Prominent LDS historian Richard Bushman and famed author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling notes, “I think that for the Church to remain strong, it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that’s what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change.”
He’s referring to the mainstream church history and church origin stories we were taught in Sunday school for the past fifty years. He knows these stories and refers to them as the dominant narrative. He states emphatically, that the dominant narrative is not true and it can’t be sustained. If the church continues to hold onto it, it will fall apart from within, because it’s obvious that it’s not teaching the truth or actual history. He claims that the church needs to reconstruct the narrative, and begin telling it differently so that when people are faced with the actual history, it at least resembles what they have been taught.
We can see that this is what the church has been working to do (slowly) for a while. They have come clean about many issues in the gospel topic essays, they have published an article admitting that Joseph used a seer stone to “translate” the gold plates into the Book of Mormon. They have published the new Saints books to essentially “reconstruct the narrative”. We can see that the mormon church is dipping its toes into truth-telling, but so far they haven’t taken the plunge and we’re in the odd middle area where they have announced some truth, but they have not renounced any falsities and failed to take any responsibility for the lies they have taught as true doctrine and history for the past lifetime.
Richard Bushman shared these thoughts here June 12, 2016, over 6 years ago! This has not been a secret and the church has been on the path to doing what he recommended for a number of years previously. Most likely, church historians in communication with other experts have been pushing this mindset for a while. What has happened since? The church quietly published the Gospel Topics Essays in 2013. The church published the Saints Books on September 4, 2018 (Vol. 1), February 12, 2020 (Vol. 2) and April 22, 2022 (Vol. 3). The church will be hard at work for decades to correct the lies it’s been telling.
Find below the full transcript of the Bushman meeting where he states that in order to remain strong, the church needs to reconstruct its narrative because the dominant narrative is not true.
Mark Evans, host: Okay, we’ve got lot to cover since we’ve started talking about [unintelligible]. This is Faith Again. We also have a Think Again group which is on third the Thursday of each month. Jay, thank you very much for organizing our website and e-mail list. If you would like to be on our monthly e-mail list and you know what the reading is coming, please give Jay your contact information. Faith Again is an outgrowth of Think Again and its purpose was to address some of the faith-challenging issues that many people of faith have, specifically Mormons. We’ve been having numerous study groups addressing various issues that lead into faith challenges and crisis. This is a community church service to help people on their journeys. We have three rules here. Who knows rule number one?
Audience: No bitching and moaning!
Mark: No bitching and moaning! This is not a forum of jumping on the Church. Okay? We are here to hear you stories which may be painful ones and you’re welcome to share them, and that’s wonderful. But it’s not just about [unintelligible] on each others’ horrible stories and complaining about what the Church does, okay? We want this to be a growing, learning, hopefully positive experience for all. That said, it is also a safe place to share your stories and questions. So if there is something really troubling or if you have a painful experience, do not be afraid to share it here, this is what this forum is for. And this is what the stream is for, to support you with your experiences, however painful they may be. Third, what’s rule number three?
Audience: Have fun.
Mark: You experience joy coming here and feeling like you’ve been heard and you get the support in the community you may not get before or with your families. This is your family here. We’re glad you came, we hope to see you all again. [Discusses closing hymn and refreshments.]
Mark: Now, usually I have no difficulty getting information from our guests. But Gosh… [turns to look at the Bushmans] I’d hate to be your bishop.
Mark: Claudia was a little bit more cooperative. Her favorite color is red. (She gave all this information quite begrudgingly.) Her favorite color is red. Her favorite food is whatever is in front of her. Her favorite vacation spot is New York City. Isn’t that where you live?
Mark: Her favorite movie: she just comments, “Well, I guess Casablanca.” Everybody loves Casablanca! Her favorite book is Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather.
Claudia: Highly [?] written.
Mark: And she does not have any embarrassing moments, and she doesn’t even relate to any of the superheroes! I don’t know what to say. Now, at least Richard did surrender some information. They weren’t answers to the questions I had. So he did say he can’t stand paper napkins, eats cereal in the mornings, soups for dinner, and that bread and butter topped with salt is his favorite food, and then he likes sautéed summer squash better than chocolate. He once was a pin dropper in the Tabernacle for the tourists.
Richard: Those were more interesting than your questions.
Mark [~00:20]: That he lives on the 10th floor of an apartment in New York with a great view of the Hudson river, and that he keeps their car parked in a garage in South Connecticut, which is a half an hour train ride. I think they’ve done a few other things besides what we mentioned, you can probably look it up on the internet and [unintelligible 00:20:06]. I’m sure most of you are familiar with what they’ve done. This is a discussion group, so we hope that’ll give us a chance to ask questions, and get to know about how to respond to certain things. But without further ado, thank you very much for coming and it’s yours.
Claudia Bushman on Journal Keeping
Claudia: Well, we very much appreciate this opportunity to meet with you today, and as I say, you all do look very familiar. I’ve either met you all some place or [unintelligible].
Here’s one. About a month ago I got an e-mail from the Journal of Burmese Studies: “Would you please review this article?” I don’t know anything about Burmese studies, I know American stuff. I can’t possibly do that. Response: ‘We know everything about the Burmese stuff but the situation is that there was a big altercation between the British and the Burmese in 1875, and a new source has materialized from the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.’
A missionary journal from a young man who had been called on mission to Siam and had stopped up in Burma and was staying with some English officers in their whatever it is, fortress, whatever they were, because they hadn’t had enough money to go out of Siam. While he was there, there was this important altercation which he saw firsthand and wrote it up in his missionary journal. The best source. Even the official sources from Burma, from the British officers were sort of —
Claudia [~00:22]: Biased. So they didn’t figure that they were there. So this first grade new source has emerged.
Case two. Yesterday I was giving a comment at the Mormon History Association on a catalogue of programs. Papers about programs, one was about the case of the ERB [?], the other about how the situation when the Relief Society started with their literacy program. There are all kinds of official documents that were quoted in connection with cultural references. But the real story emerged from the private documents that had been written by the people who were participating and had gotten down their experiences and their attitudes.
So. Conclusion: how many of you keep personal journals? Better than usual.
Claudia: How many of you think there should be keeping journals? How many would like to try to keep journals in the future? Few more. All right. You don’t have 100% on any of these things, but that’s what I’m talking about tonight. And I will answer any questions down the line. What we need is private sources. We need people to write about what they experience, what they see, about their life, what happens to them. This is not only important to the people that are descended from you, this is important to the church, this is important to the world. You can be major sources for things that happen. So I’m going to talk little bit about journals, journal keeping. Then I’m going to talk a little bit about your history program that we’ve been, still are doing on various schools. Then Richard will talk, and then you can ask me any questions.
[~00:24] Okay, how about keeping your journal? Now, lots of people think about keeping their journals on scented lavender papers. Bad idea. Keep them on your computer, do them on your computer. When you get up in the morning or when you get to the office wherever you’re going, you turn on your computer, do your journal first. Write something, a page, less. One of the things I say is when you’re brushing your teeth, think of two things to write about. Then when you turn on your machine, you write about those two things, a paragraph about each and if you have more to say, go on. Then do that as a document starting January 1st, and keep it as one document till you get to the 31st. You get to the 31st, you have a full month recorded, print it out, punch holes in it, put it in the binder then you have hard and soft copies, which are printable, which are searchable, which are replaceable, which can go into various sources. That’s my best way for keeping a journal. Does anybody have a way that they think is better than that?
