Recently the distinguished LDS historian and Joseph Smith biographer Richard L. Bushman met with a group of people to discuss Mormonism, a discussion which can be viewed on YouTube. Part of that discussion included this intriguing exchange:
Questioner: In your view do you see room in Mormonism for several narratives of a religious experience or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong they would have to hold to that dominant narrative?
Richard Bushman: I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that’s what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change.
Many people took to social media to discuss this, that a prominent LDS historian such as Bushman would say that the Church’s dominant narrative that it has taught for so many years is not true, and what that means for the Church.
Professor Daniel C. Peterson expressed skepticism about what Bushman said, that he really didn’t mean what he said in the way people had interpreted it, and reached out to Bushman to seek clarification. Peterson later recorded a reply from Bushman that he thought clarified the situation:
Thanks for coming to my rescue Dan. I had begun to pick up indications of these exchanges a few days ago. I have been using the phrase “reconstruct the narrative” in recent talks because that is exactly what the Church is doing right now. The Joseph Smith Papers offer a reconstructed narrative, so do some of the “Gospel Topics” essays. The short First Vision film in the Church Museum of History mentions six accounts of Joseph’s experience and draws on all of them. That is all reconstructing the narrative. I got the phrase from a young woman who reported that she and her husband had both been through faith crises. She had come back; he had remained alienated. But both of them had to reconstruct the narrative. We have to include, for example, the fact that that the first words to Joseph in the First Vision were: “Your sins are forgiven.” That makes us look again at his life and realize how important a part forgiveness played. Similarly, we now have assimilated seer stones into the translation story. A picture of a seer stone now appears in the Church History Museum display. That would not have happened even five years ago. The list goes on and on.
I consider Rough Stone Rolling a reconstructed narrative. It was shocking to some people. They could not bear to have the old story disrupted in any way. What I was getting at in the quoted passage is that we must be willing to modify the account according to newly authenticated facts. If we don’t we will weaken our position. Unfortunately, not everyone can adjust to this new material. Many think they were deceived and the church was lying. That is not a fair judgment in my opinion. The whole church, from top to bottom, has had to adjust to the findings of our historians. We are all having to reconstruct. In my opinion, nothing in the new material overturns the basic thrust of the story. I still believe in gold plates. I don’t think Joseph Smith could have dictated the Book of Mormon text without inspiration. I think he was sincere in saying he saw God. The glimpse Joseph Smith gives us of divine interest in humankind is still a source of hope in an unbelieving world.
If anyone has questions about what I believe, I would be happy to hear from him or her. I believe pretty much the same things I did sixty years ago when I was a missionary.
It would be nice if Dr. Bushman would be more clear as to what his beliefs actually are, because this “clarification” is hardly that.
The fact that the Church is having to “reconstruct the narrative” means that the narrative that has been told for a long time is “not true,” as Dr. Bushman put it. It’s not that it’s partially correct, or just needs us to add more details, but facts are now being discovered which differ greatly from the so-called “facts” that the Church has previously taught, which changes the narrative substantially. What does that mean about a Church that claims divine revelation? I think we catch a glimpse of Dr. Bushman’s true beliefs in this “clarification.”
“I still believe in gold plates.”
Ok, what do you believe were the nature of those plates? Where did Joseph get them? Did they come from an angel Moroni? Were they really ancient? Did they actually contain the record of an ancient Mesoamerican people? Were they actually translated into the Book of Mormon? You see, one can believe in “gold plates,” but not believe in the “dominant narrative” surrounding those plates including the story of Moroni, antiquity, ancient people, and the source of the Book of Mormon. I believe in “gold plates” too, but I don’t believe the rest of the narrative is true. What does Dr. Bushman believe?
“I don’t think Joseph Smith could have dictated the Book of Mormon text without inspiration.”
Ok, and where did that text come from? From the “gold plates”? Or from somewhere else? Was Joseph’s inspiration directed by God? Or was he inspired in ways that other authors are when they craft complex novels? The dominant narrative is that the book was written “by the gift and power of God” and its source was the “gold plates” (even though Joseph didn’t seem to use them at all in the “translation,” which should give us pause). You can believe that Joseph was “inspired” to write the text, but not believe all the rest of this narrative as literally true. What does Dr. Bushman believe?
“I think he was sincere in saying he saw God.”
Ok, but this is a far cry from saying that he thinks he really did see God. I also believe Joseph was sincere in what he says he saw, but I don’t believe he actually did see God in the way he says he did. Did he actually see God and Jesus Christ in the air, in the flesh? Did they really come down to earth to speak to him in person, as a man speaks to another? Or is there more nuance going on here? The “dominant narrative” is being reconstructed, and I think it won’t include any of that literalness. There are others in Joseph’s day that also claimed they had similar visions of God, as Bushman himself notes in Rough Stone Rolling. Why would we believe Joseph more than they? The truth seems to be much more nuanced and wide ranging than the Church has had us believe. What does Dr. Bushman believe?
This “clarification” beings up more questions than it answers regarding Dr. Bushman’s beliefs, and how the “dominant narrative” of the Church is “not true” and is being “reconstructed.” It would be good to hear from Dr. Bushman about which parts of the “dominant narrative” as discussed above he believes are “not true,” and what he actually believes about them. As one of the preeminent Mormon historians and biographers of Joseph Smith alive today, it would really help to know what he actually believes.
Do I doubt the dominant narrative the LDS Church has taught for the past 200 years? I do.
