On June 12, 2016, Richard Bushman was posed the following question during a fireside talk with a small group of people:
In your view do you see room within Mormonism for several different narratives, multiple 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?
To this query Bushman replied:
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. So 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.
This answer was met with glee among the ex-Mormon memerati of the Internet. Jonathan Streeter, whose name will be immortalized in ignominy as the eponymous culprit behind Streetergate, dutifully clipped the damning soundbite and offered the following notation, “Respected LDS Historian Richard Bushman acknowledges that the dominant orthodox church history narrative which is taught to investigators is false and that the church is in the process of changing to adapt.” The ex-Mormon podcaster Bill Reel used the clip in a rambling post about how “the story Mormonism has told about itself is not holding up to scholarship and critical thinking.” The denizens of the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as the ex-Mormon subreddit latched onto the clip. So too, predictably, did John Dehlin and Jeremy Runnells. Even William Lane Craig used the quote to score sectarian points against his religious rivals.
Unfortunately for those who want to use Bushman’s comment to capitalize on their antipathy towards The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bushman went on the record to clarify what he meant with his comment. Twice. No, he was not conceding the falsity of Joseph Smith’s foundational truth claims. No, he was not confessing that the Church had wantonly, willfully lied to people about its history. No, he was not saying that he had “thrown in the towel and [had] finally admitted [that] the Church’s story of its divine origins did not hold up.” Rather, he “was only saying that there were many errors in the standard narrative that required correction.” As Bushman made clear, “What [he] was getting at in the quoted passage [in the video] is that [the Church] must be willing to modify the account [of its history] according to newly authenticated facts. If we don’t we will weaken our position.” That’s it. In fact, Bushman went on to acknowledge that “not everyone can adjust to this new material” and that “[m]any think they were deceived and the church was lying.” But, he added, “That is not a fair judgment in my opinion.”
Using the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the Gospel Topics essays, and new exhibits at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah as examples, by “reconstructed narrative” Bushman merely meant a narrative that adds nuance and depth to how the Church tells its story as historical scholarship progresses. “The whole church, from top to bottom, has had to adjust to the findings of our historians,” he explained. “We are all having to reconstruct.” The good news for those who accept what ex-Mormons disparagingly call the “orthodox narrative” was, according to Bushman, that “nothing in the new material overturns the basic thrust of the story.”
But what does Bushman personally believe? “I still believe in gold plates,” he affirmed. “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. . . . I believe pretty much the same things I did sixty years ago when I was a missionary.”
This last part piqued my curiosity. What, exactly, did Richard Bushman believe as a missionary?
Fortunately for us, Bushman has left behind a paper trail spanning nearly three decades documenting what he believed as a missionary in the 1950s and what he believes now.
From “The Social Dimensions of Rationality,” in Expressions of Faith: Testimonials of Latter-day Saint Scholars, ed. Susan Easton Black (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1996), 69–77:
I recently attended a conference on religious advocacy sponsored by a group of Christian scholars who feel that religious belief is unduly restricted in academic discourse. . . . [One scholar] was looking for an outer limit to what rational people would dare bring into serious academic conversation, and the example he chose was Joseph Smith. Forgetting that I was a Latter-day Saint, he proposed the idea of an angel delivering gold plates as an example of a religious phantasm so far beyond the boundaries of plausibility as to preclude any consideration in college classrooms or scholarly writing.
When we got to the discussion segment of that session, I reminded him that I had written a book on Joseph Smith founded on the very assumption that an angel delivered golden plates on a New York hillside. [Referring to Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, University of Illinois Press, 1984.] The writer did not press his point and generously acknowledged in private conversation that he should read my study of Joseph’s early life.
Belief in angels and golden plates apparently does not disqualify a person for other kinds of scholarly activity. I am asked to give papers and review books and have never felt that my religion prevents me from engaging in all the usual routines of modern academic life. Apparently, the crazy Mormon side of my mind is envisioned as sequestered in some watertight compartment where it cannot infect my rational processes. Beliefs inhabit a realm of feeling and traditional loyalties where we are not called to rational account and where eccentricities and bizarre ideas can be tolerated. Probably my colleagues have peculiar notions of their own that they would not want to defend before a panel of academic critics.
When a graduate student or colleague does ask about my beliefs, I am often asked if I was reared a Mormon. The question, of course, a hypothesis. They are explaining my belief not as a rational choice made in the face of other choices but as one component of an elaborate cultural system intertwined with my family, the culture of my home, loyalty to old friends, the fundamentals of my personal identity. They think I am Mormon the way many people are Jewish or Polish; they think that’s simply me. My belief in the angel and the plates cannot be extricated from my personal culture. I am a Mormon, they implicitly presume, not because I believe in Mormonism. I believe in Mormonism because I am a Mormon—by upbringing, affection, and cultural construction.
