Notes on the 2008 Bushman Seminar (Part 1)

By July 29, 2008

Today I had the privilege of attending the 2008 Bushman Seminar, entitled “Joseph Smith and His Critics” (for a preview of the conference by Stephen Flemming, one of the participants, see here). I brought along my laptop to take notes, though they not very detailed. What follows is a combination of my notes and my reflections on the proceedings. They are very scattered and random, but I hope they give at least a little sense of what was said.

First, I think it is important to point out that this seminar was quite different than previous Bushman seminars. This time, rather than inviting grad students (though one was still accepted), Bushman brought in LDS instructors: Institute teachers, Church Curriculum writers, and BYU Religious Department professors. Also, the desired audience was quite different: rather than writing for other scholars and researchers, they wrote for CES teachers and people struggling with faith. The goal was to address “controversial” issues with a “pastoral” approach, rather than attempting complex analyses and critiques. Therefore, there were not many things introduced that would be new to us; instead, they were presenting previously known things in what they felt important frameworks for their desired audience.

One of the highlights for me was Richard Bushman’s introduction. While I won’t go much into it here (hopefully we will have a post with more information on his remarks in the near future), there were some things that really stood out to me. He mostly spoke on this new approach of apologetics they were trying to achieve in this seminar. He gave a detailed explanation of the different phases many people go through when they are presented with tough issues, as well as the stages some later go through when they are shown a better way to deal with those issues. As we try to deal with those who are struggling with historical problems, we must remember that silence is not an option; refusing to talk about the specific problem or even acknowledge that they are problems ruffles the doubter’s feathers more than anythings else. One of the top symptoms of those going through this type of crisis is loneliness. Therefore, when trying to help, we need to make sure to let them know that we understand. One of the best ways to do this is to repeat the issue as clearly as possible and acknowledge that the issue is in fact troubling. Then, the most powerful message to me, Bushman said that when engaging the specific problem, we need to focus more on embracing the seeker of truth rather than arguing with the adversary (the troubling information).

Robert Lund (Church Curriculum): The Kirtland Safety Society

Lund’s presentation gave a basic overview of the Saint’s attempt at a Bank in Kirtland. While mostly known information, there were a few things new to me (possibly because I am not a Kirtland Safety Society expert). Apparently there were two banking acts, one in 1814 and one in 1826, that seemed to be somewhat contradictory, so there was some ambiguity on whether a venture like Joseph Smith’s was legal. He acknowledged that while not all of Joseph’s decisions were the best, they were somewhat understandable. Lund also presented some challenging, yet important, questions, like “How did God allow a prophet to do such a thing?” and “Why didn’t Joseph Smith knew it was going to fail?”, though he didn’t really go into giving legitimate answers. Also, probably the most disappointing point of his presentation is that he fell back on the “Joseph Smith’s promises concerning the bank were conditional upon the people’s faithfulness” argument, which seemed to go against the very kind of “acknowledging fault” approach this seminar was going for. However, coming from an individual who didn’t appear to have any background in scholarly writing or research, I was impressed with his effort. Heck, if all of our curriculum writers were willing admit that Joseph made some faults in the endeavor, which Lund did several times, I would be more than happy. Given the circumstances, I think this is a good starting step for gentlemen like him as well as for CES personnel if they incorporate these types of views (don’t get me started on an institute class I attended last summer that talked about the Kirtland Bank…)

Stephen Harper (BYU Religion): The Book of Mormon Witnesses and “Spiritual Eyes”

One of the stronger presentations of the day, Harper took on the accusation that the Book of Mormon Witnesses claimed their witness experience was only through “spiritual eyes.” He affirmed that all of the primary documents, whether written by them or authorized by them, clearly stated that it was a temporal experience. On the other hand, almost all of the accounts where one of the witnesses claimed that it was only a “spiritual” or “revelatory” experience come through second-hand accounts. Harper proposed that these “controversial” accounts reveal more about the person collecting the information rather than the person giving it. It shows how they attempted to understand these supernatural experiences they didn’t believe. Harper argued that the reason some historians choose to emphasize these “hearsay” accounts is so they would fit their own agenda or ideology. If one chooses that the Three Witnesses did not see tangible plates, then it is necessary to find accounts, even if they are second-hand and problematic, that support your thesis. This is not only an important point on this specific issue, but it is an important point for historians in general.

