On December 16, 2013 the reddit exmormon forum held an AMA (Ask Me Anything) Q&A with highly respected Mormon historian Richard Bushman. Following are a few forum-member questions, along with Dr. Bushman’s answers (in no particular order). You will also find a few excerpts from a lengthy statement Dr. Bushman addressed to the forum members.
Q: “How much of an impact do you think that Sidney Rigdon’s Campbellite ideas haveon modern LDS theology? Did he significantly alter Mormonism after he joined, or did he just find a group that already taught a lot of the things he believed?”
Dr. Bushman: “Joseph Smith was very eclectic. He drew upon ideas from all over, including Masonic ritual. I am not aware of source criticism of Rigdon’s influence, but I am inclined to think it was fairly large. It is quite possible that the idea of Restoration came from him. Restoration in the Book of Mormon refers to the restoration of Israel, the return of Israel to its favored place in God’s eyes, not the restoration of the New Testament church. Rigdon who was a restorationist along with Campbell could very well have turned Joseph’s thinking in that direction. I also think he may have been responsible for the phrase “creeds are an abomination.” That was [a] hobby horse of Alexander Campbell’s. Since Rigdon was involved in writing Joseph Smith’s 1838 history, he may have been one to introduce that language into the account of the First Vision.”
Dr. Bushman: “I have read through the imposing array of questions posed over the past week and hardly know how to begin. They are pointed, relevant, sincere, and deserve more of a reply than I can possibly manage. I will do what I can during our open chat hour on Monday, but for now I would like to say something about my beliefs as I have been currently voicing them. A few weeks ago during one of the seminars that Terryl and Fiona Givens and I have been offering for people working through their doubts and questions, an old friend sat me down during the lunch break, looked me in the eye and asked, ‘Richard, do you believe Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son in the grove?’ I said of course and the moment passed, but his question lingered on and moved me to think again about what I do believe about the founding stories.
“I am very much impressed by Joseph Smith’s 1832 History account of his early visions. This is the one partially written in his own hand and the rest dictated to Frederick G. Williams. I think it is more revealing than the official account presumably written in 1838 and contained in the Pearl of Great Price. We don’t know who wrote the 1838 account. Joseph’s journal indicates that he, Sidney Rigdon, and George Robinson collaborated on beginning the history in late April, but we don’t know who actually drafted the history. It is a polished narrative but unlike anything Joseph ever wrote himself. The 1832 history we know is his because of the handwriting. It comes rushing forth from Joseph’s mind in a gush of words that seem artless and uncalculated, a flood of raw experience. I think this account has the marks of an authentic visionary experience. There is the distance from God, the perplexity and yearning for answers, the perplexity, and then the experience itself which brings intense joy, followed by fear and anxiety. Can he deal with the powerful force he has encountered? Is he worthy and able? It is a classic announcement of a prophet’s call, and I find it entirely believable.”
Dr. Bushman: “…I am also impressed by the Book of Mormon. It is riddled with nineteenth-century Protestant theology and phrasing, but still is an incredible narrative of a civilization’s rise and fall…”
Dr. Bushman: “So what it comes down to is that I believe in the founding events. I think of them as the foundation of my faith. But they are the foundation, and I do not live in the cellar. I live in the rooms built on these events, the way of life, the attitudes, the institutions, the relationships, the experiences they support. This is what I meant when I spoke to Anselm Min, the Catholic theologian at Claremont Graduate School where Claudia and I taught for three years. Anselm took me to lunch soon after we arrived at Claremont and bluntly asked me how I could believe in Joseph Smith. My immediate response was that when I lived in the Mormon way I became the kind of man I wanted to be. Those words summed up a lot—my sense of having God’s spirit when I needed it, the salutary discipline of Mormon life, the friendships and commonalities of a Mormon ward, the requirement of unselfish service, the valuation of family, the tempering of pride and fear—a host of things. Like many people, I wrestle with demons. I frequently feel inadequate to my responsibilities. At the same time, I know I can be better, and when I live the Mormon way, I am lifted up. I see things more clearly. I can figure out how I really feel. I know how to relate to my wife and children and colleagues. I am temperate, incisive, generous, and focused. On bad days, Claudia and I often say we are out of sync with the universe. Over the many years I have been in the Church, I find that following the Mormon path puts me back in sync. I don’t use the word ‘know’ a lot, but I do know I am a better person for being a Mormon.”