Audience #1: They have a software ‘Dragon Speak’ which I found to really facilitate a more conversational approach, so I can speak and it types it. Of course I have to proofread at the end because it types funny things. But it’s a little easier for me to share it from my heart as I vocalize life experience.
Claudia [~00:26]: Those are pretty good things but what they say that 10%, of course if it’s just you, if you are the only one it gets to know me pretty well. But otherwise it’s 10% corrections which is a lot.
Audience #2: Mine’s a little similar but on most IPhones or any device you can just record so I’ve just done a lot of recordings and it’s kind of a personal thing, it’s not transcribing it. So I don’t have any printed thing, I just have —
Claudia: And –
Audience #2: And I am somewhat serious about Facebook, that has become for a lot of people in a sense a journal.
Claudia: I think that’s true but I’m against it. [laughter] I still say my way’s the best. [laughter]
Audience #3: One thing I found that helps since writing to somebody in your journal. I write to Jim in my journal because I feel very free to write everything. I don’t put in everything chronologically that happened, I just think some of the things that happened, I write it down and it doesn’t matter if there’s a lot of stuff around it if you don’t have time to do it. But just each day just jot that down. And I handwrite it. It may not be legible for me but I want to handwrite it.
Claudia: All right, I think having an audience is always a good thing. I say write [unintelligible] and when you have a person, identify them. If it’s somebody that dies, write an obituary. Yes.
Audience #4: I think it’s important to write what you’re prompted to write, this seems like a group where I can feel safe saying that —
Claudia: Rather than doing it regularly —
Audience #4: Rather than just saying I’d better check this box, I’m raising four kids right now, my life is told through Facebook literally, you get a lot like that. But I write stories about what experiences I’m having with my children. But I can’t tell you, she can testify to that, I write about our life on Facebook, I actually paragraph them, proofread them and I title them and there they are. But sometimes at two in the morning I’ll wake up and go ‘Holy cow, I need to write about this.’ I would write those down, keep something by your bed because they prompt me.
Claudia: All right, I would just say there are variations but it’s a very good thing to keep a record. It’s not just for the future, it’s for you. I know people that say, “My children wouldn’t be interested so I’m not going to keep a journal.” But the situation is: it’s for the person who writes it. If you keep a journal of your life, you will live a better life. It is so easy to say, nothing ever happens to me, my life is of no importance. It just kills me when I see somebody who is devoting his life to writing a biography of somebody and doesn’t keep an equivalent record of his own. How short-sighted is that? [laughter]
Okay, I want to say a little bit about oral histories. I have this wonderful collection of oral histories. This is housed at Claremont Graduate University where they took place, most of them took place while Richard and I were teaching Mormon studies there, and included in our collection are Charlotte England, yes, and don’t I have yours? I may have, no. I have two, who else do I have, Maxine, we —
Maxine: I never turned in.
Claudia: I’ve been on Maxine for a hundred years.
Maxine: It’s such an involved, I mean really it’s a long —
Claudia [00:30]: No excuse.
Claudia: Anyway, I’ve had enough a number of these. There is just no — The best story you will ever have to tell is the story of your own life. That is the best story. You don’t want anybody else to tell it. You should tell it to yourself. And the truth is that unless you write — How do I say this? If you don’t write things down, you will forget them. Yes? If you don’t write them down you will be forgotten. How long do you think you will last if you have no written documents that survived?
There’s an old African proverb that says, “When an old person dies, it’s as if a library has burned down.” Just think of all the things in your mind, all the people you know, all the connections, all those experiences, which one day could be accessed and the next day could are gone forever. It’s very dramatic.
Claudia: And so, you should go.
Claudia: In this world of history —
Audience: Okay. So, if we haven’t done all these wonderful record keeping, how do we back up? Do you back up or do you just start where you are?
Claudia: You start today. Start today and if you have any reason to reach back then you talk about that and then that’s for your daily journal. When you do your whole world history or your whole biography then you start at the beginning.
Audience: Do you think it’s more important to write factual things that took place, occurrences that kind of give it a whole context or to write more about your philosophical facts about life that are triggered by some experience in which I get totally off on that tangent and then it gets pages and pages and pages.
Audience #2: Large plates for certain small plates. [laughter]
Claudia: What you should write is whatever you have to say. But I’d say, I think you really should talk about the day, what you did in the day. But if significant things occur, you should write those things. I’ve seen there’re all kind of ways to think about what to write. What I told somebody tonight is, Think about your grandmother. What do you wish you knew about her that you don’t know? Okay, write that about yourself. Just do that. Write it about yourself. I think you should write about current events. I mean the political system situation is dynamic, to say the least.[laughter]
Claudia: Your attitude to how that is or how you feel about sporting events. I’d say that’s significant. I worked a long time with a farmer who had a formula for his journal. He wrote about four things everyday then he would write about everything else.
First, he wrote about what the weather was like as weather is very important in farming. He could check that year after year and see what the weather had been like on that day. Then he would write what work was done. He’s a slave owner, who did what. He had a record of that. Then he’d write who was sick. And because he was a Thomsonian doctor, he’s just a botanical doctor which is what well and rich kids was, he could talk about how he had treated those people, largely with alcohol.
[~00:34] And because he was a fervent Methodist, he would bear his testimony. Then he would write whatever else. And he started with a book. He did his diary from the beginning, started at the back, did his finances until they met in the middle. He shelved the book and started a new one. His life was in that book. Very useful work.
Audience: I heard you speak, was it two years ago for your birthday celebration in association with the [unintelligible] and you talked about saving emails, printing emails that you write to your children as part of your journal.
Claudia: Right. Okay, that’s another thing I do which I think is very useful. I send out weekly letters to my family, about 30 people, my greater family. I write those on my journal. Often I will write a long family letter instead of writing an entry for the day. Then I just copy those and send them out to everyone then I often get answers so when I get an answer I just drop them in to my online journal afterwards and so I have information and then if I get other significant letters I just add those too. So when I print out a month’s journal I have maybe 30 pages, maybe 70 pages depending on how much has gone on, single space and I’ve got the records. All right. I’m going to stop now and let Richard talk to you. Save any questions you have on this and we will talk about it again.
Richard Bushman on New Mormon History
Richard [~00:36]: Well, it’s great to see you all. I’m surprised at how few people I know are in this audience and it’s a great opportunity to meet new people in considerable numbers. One of the advantages of not being around much living far away as we do in New York City is people come to think you are magical [unintelligible] laureates will say that will transform their lives. You are going to raise your hand if you can’t hear me right? Will you raise your hand if you can’t hear me? I’m kidding.
Audience: If I can hear you everyone can, I promise you.
Richard: Lots of you have heard of the Temple and Observatory Group that Terryl Givens began. This was an attempt to address groups just like this around the church and Fiona and for a while Claudia and I, went out and talked to people about problems of their faith and I saw him yesterday and he is still going out. They are spending 180 days a year on the road speaking to groups like this, so if you want one measure of interest in these issues, that’s it and they first were informal groups. Someone like Mark England said, Come and speak — not church. And they preferred not church because you do not want to get involved in all the problems there, but now the stake presidents are calling to talk so it’s a phenomenon that’s occurring.
