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‘Believing History’ balances the academic and religious

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BELIEVING HISTORY: LATTER-DAY SAINT ESSAYS, by Richard L. Bushman, ed. by Reid Neilson and Jed Woodworth, Columbia University Press, 291 pages, $40.

Probably the greatest scholar who happens to be a Latter-day Saint, Richard L. Bushman is a historian of exceptional accomplishment.

Commensurate with his academic career, Bushman has remained an active member of the LDS Church, serving as a bishop and a stake president in Boston and as a patriarch in New York. As an LDS scholar who has lived most of his life outside of Utah and the West, he is inclined to be more tolerant and accepting of other faiths.

His own life demonstrates a point of balance that should recommend itself to other LDS Church members who are sometimes insulated against views expressed by LDS critics.

A careful scholar, he has always balanced the academic with the religious, as demonstrated by one of his more popular essays — "Faithful History" — which is included in this new volume, "Believing History." He frankly criticizes the essay here as having "an antiquated flavor."

It is a testament to Bushman's effectiveness as a teacher that two former students would seek his permission to assemble his scholarly articles about Mormonism into a book. Bushman, always self-effacing and modest, had never considered doing it himself. Once persuaded, he found himself somewhat uncomfortable with the quality of his earlier articles.

This is a very personal book, beginning with Bushman's essays about his own beliefs and faith, and how they tie in with scholarship. "Part II" takes a rather comprehensive look at the Book of Mormon, in connection with the American Revolution, early Mormon history, and to some of the best-known critics of the Book of Mormon.

"Part III" focuses on Joseph Smith in myriad ways — as connected to skepticism, as an urban planner, as a visionary, as a "gentleman" in early America and as a translator.

The final two essays, one about the "Rhetoric of Revelation" and another about Joseph Smith for the 21st century, provide an effective wrap-up of Bushman's Mormon studies.

HIs writing is, like the man, elegant and non-confrontational, but always thoughtful and probing.

Bushman was educated at Harvard and has an impressive teaching record that began at Brigham Young University, and continued at Boston University and the University of Delaware, culminating at Columbia University, where he holds a distinguished chair, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus.

As a social and cultural historian, Bushman has written some of our most important books in American social history — including "From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765," which was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize in history, and "The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities."

He has also published numerous articles in professional journals and has been highly complimented by his peers in the study of American history.

Bushman could never resist dabbling in his own LDS history, having written "Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism," and, with his wife, historian Claudia Bushman, "Building the Kingdom: A History of Mormons in America."

Currently, he is finishing a carefully researched, scholarly biography of Joseph Smith, hoping to meet a summer deadline. Most LDS scholars expect it to become the definitive work on Joseph Smith.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com