August 14, 2008

Bushman's Introduction to "Joseph Smith and His Critics" Seminar

The following is Richard Bushman's introduction paper to the 2008 summer seminar, “Joseph Smith and His Critics,” given July 29, 2008. The image above shows Bushman (far left) with other conference participants.

For my thoughts on the seminar in general, see "Preliminary Thoughts on the 2008 Bushman Seminar," and "Follow-up Thoughts on the 2008 Bushman Seminar." For notes on the presentations themselves, see Juvenile Instructor's "Notes on the 2008 Bushman Seminar," parts one and two.

"Introduction" by Richard Bushman

Increasingly teachers and church leaders at all levels are approached by Latter-day Saints who have lost confidence in Joseph Smith and the basic miraculous events of church history. They doubt the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, many of Joseph’s revelations, and much besides. They fall into doubt after going on the Internet and finding shocking information about Joseph Smith based on documents and facts they had never heard before. A surprising number had not known about Joseph Smith’s plural wives. They are set back by differences in the various accounts of the First Vision. They find that Egyptologists do not translate the Abraham manuscripts the way Joseph Smith did, making it appear that the Book of Abraham was a fabrication. When they come across this information in a critical book or read it on one of the innumerable critical Internet sites, they feel as if they had been introduced to a Joseph Smith and a Church history they had never known before. They undergo an experience like viewing the famous picture of a beautiful woman who in a blink of an eye turns into an old hag. Everything changes. What are they to believe?

Often church leaders, parents, and friends, do not understand the force of this alternate view. Not knowing how to respond, they react defensively. They are inclined to dismiss all the evidence as anti-Mormon or of the devil. Stop reading these things if they upset you so much, the inquirer is told. Or go back to the familiar formula: scriptures, prayer, church attendance.

The troubled person may have been doing all of these things sincerely, perhaps even desperately. He or she feels the world is falling apart. Everything these inquirers put their trust in starts to crumble. They want guidance more than ever in their lives, but they don’t seem to get it. The facts that have been presented to them challenge almost everything they believe. People affected in this way may indeed stop praying; they don’t trust the old methods because they feel betrayed by the old system. Frequently they are furious. On their missions they fervently taught people about Joseph Smith without knowing any of these negative facts. Were they taken advantage of? Was the Church trying to fool them for its own purposes?

These are deeply disturbing questions. They shake up everything. Should I stay in the Church? Should I tell my family? Should I just shut up and try to get along? Who can help me?

At this point, these questioners go off in various directions. Some give up on the Church entirely. They find another religion or, more likely these days, abandon religion altogether. Without their familiar Mormon God, they are not sure there is any God at all. They become atheist or agnostic. Some feel the restrictions they grew up with no longer apply. The strength has been drained out of tithing, the Word of Wisdom, and chastity. They partly welcome the new freedom of their agnostic condition. Now they can do anything they please without fear of breaking the old Mormon rules. The results may not be happy for them or their families.

Others piece together a morality and a spiritual attitude that stops them from declining morally, but they are not in an easy place. When they go to church, , they are not comfortable. Sunday School classes and Sacrament meeting talks about Joseph Smith and the early church no longer ring true. How can these people believe these “fairy tales,” the inquirers ask. Those who have absorbed doses of negative material live in two minds: their old church mind which now seems naive and credulous, and their new enlightened mind with its forbidden knowledge learned on the internet and from critical books.

A friend who is in this position described the mindset of the disillusioned member this way:

“Due to the process of learning, which they have gone through, these [two-minded] LDS often no longer accept the church as the only true one (with the only true priesthood authority and the only valid sacred ordinances), but they see it as a Christian church, in which good, inspired programs are found as well as failure and error. They no longer consider inspiration, spiritual and physical healing, personal and global revelation limited to the LDS church. In this context, these saints may attend other churches, too, where they might have spiritual experiences as well. They interpret their old spiritual experiences differently, understanding them as testimonies from God for them personally, as a result of their search and efforts, but these testimonies don’t necessarily have to be seen as a confirmation that the LDS church is the only true one.

“Since the social relationships between them and other ward (or stake) members suffer (avoidance, silence, even mobbing) because of their status as heretics, which is usually known via gossip, and since the extent of active involvement and range of possible callings are reduced because of their nonconformity in various areas, there is a risk that they end up leaving the church after all, because they are simply ignored by the majority of the other members.”