[~00:38] I was at one of these in Washington DC just outside and a young woman stood up in the question and answer period and spoke about her and her husband, how they have their troubles and how she had some back to the church [unintelligible] but what she had discovered was, she said we have to reconstruct the narrative. I think you all know instantly what that means. There have been so many disruptive facts that have come on the scene for a while that almost every significant episode has a new [unintelligible]. First Vision, so all — see it all differently now. Discovery of the various versions, translation that you in primary learned about: the hat and the stone. [laughter]
Perhaps you could look nearly at Epoch and Abraham, you have to look nearly at Joseph Smith’s marriages. Everywhere in that crucial founding period, the story has been changed. Now what I wanted to do is to say a little bit about the historical background of that process that so many of us are going through and some of its implications for us today. I think it actually begins in the 1950s and early ’60s when for the first time Latter Day Saints began to seek doctoral degrees in the Social Sciences and the Humanities. There were a trickle of people who went to college, went to universities somewhere, usually in East, came back PhDs. After the war Leonard Arrington goes off, Tom Alexander, James Allen, me, there were lots of people and that number has just steadily grown.
[00:39:47] So now there are vast numbers of PhDs. Lots of these people wanted to write about Mormon topics in their PhDs because that was their lives, so they wrote their dissertations on these subjects. And two things came out of that. One: they had to learn a new language, they had to write in such a way that they could present a paper in a graduate seminar, that they could present a dissertation to a dissertation committee of academics, not Mormons, and that language that we are so accustomed to use — that although your diction is so familiar, we don’t even know we are using it — just didn’t wash. You had to find a new way to put things.
So they came back with that ability to speak beyond the borders outside. They could speak to academics everywhere. The second thing that happened is that group of people began to both discover facts and to evaluate facts that [missing audio].
And the insiders dismissed the critical variety because they said that’s anti-Mormon, we can’t trust it, we don’t trust the sources. All those affidavits that Hurlbut collected, that can’t be discussed, and they just dismissed them [snaps fingers]. And all the things the Tanners were developing those years, a whole set of facts that were disruptive were all just [unintelligible]. These professionals have the ability to evaluate the sources. That’s what you learn in graduate school, is to evaluate sources. They all have bias; every source is biased. You have to work your way through that to what you consider factual in your ground and tell the story.
[~00:42] So for the first time church members were learning, if they followed the literature, about things that were unfamiliar to them before. Because in the process of evaluating, they decided, “Yes, Joseph Smith was put on trial for money, or for looking in seer stones in 1826.” Previously that had been considered a fabrication and not to be believed. So you begin to collect all these materials that altered the story but had been vetted by historians who were faithful Mormons who could be trusted, who worked for Leonard Arrington, who wrote for journals that Mormons could read and believe. And the result of that was the creation of a very large literature, it evolved probably seeing the Mormon [unintelligible] a huge thick book just listing articles on Mormons, just poured out books, articles of all different varieties and thoughts came forward. Well, that had some interesting effects; one was that Mormon scholars for the first time were trusted by non-Mormons.
It used to be if you were a reporter doing a Mormon story, you’d come to Utah, you’d talk to all the Church people and then you’d go to the University of Utah and try to find an academic who would give them an objective view of what Mormonism is really about. The insider story just could not be trusted. Well, with this [missing audio] by I don’t know, I would say in the mid-‘90s around 2000s and certainly by the time that Romney came on the scene, there were quite a number of people to whom NPR or New York Times or AP could go and feel like they were getting a straight story, which they never felt they could get from Church Public affairs even if they were getting a straight story but they couldn’t trust them. They trusted these scholars, they had the credentials, they had the degrees, they were teaching in the Universities and so they were trustworthy. They were cited, they could be presented as an objective scholarly view.
When these Mormon studies chairs began to be established in Universities, Claremont Graduate University, USU and now at the University of Virginia, the final candidates for the position were all Latter Day Saints — card carrying Latter Day Saints. There could have been others that probably should have been considered but the Mormon historians themselves dominated the field. So what has happened is a phrase that was used a lot when the Joseph Smith papers were being put together was, “We need to own our own history.” [missing audio] We’re to the position where for the first time our own scholars are taking this seriously. All that is good and that is one of the outcomes of this wave of Mormon scholarship that came forward after the 1950s.
The downside of that is that there is developing in the scholarly world a view of church history. It’s out of kilter with the church version, what’s told in Sunday school class. All sorts of things that don’t fit together such as the seer stones in the hat, or many, many other things.
[00:46] That was a very dangerous situation because there came a time when the stuff is collected, it’s made available online. And people trying to prepare a Relief Society lesson would go online to try to collect some information get suddenly hit with this counter story that they’ve never heard before, that was authenticated, it’s got footnotes behind it, it’s got authority behind it. Not only do you have this disjuncture, things are not fitting anymore, but a question of Why wasn’t I told this before? A sense of betrayal and even rage, anger, and this somewhat illogical but understandable view, they’ve been lying to you all along. As if the church authorities knew it all and they were just concealing it.
There was a little bit of that. They did hide Mountain Meadows for a while. But on the whole the church authorities had no better knowledge of church history than the normal members and the general authorities also had to be educated in this new kind of history. So it’s put us in this difficult position where we are being asked to change very rapidly to a new construct of our own history and it’s put a lot of strain on a lot of people. It’s quite amazing how over the last few years the church is formally and informally trying to adjust to that, with all these gospel topic stories that deal with the difficult issues all being assimilated in the church curriculum and Elder Ballard saying we all have to learn this material, we have to be ready, our kids have to learn it. We don’t want any more surprises.
[00:48] I think what’s most heartwarming is that the policy of transparency now governs church publications. I’d say historical publications.
It’s a little different, but it’s changing. Part of Marlin Jensen’s genius as a church historian was that when he wanted to — when the Joseph Smith papers were going forward with a mandate from president Hinkley, Do papers that the scholars will value. That is, be rigorous. [unintelligble] As he was moving forward with that project, he just didn’t take that and run with it and turn out these marvelous papers. He brought along all the Quorum of the Twelve, the first presidency, and CES. He got everyone agreeing that what we’re doing here is to be the new standard of truth — historical truth — for the church, what goes into those papers.
I think we’re pretty well there. I [unintelligible] church history advisors, we were called into a seminar in Salt Lake and Elder Holland addressed us, talking about collecting history out of the provinces. He said, “Transparency is the watchword.” And he said, “Not everyone agrees with me around here but I’m telling you it’s the watchword.” What that tells me is the balance of power is shifting. There’s going to be general authorities, lots of others who would say, “Why bother with all that stuff? It just mucks up the picture,” but on the whole the official policy is, we’re never going to be secure in our own history until we tell it straight and I think that’s what they’re going to try to do.