I accept this explanation and go one step further. I believe in the doctrine and the miraculous events because they sustain my life. I need them to carry on from day to day. The God whom I worship and who dwells in the midst of Mormon scriptures is the God who heals me when I am wounded, who corrects me when I err, who restores me to good when I fall into evil. My religion is a crutch, an absolutely necessary crutch that I need to hobble on through life. Far from rationally judging every historical event in the fabulous life of Joseph Smith or weighing the worth of each doctrine, I believe in the God of Mormon scriptures because I need that God.
All this is a simple fact of my religious life, perhaps of all religious life. Does that mean, therefore, that all religious doctrine is irrational, that all the events of Mormon history are beyond discourse, that one cannot make an argument for Mormon beliefs? Obviously not. Those arguments are made constantly. I have myself made a historical case for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Hugh Nibley has devoted his life to assembling evidence in rational support of Mormon scriptures. The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) has mobilized an army of people who published hundreds of pages a year in support of our beliefs. This scholarship is not generally acknowledged outside of Mormon circles, but that does not mean it is trivial. The people at FARMS are trained in accredited graduate schools, learned in languages, informed about current scholarship, and careful in argumentation. They abide by all the canons of rational discourse. Nor can it be claimed that they are emotionally unbalanced or congenitally stupid. They bear every evidence of psychological stability and intellectual acuity. These people, and many others not directly associated with FARMS, have brought their considerable powers to bear in support of Mormon beliefs about history and God. If my colleagues consider my beliefs outside the realm of rational discourse, these Mormon apologists do not. They maintain, and I concur, that a more persuasive argument can be made for belief in God and Christ through the Book of Mormon than through any of the arguments of conventional Christianity.
The cultural position of Mormon belief, then, is strangely anomalous. For me it grows out of family culture, a thousand personal associations, and deep human needs. At the same time, it is girded up with forceful (though never unassailable) rational arguments based on conventional scholarly methods and the rules of rational discourse. My colleagues are correct in placing my beliefs in the realm of feeling and deep loyalties, where it is tactful not to call for rational explanation; on the other hand, if they wished to take the trouble, I could provide them with shelves of scholarship in support of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s story. Belief is irrational and rational at the same time.
As I said at the outset, I find goodness in the God of the Mormon scriptures. There I find truth to live by, which to my way of thinking is the most significant, the most useful, the most compelling kind of truth.
From Why I Believe (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 2002), 79–83:
For reasons I cannot completely explain to those who have not embraced LDS doctrine, I have not abandoned by beliefs after forty years of scholarship. I believe in the gold plates, the translation, and the angels, just as I did when I sat in I. B. Cohen’s office in Widener Library [at Harvard University] as a sophomore [in the early 1950s]. I did go through a period of doubt that year in college, beset by questions on every side. . . . When I left for a two-year mission in New England at the end of my sophomore year, I frankly was not sure what I believed. When the mission president asked if I had a testimony, I said no. He made no objections but simply handed me a Book of Mormon and asked that I try to find an explanation for it. After three months of poring over the book and pounding my brain, I admitted to him that I believed the book was right—it was an ancient history as Joseph Smith said it was. I haven’t wavered from that conviction since.
A lot has been written in opposition to the Book of Mormon and even more in its support. I have tried to keep up with this vast literature without claiming to command it all. Apart from all the technical arguments, I am impressed with the fact that Joseph Smith published this immensely complex book when he was just twenty-four. He had little education, had not attended church as a boy, could scarcely write a letter according to his wife, and yet produced 588 pages of sermons, prophecies, and history that most experienced authors would be hard-pressed to match.
. . .
While I consider the very existence of the Book of Mormon an intellectual puzzle that scholars have yet to explain, in the final analysis the marvels of the book are not the reason I believe. I don’t think you can build a life on a few intellectual reasons. My reasons for believe all these years are more abstract and more powerful. The fact is that I find goodness in my Latter-day Saint life that I find nowhere else. When my mind is filled with scripture, when I speak to the Lord in prayer, when I comport myself in the way of Jesus, I am the man I want to be.