John Beck (UVU Institute): Freemasonry and the Temple

This was an interesting presentation. Apparently Beck has had a “prestigious career” (Bushman’s words) teaching institute in Utah Valley for like forty years. His presentation didn’t really bring anything new: Joseph Smith was exposed to Masonic rituals, he felt that there was something there, went to the Lord, and God revealed the true endowment to him. Beck emphasized Joseph’s teachings that Masonry was a “degenerate form” left over from ancient rituals, and that through revelation he was able to extract the true principles (perhaps the newest and most interesting thing to me was Beck’s description of George Adam’s relationship with Joseph in Nauvoo, suggesting that it was Adam’s influence that eventually pulled Joseph into Masonry). While none of this information is probably new to many of us (and many might take issue on whether the Masonic ritual is really a remnant of ancient sacred rituals), I think it is significant that he, an established institute teacher speaking to a primarily CES audience, admitted that Joseph was influenced by Masonry at all. He acknowledge that while only a small portions of the Endowment specifics are copied from the Masons, they are still very significant portions. Bushman seemed excited about this and asked during the question and answer section, “what do you feel the average response would be to this type of thought?” Beck didn’t really give a straight answer, but then a nice group discussion began exploring why we are ok with Joseph copying things out of the Bible but not with him copying things from sources like the Masons or his magic culture. I hope it was a new and enlightening discussion for many in attendance.

Brian Hauglid (BYU Religion): The Kinderhook Plates

I was rather impressed with this presentation. Hauglid is an Egyptologist, specializing on the Book of Abraham, so this was new territory for him (it’s also new territory for me, so I was intrigued). He argued that the common approach apologists have taken in the past, i.e. that William Clayton was misinformed when he recorded that Joseph had translated part of the plates and that they were from a descendent of Ham through the loins of Pharoah, is problematic because Clayton was a stickler when it came to details. Rather, Hauglid thinks we should accept the fact Joseph probably did look at the plates and focus on other elements. Most important to Hauglid, he stressed the fact that Joseph either realized that the plates weren’t authentic or that he just lost interest in them because he never made it beyond the phase of preliminary observations. Specifically, Joseph didn’t even get far enough into the hoax for the conspirators to spring the trap on him. The Prophet’s normal sequence with ancient records was transcribing, publishing, and publicizing, all usually in a short manner of time, but we have no evidence for any of these taking place with the Kinderhook Plates. The discussion period for this topic was equalling pleasing, because Mark Ashust-McGee, an editor on the Joseph Smith Papers Project and someone who has written on this topic, was present and gave some added details. He thought that the people behind the hoax didn’t really expect the fraud to go so far–he thinks that the “practical joke” was meant for the local Mormons in Kinderhook and they never expected to to actually be taken before the Prophet.

It turns out I have more to say on the seminar than I thought, so I am gonna go ahead and break this up into two parts. Expect the second part shortly.

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports


  1. I should note that perhaps the funnest part of the conference was being able to mingle with others in the audience. Besides my co-bloggers Chris, David, Stan, and Jordan, there were also fellow bloggers BHodges and John Dehlin, scholars like Terryl Givens, Pat Mason, Matt Grow, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Andy Ehat, and finally many of the BYU religion professors. The social environment is often one of the highlights of seminars.

    Comment by Ben — July 29, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

  2. So far Ben’s summary seems pretty accurate, though I am not sure what impressed in Hauglid’s presentation. I din’t hear any real insightful analysis or any new ideas about it, other than “Joseph may have thought he saw some similar symbols in the jibberish on the plates and really did come up with the Ham descendant idea.” (Isn’t that pretty much conceding the point of the critics that Joseph couldn’t translate?)