[00:50] So the big question in my mind with all these things we’ve being doing, you’ve got that, you’ve got all these books that are coming out, Terryl Givens book Principles of God [?] and Patrick Masons book, Laura Hales has a new book out on the reasoning about our church history. With all these things that are happening and groups like this, will we actually be able to instruct the rising generation of Latter Day Saints? I would say those who are say 12 or 13, sufficiently so that there will be no surprises. There may be issues and problems — this doesn’t solve the problem of gay marriage — but it’s attempting to deal with the problems of historical incongruities and are we going to be successful in [unintelligible] that along so there will no longer be that shock or that anger, that they had been cheated on, that they haven’t been told the whole story. So I may not live long enough to see that happening but everyone else in the room will [laughter] attest that.
Audience #1: Has there been a similar parallel process in Christendom as some scholars have, New Testaments scholars for example, will give you a history of texts and the formulation of who Jesus was, I mean can we learn from what other faiths have gone through in their own evolution?
Richard: We can, it took place a century ago. [laughter] The Iron Fist [?] has a role in the late 1800s, that’s really in the first four or five decades and yes, we can learn from it. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale to give us pause, because the first response was to gut the scriptures. Once people learned, “Well they were just historical documents, there’s all sorts of contradictions attached together from various pieces that are not written when they say they were written”, it just sort of turned the Bible into another form of world literature with no authority over your spiritual life. That has been balanced and I think there’s a lot of Christian churches that have able to absorb a lot of these stories.
There is still contention with Evangelicals that still want that infallible Bible, but there are a lot of informed Evangelicals, so I would say the general report from the Protestant and Catholic communities is positive, that you can live through all this. I worried for a while it would so dilute religion, that it would become insipid, there would be no edge to it, no grip on your life, nothing, but that hasn’t happened so it gives us all hope.
Audience #1: I’m wondering if this history is changing how we’re dreaming or how we’re thinking, and I’m thinking of the Community of Christ, they have this call to be prophetic people — is that calling us to have more of that prophetic thing personally and do that inward journey and have that personal relationship with God, instead of just “Trust your leaders that they’re going to tell you what to do?”
Richard [~00:54]: Yes. Well, the community of Christ is a very interesting example to us, because they have gone the way of the liberal line. Taking all the miraculous stuff out of it, let the Book Of Mormon fade into insignificance, emphasize peace, love, and — they haven’t flourished. They are just fixed. They haven’t grown 20% in the last half century or so. And we all know that it’s the religions that have an edge, that demand belief of some kind that move forward. So do we really — I mean their language is beautiful. When I hear their preachers, I say, “Yes, that’s the gospel I love” — but on the other hand it isn’t the gospel that has energy or strength so I am not sure. We’ve got to find another path.
Audience #2: Okay, so since you were a frontrunner as a scholar and a believer encountering these historical documents for your dissertation, can you tell us how that impacted your faith reading all of these things and how did you maintain your faith if it ever did come in conflict with faith?
Richard: It’s a natural question and I don’t really have a good answer to it. It has something to do with my youthful history. Early on my question was, “Does the universe speak? Is there a God or a certain intelligence?” So my temptation is agnosticism on religious issues, having little to do with Mormonism. It’s not the Church, it’s not the problems of the Church, the Church history. I’ve always had kind of an open view to historical problems. As they came along little by little, I was at that generation of PhDs learning step by step, it doesn’t suddenly hit me one night on the internet. [laughter] So people think when I wrote Joseph Smith’s history it must have been this trial of my faith, and all these things. Not a bit of it. It all just flowed, it was the easiest book I’ve ever written, it just came. In that sense, I’m not a very good model for the current generation with their experiences. It’s a shock that I never experienced.
Audience #3: I’m wondering, for me a lot of the incongruity that exists now, that is giving rise to a lot of crisis of faith and [unintelligible] situations seems to be caused, in my view, by the disparity between the dominant narrative, what I call the orthodox narrative, which is what we learn as missionaries, what we teach investigators or we learn in Sunday school. Then as you get older, you start to experience Mormonism in different ways. And those ways become very important, even dear to you but sometimes they may not jive with some elements of orthodox narrative. What I’m wondering is, in your view do you see room within Mormonism for several different, multiple narratives of religious experience? Or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong, they will have to hold to that predominant one?
Richard [00:57:35]: I think for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true. It can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds, and that’s what it’s trying to do. And it’ll be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change. Elder Packer had the sense of “protecting the little people.” He felt like the scholars were an enemy to his faith, and that of the grandmothers living in Sanpete County. That was a very lovely pastoral image. But the price of protecting the grandmothers was the loss of the grandsons. They got a story that didn’t work. So we’ve just had to change our narrative.
Audience #3: I agree with you full heartedly, I just wonder — we have such a strong tradition of them deciding the predominant orthodox narrative. How does the Church do that without, like you say, pushing some people away? While also introducing the idea that it’s okay to experience Mormonism in different ways.
Richard: Yes, the question is will we leave room to experience Mormonism in different ways, or is our strength the fact that we can all hold on to same tree? [crosstalk] I actually am concern about that, and I think people who have a more progressive view or who are up to date on what’s going on, who know “a truer version,” have to be very sympathetic for people having trouble letting go. There have to be many branches for growth in the Church, we want them to be sympathetic of us as we struggle on. It has to be a brotherly and sisterly act. We don’t want to break up our community, which is our great strength and the beauty of the church in the name of finding some abstract truth that works better for each one of us. So it’s going to be its struggle for the next, I don’t know, two or three decades on the way as we go through this process.
Audience #4: One of the challenges I face — I’m a father of four and I’m staring down the barrel of a historical shotgun that tells me that I’m disconnected from that dominant narrative and I’ve got kids going to Sunday school and they’re coming home and they hear the conversations I have with my wife, they hear the conversations I have with my friends, I’m not going to hide that in my home, I’m not going to be a hostage to preserving a dominant narrative in my own home. I just won’t.
But the challenge I find is, How do you introduce that to kids and I know you made a comment about, you’re not really sure of this current generation. Does anybody have any insights? I have children and I’m going, “Dad, do you believe the Joseph Smith story about the plates?” I’m like, “Hell, no.” Or, “Do you think he was a prophet?” like I can’t possible say that unless we could agree on a definition of a prophet that allows for that much fallibility, then maybe I could. The problem is is I don’t know how to maintain that community with my own kids, much less my neighbors’, when there’s such a disparity between that dominant narrative and what I’m finding out. Thank you.
Richard [1:01:30]: You can’t hide it. You don’t want to hide it from your kids. That will set up tensions.
Audience #4: And that’s where I felt like I was co-opted into doing it and I just did not like that.
Richard: Right, but you can’t hide it. But you got to be humble about it. Do you think you now know the truth?
Audience #4: No, absolutely. I know more, but my mind’s open. I just know more.
Richard: Right, the fact that I still believe the miracle of the plates, you’re willing to accept me as a brother — and you may be right. Or you may be wrong and I may be right. So if you do it in a humble way, say to your children, “I have a different view on this. I’ve always had trouble with the golden plates but I know a lot of people that do believe in them” so you got to leave space. Some people say we should split into divisions. There should be a liberal wing, like the Jews —
But that’s not the Mormon way. [unintelligible] We want to hold together as brothers and sisters.