As a scholar, I know full well the doubts of the agnostics. I know that the scientific worldview, now dominant among intellectuals, appears to exclude traditional belief. I have dealt with the arguments against belief all my life. But over against these, I place my own intimate experience of goodness among the Latter-day Saints. I do not see how, as a rational man, I can give up what I have known directly and powerfully for the messages of doubt coming from distant authorities in the realms of science and philosophy.
From “My Belief,” in Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, ed. Reid L. Nielson and Jed Woodworth (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2004), 20–29:
[D]oubts came strongest in the spring of my sophomore year [at Harvard]. During the preceding Christmas holiday, I had been interviewed for a mission and received a call to New England, to serve under the mission president who attended the same sacrament meeting as the students in Cambridge. Did I have enough faith to go on a mission? I debated the question through the spring, wondering if I were a hypocrite and if fear of displeasing my parents was all that carried me along. And yet I never really considered not going. It may be, I think looking back, that my agnosticism was a little bit of a pose, a touch of stylish undergraduate angst. It was true enough that my bosom did not burn with faith; on the other hand, I was quite willing to pledge two years to a mission. So I went.
The mission president was J. Howard Maughan, an agricultural professor from Utah State and former stake president. In our opening interview in the mission home in Cambridge, he asked if I had a testimony of the gospel. I said I did not. He was not at all rattled. He asked if I would read a book, and, if I found a better explanation for it than the book itself gave, to report it to him. Then he handed me the Book of Mormon. The next day I left North Station in Boston for Halifax, Nova Scotia. For the next three months, while trying to learn the lessons and the usual missionary discipline, I wrestled with the book and wrote long entries in my journal. I thought a lot about the Three Witnesses: Were they liars? Had they been hypnotized? Were they pressured? I believe it was at that time I read Hugh Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert. I also read the Book of Mormon and prayed, sometimes in agnostic form— “if you are God. . . .” After three months, President Maughan came up for a conference, and when it was my turn to speak, I said with conviction that I knew the Book of Mormon was right. The reasons that I had concocted for believing were not the difference—though Nibley made a great impression. It was more the simple feeling that the book was right.
For a long time, twenty-five years or more, I went on trying to answer the questioner [of God’s existence]. I received little help from religious philosophers. The traditional proofs for God never made an impression on me. I did not find flaws in them; they simply seemed irrelevant. My empirical temperament and suspicion of grand systems worked against any enthusiasm for arguments about a prime mover. I never studied those arguments or made the slightest effort to make them my own. My chief line of reasoning was based on the Book of Mormon. It was concrete and real and seemed like a foundation for belief, not merely belief in Joseph Smith but in Christ and God. Joseph Smith and Mormonism, as I said before, were never the issues; it was God primarily. Although it was a lengthy chain from the historicity of the Book of Mormon, to Joseph’s revelations, to the existence of God, it was a chain that held for me. I felt satisfied that, if that book were true, my position was sound. Without it, I do not know where I would be. I have imagined myself as a religious agnostic were it not for the Book of Mormon. That is why Hugh Nibley’s writings played a large part in my thinking. Although I recognized the eccentricities of his style and was never completely confident of his scholarship, there seemed to me enough there to make a case. 1 Nephi could not be dismissed as fraudulent, and so far as I know no one has refuted the argument Nibley made in Lehi in the Desert. He offered just the kind of evidence I was looking for in my pursuit of answers: evidence that was specific, empirical, historical.
At the present moment, the question of why I believe no longer has meaning for me. I do not ask it of myself or attempt to give my reasons to others. The fact is that I do believe. That is a given of my nature, and whatever reasons I might give would be insufficient and inaccurate. More relevant to my current condition is a related question: How do others come to believe? I would like to know if there is anything I can do that will draw people to faith in Christ and in the priesthood. My answer to this question is, of course, related to my personal experiences. I no longer think that people can be compelled to believe by any form of reasoning, whether from the scriptures or from historical evidence. They will believe if it is in their natures to believe. All I can do is to attempt to bring forward the believing nature, smothered as it is in most people by the other natures that culture forms in us. The first responsibility is to tell the story, to say very simply what happened, so that knowledge of those events can do its work. But that is the easy part, the part that could be done by books or television. The hard part is to create an atmosphere where the spiritual nature, the deep-down goodness in the person, can react to the story honestly and directly. Some people can create that atmosphere quite easily by the very strength of their own spiritual personalities. It is hard for me. There are too many other natures in me: the vain aspirer formed in childhood, the intellectual fostered at Harvard, the would-be dominant male created by who knows what. But I do believe that when I am none of these and instead am a humble follower of Christ who tells the story without pretense to friends whom I love and respect, then they will believe if they want to, and conversion is possible. Questions may be answered and reasons given, but these are peripheral and essentially irrelevant. What is essential is for a person to listen carefully and openly in an attitude of trust. If belief is to be formed in the human mind, it will, I think, be formed that way.