Update 7/21/16: Richard Bushman sent another follow-up clarification letter, this time to John Dehlin. It is similar to the note to Daniel Peterson, in that it is still quite vague with regards to his beliefs in dominant narrative elements. Here’s what he says:
As it is, I still come down on the side of the believers in inspiration and divine happenings—in angels, plates, translations, revelations—while others viewing the same facts are convinced they disqualify Joseph Smith entirely.
He doesn’t get into any specifics. It would help those who are engaged in this discussion to know exactly which parts of the “dominant narrative” Dr. Bushman believes are “not true.” Because it is clear that no one knows what he is referring to. Can you enumerate those parts that you believe are “not true” and “can’t be sustained”? In his note to Dr. Peterson he said “nothing in the new material overturns the basic thrust of the story.” But isn’t the “basic thrust of the story” synonymous with “dominant narrative”? If the “basic thrust of the story” is still true, then what of the “dominant narrative” that isn’t true and can’t be sustained?
He also said this:
I was only saying that there were many errors in the standard narrative that required correction…
When there are “many errors in the standard narrative that require correction,” can it really be said that the “basic thrust of the story” is still true? How many errors can their be, and the basic thrust still be true?
The different responses mystify me. I have no idea why some people are thrown for a loop when they learn church history did not occur as they had been taught in Sunday School, while others roll with the punches. Some feel angry and betrayed; others are pleased to have a more realistic account.
The reason that some people are so frustrated is because the Church teaches church history as if it is the ultimate, unblemished, perfect, as-it-was truth, without variance of any sort. It doesn’t present church history as possible constructed history, but as the actual past, as the way things actually were. It doesn’t present church history as this “might have happened this way,” or “this is what we think happened.” It is “this is what happened,” and “if you don’t believe it happened this way then you should have more faith and pray harder.” When it turns out that some things happened quite different than the “absolute truth” that the Church taught them previously, they are rightly perturbed. The absolute truth wasn’t so absolute.
To give an example, I recently read a blog from a man who was born in the Church, but left it a few years after his mission. One of the issues that provoked his leaving was the narrative of the translation of the Book of Mormon:
Once I started searching, I came across this recently published essay on LDS.org. It talked openly about the translation process of the Book of Mormon. It shocked me. My issue with it was that the narrative it laid out was completely different from the one I’d grown up learning about. I frantically searched the footnotes of the essay for some sort of an explanation. However, the more I searched the more confused I became.
Why wasn’t I ever told any of this? Why was I taught that he used something called the Urim and Thummim when in fact he preferred to use a “seer stone” he found as a boy while digging a well? A rock that was one of multiple that he found and used to discover buried treasure for others for a fee (see footnotes of essay.)
Furthermore, why was it that the very book I was encouraged to study as a missionary, Preach My Gospel, had artist depictions of Joseph and his scribe when in fact the plates largely weren’t even utilized? They didn’t even need to be in the same room? He was looking at a rock, inside a hat?
It wasn’t the absurdity of the method. To be frank, the difference between a magical pair of spectacles and golden plates isn’t all that different from a magical rock placed inside a hat to block out the light. The confusion and subsequent anger were at the feeling of deceit. I felt like I had been lied to.
Why in all my years of reading and studying had this never been brought up? It seemed like the information had been in existence from the very beginning of Mormonism. Why change the narrative? Why cover up the truth? To make it easier to accept?
What members eventually learn is that the Church really doesn’t know its own history, or, if it did, it has not been honest with its history. It has constructed a history over many years which “is not true,” and is now scrambling to fix it since elements which were previously considered “apostate” or “anti-Mormon” turn out to actually be true. The Church, it seems, has been in the practice of whitewashing its history to make it appear one way, when it was actually quite different, more like what the “apostates” and “anti-Mormons” have been teaching, and is now rewriting many parts of its once “perfect” history.
It would have been more acceptable if the Church had originally taught that “this is the way we think it happened, but we could be wrong.” But when it is presented as “this IS the way it happened, it did NOT happen that other way, will you believe it?” and then they subsequently rewrite it precisely as the other way, that is what causes anger. Trust has been broken. Members lose faith that the Church teaches them truth.
The Church presents itself as perfect, its presented history as perfect, as almost everything it does as divinely inspired and directed by God himself, as the “one true church on the face of the whole earth,” while this rewriting shows it is anything but this. If we can’t trust what the Church taught us before, why on earth should we trust it now? The new “reconstructed” gospel essays are in this boat. How do we know if they won’t be re-written in 10 years with a new reconstruction? They’ve presented these new essays once again as the true, real, actual past. Instead of converging onto more truth about history, it seems these are rewriting the past. But the boy cried wolf, and many are not believing it anymore.
Why do some people “roll with the punches,” and are “pleased to have a more realistic account”? Perhaps they are still ok with the boy crying wolf. Perhaps this time the boy is not crying wolf. Maybe there really is a wolf this time. Maybe this is the real truth, and they continue running with the crowd to the boy’s call, trusting that this boy could not possibly be wrong again. But will there actually be a wolf when they arrive this time, or will it be another error? At some point, most people give up on the boy, and seek their own truth.
A shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, “Wolf! Wolf!” and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains.
The Wolf, however, did truly come at last. The Shepherd-boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: “Pray, do come and help me; the Wolf is killing the sheep”; but no one paid any heed to his cries, nor rendered any assistance. The Wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated or destroyed the whole flock.
There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.
Do I distrust the Church to teach me correct history, about itself or anything else? I do.