Audience #5: I’m someone who’s that way too. I’ve tossed out the doctrinal part of the church, personally, and this is just me, but I love the institutional part: the community, the values that I think the world desperately needs, and not necessarily can be secular in that. But how much do people see the risk for those — I see the church as like a survival of the fittest. It was a Darwinian church, it put in place the pieces that were necessary for a community to be built that was really able to thrive in the world, especially that existed through the 20th century, how much fear is there that embracing that truth goes against what really enabled the Church to thrive. I don’t know if anybody else is going to taste the spirit. I know that that’s a natural fight too —
Richard: Embracing what truth?
Audience #5: Pardon me. Embracing what we found documentation for, the “historical truth,” how much could that potentially put at risk — because in my experience, the foot soldiers of the church don’t really care about the details. They care about the community, and that’s what really matters, they’re not really worried about how many wives Joseph Smith had and as somebody who looks at it in a different way, I love the church, I fear that going on that approach might actually damage the community in many ways because they’re worried so much about embracing it. And actually I think a lot of the releases from a church PR perspective suggested that actually that fear is real, because like the “blacks and the priesthood” they released a couple of years ago that suggests we don’t even want to deal with that segment that believes that.
Richard: Well, I think people can hold on to the church however they can hold on to the church. If you got one grip on it [unintelligible] if yours is community and service and brotherly love, great. But you don’t want to disparage doctrine and say, “It really is irrelevant. What’s important is that we care for one another.” For lots of people it is relevant and in general world views, what is the reality in the room ends up affecting what happens eventually in that community. And you want to keep your eye on current scholarship in the church because there’s a lot of work being done on the power of ritual, or a power of narrative is [unintelligible] of the history of the world. And you may regain a new appreciation of it, and you may say, “I can’t believe that’s literally true but I can see its power, and I’m willing to listen to it and talk it even.”
Audience #5: That’s actually my point then, which is that ritual, community, all of these, the church built, I don’t necessarily believe are from the mouth of God, the temple ceremony and those — but that community, the sense they hold to them, I feel like sometimes you threaten it because you’re so worried about getting at the absolute fact about what happened in 1843 on June 3rd, that you forget what’s really bringing us together. It really isn’t, in most cases that historical fact.
Richard: But it may be doctrinal. [unintelligible] You can’t just say, “I’ve given up on the doctrine.”
Audience #5: For some, I mean there is a place where I think you can —
Richard: What I’m saying is if you keep listening for new words about the potency of the doctrine.
Audience #5: Yes.
Richard: Because you may see that there’s more connections between the two.
Audience #5: Yes.
Audience #6 [1:06:15]: About age 12 I — what I hear a lot of friends and people online experiencing with the CES Letter or elsewhere, I was aware of when I was 12. I really have loved the new Mormon history, the great history that I’ve been exposed to, been able to read. I read Mormon Enigma as soon as it came out. That was in my early 20s. I read No Man Knows My History and I loved it, and it made Emma and Joseph more interesting, and more complex and more relatable, and I loved Rough Stone Rolling and so many other books.
That has not affected my faith. It’s actually made more interested in my Mormon faith, to see the complexity and the humanity of these people of many generations ago. I think for me what has been the struggle has been the expectation of conformity, and it has nothing to do with our history. It’s the pressure to conform and not express. And so I see that as kind of two different things.
The other thing I have noticed among people who have gone through more recent faith crises as they suddenly come across this information either through the essays or maybe they’ve read Rough Stone Rolling and they go, “Whoa!” For many of these people, they go from one black and white version to another black and white version. So the Hinckley quote is, that it’s all a fraud or it’s the greatest, I can’t remember the exact quote, but there’s a quote that it’s all a fraud or it’s all true. That’s not how I see it now. But people are falling into that same thing. They’re just going from inside the church to outside the church, there going, “It’s all false then.”
Which to me isn’t healthy, doesn’t seem very healthy, it doesn’t allow for complexity of real true relatedness among people that are believing and non-believing, if there is all true or all false. And so if you can maybe just address that.
Richard: Well, I’m not going to talk about institutional ways of doing that.
Audience #6: No, it’s more personal, just personal.
Richard: You can embody it, you can be [unintelligible] in your comments in Sunday School Relief Society. I think all those things are true. I’m not sure that there’s any easy way to teach people to live with ambiguity. That’s almost a personality characteristic.
Audience #6: Right.
Richard [~01:10]: So as you say, they’re all for the church, they’re all against the church — I think one thing we can do is to propound alternate testimony patterns. One testimony pattern is Joseph Smith: you have questions, you are uncertain, you go to the lord and pray and God appears to you — Ah! — and there you are; now you know the path you would take. The other testimony is Alma 32, planting a seed, nurturing it, it grows a little, you nurture it some more, it grows some more — so it isn’t an instantaneous revelation but it’s an ongoing life path. And so when everyone says “if you pray and you’re sincere, God will give you a testimony,” I think we are in a position where we have to say it doesn’t work that way for everyone, there are other ways in getting a testimony. I’ve known people who were destroyed by that confidence that they would get a testimony if they would just pray. You can’t doubt their sincerity or their righteousness. So we have to be open to various paths to finding what’s true.
Audience #6: Okay.
Christine: Just to say I think one really hopeful thing is that young people can handle this stuff. I taught Alma 32 to a bunch of nine year olds and I sent them out to observe the plants around the Belmont Chapel and then said, what did you see? And they said, “Well, sometimes there were lots of different kinds of plants growing right next to each other and sometimes one plant that was the same kind would be bigger than the other one right next to it and none of them were perfect and they were all different. And some of them were pretty ugly but they were the biggest, strongest ones.” And they instantly at nine and 10 made that connection to different kinds of testimonies and were fine with talking about testimony that way. I feel like if we could just show them not to be afraid when they are that age that — because I remember being 12 and thinking, Wait, my testimony is not working like it is for these other kids at youth conference. It doesn’t take a lot, and kids are flexible and ready for that.
Richard: Right and you could still use words like inspiration, and Heavenly Father and testimony, and just finding new ways. All right Christine, your assignment is to teach all children in the church. [laughter]
Audience #7: Have her do it for the adults first. [laughter]
Audience #8: Yes, if the church needs to rewrite its narrative to be more sustainable as you said, do you believe that they — and I don’t know if that’s the Brethren or the Church History Department — do you believe that it can be done in such a way that they don’t have to purge the past and admit that they were wrong and uninspired?
Richard [~1:13]: Well, you have to hope so. Someone said there will be a time when Catholic priests will be allowed to marry and the announcement will read thus: “The Mother Church has always taught.” [laughter] So you can’t break with the past too abruptly in an institution that has to preserve itself, so I think that’s what’ll happen.
Audience #8: That’s the reality.
Audience #9: So if we need a new narrative, what is that narrative?
Richard: Well, it’s a set of details. In the first vision that we learned more things about Joseph Smith’s experience. What he really was seeking was forgiveness: the first words that were spoken to him were, “Joseph thy sins are forgiven” and suddenly the whole story becomes different. We keep looking at revelation after revelation saying, to begin, “Your sins are forgiven.” The appearance of Christ in the Kirtland Temple, the first words of Christ are, “Your sins are forgiven.” So you start with a fact and then it sort of reshapes the whole thing, then it’s just a matter of inserting the seer stone in the hat. That’s how it works.
Audience #9: [unintelligible] My understanding is that there are several first vision stories.
Audience #9: And they are given over time with certain correlations to Joseph Smith’s understanding.
Richard: Yes. Right.