He then offers a recommendation:

“It is necessary that the church not only shows more support and openness to these ‘apostates’ but also teaches and advises all members, bishops, stake presidents etc., who usually don’t know how to deal with such a situation in terms of organizational and ecclesiastical questions and – out of insecurity – fail to treat the critical member with the necessary love and respect that even a normal stranger would receive.”

Those are the words of someone who has lost belief in many of the fundamentals and is working out a new relationship to the Church. Other shaken individuals recover their belief in the basic principles and events but are never quite the same as before. Their knowledge, although no longer toxic, gives them a new perspective. They tend to be more philosophic and less dogmatic about all the stories they once enjoyed. Here are some of the characteristics of people who have passed through this ordeal but managed to revive most of their old beliefs.

1. They often say they learned the Prophet was human. They don’t expect him to be a model of perfect deportment as they once thought. He may have taken a glass of wine from time to time, or scolded his associates, or even have made business errors. They see his virtues and believe in his revelations but don’t expect perfection.

2. They also don’t believe he was led by revelation in every detail. They see him as learning gradually to be a prophet and having to feel his way at times like most Church members. In between the revelations, he was left to himself to work out the methods of complying with the Lord’s commandments. Sometimes he had to experiment until he found the right way.

3. These newly revived Latter-day Saints also develop a more philosophical attitude toward history. They come to see (like professional historians) that facts can have many interpretations. Negative facts are not necessarily as damning as they appear at first sight. Put in another context along side other facts, they do not necessarily destroy Joseph Smith’s reputation.

4. Revived Latter-day Saints focus on the good things they derive from their faith–the community of believers, the comforts of the Holy Spirit, the orientation toward the large questions of life, contact with God, moral discipline, and many others. They don’t want to abandon these good things. Starting from that point of desired belief, they are willing to give Joseph Smith and the doctrine a favorable hearing. They may not be absolutely certain about every item, but they are inclined to see the good and the true in the Church.

At the heart of this turmoil is the question of trust. Disillusioned Latter-day Saints feel their trust has been betrayed. They don’t know whom to trust. They don’t dare trust the old feelings that once were so powerful, nor do they trust church leaders. They can only trust the new knowledge they have acquired. Those who come back to the Church are inclined to trust their old feelings. Their confidence in the good things they knew before is at least partially restored. But they sort out the goodness that seems still vital from the parts that now seem no longer tenable. Knowledge not only has given them a choice, it has compelled them to choose. They have to decide what they really believe. In the end, many are more stable and convinced than before. They feel better prepared to confront criticism openly, confident they can withstand it.

- - - -

The members of the seminar on “Joseph Smith and His Critics,” a group of Religious Education and CES faculty who met at BYU for six weeks in the summer of 2008, are among those who have known Latter-day Saints in this state of confusion and doubt. We have had many opportunities to talk to questioners about their problems and admit that we have often fallen short in our answers. We came together in hopes of learning to do better. Besides gathering information on a series of specific issues, we have discussed how best to deal with questioning Saints. What way of speaking is most likely to win their trust and convince them we have their best interests at heart?

We began by agreeing that criticisms of Joseph Smith should not be dismissed as foolish or purely evil. The negative attacks that disturb first-time readers are usually based on facts, not merely prejudiced fabrications. To play down the force of the criticism, we believe, only convinces the seekers that we do not understand. We appear to be sweeping trouble under the rug. They may have been devastated by a criticism; we must show that we understand why. Consequently, the seminar took as its first principle to state the negative argument as fully and accurately as we can. We try not to minimize the difficulty or prejudice the case against the critic. In no other way can we persuade the doubters that we understand the problem.

Secondly, we try to avoid dogmatic answers. Rather than replace the dogmatic negative attacks of the critics with our own dogmatic answers, we attempt to show that a more positive interpretation is possible. Critics often claim that Joseph’s sins were so egregious as to utterly disqualify him as a prophet. We can understand their viewpoint, but we think there is another side to the story. Rather than destroy the critics, we want to loosen their grip. In the long run, we believe this approach will persuade questioners more effectively than claims to certainty where none is possible. We believe in stating our own strong convictions about the church as a whole, but we do not to pretend to perfect knowledge about complex historical questions.

We know that airing criticisms troubles many Latter-day Saints. Like most Church teachers, the members of the seminar do not want to draw attention to questions that will only unsettle faithful members. But we also feel that silence is not the answer. The absence of instruction troubles questioners more than anything. They feel they have been betrayed because they came through their Church classes ignorant of the devastating information now a few clicks away on the internet. The gaps in their education leave them disillusioned and angry.

