What is Our Obligation? The 2008 Bushman Seminar

By July 24, 2008

Stephen J. Fleming is a PhD. candidate at UC Santa Barbara in Religious Studies and a 2008 Bushman fellow. Steve received his B.A. in history from BYU and his M.A. from UC Stanislaus, also in history. He has been published in Church History and Religion and American Culture, as well as various Mormon journals. Steve has been gracious enough to share his thoughts on this year’s Bushman Seminar.

What is our obligation?

I got into Church history a little backward. Like many, I ran into a little anti-Mormon information on my mission and found it useful to take a Church history course when I got back to BYU. I found the course well-taught and helpful but I felt an aversion to pursue any of the main discussion points about “controversial topics.” The “antiquity” of these debates suggested to me little fruitful ground to change anyone’s mind. I loved history, majored in it, but didn’t want to be a Church historian.

However, in Hist 490 at BYU, is discovered a reference to a group of Mormons living in Toms River, New Jersey, which led to a series of projects; I turned out to be a Church historian after all. I still had an aversion for apologetics and I concluded that the “facts” didn’t prove the Church true or untrue; people made up their minds and read the facts accordingly. There was no neutral ground and I believed because of spiritual experiences.

But half of my family is out of the Church. I was stung by this fact last Christmas (hard to explain why). I’m a believer and a Church historian. I had a higher obligation. But what to do … ?

Then I saw Richard Bushman’s summer seminar advertised on the FARMS website: how to help those who lose their faith over Church history. Richard made it clear we were taking a pastoral and not a combative attitude. We talked a lot about what the issues are and decided that the concern over secrecy was the number one problem. First and foremost we needed to be open and honest, but then what? We often didn’t accept critics versions of events, but we didn’t want to fight with them either. What was the best way to help those who struggled? We all took at shot at the issue by dealing with various topics. We’ll will be presenting them on Tuesday, July 29, 8-4, 382 JSB, BYU.  We hope they’ll be printed in the Religious Educator.

I think we made some real progress but it’s only a start. Can the new generation of Church historians be guilty of “feeding themselves but not the flock” (Ezekiel 24:2)? We have a number of papers that really point a way forward; it would be nice to mobilize a greater effort.

Steve Fleming

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Steve, if the public is invited, could you please give us a list of participants and papers? Hopefully a full program with times? Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  2. 8:00 Richard Bushman: Introduction

    8:30 Robert Lund (Church Curriculum): The Kirtland Safety Society

    9:00 Stephen Harper (BYU Religion): The Book of Mormon Witnesses and “Spiritual Eyes”

    9:30 John Beck (UVU Institute): Freemasonry and the Temple

    10:00 Brian Hauglid (BYU Religion): The Kinderhood Plates


    1:00 John Peterson (UofU Institute): The Theology of Plural Marriage

    1:30 Spencer Fluman: (BYU Religion): “A Subject Than Can Bear Investigation”: Anguish, Faith, and Nauvoo Plural Marriage

    2:00 Stephen Fleming (grad student): “Have Miracles Ceased?” Joseph Smith and the Power of God (it’s on magic)

    2:30 Kerry Muhlstein (BYU Religion): “Seeking Divine Interaction”: Joseph Smith and the Quest for the Supernatural (it’s also on magic)

    3:00 Robert J. Woodford (Church Curriculum): “Joseph Smith’s Revelations: Reception, Recording, and Publication.”

    Admin. Note: See comment #40 for an update on the afternoon schedule.

    Comment by Guest — July 24, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  3. What are the papers being presented?

    Comment by RG — July 24, 2008 @ 8:47 pm

  4. I think that’s #2 there, RG.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 24, 2008 @ 8:52 pm

  5. shucks, I must have overlapped with #2.

    Comment by RG — July 24, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

  6. Please tell me someone will take notes and share.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 24, 2008 @ 8:58 pm

  7. Overlap by 12 minutes? 🙂 No worries, I’ve done it too.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 24, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

  8. There was some discussion recently (I think on BCC) wondering where John Peterson (author of the excellent work Utah’s Black Hawk War) had ended up. Question answered.

    Comment by Researcher — July 24, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

  9. Thank you Steve for the run down. The question of whether we feed ourselves and not the flock is an interesting one. I’m excited to hear what you gents have prepared.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 24, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

  10. Stephen, can you share with us your impressions of the experience?

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 24, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

  11. Richard described it as one of the high points of his life. I really felt that way. We laid it all out on the table and tried to come up with explanations. Spencer described his paper as the hardest thing he had ever written but he really produced a gem as did the others (we haven’t seen the final versions of them all). Richard described it as a modern version of the school of the prophets.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 24, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

  12. Oooo…

    I think I can actually attend some of this one…

    Comment by Seth R. — July 25, 2008 @ 1:03 am

  13. Interesting that Robert Lund from “Church Curriculum” is going to speak on the Kirtland Safety Society. Here’s what this year’s Priesthood/RS manual has to say on the topic:

    Some blamed church leaders for economic problems caused by the failure of a financial institution established by church members. (p. 315)

    Doesn’t strike me as especially “open and honest.”