Audience #9: So, why didn’t you pick the one about forgiveness as the one we should go with?
Richard: I don’t think you should be in a position to pick, you have to say, we learn more about it when we are looking at various angles. I particularly like the 1832 version because it’s written in his own hand. You know it’s from his head. 1838, it’s written in his name, but we don’t know who wrote it. I don’t want to discount that, I don’t want to undermine it, it’s just that there’s another perspective.
Audience #9: One last follow-up, do you see that shifting in focus or theology in any way or is it just — ?
Richard: Well, in this sense that we live in the age where grace is finally entering the Church and the whole notion of grace and forgiveness as a stance which we can continually adopt. Now, it’s more a verification if you start with this other version of the First Vision [unintelligible].
Audience #10 [01:15:50]: Just a question on what you see as maybe your role in the church and if you see that aligning with maybe how the Mormon community views you, maybe a very hot topic or a hot item, but they want to come hear you talk. You see your role as leading expert on Joseph Smith, the historical expert, the inspirational speaker, what do you see as your role right now?
Richard: Just a humble man trying to —
Well, all these things have a certain providential quality to them. I wrote Joseph’s Rough Stone Rolling because the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute said, “We’ve been surveying the historiography and we need a new biography.” 2005 is coming up, so I just jump in and write a book. So the first signature part that I had was in Deseret Book. And as I’m getting out of the parking garage, going down to Deseret Book, I meet this guy who says, “I’m going to go buy some copies to your book. I’m going to buy a copy for every one of my sons and grandsons.” So he buys 12 copies of the book. I’m astounded by that. And the number of books that were sold — Random House had to increase the press run by 10,000 because Costco put in an order for 10,000 copies of the book which they put on pallets in the Costco stores in Utah and Idaho and I was astounded. I got a call from Knopf saying, “What’s happening?”
Richard: I didn’t understand this, and after a while, I said, “Well, I wrote a pretty good book and people like it.”
But I realized that it was a phenomenon. The timing was, it came at a moment when people wanted that kind of language and that presentation of Joseph Smith. They wanted the whole story.
Audience: And it was next to the chocolate macadamia square.
Richard: So I’m just saying, I’m just a guy who tries to do his job but providence intervenes or something comes along so the timing was particularly good in that case.
Audience #11: I’m just realizing that my paradigm and how I see the church is different than being strained, for sure. And I am a Relief Society teacher. And my particular challenge has just been that I do want to be sensitive to those who want the old narrative. I am concerned, I know that people are there to be edified, but I also feel that sometimes it’s at odds with my authenticity or what is written in the lesson. I just wonder if you have any roads of advice of how we present that and how we can be ourselves but also be sensitive?
Richard: It’s a huge problem. I run into it all times with graduate students because they’re going to graduate school, they’re learning about the Old Testament, they’re learning about this and that and they don’t feel at home in the church. When they go to their ward meetings they say they can’t speak out, they have trouble. And I talk to some of them in the [unintelligible] ward where these graduate students are going and they said, “Those graduate students are obnoxious. They’re coming with all their smarty stuff from graduate school and trying to instruct us with the truth.”
So I think we have to examine our own hearts. We have to be pure in heart when we talk about this and we can’t be iconoclasts. “I know some things you haven’t even dreamed of.”
And this feeling that I’m the custodian of the truth. The other thing is I always say it’s like teaching sex to your children. If you’re nervous about it, they will get nervous about it.
So you have to sort of assimilate it into that — you can sort of tell it as, “Here’s some new thing for learning,” and you have to be a scholar about it. Because if you tell people something they did not know before, they may say, “Where did you get that?” and you can’t just say, “I got it out of Richard Bushman’s book.” Even though you know you got it from Emma Smith’s testimony [unintelligible] so go in loaded because people are going to say, “You’re shaking my tree and I want to know where you’re coming from.” So it’s not an easy thing.
Audience: And don’t be nervous about it.
Audience #12: There was talk in the past to move out a book on the golden plates. Is that still in the offing, are you working on that?
Richard: A book on the golden plates. I’ve been advertising the fact that I read a book on the golden plates and I’m doing group research. I’m listing everyone and verifying references to golden plates to let me know and this stuff keeps pouring in. I’m finishing up a book I started before I did Rough Stone Rolling, on the American farmer in the 18th century which I started because I wanted background to Joseph Smith, so that’s getting close. And then I do plan to go to the gold plates as a very powerful deposit in the American imagination. It’s now a public property. It gets into novels, it gets into high-level dramas, it’s everywhere, even —
Audience: It’s on Broadway.
Richard: Yes, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America has the golden plates as its theme, so just how the gold plates has functioned in the Mormon imagination and in the [unintelligible] imagination.
Audience #12: So one more question on that and then I’d love Claudia to be involved too, but the other big hit after the history was the LGBT thing [unintelligible]. I know you just touched on that too as I know people have questions there. Feminism in general. I’d love to hear from Claudia too but maybe —
Audience #13: I wanted to pull Claudia in because I’ve heard that all of your success actually comes from marrying Claudia.
By people who know you. And I’m just curious, how do you work together? Do you coauthor, is she helping you write or is she editing or how do you guys navigate history together?
Claudia: Go ahead, Richard.
Richard: She’s a smart alec, right? I think we tell pretty much the same story, how she can’t stand the way I write and that’s very good, that an editor thinks her booklets —
She reads every word I write and she has something to say and I am getting better, right?
Claudia: He’s improved a lot.
Richard: So my take on Claudia is that she has ideas she’s not aware of so I tell her where she’s standing.
There’s someone who has a question on this.
Audience #14 [01:24]: I don’t know whether this is just a faith destroying rumor or what but Greg Prince’s new biography of Arrington was based on his diary and 20,000 pages or something, and I’m not sure what church policy is that personal writings and this kind of stuff is not as open, whether that can be used or not as history and I’m wondering: Have we come to the end of it in terms of really good biography and history of the Church when the current apostles or prophets strike, they’re probably not going to be available, or is that just a bad rumor?
Richard: No, it’s true. I was hired by the church to edit some Joseph Smith [unintelligible] so I went to the initiation rights and one is that you promise you will not go home and write in your journal [unintelligible] which you can see what lies behind it but I think it’s a grave mistake.
Audience #14: So, that’s true and it’s more likely to have a dampening effect on writing good history?
Richard: It will have a dampening effect, but not an elimination effect because it will be [unintelligible].
Audience: But you could tell Claudia and Claudia writes it.
Mark: Questions for Claudia?
Audience [~01:26]: This would go for either of you but I think you said earlier, “Don’t be an iconoclast, just to cause trouble.” And you said to do things in brotherly love. I may be a little bit the opposite in some ways on the doctrine. I love the doctrine. I think there’s a lot of very — I get intellectually stimulated by a lot of doctrines of the church. I think there’s so much there and I also do love a community too. I mean we all have our problems in the administration of a church, maybe where mine is, but I guess I would have to go with your views of the doctrine, because you also seem to defend a little bit the doctrine of the church and do you still even in very academic studies find enlightenment and stimulation through going to church ever and in doctrinal ways? So Claudia, maybe you should start —
Claudia: He’s the doctrinal expert, I’m the cultural.