To counteract this lack of preparation, the seminar members have taken as our motto the scripture that begins: “As all have not faith, teach one another” (D&C 88:118). We are encouraged by the scriptural recognition that not all have faith, and by the appealing remedy, “teach one another.” For many questioners, loneliness is the heart of the problems. No one seems to understand. We are enjoined by this scripture to find these seekers and bring them into a fellowship of inquiry. We hope that our papers will help Church teachers create safe havens where questions may be asked and answers explored--where we can teach one another.


Richard L. Bushman is a Professor Emeritus of History, Columbia University, the current holder of the Howard W. Hunter visiting professorship in Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, and author of the recent biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

August 12, 2008

Follow-up Thoughts on the 2008 Bushman Seminar

On Church education, apologetics, and scholarship

In my preliminary remarks on the Bushman seminar I noted that the participants included various CES and at  Church Curriculum personnel. As noted, I believe this involvement is a crucial step forward in equipping Institute and other teachers to handle issues that may cause concern among their students. Robert Lund from the Church curriculum department pointed out he was surprised to see such a large turnout at the presentation of the papers. Rather than being a presentation on new information about Joseph Smith which might grab the attention of LDS buffs, he explained, the purpose of the seminar was to explore apologetics in general and to educate the participants in methods of historical inquiry, presentation; approaching Joseph Smith on difficult issues in order to help students of the gospel better understand them in a straight-forward but positive way.[1] Participant and graduate student Stephen Fleming noted:
[The seminar] had two audiences. Those who have lost their faith and institute teachers. Our goal was to help institute teachers help those who struggle. We know Dialogue will publish such topics, but we saw The Religious Educator as more effective for our purposes.
We want to avoid all finger pointing. We are all aware that the manuals [of the LDS Church] are imperfect. We all hope for improvement. The blame game isn’t effective though. Our hope is to find a way to work together on common goals.[2]
He continued:
Our primary audience is the CES so publishing in the Religious Educator is important to us. How to reach the disaffected is a trickier question. First, we want to write so that the disaffected will feel that we are being honest.[3]
Flemming also said he believes people will find the temper of the papers "different from FAIR," the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research.
Again we all admire FAIR and FARMS but felt like there were additional angles to be explored. We all wanted to empathize with those who struggle and admit that we have very challenging issues in Church history.[4]
I believe the view that FAIR and FARMS have not taken a "pastoral approach," may stem from an unfamiliarity with much of the material provided by them. As board member Kevin Barney pointed out in response to Flemming:
The basic approach [of FAIR] is to use scholarship but to try to summarize it and make it intelligible for the non-scholar members of the Church. This article tries to synthesize the key points of the scholarship, and then for people who can handle more refers them to the half-dozen or so key articles in BYU Studies.
So, using this as an example (or any other topic you prefer), how will these responses differ in tone, approach, audience, or other ways?[5]
Because FAIR has many volunteers who write different articles, (FARMS also has many different contributors) they can differ in tone and approach. As Barney said, he would "caution against characterizing either FAIR or FARMS by any one particular paper or small group of papers. Both groups are more in the nature of clearinghouses and involve contributions from literally hundreds of people." I believe it is possible that Bushman and some other participants of the seminar were fairly unfamiliar with what both FARMS and FAIR has produced. Scott Gordon, president of FAIR, visited the seminar, along with Daniel C. Peterson (editor of the FARMS Review) and spoke to the participants about their work and I believe, if they made a positive impression, the invisible mental gap in some minds that seems to separate FAIR (and even FARMS) from "good" apologetic work (or causes the label of "apologetics" to be used in a pejorative sense) will shrink. "Apologetics" is, in essence, arguing for a position. There are good and bad ways to do apologetics. 

The seminar had the goal of discovering a "pastoral approach." Bushman's introductory paper covered this very well (as did Daniel C. Peterson's FAIR conference address "Humble Apologetics," transcripts of both are forthcoming). My confusion began in hearing the papers following Bushman's; I expected something different.[6] In other words, the seminar seems to have resulted in papers that are pretty close to the tone and approach already used by FARMS and FAIR, only now, CES instructors and Curriculum personnel were working directly with historians and specialists in a symposium sponsored by the Maxwell Institute rather than the LDS Church directly, which I believe is excellent.