From “Mormon Scholars Testify,” FairMormon (January 2010):
What does my faith mean? What do I truly believe, and how can I explain it? Over time, these inquiries will doubtless lead to new prospects and broader perspectives. In my case, the interrogation all goes on under an umbrella of faith. I am looking to support what I know in my heart is good and true. Others may have had their confidence shaken and don’t know which way to turn—towards faith or away from it. I cannot say that they must swim toward the shore where I stand, or perish; the truth is that we have to find our own footing in our search for understanding. I can only say that Mormonism has served me well and that I believe most people would be better off if they followed the Mormon way.
From Why I’m a Mormon, ed. Joseph A. Cannon (Salt Lake City, UT: Ensign Peak, 2012), 38–46:
During my sophomore year at Harvard, I went through a period of skepticism. . . . [Q]uestions came to mind more often than was healthy for someone who had already committed himself to go on a mission for the Church. I was slated to go to New England to serve for two years. What was I to do about my doubts? I arrived in Cambridge in 1951 and, like all incoming missionaries, was interviewed by the mission president. . . . When asked about my testimony, I told him I was not sure I believed in God. There I was, under obligation to teach the Mormon gospel and not sure if I had even the rudiments of religious faith.
The mission president, a retired faculty member from Utah State University, took my confession in stride. He simply handed me a Book of Mormon and asked me to see if I could find an explanation for it, then sent me off to Halifax, Nova Scotia, a long way from his influence. And so I read the Book of Mormon with a new purpose in mind. For three months, I thrashed about in my new role as a missionary, walking the streets of the city looking for people to study Mormonism while turning the Book of Mormon over in my mind. Could Joseph Smith have made it up? Did someone else write it for him? What about the witnesses who held the plates in their hands? Were they coconspirators? Were the pressured to sign the statement?
Somewhere in this period, I read some of the early work of Hugh Nibley, the erudite Mormon Hebrew scholar who devoted his life to defending the veracity of Joseph Smith’s writings. Nibley took an approach to the Book of Mormon I had not encountered before. . . . Nibley’s technique was to multiply examples of convergences . . . between historical scholarship and Book of Mormon details. No one convergence was conclusive, but their accumulation mounted up.
The ultimate outcome of my spiritual searchings, my ruminations about witnesses, and Nibley’s scholarship was conviction. When the mission president came to Halifax after a few months, I was able to tell him I believed the Book of Mormon was true. Though I was still a little wobbly, the book had become a rock on which to rebuild my faith. This extravagant volume, partly because it did claim so much and seemed to come out of nowhere, won me over. Starting there, I constructed the rest of my faith in Mormonism—its authority, the scriptural force of Joseph Smith’s other revelations, the truth of Christ, the descent of the prophetic office from Joseph Smith to the present Church leadership, and the possibility that any of us can receive revelation if we open our minds and hearts. Thus, the Book of Mormon allowed me to live happily in that jungle of religious beliefs that Mormons inhabit.
Rather than providing Mormons with rational proof for God and religion, the Book of Mormon seems to keep alive a possibility; it helps prop open the secular frame of mind that we all inhabit with its common sense and mundane explanations for everything. The book is just enough of a wonder that we cannot foreclose completely the possibility of spiritual forces entering the world. The Book of Mormon helps us hold ourselves open to faith, enables us to entertain the possibility of God, even of a God who knows us and will heed our petitions.
The Book of Mormon was my starting point for that kind of discovery. The very wonder of the book helps me to get around the obstacles to belief in our time; it opens the possibility of transcendence. But more than an evidence for God, the book points to something higher. It awakens the hope that even in a secular age, we can realize a fulness of life.
From History of the Saints: The Miracle of the Book of Mormon, dir. Glenn Rawson (2 Disc DVD set, 2015):
I personally don’t believe he could have created [the Book of Mormon]. It’s an extremely complex book. And it’s either a work of uninspired genius or a work of inspiration and I personally do not believe Joseph Smith could have written it himself and I say that not just because of the knowledge that’s in it, but the very structure of the book. To write a thousand year history of a civilization and to fill it with many characters and to do this without any practice writing and no kind of tutoring from people that are literary or having tried little short stories or sketches of this or that, I just don’t think that’s feasible.
