#JMH50 Roundtable: Richard Bushman’s “Reading the Gold Plates”

By April 9, 2015

JMH50Previous #JMH50 posts:

Liz M. on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich?s Personal Essay
David Howlett on his own article on jobs and publishing in Mormon Studies
J. Stuart on William Russell?s ?Shared RLDS/LDS Journey?
Brett D. on Jared Farmer?s ?Crossroads of the West?
Ryan T. on Matthew Bowman?s ?Toward a Catholic History of Mormonism?
Tona H on Richard Turley’s “Global History of the Church”

If Leonard Arrington was the dean of New Mormon History, Richard Bushman is the patriarch of Mormon studies.[1] Bear with me for a moment while I get into some nerdy insider historiographical speak. The term “Mormon studies” gets thrown around a lot, sometimes to the point that it loses all usefulness. Does it just mean any “study” of “Mormonism”? Does it have to be academic? Does it include apologetics? Is it, *gasp*, “objective”? Does “Mormon” imply the institutional experience of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Answers to these questions vary depending on who you ask.

I won’t spend too much time on this, but in brief: In my personal view, Mormon studies is the academic examination of Mormon history, culture, theology, literature, society, etc., used for broader academic purposes. That is, to use Patrick Mason’s useful phrase in The Mormon Menace, Mormons become the “objects” of study rather than the “subjects.” (The subjects being broader cultural implications, larger historical narratives, more universal philosophical issues—you get the picture.) Just writing about Mormonism for Mormonism’s sake, speaking to strictly Mormon issues, and addressing a primarily Mormon audience, no matter how high an academic quality, is not what I would consider Mormon studies. That is, Mormon studies can include Mormon history, but far from all Mormon history qualifies as Mormon studies. In fact, I probably wouldn’t qualify most of the work that took place in New Mormon History as “Mormon studies,” because although they were the first generation to use academic tools and match professional rigor, the questions they asked and the frameworks they enambled were primarily situated within a Mormon context. When did the First Vision become important? How many wives did Joseph Smith have? What percentage of Utahns practiced polygamy? These were important questions, but mostly only important to those affiliated with the Mormon community in some way. (And there certainly were exceptions.) This isn’t to say that these subjects were flawed and bad—being included in my own description of “Mormon studies” is a neutral value outside of the realm of strictly (and narrowly) academic concerns like university hiring, advancement, and tenure, where these things matter quite a lot. I do not think all writers on Mormon history, or Mormonism in general, should embrace the methodologies or perspectives of Mormon studies; indeed, there would be severe problems if that were to happen, and I imagine that most work produced by independent Mormon publishers and presented at the Mormon History Association will not (and perhaps should not) fall under my Mormon studies characterization.[2] But I do want to emphasize that there has been a historiographical trajectory that has seen a development of more and more quality work that does indeed fulfill that academic need.

As much as anything else, Bushman’s thoughtful essay is a case study in how this transformation happened, as seen through the eyes and demonstrated through the work of one individual. Bushman’s current book project (besides his book on farming in early America, which American historians are still eagerly waiting for) is a cultural history of the gold plates in the Mormon tradition. More than just the disputed 22 months in which Joseph Smith allegedly had the artifacts in his possession, the gold plates have had an important and dynamic afterlife that reveal much about American culture in general. And admittedly, though Bushman says he could have written about the gold plates during the 1980s or 1990s, it would have been a very different project. He confesses that he (and he implies that many in the field) “was still too much under the influence of the apologetic strain in Mormon historiography.” Bushman would have wanted “to defend the reality of the plates against their unbelieving critics” (65). This was part of a broader methodological impulse, driven by the New Social History of the 1970s, to focus on the facts, the organizational principles that influenced the everyday reality of people’s lives—Bushman calls this the “evidentary tradition” within Mormon culture (68). As a result of this, and as a result of the Mormon history community’s obsession with taking sides on difficult issues, a gold plates project would have looked much different back then. Although Bushman states that the revisions to his Book of Mormon chapter between Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism and Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling reflect a shift away from a more apologetic tone, he admits that his 2005 biography of Mormonism’s founder was indeed steeped in the tradition of New Mormon history, not so much Mormon studies.[3]