Finally, to answer some of my original questions posted shortly after the seminar:
Why were these specific topics covered over others? 
Among other reasons, Bushman was corresponding with a woman in Germany who mentioned these specific things as issues she believes cause disaffection among members.

What was covered that wasn't already available elsewhere?
Topically, little new material was presented, though in general the papers deserve reading as they ably approach their various topics. Again, I believe the purpose of the seminar was not particularly to provide new research or information as much as it was designed to share methods and approaches with CES instructors and other participants, and also learn from their perspectives.

The input from CES personnel essentially underscored the problems associated with my next question:

How can CES instructors, Sunday School teachers, and every-day members of the Church become more familiar with the materials; should or would they? What more can be done on an institutional level?
The CES and Church Curriculum participants pointed to the difficulty in preparing gospel materials appropriate for a global church. (For example, a woman I know who is currently investigating the Church pointed out that much of what she had seen thus far apart from FAIR and FARMS seemed very basic. Also, earlier church curriculum materials may have been met with puzzled looks when the December lessons contained stories of snow sledding and other things unfamiliar to Saints in warmer regions away from the US. This is a small part of the reasoning behind the correlation movement which seeks to create a unified global LDS voice through lesson manuals, magazines, etc.).

Louis C. Midgley, who met with seminar participants for a short time, noted that some outside observers seemed to believe world-wide Church members need to know various topics irrelevant to the Church's mission without explaining  "how various materials would be presented in Portugal, Mongolia, or a dozen places in Africa. If one desires church-wide materials about DNA and Kirtland Anti-Banking," he said, "such a view would essentially be very parochial if one has in mind the Saints in Malta or Vanuatu or Hong Kong." In other words, it can become easy to develop a myopic view of what the Church needs, even while believing or hoping for a more universal gospel. A sort-of "Wasatch Front Intellectualism" can develop, seeing the problems facing the Church in the intellectual arena as pandemic throughout the Church. In his recent Sunstone panel discussion on his book Shaken Faith Syndrome, Michael Ash similarly lamented that, at times, the lessons in Church may not approach the depth some members prefer. In the panel he said "I'd like to see something in the current curriculum like Nibley's An Approach to the Book of Mormon [the 1957 Melchizedek priesthood manual, now republished by FARMS] I also noted, however, that I can understand that, as a world-wide Church, [the curriculum department] has a tough balancing act in this area." Ash is trying to look beyond himself.[7]

I believe another reason (among several) Church materials have been reticent more recently to include rigorous historical investigation is that some members may take certain views as “official,” or teach them as such, when these views will likely continue to adapt over time (especially historical views which can change with the discovery of new information or further research.) Answers printed in Church publications give the imprimatur of authenticity, perhaps causing some members to hold rigidly to views likely to adapt over time. What is needed, in my mind, is a contemporary, clear, and perhaps official explanation on the role history plays in the Church; how it relates to our conception of a covenant people or dispensation, and how members can expect it to continue to adapt or change in the future in certain ways, even without tearing away the foundation of revelation from God to Joseph Smith, and the divine origin of the Book of Mormon. Method and worldview, more than the individual “historical facts” [read: interpretations], seem key to me.[8] Mitt Romney's recent presidential campaign and the resulting media coverage provided impetus for the LDS Public Affairs department, which now posts updates and information on on news items affecting Mormonism.[9] Richard Turley's recent article on the Mountain Meadows Massacre was another example of professional scholarship directed to the mainstream Church in the Ensign.[10] The Church has increased its presence on the Internet as well, including a YouTube channel and a call for members of the Church to become active participants in blogging and other online dialog about the gospel.[11] The Joseph Smith Papers project also shows the institutional interest in rigorous scholarship as directed by the Church history department.[12]

What method of apologetics is right, or are they all wrong together? 
Obviously there are benefits and shortcomings to different approaches. There is no "catch-all" because different methods appeal to different people, at different times, in different situations, regarding different subjects! As Daniel C. Peterson recently explained,
I'm sure [apologists, scholars, teachers etc.] are not helping everybody who needs or wants help. That's one of the reasons why I give this matter on-going thought. I know that our efforts have helped more than a few; I've heard from them. But I don't believe that any one approach will help everybody. The response that allays all concerns of Worrier A may well offend Worrier B, or leave him unsatisfied, or even suggest new reasons for doubt. I've seen it happen. Ideally, the approach would be tailored to each individual. Unfortunately, that simply isn't possible in every way.[13]
A general awareness and desire among those who are to be instructed is what we need first; that is something each of us can actually work on now.[14] The Church needs less baby robins waiting to be fed. Additionally, a desire for a rigid, comprehensive answer to all theological questions can be problematic. As Benjamin Huff explained in his essay "Theology in the One-Room Schoolhouse":
There is a danger that someone who is more eager to have all the answers than to have the truth may cling to a theological system in resistance of the truth, whether truth that is new to the world, or merely truth that is new to that person.[15]
What exactly is a "pastoral approach" and how does it differ from what is already being provided by various organizations? 
I will be discussing this question more as the Bushman and Peterson transcripts are completed. (I believe some who complain about different approaches in LDS scholarship, or even in the Church curriculum, do less to help the situation by complaining about it than those making their own efforts to pitch in.) 

