An Evening With Richard Bushman

About a thousand other people and I enjoyed an evening with Richard Bushman last night. He spoke about Joseph and Emma for about 40 minutes and then entertained questions from the audience for another 40 minutes. While his insights on Joseph and Emma were interesting, I found the questions more fascinating, because they reflected a lot of the issues I blog about.

For those who don’t know, Richard Bushman is the author of Rough Stone Rolling, the 2005 biography of Joseph Smith that has become the definitive account of the prophet’s life as told from the viewpoint of a faithful historian. I took advantage of the opportunity to have him autograph my copy and was not the only one in the audience who waited in line to do so.

Open and honest discussion

It was wonderful to see so many people interested in learning more about this great man and the beginnings of the Mormon Church. Every time he finished answering a question a dozen more hands shot up. We could have been there for several more hours. I think that goes to show you how much we as a people appreciate someone who has studied the prophet’s life in such detail.

There were many questions that focused on the process of translating, the Urim and Thummim, the seer stone in the hat, polygamy, the three witnesses and the eight witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, the martyrdom, succession, Book of Abraham translation, Mountain Meadows massacre and folk magic. He welcomed every question and encouraged us to ask even the most difficult ones.

A well-qualified historian

One of the most refreshing comments I heard was his expression of appreciation to the church, specifically to the church historian’s office, Marlin K. Jensen and Richard E. Turley for the recent publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows. He then said that he hoped that the church would do the same with the issue of polygamy, treating it openly and with historical accuracy.

Burt what impressed me most about the evening was the obvious fact that Richard Bushman is a highly respected historian who probably understands the beginnings of Mormonism as well as or better than anyone else. Besides being the co-general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, he chairs the board of directors of the Mormon Scholars Foundation.  He knows early church history.

Serving faithfully in the church

And yet, Richard Bushman has served as a bishop, a stake president, a patriarch and is currently a sealer in the Los Angeles temple.  I would say that he is a faithful, believing Latter-day Saint, in spite of everything he knows about early church history.  I bring this up specifically to make a point about a common response to my essays and how I can still believe when I know this stuff.

I recently had someone ask me how I was able to do what I do – serve faithfully in the church – in spite of all that I know about, as he called it, “the more disturbing facts of the origins of Mormonism.”  I think maybe he might want to redirect that question to someone like Richard Bushman who knows so much more than I do and yet has been a faithful believer all his life.

Believing in spite of knowing

This individual asked, “How do you reconcile your belief and what the church teaches, with the history of things like the origins of the temple ceremony, polygamy, first vision contradictions, development of the story of the restoration of the priesthood, and other issues?”  I answered him privately in an email but have been pondering this whole idea of believing in spite of knowing.

Frankly, it perplexes me. I think I have expressed this same sentiment several times in previous essays every time it comes up. What is so hard about studying and understanding our very early church history, warts and all, and then continuing to believe that Joseph Smith was an instrument in the hands of God to bring about the restoration of the gospel and his church in the latter days?

Shocked by our history

Are we supposed to be shocked, dismayed and overwhelmed with doubt every time we discover some new fact about the early days of the church?  For example, last night we were reminded that beer and wine were used by the early saints, and sometimes even whiskey.  Today, we would be shocked if we learned that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drank a glass of wine.

Yet in volume IV, page 120 of the History of the Church on the date of April 17 1840 we read, “This day the Twelve blessed and drank a bottle of wine at Penworthan, made by Mother Moon forty years before.”  Things were different back then, weren’t they?  The Word of Wisdom had been received in 1833 but was not binding upon the saints as a commandment like it is today.

History not being hidden

When Fanny Alger was brought up by Brother Bushman last night as an example of an early failed attempt by Joseph to obey the law of plural marriage, I’ll bet there were a few people in the audience who did not know that Joseph had married this sixteen year old girl in 1833. The revelation on celestial marriage had been received in 1831 but Joseph was hesitant to obey.

For some reason, the idea that Joseph participated in plural marriage is supposed to be shocking to us. This continues to be one of the most common tactics of our critics – to try to shock us with facts that are supposedly being hidden from us by our modern church leaders.  Nothing could be further from the truth. We are always being encouraged to study our history and learn the facts.

Selling the Book of Mormon Copyright

Another example that our critics like to throw at us is the failed attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada. Until recently, the only source for this event was the memory of David Whitmer who was not present when Joseph sent the brethren on their mission.  Joseph never said that it must have been a false revelation as Whitmer claimed he said upon their return.

We’re then supposed to conclude that if we can’t trust a revelation from Joseph then how are we supposed to know what is revelation from God. I’m not an apologist but I’m grateful that there are people who dig into these things to get the facts and present them for our review.  Of course, the same facts can be presented in favorable or unfavorable light, depending on where you go.

Consider carefully the source

For example, you can read the story of the copyright mission to Canada on MormonThink as supposed evidence that even Joseph Smith didn’t know when revelations were from God and when they were from the devil.  Yet you can read the same account in greater clarity and detail from a more trustworthy and reliable source like FAIR and come away strengthened in faith.

We could go on and on with hundreds of things that are supposed to be shocking to us modern believers of the faith because they seem so out of character with what we’ve been taught about Joseph or other leaders of the early LDS church. If we are bothered by something, then we need to do our homework and get all the facts as part of the process of confirming truth for ourselves.

Get the facts straight

If I were concerned upon reading that Joseph Smith was supposed to have said that even he didn’t know when a prophecy came from the Lord or that he is supposed to have said that a revelation he received must have come from the devil, as David Whitmer said he did, then I would want to read more about this and would be very careful about the source that I study.

Because if I believed that Joseph really said this, then that might lead me to conclude that if even prophets have a hard time understanding revelation, how can I really be expected to understand or know the truth of revelations that come to me, especially revelation that I think is telling me that the church itself is true? Do you see how important it is to get the facts of certain matters?

The Joseph Smith Papers

Of course Joseph never said that he must have received a false revelation.  In fact, according to more recent information discovered, the brethren who went on the mission to Canada in an attempt to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon felt that they were successful on their mission and that the Lord was pleased with their efforts. The promised sale was conditional.

I’m grateful for brethren like Richard Bushman, who are helping to bring us the Joseph Smith papers. In volume 1 of the Manuscript Revelation Books, we have the full copy of the mission to Canada revelation. It can be read there. The criticism that Joseph later claimed that the revelation had not come from God is in all likelihood the product of a false memory by David Whitmer.

We can believe the prophet

As I wrote in a previous essay, I believe it is our lifelong pursuit to understand revelation and to come to know how the Lord communicates with each of us. We can rely on the promises of the Lord to lead us, guide us and walk beside us because we have the gift of the Holy Ghost. I hope we cherish this gift and live worthy of the constant companionship of this promised revelator.

Joseph Smith knew when the Lord was inspiring him and so did most of the brethren who were with him at the time when he received revelation. We can trust that the Lord will help us to have the assurances we need to believe in the mission of the prophet Joseph Smith. Someday, we will meet Brother Joseph and if we still have questions about his life we can ask them to him directly.

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