The new imperative for Mormon studies, Bushman states, is to treat “Mormon themes but [change] the focus from Mormonism itself to American culture” (70). Seen in this light, the gold plates are no longer pigeon-holed into the sole debate about whether they existed or not; indeed, Bushman states that with this approach, “the question of the plates’ reality becomes irrelevant.” The new focus is to determine the cultural politics of the image of the plates, which has led Bushman to believe that “the plates are an evocative object on to which observers projet their own hopes and fears” (71-72). These are the questions that will excite scholars from a number of backgrounds, and fulfill many of the promises found in the exciting work of New Mormon History. This is not, I repeat, to say that debates over the plates should end, or that the historicity of the Book of Mormon is irrelevant to the Mormon tradition. Far from it—historicity remains an important Mormon marker, as I am well aware of in my own personal life.[4] It’s just recognizing the intentional gap between religious and academic purposes; New Mormon History tried to be all things to all people, and as a result became too divisive for the ecclesiastical setting and too limited for the academy. Mormon studies, when done successfuly, demonstrates the necessity of giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s.

It should be noted how significant it is that someone of Richard Bushman’s status and position can both acknowledge and take part in this academic transition; retired octogenarians are usually not at the forefront of scholarly change. That he is not only able to identify but also help chart this new trajectory is a testament to both his great statesmanship as well as the vibrant field which he continues to help shape.


[1] Yeah, I know, titles like these are silly. Deal with it. Also, Jan Shipps’s Mormonism and, as I’ll argue at MHA this year, John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire are probably the “first” books that fall under my category of “Mormon studies.”

[2] Most importantly, works that fall under my description of “Mormon studies,” while reaching a broader academic audience, are less relevant to the non-academic audience. The works of New Mormon History had enormous cultural capital because they addressed questions most pertinent to a broader array of Mormons. This is not as much the case with Mormon studies. I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming roundtable on Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color.

[3] Most of the early chapters from the former book were lightly revised and inserted into the latter, except the chapter on the Book of Mormon which was completely re-written.

[4] I hope to see, at some point, a great cultural studies work on why historicity remains so important in the LDS faith.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. And then, maybe, one day, we can start thinking about Mormonism in a global light?

    Thanks, Ben, for this response.

    Comment by Saskia — April 9, 2015 @ 12:08 pm

  2. Well done, Ben. As usual. Thanks.

    Comment by WVS — April 9, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

  3. Saskia: indeed. I have more substantive thoughts on the global issue, but I’ll save it for another time.

    Comment by Ben P — April 9, 2015 @ 12:53 pm

  4. This definition of “Mormon Studies” is just too narrow. By the same line of reasoning one could exclude vast swaths of good scholarship from the fields of Native American studies, African American studies, Womens studies, . . . just because the subject of a scholarly work is construed as not being “big” enough for someone else’s interest. It is better to define Mormon studies the way most “studies” fields are defined, as multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary work on a common subject. I believe strongly in the direction that Ben is pushing in, just not the exclusivity. We don’t want Mormon studies to be divided into ordinary sneetches and star-bellied sneetches.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — April 9, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

  5. Mark: my argument here is actually based on the same type of scholarly discussion being made to separate Native American history from Native American studies, African American history from African American studies, etc. If anything, I’m trying to bring our usage of the term more in line with how these other “studies” fields are moving right now.

    It may seem exclusive, but I would describe it as a necessary value-neutral categorical move to make sense of the field.

    Comment by Ben P — April 9, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

  6. I have been thinking similar thoughts, Ben. Not that scholarship steeped in the tradition shouldn’t count as Moromon Studies, but rather that the New Mormon history wasn’t as liberated from the tradition as it thought. The professionalization of Mormon Studie s is still proceeding and requires not only the application of professional tools and methodologies but also interpretation of Mormonism as an organic part of American culture. Not merely influenced* by American culture, but part and parcel.