    Comment by Me — July 29, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

  3. Thanks, Ben. I’m glad that you thought Stephen Harper’s presentation was especially strong — I’ve got a lot of respect for him (he’s one of the very few BYU profs who spends much time in personal research at the archives) and the few of his papers I’ve read, and I’m glad to have that good opinion validated.

    Good group to mingle with, too!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

  4. Good stuff. I am really excited because I get to attend a fireside this Thursday by Richard and Claudia Bushman at my Stake Center. The topic is the History of Mormons in California. Anyone going?

    Comment by meems — July 29, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

  5. Me: Maybe it is just that I am not that well-read on the Kinderhook Plates.

    Isn’t that pretty much conceding the point of the critics that Joseph couldn’t translate?

    I really doubt Joseph could have really interpreted the engravings on the golden plates as well if he were to just look at them and give preliminary observations.

    I was intrigued by Hauglid’s hypothesis that Joseph looked at the plates, saw that they looked somewhat like the egyptian writings he had been working on a couple years earlier, and just gave a preliminary hypothesis that, “Hey, these look Egyptian, which means they probably came from someone in Ham’s lineage.”

    Comment by Ben — July 29, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  6. Ardis: I have mucho respect for Harper as well.

    Comment by Ben — July 29, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  7. Random, probably ignorant question:

    Will the Bushman seminar be published or available to listen to?

    Comment by brandt — July 29, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

  8. brandt, they hope to publish the essays in the Religious Educator.

    Comment by Christopher — July 29, 2008 @ 11:56 pm

  9. […] Notes on the 2008brandt: Notes on the 2008Ben: Notes on the 2008Ben: Notes on the 2008meems: Notes on the 2008Ardis […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Notes on the 2008 Bushman Seminar (Part 2) — July 30, 2008 @ 12:03 am

  10. Thanks for the summary, Ben. Now on to #2…

    Comment by Jared T. — July 30, 2008 @ 12:04 am

  11. Great summary. I have a question about the presentation on the Kirtland Safety Society.

    Did Lund claim (like the FAIR website) that “Joseph did not profit personally from the bank?” I wonder about that claim. Joseph lost the capital he put up as stock in the bank, but I presume he was also issued scrip in exchange for this investment, which he, as the prophet, was probably able to get others to accept as payments for debts, goods, or services. So Joseph’s profit would be the net amount of scrip he was able to spend, minus the amount of his initial investment. Since the bank was under-capitalized from the beginning, I would expect that the early investors actually made a profit by getting faithful followers to accept the scrip in payment in the early days. (This is not to say they intended to defraud anyone, just that they were not the main victims of the failure. The victims were the faithful who accepted the scrip based on the leaders’ promises.)

    In short, I suspect that the apologetic claim that JS lost more than most people is unfounded and likely untrue, and should be abandoned.

    Comment by kodos — July 30, 2008 @ 12:26 am

  12. I had family commitments and had to miss the first half of the conference. Caught the second though. Seems like there were several familiar names there. Too bad I don’t have faces to associate with the names, or I would have said hi.

    Seemed like a well-attended seminar though – especially considering how obscure the advertising for it was.

    Comment by Seth R. — July 30, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  13. Ben, thanks for taking notes and making them available.

    Comment by Mark IV — July 30, 2008 @ 10:00 am

  14. I have a question about the viability of this approach.

    Therefore, when trying to help, we need to make sure to let them know that we understand. One of the best ways to do this is to repeat the issue as clearly as possible and acknowledge that the issue is in fact troubling.

    How does one get members to accept that our history is “troubling”, “complicated”, etc.? In my experience there seem to be many members who simply deny this premise, and the conversation is dead from the get-go. Is this a choice one fundamentally makes–to see the world in shades of grey rather than black and white, or is there a way to “gently persuade” others that such is the case?

