In order for the “Mormon Moment” (however you define it) to be successful, there must be able explicators. In the last half-dozen years, there have been few better faces of Mormonism than Richard Bushman. (See, for instance, the recent write-up here.) Whether the topic is Joseph Smith, religious fanaticism, or even the “Book of Mormon” musical, Bushman has been a go-to voice for reporters, and his insights are often poignant and insightful. He is the perfect blend of approachability, reasonable credentials (many of the highest academic awards, prestigious chair at an Ivy League institution), and brilliance. What makes him so likable in the public sphere is not just what he says, but how he says it.
Importantly, that is also one of the things that makes him so likable in academia. Long before Richard Bushman was the media darling and “chief explainer” of Mormonism, he was the Bancroft-winning, paradigm-changing historian of early America. In honor of his academic career, Grant Underwood put together a blue-ribbon panel of respected scholars to reevaluate Bushman’s works at the 2011 annual conference of the American Historical Association. Panelists included Harry Stout (Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale University), Gordon S. Woods (Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University), Catherine E. Kelly (Associate Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma), and Laurie Maffley-Kipp (Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill). All of these presentations, along with Bushman’s response, were published in the most recent issue of Dialogue, and I encourage everyone to subscribe so you can read it ASAP.
While there are numerous parts of the roundtable that deserve to be highlighted—and perhaps I will try to highlight other portions in future posts—I wanted to touch on on specific point Bushman brought up. (A point that he echoed in his remarks at this summer’s conference in his honor.) After thanking Underwood for organizing the panel and for the panelists for taking part, Bushman said this:
I want to use the occasion to reflect a little on what this all means. At the Harvard commencement, the president welcomes the new graduates into the company of educated men and women. Today I wish to celebrate the company of men and women historians. I have been teaching American religion at Claremont Graduate University this past year, and it has brought me great pleasure to find how many of the books I assign were written by people I know. I know their styles, a few personal idiosyncrasies, and something of what matters to them. Although I see them only occasionally, I still feel that we constitute a circle of friends as well as group of scholars. Perhaps one of the most important parts of becoming an historian is to be initiated into that circle.
In forming these academic friendships, our books are our surrogate selves, commonly our initial introductions to one another. I rode up in an elevator at a convention once with David Hall; and glancing down at the nametag of another conventioneer, David snapped out two titles. There was instant recognition. Had there been time, there could have been conversation. In this company of historians, person and writing merge. As we become better acquainted, we begin to hear personality coming through the words on the printed page. That’s so like her, I say to myself. Knowledge of the person helps us to understand the writing better, and the writing opens up the person. The combination creates a kind of intellectual kinship that is one of the great rewards of our profession.
Such is the tone and respectability that has made Bushman both a media darling and such an imposing (albeit generous) figure in Mormon studies. His vision of the academy is the composition of friends working together in better understanding the past. This better explains his comments in Journal of American History a few years ago: both his description of the New Mormon History as “a peace mission, expressing a desire for intellectual commerce with a nation that had once seemed like a wall of enmity to Utah Mormons,” as well as his desire to define (and, interestingly, chastise) Mormon apologetics:
The apologists still feel that they are living in a hostile world. The church has real enemies, they firmly believe, and war has to be waged. Not all of the apologists write pugnaciously, but they all write defensively. If not exactly at war with an enemy, they are certainly engaged in debate…The apologists zealously propound rational arguments to counter the critics of Joseph Smith and accumulate piles of evidence to demonstrate the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Every educated Mormon knows of these battles and watches their progress with interest…The apologists wonder why the historians do not spring to the defense of the faith when Joseph Smith comes under attack. The apologists want to war with the critics; the historians ask them out to lunch.
This is contrasted with Bushman’s vision of the future of Mormon history, which is to be written by scholars “less defensive, more open to criticism, [and] more exploratory and venturous”—in short, scholars who are more open, genteel, and generous in their approach.* Scholars who are not so interested in battling against the broader world but engaging with it. When scholarship turns into a forum of battle, as seen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholarship often falls apart. The best insights often result within an environment of free, open, and supported inquiry, a community of friends working together no matter their different perspectives. Perhaps Mormonism is too fraught a field to accomplish such an Eden, but Bushman is dedicated to at least give it a try.
For Mormonism to enter an “Age of Cultural Power”—as he remarked at the 2011 summer conference—it must first be dedicated to a better interaction with its surrounding culture. Writing in a way that encourages an “intellectual kinship” is an important step in that endeavor.
*Richard Bushman, “What’s New in Mormon History? A Response to Jan Shipps,” Journal of American History (September 2007): 517-521.