    Comment by chris smith — April 9, 2015 @ 2:21 pm

  7. “Not merely influenced* by American culture, but part and parcel.”

    That’s a good way to put it, Chris. One example that I’m currently dealing with is how to situate Marvin Hill’s influential QUEST FOR REFUGE. He read Mormonism as dissenting from antebellum democratic culture, but the more I engage the topic the more I realize that their dissent was part of a much broader cultural angst concerning democracy that pervaded the antebellum period. So in critiquing America, their actions were actually all the more American, ironically enough.

    Comment by Ben P — April 9, 2015 @ 2:30 pm

  8. Exactly, Ben. I make similar observations about Hill’s book in the introduction to my dissertation. Mark Staker is another author who gestures toward something like this but doesn’t quite get all the way there. Staker showed that the Kirtland church sprang wholesale out of the Morley Family movement, which in turn was a Christian take on Owenite socialism. But he didn’t quite grasp the continuity between New York and Kirtland Mormonism in this respect. Joseph Smith’s uncle Jason had a Christian commune of his own, and the Book of Mormon refers explicitly to things like “inequality” and “class.” The money-digging, wildcat “anti-banking,” counterfeiting, and even militancy that Joseph Smith engaged in were all common expressions of working-class dissatisfaction with the scarcity of currency and the plight of the poor in America’s burgeoning market economy.

    Comment by Chris Smith — April 9, 2015 @ 3:30 pm

  9. A lot to chew on, Ben (and Chris). Thanks.

    Comment by J Stuart — April 9, 2015 @ 8:10 pm

  10. When will the book be released?

    Comment by n8c — April 9, 2015 @ 10:48 pm

  11. I regret to say that MHA, at least, if not the entire field of, um, the study of Mormonism, has already moved in the direction Ben describes, and I don’t think it’s a good thing. Academics have co-opted MHA to the point where the Journal rarely has anything of interest to readers whose enthusiasms beyond the faddish question-of-the-hour in academic circles (if I never have to read the jargon of “such-and-such as a lens for the study of so-and-so” again, I’ll die happy), and program committees for the annual meeting have become dominated by academics whose session choices are, more and more often, narrow and jargon-filled and suitable for the classroom but not the umbrella organization of Mormon historians and the generally interested that MHA used to serve. We used to worry about the “graying of MHA”; I haven’t yet come up with a cute term to represent what is going on through the co-opting of MHA by the academy, but it’s a more dangerous threat to MHA than its graying, because it threatens to drive away its broad base of supporters wholesale, rather than losing them gradually to death.

    This specialty you have defined as Mormon Studies should be welcome in MHA, but as one brand among many. Instead, it is fast becoming the *only* faction welcome in MHA. Not a good thing. Not at all.

    So, get off my lawn, you whippersnappers.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 10, 2015 @ 8:14 am

  12. n8c: I don’t know the status of Bushman’s project, but I assume it’s still a ways out.

    Ardis: while I agree that the Mormon studies field I define here should never dominate MHA (and perhaps never even be a majority), it’s funny how we view things from a different perspective. From my vantage, I would say that the majority of conference presentations—and a vast majority of the JMH articles, this 50th anniversary issue excluded—are not part of the historiographical trend that I’m describing. (That is, I don’t see much academic rigor at all.) Perhaps it just goes to show we all see things through our own narrow lenses and are anxious to tell everyone to get off our lawns?

    But I’ll emphasize again that I fully agree with you that MHA should serve as an umbrella for numerous different approaches and brands, given its history and niche. Determining that balance will be very, very difficult.

    Comment by Ben P — April 10, 2015 @ 9:29 am

  13. Ben, I like the way you call this a “trend,” and like I said, I strongly believe in it, as long as it isn’t so narrowly construed that good scholarship is excluded from even being considered “Mormon Studies.”

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — April 10, 2015 @ 10:03 am

  14. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by David G. — April 10, 2015 @ 10:47 am

  15. Ben, a question for you. How important is the JMH for academic students and scholars who have a need to be published to further their careers?