Richard: Well, I think there’s a lot to be desired in Sunday school classes. Our sermons are not polished and pretty good preachers are just really thoughtful and [unintelligible]. We live right next door to Riverside Church which is the big church on the [unintelligible] but, we taught a class on Contemporary Mormonism at Columbia. And the first assignment was for the students, every student had to go to a three hour block [unintelligible] and then they had to write a response to it.
They were really exuberant about a simple husband-wife team talking about how they were trying to live the gospel and [unintelligible] and just the simplicity of it. And my own feeling is the [unintelligible] just plain ordinary people getting up and trying to say something has more lasting interest than having a polished preacher up there who really lays it out for you.
So I go into sort of an appreciative moment of all of my brothers and sisters who are willing to stand up, who do their best to say something about their lives. [unintelligible]
Claudia [~01:28]: I agree with that, and I’ve done everything and it is the varieties and that everybody does it and everybody in the church, in school because we all have to. And it’s just a wonderful tool, it’s in our everyday lives and [unintelligible].
Audience: I often hear people say life in the church is true but at a certain point in their life it accounts for something that they see as some new evidence that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. “That’s the last straw, okay, I’m not going to believe anymore.” And it’s discouraging to me because I see that gospel, whatever you want to call that, or faith or experience with God and this religion and this church and whatever we define that as is far more complex than finding out that there’s more than one version of the First Vision. So, it begs the question for me, there must’ve been something more to that person than just, “Well, I read that there’s three different version or seven different versions of the first vision and therefore the church lied to me and therefore I can’t believe in Joseph Smith’s a prophet anymore.” I’m guessing there’s something else building up to that.
But I think that aside, can you address Or that this prophet did something — Can you address, both of you, as you’ve did these studies, read people’s journals, how do you tell people to gain perspective of it, so that they aren’t just kind of blown away by one particular thing, how did you, as you were studying the life of Joseph Smith — was there ever a point where you were reading certain things that you were just like, “Wow, I don’t know if I can handle this,” and how do you put that in perspective of anything else? Because it is far more complex than just, “Well, they wrote different versions of the same scripture.”
Claudia: I frequently feel that way myself. Last time I remember that I actually said this when they announced that we were going to have sacrament meeting at one o’clock in the afternoon.
And I said to all the people around me, That’s it.
But I can tell people these things. I do tell them. They take this sort of serious.
Richard: I would just say one thing about this, it’s not exactly the question, but I’ve been so frustrated talking to people like this, unable to comprehend why one little thing would throw them off. For me, I can roll with the punches — I don’t know, I just bang my head against the wall so much [unintelligible]. I’ve got to the point of asking one question: “Do you believe in Christ.” And if they say they believe in Christ I say, “You’re going to be okay.”
A lot of them say, “No. The whole thing’s gone. I’m not sure I believe in God.” And that’s very discouraging to me because the [unintelligible] in the process of learning is a huge collection of cultural lore that comes into our heads as Mormons [unintelligible] Joseph Smith’s problem and if Joseph goes, Christ goes. There’s something wrong with that. There’s something [unintelligible] and I don’t know the solutions to it, but I think that’s the problem.
Audience: And my question or comment I guess ties in with that. To me, all the things that we’ve talked about can be interpreted as, How do we make sense of these things or is this story more true than that? And it’s all in effect an intellectual exercise and what I have found as a convert to the church truly compelling is that there’s an invitation and it comes from the mouth of Joseph Smith who said, “It’s a privilege of every child of God to come to God and get revelation.”
To me this is a quality that shifts. I’m not expected to make sense of all of this, all of the historical accuracy, inaccuracy, but the question, I guess, do I find God’s spirit inviting me to give my heart and partake of this restored gospel message? And to me, it is overwhelmingly compelling. I mean I’ve had God witness to me! And so it’s this brain sorting out all the story stuff but just trusting that I’ve had these witnesses from God and to me — I mean how do you stay in the scholarly world and have your feet planted into that? In revelation? — God has talked to you about this.
Richard: Claudia loved that, she thinks that’s our witness, that you can receive revelation from God. That’s our real message. I would say Joseph Smith would be very happy to hear this because for the first 10 years, you could join the Mormon Church without ever hearing the name of Joseph Smith. The first great tract [unintelligible] doesn’t mention these [unintelligible] revelations. What Joseph wanted was not that you believed in him or in the Book of Mormon but that you find God. [unintelligible]
Audience: So how did we come to the “follow the prophet” propaganda that’s taught from age three on?
Richard: Well, I think it’s a tricky doctrine, I think it’s better to just subdue that.
Claudia: [unintelligible] Utah.
Audience: The people that wrote that song live in North Provo.
Audience: So just to roughly frame what some people go with this, and I can understand that — either historical issues or not feeling like they find Christ currently in the church because of what they feel, how women are presented and treated or because of LGBT issues and the policy, they say, “I don’t understand how these people can be inspired prophets when they put out policy like that or when three years ago they finally thought it was okay if women pray in conference.” These are things that I can appreciate why people struggle. It’s not historical issues, it’s current issues, it’s — we’re taught that they should be receiving a relation and then we have the blacks and the priesthood, we have all these other things that keep happening that indicate that well, maybe they aren’t inspired.
So how do you respond? Claudia, how do you respond to that when people feel that way and they’re struggling?
Claudia [1:37:10]: I think everything evolves. I think we all have to suffer lots of things we shouldn’t have to suffer. And that if we hang on, that things will work out. I do believe we’ve seen tremendous amounts of evidence that [unintelligible]. Surely, it should’ve happened sooner but on the other hand, people appreciate more because it has happened, we have seen things happen. We’ll see more. How it’s going to go exactly, I don’t know. I think we have to be good citizens and that everybody knows how we feel about this and search the [unintelligible].
Claudia: I mean one of the things I’m always repeatedly asked by bishops is, “How are we going to get more girls on the stand?” I’m not being criticizing, but the situation is our boys are well known around here; our girls are not. So the question is how are we going to get those girls on the stand? So my best idea is that we should have a crack singing group. They say, “No, our girls can’t sing.” I say, “Okay, let’s add the teachers.” “Well, the teachers aren’t very good singers either.” “Okay, let’s add the mothers. Let’s get the girls on the stand.” And my bishop, to his credit, gave the whole Christmas program to the Young Women, the whole thing. And that’s not enough, but where we see problems I think I think we can try and see what we could do in some small way to make it better. and I think that’s actually a great opportunity for us. If everything were as we want it to be. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.
And I just think there’s got to be a struggle, sort of working.
Maxine: Just to follow up what you were all just saying and a couple of comments people made — I agree with you, Claudia, that when people say, “What’s the one way you would describe Mormonism, Maxine?” I would say, “We believe that God is real and he’s involved in our lives and we can receive revelation and that’s the message of Joseph Smith.” But you both articulated this central tension in a way that we’re evolving, there’s continuous revelation, which is our “wonderful theological loophole,” thank God continuing revelation — but also there’s that issue of the tension between that and excavating our past and the whole reason for the Joseph Smith papers. All of us historians who drive ourselves crazy doing history, there’s tension between “what do we want to hang on to” and “what do we want to let go of?” Because there’s a lot of that right now in terms of looking at the past and sifting through and looking at what are the plain and precious truths that inspired us aspects of the Restoration and what are the things you’d love to really jetison and get rid of?