Commenting on the Juvenile Instructor blog under notes about the Bushman seminar, a poster named Kent summed it up nicely:
What I feel most individuals who struggle with “the facts” need most is not one specific narrative (ie. “what really happened”), but rather context for the events and an alternative world-view that reframes the disconnect between expectations and our best understanding of reality.

In summary, I feel the intended audience (CES employees) were well served by the presentations offered and I am very hopeful we will see more attempts at history and apologetics from this seminar in the future.[16]


The image is "i feel like going home" by Sam Brown, explodingdog comics, 6-16-08. In my prelimary remarks on the seminar I noted that if the approach was intended to develop new information, I believe it failed because the papers were not "new." I believe my first supposition was correct, that the approach was intended to help participants learn how to better use historical sources and discuss various methods to get CES and others involved in the process. In this regard, I believe the seminar was a very important step forward, and successful insofar as those who participated continue with what they learned. Indeed, this is an exciting development. Flemming called it "a momentous occasion" (see his comment in "What Is Our Obligation?", Juvenile Instructor blog, July 25, 2008).

Stephen Flemming, "What Is Our Obligation?", Juvenile Instructor blog, July 25, 2008. The Religious Educator is a publication geared for CES and other LDS instructors.


ibid. It should be noted that FARMS has been renamed the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Out of convenience I have used both names in the post.

Kevin Barney, July 25, 2008. FARMS and FAIR have suffered somewhat from "poisoning the well" by various critics of their efforts. Michael Ash discusses this phenomenon in "Anti-Mormon Disdain for LDS Scholarship and Apologetics," Shaken Faith Syndrome, p.83.

A few others noted similar feelings. At lunch, for example, John Dehlin said the paper on the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society should have commiserated more with other Church members who lost their money in the scheme, which "would have really sucked," he said. While that angle could have been further explored, the overall paper approached the issue of prophethood despite infallibility, rather than exploring all the reactions by various members.

Midgley and Ash's comments are from personal e-mail correspondence in my possession, August 11, 2008. An important essay on this subject was published in Greg Kofford Books' recent Discourses in Mormon Theology: Philosophical & Theological Possibilities. Benjamin Huff, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, compared the Church to a one-room schoolhouse where students at various levels participate in the same class. He explores the problems inherent in such a setting, and seeks to resolve them by a sort of Hegelian synthesis of unity, diversity and progression. See "Theology in the One-Room Schoolhouse," p. 159.

Michael Ash approaches a more responsible view of history and doctrine in his book Shaken Faith Syndrome

Especially interesting to me has been the "Commentary" section, hinting at a blog-like method of discussion on contemporary issues, including brief statements on approaching LDS history, and discussing LDS doctrine. Top LDS leaders also participated in Helen Whitney's PBS documentary "The Mormons" in 2007. 

Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Ensign, Sep 2007, 14–21. Interestingly, the Church magazine Liahona, which essentially serves as the Friend, New Era, and Ensign to international Church members, did not carry the massacre article in its September 2007 issue. Turley and two other historians recently published the first of a two-volume work on the massacre. 

See the LDSPublicAffairs YouTube channel, and Elder Russell M. Ballard's recent article, “Sharing the Gospel Using the Internet,” Ensign, Jul 2008, 58–63.

See for more. KJZZ channel 14 in Utah also has a weekly television special on the project.

Daniel C. Peterson on the message board, August 13, 208.

See my recent post "On Personal Responsibility in Education."

Huff, "Theology in the One-Room Schoolhouse," Discourses in Mormon Theology, p. 163. 

See "Kent's" comments under "Notes on the 2008 Bushman Seminar (part 2)," Juvenile Instructor blog, July 30, 2008.