To illustrate, Bushman quoted a beautifully written letter from Joseph to Emma written in the early 1830s in which Joseph confesses his unworthiness and asks for Emma’s forgiveness for undisclosed transgressions. Bushman did not mention it, but I wondered whether, given the coincidental timing of the letter, Joseph’s unworthiness had anyhting at all to do with his barnyard romp with one Fanny Alger. But, of course, Bushman did not go into what it was that motivated Joseph to seek forgiveness from Emma.
Bushman closed with an observation that Joseph and his companions were called the “friends” of God in the Doctrine & Covenants and that nowhere else in scripture are the prophets called friends of God. Bushman then sought questions from the audience and graciously offered to take questions on anything at all related to Joseph Smith and Rough Stone Rolling.
first question came from a gentleman who wanted to know whatever happened to
Sidney Rigdon. Bushman made a remark
about how many of Joseph’s followers faltered and fell away, that many of them
were among the better educated of the saints, and that Brigham Young and
Wilford Wodruff, who were coarse, common, simple men, did not fall away. Then he said some historians think Sidney was
never the same after a tarring and feathering incident in which he was dragged
with his head bumping along the hard ground—Joseph could never trust him after
someone asked about the elephant in the room. They had taken a friend to see the new Joseph Smith movie playing at
visitors’ centers in Utah and after the movie the friend said something like
“yeah, but how many wives did he have?” The questioner wanted to know what Bushman thought we should tell our
friends about Joseph’s polygamy.
Bushman answered that “the great problem with polygamy is that everyone who talks about it projects something onto it but we hear very little from Joseph Smith himself on the subject.” Bushman paints Joseph (as he does in the book) as a reluctant participant in plural marriage. The revelation was given in 1831 (according to Bushman who says nothing about whether that date is without historical controversy). Bushman says Joseph couldn’t bring himself to live the principle, and then Bushman immediately contradicted himself and said that Joseph did take a plural wife in the early 1830s (without mentioning her name—it was Fanny Alger; perhaps Bushman just had another “senior moment”). But then Joseph waited five years and, feeling under enormous pressure (Bushman does not indicate from whom—perhaps a reference to the “angel with a flaming sword?), he took a number of years. Bushman did not mention how old some of these wives were and, like his book, fails to mention Helen Mar Kimball, the 14-year-old girl Joseph married as a 37-year-old man. Joseph was, thus, a “reluctant” polygamist. Bushman went on to say that although polygamy brought down the wrath of the nation, the Mormon people were able to prepare themselves for the new century and if we judge polygamy by its fruits, then we have to say it was a success because God did, in fact, raise a people up unto himself through polygamy.
next question was on the historical problems with the Melchizidek Priesthood
restoration. Bushman says that unlike
other times when angels appeared as answers to prayers, it seems that Peter,
James, and John just appeared one day to restore the priesthood without any
prior preparation. In short, Bushman
completely dodged the question. He then
went on to say that Joseph many times in his career thought his work as a
prophet was done; then, miraculously another revelation would come. For some reason, this idea made me think of
the Winchester Mansion, in which a wealthy widow was forever adding rooms and
staircases to her home, which was never completed. Bushman said the one question he would like
to ask Joseph Smith was whether he enjoyed being a prophet. I can think of many questions I would like to
ask Joseph Smith and, honestly, that one doesn’t make my list.
came a question from (apparently) an evangelical who read Galatians 1:8 about
“though we or an angel preach another gospel . . . yadda yadda yadda. Bushman smacked this down with grace and
The next question was about where Joseph saw himself in history or eternity or something like that. Bushman said there was some sketchy evidence that Joseph may have at one time claimed he was descended from Christ. I had never heard that, and Bushman put up enough qualifiers around it to render the statement almost meaningless, but it was an interesting tidbit nonetheless.
then asked whether Bushman enjoyed writing the book. He said he didn’t find anything that could
shake his testimony and related how he once asked Leonard Arrington if there
was anything in the inaccessible vaults that Arrington had seen that was of an
earth-shattering nature and Arrington had assured him there was nothing there
that would destroy anyone’s testimony. This makes me wonder why they don’t just open up the vaults, then, but
hey, who am I to question Arrington and Bushman?
question then came about Joseph’s descendants. Did he have any through any of his other wives? At this time, there are no known descendant
through wives other than Emma though DNA tests are currently being conducted. And there are over 200 descendants in
Australia alone, most of whom are not LDS. Someone then asked if polygamy was to raise up seed, and Joseph had 33
wives but no children through them, then what was the purpose of polygamy for
Joseph. That’s when Bushman acknowledge
he had been “hoisted on his own petard.” He quickly recovered, however, and said that polygamy as a whole was to
raise up seed; for Joseph it served a dynastic purpose.
What about the succession crisis, someone asked. Bushman candidly acknowledged that the picture was ambiguous. Joseph gave the keys to the 12 but it was not certain that they were to assume the presidency of the church. Bushman said that Brigham Young had admitted that the Presidency of the church would have belonged rightfully to Joseph III if he had come west with the saints and remained worthy. I had never heard that before and Bushman did not give a source for that little tidbit.
With that, the fireside came to an end and we hurried out to the parking lot where we all exhibited courtesy in driving and obeyed all traffic laws on the way home.