There is no example of Joseph Smith writing anything before he published the Book of Mormon so it’s a very strange career. His masterwork is produced at the beginning of his career rather than at the end so it does seem like a star or comet comes out of nowhere and just lights up the scene and I don’t see how that could have happened.
From “9 ProTips from Richard Bushman,” Wheat & Tares (July 21, 2015):
Question: Do you agree that the production timeline for the Book of Mormon along with Joseph’s level of education provide compelling evidence for the divine origin of the book? Why or why not?
Bushman: I think the Book of Mormon is a marvel. I don’t think you can make a case based on historical evidence that Joseph Smith could have written the book. It is entirely too complicated and produced with so little experience. In my opinion that does not allow you to jump immediately to the conclusion that the book was divine. I tell people it was either a work of genius or it was inspired. By genius we mean something that exceeds normal human capacities. That is certainly true for the Book of Mormon. See Wallace Bennett’s book, Leap of Faith for an extended presentation of this view.
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. A lot of pain, anger, and alienation come out of these disputes.
And just yesterday (July 14, 2020) I reached out to Bushman via email to ask if these past statements reflect his current belief. Here is his answer, quoted with his permission for the purpose of “setting the record straight” (his words):
Over the years, my position has remained pretty constant on the question of divine origins and inspiration of the prophets. I believe pretty much the way I did when I was a missionary. I misstated my position once in a fireside that John Dehlin has made much of as if I had given up belief. I said the history as we believe it is not true, by which I actually meant not accurate. We have had to correct lots of details in the Joseph Smith period. But the fundamental thrust of that history remains the same. God was working among the people I believe and we are the heirs of that great movement.
It is precisely because Richard Bushman has left behind such a clear, unambiguous documentary record about what he believes (both before and after June 12, 2016) that attempts like this by John Dehlin to gaslight people are truly something to behold:
Putting aside for now the laughably absurd idea that Bushman only hastily backpedaled on his June 12 comments because he knew his sweet, sweet residuals from Deseret Book were in danger, and ignoring Dehlin’s monstrously condescending attitude that Bushman is a poor, helpless victim (who is also desperate to cling to his “massive privilege” and get nice kickbacks from GAs, I guess?), if anybody is “occasionally duplicitous” here, it’s Dehlin.
Bushman has twice previously clarified what he meant with his June 12 comments, including once on Dehlin’s own website, and has clarified once again for the public record. The reason Bushman has complained that people were taking him out of context is because . . . people were taking him out of context. Full stop. People, I might add, including Dehlin, who is so compulsively dishonest that he cannot even accurately represent the people he features on his own website and podcast; and who is such a pathological narcissist that he is willing to publicly smear anybody who tarnishes his brand or contradicts his narrative about how Mormon Church Bad.
John Dehlin does not have anything to back up this weirdly passive aggressive dig at Richard Bushman. This effort to make Bushman look like a craven sellout who lacks any moral conviction or intellectual honesty (but is also somehow a victim of the evil Mormon Church) is a disgusting smear, pure and simple. And since we’re indulging in unsubstantiated armchair psychologizing, I’m going to offer my theory that it’s a smear born of a bad case of psychological projection.
John Dehlin should be ashamed of himself (assuming he’s even capable of feeling shame), and so should his enablers and followers.
It has been brought to my attention that sometime after his initial Facebook post yesterday, Dehlin modified his remarks.
Notice, however, that Dehlin is re-sharing a post of his from July 14, 2016. In this post, Dehlin gives Bushman kudos for his bravery, honesty, and candor. What changed between July 14, 2016 and July 14, 2020?
Well, for one thing, Bushman went on the record (just a few days after Dehlin’s 2016 post) saying he was a believer and that he was being taken out of context.
But even after Bushman went on record, Dehlin couldn’t help himself, as seen in this post from May 12, 2017:
Missing, of course, is any mention that by this point almost a year had past since Bushman twice had clarified that he emphatically did not mean what Dehlin was trying to spin his comment into.
(Same with his newly modified remarks from yesterday, which also fail to mention Bushman’s clarification.)
Two things are painfully obvious from this: 1) Dehlin is a habitual prevaricator, and 2) Dehlin only thought Bushman was honest and brave when the latter could be a useful pawn in the former’s grand narrative about how Mormon Church Bad. Once Bushman went on the record as being a believer, he was no longer useful, and so Dehlin did an abrupt about face and began smearing him (as seen in his post yesterday).
I stand by what I said above: John Dehlin is fundamentally dishonest, untrustworthy, and gaslights people, and anybody who enables this behavior by supporting him should feel bad about themselves.