Facebook Twitter

Richard Bushman talks to the Deseret News on July 9, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The faithful scholar

Richard Bushman said he finds no contradiction between faith and scholarship

SHARE The faithful scholar
SHARE The faithful scholar


merican historian Richard Bushman woke up after a dream about his child’s future worried him. This dream caused him to develop “a fatherly concern” for the futures of all six of his children, so he started to pray to help “shape their futures.”

Two or three thoughts would pop into his mind and he’d scribble them down. It became a blending of inspiration and wisdom born of experience and study. He would then tell his thoughts to each of his children on the first day of the new year. It became his pattern: a blending of personal revelation and knowledge passed on to his family.

“They love to have me do it. It’s my way of opening my heart to them, how I feel about them, which is not always easy to do with the just run of the mill moments in my life,” Bushman told me by phone from his blue-walled office in his New York City apartment.

It is here where the now 92-year-old penned his groundbreaking biography of Joseph Smith “Rough Stone Rolling.” And it is here he still retreats to his home office every morning to write thoughts for his children and now grandchildren, as well as his latest work, “Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History,” released earlier this month.

He’s an accomplished historian, but of a unique sort. Bushman is a believer in the scriptures. He believes The Book of Mormon’s Nephi was real and believes in angelic visitation through the ages. For him, history and faith are not at odds. In fact, he finds the two difficult to separate.

“Sometimes people get confused and think that he’s a historian who happens to be a Latter-day Saint,” BYU Assistant Academic Vice President Reid Neilson told me. “But I really think it’s the other way around, that in everything he does, he brings a Latter-day Saint sensibility to his scholarship, to his lifestyle, to his relationships, to his worship.”

Bushman possesses a futuristic gaze that has permeated his life. When he decided to study American history at Harvard University, he knew he’d write about frontier prophet Joseph Smith. He would later be called as a stake patriarch, which Latter-day Saints believe is a religious calling a person can have to give inspired lifelong guidance.

Considered “one of the most important scholars of American religious history of the last half-century,” as religious studies professor Kurtis R. Schaeffer put it, Bushman has won the prestigious Bancroft book award and was honored by the American Historical Association.

He’s married to fellow historian Claudia Bushman. Their marriage has been instrumental for both their careers. And their shared faith has been at the forefront.

Throughout his career, Bushman has contemplated the convergence of scholarship and faith. An active Latter-day Saint and acclaimed historian, Bushman’s life reveals a harmonious relationship between scholarship and faith.

The early years

Bushman was born in Salt Lake City and reared in Portland, Oregon. In 1949, he graduated from high school and headed to Harvard. He declared a physics major first and switched to math after not enjoying laboratory work. But it was his study of philosophy that impacted him.

After dabbling in philosophers Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, Bushman said he didn’t think there wasn’t enough evidence to believe in God. When he was in school he embraced “logical positivism,” which posits that scientific knowledge is all that can be known.

He returned to Salt Lake City where his family lived after finishing his sophomore year in 1951. He said he told his Latter-day Saint stake president he was struggling to recognize his belief in God. His stake president advised him to go on a mission.

At the onset of his mission in New England and Atlantic Canada, Bushman traveled to Boston and met with Howard Maughan, his mission president. Maughan heard he didn’t believe in God and handed him a Book of Mormon. “Just read this book and tell me if you have an explanation for it,” Bushman recalled Maughan instructing him.

After reporting to his first mission area in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Bushman studied the Book of Mormon for three months. One day he was asked to bear testimony of the book and a testimony he didn’t have three months prior flowed from him. As Bushman put it, he recognized his faith in God again.

When he returned from his mission, he earned a degree in history, and later, a Ph.D from Harvard in 1961. Bushman said he decided to study American history because he thought he could learn enough background to “be able to tell the story of the emergence of the Restoration with some depth.” Faith and scholarship became entwined.

The author

Bushman was hired to teach at Brigham Young University. He started writing books about American history like his Bancroft prize-winning book “From Puritan to Yankee” and didn’t get around to writing about Joseph Smith in-depth until a couple decades into his career.

Church Historian Leonard Arrington first approached him about writing a book about Smith’s life up until 1830, which resulted in him publishing “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism” in 1984. Five years later, Columbia University brought him onto the faculty.

It wasn’t until director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute Ron Esplin talked to Bushman that “Rough Stone Rolling” was conceived. Esplin said he and other scholars thought there was a hole in church history: there was a need for a biography of Smith.