    Comment by kodos — July 25, 2008 @ 4:25 am

  14. Steve how is it that you ended up being the only grad student?

    Comment by RG — July 25, 2008 @ 7:15 am

  15. Ahem. Just chiming in to remind everyone that Dialogue would be interested in reviewing submissions on any of these topics, or, perhaps, in personal essays about the experience of working on them…

    Just sayin’.

    Comment by Kristine — July 25, 2008 @ 7:49 am

  16. Any chance of getting audio on the Internet?

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — July 25, 2008 @ 8:28 am

  17. It appears that I misread the seminar’s invitation letter. I assumed that the letter’s statement that “[t]he purpose of the seminar is to bring together a dozen experienced LDS scholars…” meant no graduate students.

    Comment by Justin — July 25, 2008 @ 9:58 am

  18. Justin, given that Richard only accepted one grad student, I think that was a reasonable assumption. In fact, I know for a fact that Richard purposely avoided bringing in grad students for this particular seminar.

    Comment by David G. — July 25, 2008 @ 10:05 am

  19. Thanks for the report, Stephen, and congratulations on being accepted as a participant. I wish that I could attend the presentations.

    I am familiar with most of the participants, but I do not know John Beck or Robert Lund.

    Comment by Justin — July 25, 2008 @ 10:22 am

  20. I think I was the only grad student because I was the only grad student that applied. I saw that it was not for grad students but I applied anyway because rules don’t mean anything to me (just ask all of my grad advisors). I’d glad I applied, it was a wonderful experience.

    We 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 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.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 25, 2008 @ 10:47 am

  21. “We hope [the presentations] will be printed in the Religious Educator.”

    I hope so, Stephen. Like others above, I hope this program will be somehow available to those of us unable to attend. It looks very interesting.

    Comment by Hunter — July 25, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  22. We had two audiences. Those who have lost their faith and institute teachers.

    Interesting. How do you plan to reach these audiences?

    Comment by RG — July 25, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  23. RG, I have no idea, but Church Education has been in its own world for decades – a world that really has no ability to navigate the Mormon history. Perhaps this is an effort to give tools to teachers in which to interact with students who are aware of scholarship.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 25, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  24. I’m sure FAIR would be happy to publish the papers online as well, regardless as to whether they are published in the Religious Educator.

    Comment by Kent — July 25, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  25. 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. Richard has a woman that he is working with that he will send all the papers to see what she thinks of the effort.

    As far as how to get the message out, we had a number of people who said they wanted the various presentations recored and posted on-line. I don’t know that we got all that figured out though. I posted this blog to see what ideas other people had.

    I think you’ll find that the temper of the papers is different than FAIR.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 25, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  26. The topics not chosen are as interesting as those addressed. It’s also striking (and perhaps related) that the seminar participants are all male.

    Comment by Melissa — July 25, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

  27. Melissa,
    Apparently it’s the new School of the Prophets. They have to follow historical precedent.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 25, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  28. On the note that the participants this year were mainly BYU profs/CES personnel, was the approach this year different from other years? You mention above a ‘pastoral’ approach. Is it right to see this as Bushman’s attempt to reach out to a group that is somewhat suspicious of his approach?

    Comment by RG — July 25, 2008 @ 8:47 pm

  29. Steve # 25, I’m curious in what way you see the tenor of these papers being different than what FAIR does.

    For instance, here is the FAIR wiki article on the Kirtland Safety Society, one of the topics being addressed by your group.

    The basic approach 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? As a working apologist myself I’m very interested in such pedagogical issues.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 25, 2008 @ 9:38 pm

  30. Melissa, we couldn’t cover everything and Richard wanted to focus on issues related to Joseph Smith. Plus a lot of us did two papers although we are only presenting one. Steve Harper also did one on the first vision accounts, Brian did another one on the Book of Abraham as did Kerry, I did another one on Swedenborg and DC 76 and Bob did another one on Joseph Smith’s reputation. We hope they will all be published by the Religious Educator.

    We had no women because no women applied; Richard repeately expressed his regret over it.

    RG the approach was very different. We spent lots of time talking about why people leave and what we can do to help. This was not the focus of past seminars.

    Kevin a better comparison would be Spencer’s paper on Helen Kimball. I think you’ll see the contrast if you get an opportunity to hear it. Though we all have a high oppinion and appreciation of the work FAIR does.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 25, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

  31. An old Rabbi told his students: “Go out into the world, look for the truth..you will be back.” Why doesn’t the Mormon Church have the same faith in itself? How does a discussion on “The Kirtland Safety Society”, feed the struggling flock, and not just the in group?

    Comment by Bob — July 25, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

  32. The topics were actually picked by a disaffected woman in Germany. She gave us a list of 10 categories and we chose among them.

    What would you all have like to have seen covered?

    I hope this will be a continuing project.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 25, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

  33. Thanks, Steve. I can’t be there for the papers, and I don’t subscribe to the Religious Educator, but that little journal eventually makes its way online, and I will read the papers with great interest when they hit the internet.