    Comment by RG — July 30, 2008 @ 11:29 am

  15. >Beck’s description of James Adam’s relationship

    make that George Adams

    Comment by Keller — July 30, 2008 @ 11:57 am

  16. Keller: noted and corrected. Thanks for catching my glitch.

    Comment by Ben — July 30, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

  17. RG (14): I don’t think I understand your question.

    If I’ve read correctly, the stipulated conversation is between an _already_ troubled member and a religious educator who is _already_ both aware of history and secure in faith. Thus, there is no need to persuade anyone in the described conversation that history is painted grey on grey at dusk.

    Comment by Edje — July 30, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  18. The Prophet’s normal sequence with ancient records was transcribing, publishing, and publicizing, all usually in a short manner of time

    Umm. What? How long from when the Egyptian papyri was obtained to when it was published? And for that many how many ancient records did he deal with. (Two by my count)

    Comment by Clark — July 30, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  19. Speaking of making stories real by connecting them to our own ancestors, my same g-g-g-great grandparents that I mentioned in the thread of Part #2, Stephen and Nancy Winchester, lived in Kinderhook, Illinois, after being forced to leave Missouri. I always imagine that the Stephen was one of the Mormons the Kinderhook gentiles were pranking, but I don’t have any evidence one way or the other.

    We went to Kinderhook earlier this year to visit the site. It’s a hamlet perched on the hills immediately above the Mississippi floodplain.

    Comment by John Hamer — July 30, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

  20. Kodos,

    Lund presented a very compelling case (for me at least) that Joseph Smith lost more than anyone else (and invested more than anyone else, especially at the end of the Society’s days as he gave money to re-capitalize it) except for one other man. Lund also spent time speaking about how Smith repaid dozens of people who had sued him and had likely settled with all of them. He pointed out how the idea of Smith running to Missouri to shirk financial obligations is not accurate.

    Comment by Kent — July 30, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

  21. If I’ve read correctly, the stipulated conversation is between an _already_ troubled member and a religious educator who is _already_ both aware of history and secure in faith. Thus, there is no need to persuade anyone in the described conversation that history is painted grey on grey at dusk.

    I imagine that the conference is meant to have some normative force (even if only implicitly). No?

    Comment by RG — July 30, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  22. Thanks, Kent. I hope I get to read the presentation.

    Comment by kodos — July 30, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

  23. A minor correction or clarification of detail–the University of Utah does not award a Doctorate in Egyptology. It is therefore unlikely that Brian Hauglid is a trained Egyptologist. To my knowledge, of the BYU faculty only John Gee has completed a PhD in Egyptology, while Michael D. Rhodes also has graduate level training in the subject.

    Comment by Trevor — July 30, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

  24. Trevor: You are right, Hauglid got his degree in Arabic and Islamic studies. However, he is a self-proclaimed “Egyptologist” since that is what he works on (I do not know what his training in the field is, nor what it takes to be able to have the “Egyptologist” title).

    Comment by Ben — July 30, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

  25. […] 2008 Bushman Seminar Pt 1 and Pt 2 notes by Ben at Juvenile Instructor. Sounds like the focus was more on how religious educators can engage with controversial or difficult issues. Also at Life on Gold Plates some thoughts on the seminar. […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 4: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — August 2, 2008 @ 12:37 am

  26. […] posts summarize the presentations given by scholars and students at the end of the seminar. Part 1 includes Stephen Harper’s argument against the “spiritual eyes” statements […]

    Pingback by Times & Seasons » Posts You Might Have Missed 5 — August 6, 2008 @ 2:48 am

  27. #5

    Hoaxer: Mr. Smith, would mind looking at these curious plates found in Kinderhook, and give us your preliminary opinion.

    Joseph Smith: Well, the symbols appear to be Egyptian, much like those contained on the Gold Plates from which I translated The Book of Mormon. Gaging from the bones and the characters on the plates it would appear that the author was descendant of Pharoah throug the loins of Ham. I would further guess that this man recieved his kingdom from the God of heaven and earth. That would be my prelimary opinion, but I would have to study them more carefully to be certain.

    Comment by Cowboy — September 10, 2008 @ 12:33 pm


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