So, Bushman started the project in 1997 and finished it in 2004. He said it was important for him to write the history with all the facts in place because otherwise “we’d always be asking the question, ‘if you turned over some rock, would there be a scorpion under it?’”

Investigating the restored church’s founder this way didn’t change Bushman’s mind about believing Joseph Smith was a visionary and a prophet. Bushman said Joseph Smith was a “heroic, exalted figure” while also being “depressed and perplexed.” He knew it would be disruptive to write about the prophet in this way, but it’s how he saw him.

“My account is rooted in the original sources and sticks close to verifiable facts,” Bushman said to Jed Woodworth in Mormon Historical Studies. “The idealized Joseph Smith of our hymns, art, and stories is also true.”

While Bushman said he has always believed Smith was a visionary, there was a moment while writing his biography where he said he felt like he understood the prophet in a gripping way. It was after the translated 116 pages of the Book of Mormon were loaned to Martin Harris and ultimately lost, drawing a rebuke from the Lord, that Joseph Smith recorded the revelation he then received.

“I don’t know if he spoke them aloud or if he just wrote them down, but it seems to me that was a vivid account of a revelatory experience where something outside yourself seems to speak to you in words, in the voice of God and is irresistible,” Bushman said. “It’s just so powerful, you can’t overcome it.”

His faith and daily prayers drove him while he was writing. “So, the word is out,” Bushman said. “And what I found over the years is that while some people really ridicule me, they think I’m a fool for believing what I do, there are others who are secretly comforting. In one way or another, they let me know that they are believers.”

The gold plates

Bushman is working with the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts and is writing an article on foyer art and another one on translation. But his latest work, “Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History,” released this month in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the prophet first learning of them, culminates his testimony and scholarship born from that three-month reading of the Book of Mormon as a missionary.

The Oxford University Press book goes through the history of how people have seen the plates, both literally and metaphorically, since the 19th century. Bushman describes how witnesses and novelists, believers and critics, scholars and poets, artists and apologists have encountered the golden plates.

It’s accessible and readable like “Rough Stone Rolling” was. After all, Bushman said he tries to write like he’s talking in Sunday School.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said it’s “a really witty book” and praised its thoroughness.

“People should not pick up this book and think he’s going to resolve the mystery of the golden plates,” Thatcher said. “I think with this book, they will discover the incredible range of responses that the story of the golden plates has provoked among people of all sorts.”

The chapters of the book trace how people from all walks have perceived the golden plates. He divides the book into nine main approaches to the plates, from how contemporary artists have rendered them to how those closest to the prophet Joseph Smith gained testimonies of them.

Bushman explores every nook where the golden plates have appeared in history from how defenders of the faith have argued for their historical authenticity to how the impact of the golden plates has rippled outside of America.

As for what’s next for Bushman, he said he might compile his previous essays into a book, but he doesn’t expect to write another one. The historian is contemplating his legacy as are colleagues and friends around him.

When asked about Bushman’s legacy, Thatcher Ulrich describes their 50-year-long friendship where she’s seen him as a scholar, a friend and a church leader, she’s seen how many people gravitate toward him and how generous he’s been with giving hims time and mentorship.

“He has so many followers,” Thatcher Ulrich told me. “People want to be Dick Bushman when they grow up.”

Scholar Terryl Givens, another friend and colleague, said he thinks Bushman’s legacy will be about how “he modeled a life of disciple scholarship with a pitch perfect bilingualism.”

Bushman’s greatest contributions isn’t “just a set of disembodied writings that he exerted his influence,” Givens said. “But it’s the amazing plethora of persons with whom he interacted at a personal level through a lifetime of really extensive interaction and ministry with just a of diverse people.”

“He’s modeled the fact that as you grow as a Christian disciple, your talents and abilities and gifts are magnified as an academic and as a historian,” Neilson said. Some people who see Bushman only as a rigorous academic “can’t imagine how genuinely humble and good and righteous this man is.”

As for what Bushman thinks his own legacy is, he hopes it lives on in scholars who try to model the best interaction of discipleship and scholarship.

“I’ve lived a risky life. I’ve tried to walk this line between the church and the university. Since I was in college, my whole life has been devoted to that,” Bushman said. “And I’m always concerned that I may over-intellectualize the gospel, that there are some deeper spiritual experiences that may be hindered in me because I’m too rationalistic in my temperament.”

Bushman paused and then said, “But I don’t really worry about that because I have fulfilled the mission the best I was able to do it.”

“Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History” is available for purchase through Oxford University Press and Amazon.