    (I would only 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.)

    Bob, all of these kinds of topics are relevant because Saints actually lose faith over these things. Would it be better not to deal rigorously with these topics and tell the average struggling Saint in the pews who is troubled by it that she is on her own in trying to figure it out?

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 26, 2008 @ 8:22 am

  34. 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. It’s not the critics that make polygamy or Joseph’s marriage to Helen Kimball a challenge. It’s the facts themselves. Yet as believers we’re willing to work through these issues. We all found Helen’s testimony meaningful and that’s the kind of information we wanted to share.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 26, 2008 @ 9:32 am

  35. As someone who is currently struggling for and losing my faith over these very issues, I am looking forward, with hope, to reading your papers or listening to the presentations. Unfortunately, I’m going to just miss your presentations as I’m visiting Provo now but leaving on Monday.

    Comment by WJ — July 26, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

  36. WJ we don’t know that we can solve all the issues but we do care. stephenjfleming@yahoo.com

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 26, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  37. Re: # 26

    Melissa —

    What other topics would you have proposed?

    Comment by JWL — July 27, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

  38. WJ–For whatever it’s worth, I was, so to speak, “innoculated” against (toward?) learning about these issues as my dad is an informal church history scholar and had No Man Knows My History (and LOTS of other unflattering books) right beside all the other church history books on the shelf.

    I think I’m pretty well-acquainted with most of the issues that give pause (from Masons to magic to polyandry) and my faith and testimony are still goin strong. Just wanted you to know that you can know the hard stuff and still know the Gospel is true.

    Comment by tyler — July 28, 2008 @ 7:50 am

  39. #33: To me, ‘faith’ is much too vague a term. Should not the goal be to lose faith and gain Knowledge? Is this not what the ‘struggle’ is about? Shouldn’t we worry more about those not struggling over replacing their faith and knowledge?

    Comment by Bob — July 28, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  40. Update from Steve concerning the schedule:

    “Bushman informs us that rather than chopping John Peterson’s paper in half (he wrote a 20 page paper), he was simply going to cut it out entirely. So the second half of the program will all be moved up a half hour. John’s paper was one of the most powerful peices of writing I have ever heard so I hope everyone gets a chance to hear it some day.”

    Comment by David G. — July 28, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

  41. Perhaps Peterson could guest post it here at JI.

    Comment by Researcher — July 28, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

  42. IS anyone from JI going to be there?

    Comment by BHodges — July 28, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

  43. I’ll be attending Fluhman’s and Fleming’s papers. Thankfully they’re right by each other.

    Comment by David G. — July 28, 2008 @ 11:13 pm

  44. So, word on the street is that while certain presentations (like polygamy and the Kinderhook Plates) where quite good, many were not particularly wonderful and some were pathetic. I wasn’t there so I am interested in perspectives of those that were.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 29, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

  45. J, I’d say your “word on the street” was correct.

    Comment by Christopher — July 29, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

  46. I know it could be sensitive in a public forum, but if we promise to read between the lines and not ask questions that will put anybody on the spot, would you tell us what you can?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

  47. Ardis, I’m not positive, but I believe that someone from the JI (Ben?) is planning to post a brief write-up on the event.

    Comment by Christopher — July 29, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

  48. J: I don’t know who your “word on the street” is, but I would have told you about the same thing (except I wouldn’t have labeled any of the presentations “pathetic”). But, Fluhman’s and Hauglid’s were by far my favorite. I enjoyed the two magic presentations as well.

    Hopefully I will put up a brief write-up later tonight, but I do have my MMM book calling my name…

    Comment by Ben — July 29, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

  49. Crud, I totally forgot about this…I’m looking forward to your report, Ben.

    Yikes, I’m sad to hear about this preliminary report.

    Comment by Jared T — July 29, 2008 @ 8:01 pm

  50. Alright, I admit I gave a “glass half full” promo. Some of the guys were new to research, though I agree with Ben that “pathetic” is overstating it. Furthermore, I don’t think we realize what a momentous occasion Spencer’s paper represents. He gave that before a big CES crowd. It really marked a gigantic leap forward. Let’s keep context in mind. Again, Spencer described it as the hardest thing he had ever written. It would be encouraging if it could inspire more of the same.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 29, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  51. I’ll have a synopsis up tomorrow afternoon on Life On Gold Plates.

    Comment by BHodges — July 29, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

  52. Thanks for bringing the context back to the discussion, Steve. The fact that CES teachers were in attendance, attentive to the papers presented, and even engaged the issues to some degree in comments and questions is a very encouraging step forward for all.

    BHodges, good to meet you in person today and to chat a little bit. I look forward to your synopsis.

    Comment by Christopher — July 29, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

  53. BHodges, I’ll look forward to your write-up.

    Thanks for the additional perspective, folks.

    Steve, in particular I am having a problem understanding one aspect of your comment. I think I am having a hard time grasping the heuristics at play here. What is it precisely that is so “hard” about writing for this project? How is it different from simply writing excellent history? And further (and admittedly not knowing what your response will be) are these differences a good thing?

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 29, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

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