    Years ago we talked to Jackson Newell at a Bay Area Dialogue conference. DH wanted to know why the journal had been publishing so many academic articles, which he found dry and boring. Newell replied that it was important for students and scholars to get published to further their careers, and that there were few journals willing to publish Mormon topics, at least at that time in the mid-1980s.

    Today not only are there many more publications with Mormon ties , but I also find more articles on Mormon topics in general scholarly publications that have no connection with the church. To me this seems like a positive step forward for all who write on any aspect of Mormonism. Am I right?

    Comment by Susan W H — April 10, 2015 @ 11:58 am

  16. Susan: good questions. Though JMH has improved in quality overall in the past decades (though it has waxed and waned, which is typical of niche journals), it does not possess the reputation to carry any credence in most academic institutions. (There are many reasons for this, both internal and external.) That is, a publication in the JMH will not mean much in one’s application for an academic job or for academic promotion, where a publication on Mormonism found in non-Mormon-centric journals would carry much more academic weight.

    So for an example, my Mormon studies article that was published in AMERICAN NINETEENTH CENTURY HISTORY will count a lot more than the handful of articles I’ve published in JMH. (The latter probably don’t count for anything, to be frank.)

    Would it be possible to turn the JMH into a publication worthy of academic reputation in this regard? In some ways, sure, because the quality can always be improved, as is the case with nearly all sub-field journals. I’m sure the current and previous editors, and their editorial boards, strive to meet that standard of excellence. But quality and academic relevance are not always synonymous (the former requires the latter, but it also a different type of approach and questions). And to turn JMH into an journal worthy of that kind of academic reputation would probably fundamentally change its purpose and tone, which would be a problem along the lines of what Ardis outlined above.

    Comment by Ben P — April 10, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

  17. This is a fascinating and enlightening discussion. Thanks.

    Comment by Liz M. — April 10, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

  18. Ben, this a great essay. Thank you. It’s another step forward in helping to define this academic field. I do share, however, Mark Ashurst-McGee’s concern that this feels too narrow and restrictive in some ways. For me, the argument that Mormon studies is the academic examination of Mormon history, culture, theology, literature, society, etc., used for broader academic purposes, and that writing about Mormonism for Mormonism?s sake is not Mormon studies is far too restrictive.

    Yes, fields such as Mormon studies, African American studies, and women studies can be important subfields contributing to a border understanding of American or global history, but what about the field I have an MA in, i.e. “Jewish studies.” I believe strongly that Judaism should be studied academically on its own terms, rather through the lens of World history, or worse yet, the way it has historically been taught along the Wasatch Front–through a Mormon lens.

    When Jewish studies are taught, Jewish history, culture, literature, and belief are the focus of academic inquiry, not because the study contributes to broader academic purposes such as American history, but because Judaism itself is worth exploring as an academic discipline.

    Anyway, I do appreciate this effort to provide some much needed structure to this developing field. You’ve offered much to think about.

    Comment by D. Bokovoy — April 26, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

  19. To clarify, not suggesting that fields such as African American or Women studies cannot be appreciated on their own terms. Just perhaps that the independent nature of Jewish studies from American or even global history may be easier to help articulate my point.

    Comment by D. Bokovoy — April 26, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

  20. Thanks, David, for your comment. While as you know the value of Jewish studies for understanding Judaism for its own sake is a hotly contested one, that field has established itself in a way that make its comparisons to Mormon studies somewhat stretched. That is, it developed out of different academic needs and a starkly contrasting academic purpose, with ploitical, cultural, and academic reasons that are quite unique in its own case. One part of its development depended on fifty years of scholarly growth that validated and justified itself as a field. So even if that were the disciplinary model we wish to follow (and I personally don’t think it is, I don’t think it is something we can fruitfully follow until after another few decades of academic credibility.

    Comment by Ben P — April 26, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

  21. […] Mormon History” past to the Mormon studies present. I recently wrote about this transition a few weeks ago: while looking at Richard Bushman’s current work on the gold plates, I argued that Mormon […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Roundtable on Paul Reeve, RELIGION OF A DIFFERENT COLOR: Introduction — May 5, 2015 @ 9:59 am


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