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"Big Love" Chain Letter: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Richard Bushman: "Hoisted on My Own Petard"

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.

Bushman 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. 

The 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). 

Next, 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 restoration story. 

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?

Bushman 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.

The 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 that. 

Next 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.

The 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. 

Next 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 aplomb. Next! 

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.

Someone 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? 

A 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.


Mayan Elephant

so, were there books for sale and autographing opportunities?

bushman is clearly the new


Thanks Equality for sharing this information. This in part reminded be of when my TBM brother told me that he loved Bushman's book in part because he laid out ALL of the facts about JS and showed that they can't shake someone's testimony. When he told me that, I hadn't read any of the book, but I was quite confident that he hadn't laid out all the facts.

I am still surprised when I see highly respected historians falling into the space of literalistic believing. I could understand them believing in a mythical sense. As I read between the lines of Arrington's book, I see mythical belief. He hints at it clearly, but it sounds like Bushman's fireside tour is a TBM tour.

As for the bit about BY believing that JS III was the rightful heir to the throne, see Quinn's book, Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. Quinn covers it there.

Great job! Thanks for posting this on your blog.



Before the firside began I heard a fellow around me reamrk to another that he had been reading RSR and Bushman had quoted from some Joseph Smith letters with poor grammar and this confirmed that the BOM was beyond the ability of JS to write. I thought of turning around and saying,
"have you ever seen a first-edition BOM?" or "do you think that might be an argument in favor of the Rigdon-Spalding theory?" or "what about the sublime language of other letters written (dictated by JS) such as D&C 128?" or some other thing, but I just let it slide.


Interesting fireside, Equality. Did you get the feeling that the questions posed were genuine questions, or that they were just ploys by people to get him to talk a bit more about a certain subject?

Joseph's Left One

I'm about halfway through that book, and it's infuriating the kind of crap that he pulls. Joseph throws repeated temper tantrums, and Bushman says it's just in keeping with the genteel system of honor. Bushman's testimony probably would have had me throwing things if I had been there.


Having read the book this fireside seems like a real disappointment. Why write the book if he's going to dodge the very issues he raises in the book? Why not jump into the seerstones, lack of proof of the priesthood restorations as described by the modern church, lying about polygamy to his wife and the church at large, etc..

From a testimony perspective it doesn't matter to me whether he translated the Book of Mormon using seerstones or the Virgin Mary cheese sandwich. The thing that bothers me is that the modern church obscures all the difficult issues. Should the one true church have to lie about its history? I think not.



Yes, I had a similar reaction. Going back, I wish I had asked him the following question: "Professor Bushman, the things you present in your book regarding Joseph Smith differ materially and substantially from the history that we teach our children in Primary, our youth in Seminary, our adult members in Gospel Doctrine, and the history that is presented by the church in its magazines, videos, and graphic arts. What accounts for this difference and do you think the church should update its correlated materials to reflect the information historians such as you have brought forth in recent years?"

Marc Bertrand (Yes, real name)

From a few articles I had read about the coming of RSR, they generally stated that Bushman would be 'open', 'frank' and would talk about forbidden subjects not allowed to be discussed in the Church.
Therefore, I got curious and gave in to the temptation and bought the book. Big mistake!
After reading a couple chapters, I wasn't too impressed and I just couldn't bring myself to continue reading it as I was disgusted by his defending statements.
Maybe one day I'll have the stomach to try and finish it in order to be a better critique of his book.
Thanks for your blog-I can relate to you in many areas.
I was a TBM for 28 years. What's the saying? "Been there, done that!"

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