Q: “You said that your testimony was somewhat mystical. Can you expand on this? What does it mean to have a mystical testimony? You said that you believed the Book of Mormon was literal history. How does this literal belief in the Book of Mormon relate to your mystical testimony? Do you have a mystical testimony that the Book of Mormon is literally true? Can you clarify what you believe about the historicity Book or Mormon?”
Dr. Bushman: “I enjoyed our conversation at the Huntington very much. It is hard to remember all that transpired, however, and I don’t remember talking about a mystical testimony. It is not a word I ordinarily use. As a young man in the mission field I did pray very hard about the Book of Mormon and came to feel that it was right. By that I meant everything seemed to fall into place. But that came after a lot of thinking and questioning. My conclusion was something like what we mean when we say something is a good fit. My thoughts and feelings came together. The question of historicity is complicated. I suppose I come down in something like a Blake Ostler position; the book is a melding. The fact is there is a lot of Christian theology couched in nineteenth century language in the book, not what you find in ancient Hebrew texts. It is possible there was more Christianity in antiquity than we think; Margaret Barker’s work points in that direction. Or it is possible that translation involved taking ancient language and giving it modern Christian meanings, as Paul and Christ use Hebrew texts for their purposes. Since the book was intended for a nineteenth-century audience, the translation employed nineteenth-century language, not just occasional words, but large bodies of thought. I don’t think this question is settled yet, even among Mormons.”
Q: “Problem with Anthon’s story. How could he have translated Reformed Egyptian when Egyptian had just barely been translated a few years earlier in France? Why would he lie about his abilities here when he had an otherwise upright career?”
Dr. Bushman: “He could not have translated Egyptian, and certainly not ‘reformed Egyptian.’ This story is garbled and confused in many respects, and I have found no way of straightening it out.”
Q: “Was Joseph Smith just simply (and sincerely?) wrong about the Book of Abraham? If so, what does that say about the Book of Mormon?”
Dr. Bushman: “I think he was sincerely wrong about the contents of the scrolls. He thought they were the writings of Abraham and Joseph and seems to have been wrong on that score. (There is still an argument that Abraham’s writings appeared on parts of the scroll we do not have.) I don’t think he was necessarily wrong about the English text. It does have marks of coming from the tradition of Abrahamic writings. Abraham and the Book of Mormon are alike in that both came by way of inspiration rather than literal translation. Joseph did not look at the plates as he translated, and he did not understand the Egyptian on the scrolls.”
In these few comments Dr. Bushman has clarified Mormon historical events as informed by his scholarly training and research:
- Joseph Smith drew on many sources as he crafted Mormonism. Two prominent foundational ideas of the Mormon faith likely came via Sidney Rigdon’s influence: Restoration and “creeds are an abomination.”
- The official 1838 account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, though attributed to Joseph Smith, was not actually written by him (though he may have contributed to it). [Note: Several points of the 1832 account are at odds with the 1838 official account.]
- The Book of Mormon is “riddled” with nineteenth-century Protestant theology.
- Rather than affirming the appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph Smith (stated in the 1838 First Vision account but not in the 1832 account), Dr. Bushman affirms a personal belief in what he somewhat ambiguously calls the “founding events” of Mormonism.
- The historicity of the Book of Mormon is “complicated.” Rather than what one would expect to find in an ancient Hebrew text, the book is a “melding,” filled with large bodies of Christian theology and thought.
- Joseph Smith’s canonized story of the Anthon transcript (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith—History 1:61-65) is “garbled and confused” with no evident way to resolve it.
- Joseph Smith was “sincerely wrong” about the content of the Book of Abraham scrolls, mistaking it for the writings of Abraham.
- The Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon are not literal translations; Joseph Smith did not look at the plates as he “translated,” and he could not understand Egyptian.
I very much appreciate Dr. Bushman’s candid responses to these tough questions, but I’m saddened by his decision to be a Mormon because it’s a “good fit” for him, because he feels like he’s a better man as a member of the Mormon Church. Dr. Bushman is happy to be a Mormon, happy to live his life according to the dictates of Mormonism. But this life is fleeting. When he stands before his Creator, Dr. Bushman’s “better” will not be good enough (Romans 3:10-12). His own righteousness (and this goes for all people), though perhaps impressive to us, will be as filthy rags before Holy God (Isaiah 64:6). Dr. Bushman, I plead with you to have the courage to forsake the “good fit” of Mormonism for the living water of Christ. May He become your hope, your righteousness, your all-in-all (Philippians 3:8-9, 14).