Like Jana Riess says, it’s like cleaning your house. You’re getting rid of a lot of stuff that you really don’t need anymore. Can you address that tension of, we’re evolving and revelation is continuing, there’s a lot of really good stuff there, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water which is a little bit what happened with the Community of Christ, although they’ve held on to the common consent and other things in a way — They’ve preserved an aspect of our tradition that our religious cousins needed to do and we need each other. Community of Christ and LDS need each other; we preserve different aspects of the Restoration. Can you speak a little bit to that tension of what we want in our evolution — what we want to hang on to and what do we want to get rid of?
Claudia: I don’t think that this [unintelligible]. There’s one generality, and that is, I would rather live in the lone and dreary world than in the Garden of Eden. It’s just a more real place, more things are going on that we can work at. And then, as to throwing things out. My own feeling is, that I’ve preached out from time to time is, here we have too many commandments You’ve been to the Sunday School classes where they list all the things Mormons have to do. Okay, so you can [unintelligible over laughter]. It’s a housewife’s analogy that like the ingredients on the side of the box of prepared foods. The first one is the most. I say, “Let’s take the top and get rid of all your [unintelligible].
And we can go with love the Lord, love your neighbor, and just period, that’s it.
Audience: And write your journal.
Claudia: Just listen to the sacrament prayers seriously and live by those. That’s enough. We don’t have to make all these lists of things we should do. Just do the top, the most important.
Audience: When you say ‘evolution’ I’m trying to understand what you mean. Do you mean that we just relax and let whatever is going to happen, happen, or do we have some agency in creating that?
Claudia: We do have a big deal of agency in creating the evolution [unintelligible] on the top. You can do anything you want in your ward, as you work with [unintelligible] you can do all kinds of things and you can write. The greatest power that you have for people who have no power is the power to write. You write something, and it circulates a little, people listen to it, it makes change. That’s why writing is my big thing. I mean it’s the thing that people who have no power and no money can do, is they can write. So tell us what you have in mind.
Audience: Or a podcast.
Audience: I want to know if evolution is part of that conversation or not, is it part of the transaction that we have with the church? Because I want to do that. Come co-opt me into this.
Claudia: If you don’t play the game, if you’re not cooperative, you don’t get a voice. It’s a give and take. You’ve got to be right there, you’ve got to go clean the church, you’ve got to go talk when they ask you to talk, and then when you ask for something you’re more likely to get it. [unintelligible]
Camille: I’m Camille Bailey Eghard [?] and I want to acknowledge the influence that you, Claudia, have had on me. I have a quote and unfortunately my phone is dead or I would read it. It’s from you when you were asked why you pursued your PhD, I believe when your children were still young, is that accurate? And you said housekeeping was compelling to a point but that you didn’t want to define your life by it. I had this moment of — I think it was two years ago — I was Relief Society president and we lived in Utah County at the center of LDS conservatism.
Richard: Heaven, right?
Camille: And I had just paid — he doesn’t know this — but I had just paid for my Christmas tree to be decorated and [unintelligible over laughter]. So I’m 45, I’m trying to go to the hospital. I don’t even read, I have no attention to detail but I’m trying and you have inspired this. And I do have a question!
Hopefully I’ve reached a point where I don’t care what people think, but of course I do sort of still care what people think. When I leave and there will be caretakers at home, but did you care at all? Did you care within yourself? When my 13 year old inevitably — and he turns 14 this September and he’s been sneaking out of the house — and when everything goes haywire and I’m not at the crossroads, did you have to grapple with that at all as a mother, independent of what other people were saying?
Claudia: Well, it was a very hard thing. I mean it was very hard in lots of ways and I mean I didn’t do it lightly. I went back to school because I was a housewife with no status, no position, nothing, no sense of progress at any time. My husband’s interests took him to a whole new life. He had nothing to say to me, I had nothing to say to say to him. It was a really critical situation. So I said, “I want to go back to school.” So I had something to think about when I did my household chores. I wasn’t planning to get a job, it was just not the thing to do. I mean I had three kids, I couldn’t leave them.
I gave up three things, purposely, when I started going back to school. I try to remember them. I gave up fashion, I gave up creative housekeeping, and I gave up a social life. But the thing is, you can’t never really give them up. But what you can do is think about them in a new way: Okay, I’m not going to do a lot of [unintelligible] it seems I have to do some thinking, two parties back to back. Same answer. Okay, I’m not going to sew anything except I have to make Easter dresses for our little girls, but I’ll make them simple, out of material I already have. So it’s a matter of simplification that made it the easiest. And Richard — these were different times — he said he would not complain if the house was not tidy.
Audience: So to follow up on your question, did you ever have angst, a concern about how your children will turn up and the decisions they might have made?
Claudia: [unintelligible]. But then, they lived through it.
Audience: Claudia, could you quickly — I don’t know if you can do it quickly but could you tell the story about starting Exponent II and coming up against — and this is an answer to the question too, so we are evolving, there are people of all different ilks and ideas within the church, and it’s going to evolve, and for those of us who want to help support the current beautiful structure that brings so much to people’s lives, and to help it move forward to bring more good to people’s lives. I remember you talking about when you back off and start on a different project, come at it from a different angle in order to support the organization in a way that honors and respects the organization, but to also continue to help the cause of women, for instance.
Claudia: So you’re talking about when I resigned from Exponent II?
Audience: Yes and when you had interactions with a couple of —
Claudia: Yes, it’s been very interesting that this little thing started and peoples’ living rooms, laid out on the floor and it has become something important. I was quoted several times just today in Mormon history.
[01:50] Amazing. I mean it was just absolutely a little thing we did on our own, because we were housewives, we were talking about being Mormons and we decided — we did a lot of projects, we [unintelligible]. But then we started this little newspaper, Exponent II. There had already been an issue of Dialogue, [unintelligible] but with that, I came home from one of these events to Richard, and he said, “Anything you’ve done has just turned to gold. What can you do now?”
And Richard says, “Start a newspaper” so it was his idea. And he actually had a person who had been a newspaper reporter to be the editor, Stephanie Smithswoods, but she was also president of the Relife Society. She told the bishop she wanted to be released. He wouldn’t release her. And so one of the people at one of these meetings turned to me and said, “Well then, you’ll just have to be the editor.” That is how I came to be the editor of Exponent II. So the people, they could do all kinds of things, but they couldn’t always do that. It was a glorious time. I don’t know how many of you are old enough to even remember, but suddenly we little housewives were important. We were significant. People wanted to do interviews, people sent us money, they sent us letters, we cried [unintelligible] but along this time, there was a fly in the ointment, which was that Richard was stake president.
It was a not a suitable thing that the wife of the stake president should be editing. Questionable to other persons, although nobody could ever find anything wrong with it, they just thought might get out of hand. Two members of the Quorum of the Twelve [?] came to visit us, it was really quite [unintelligible], but they said, the first thing, Elder [unintelligible] said, “If you continue doing this, no good can come of this.”
This can be a terrible [unintelligible] so we’ve got to close it down. So I that to Richard and said, Elder [unintelligible] says we’re going to have to close, but they did not want to close them. They say that what they decided to do is write long letters to [unintelligible] saying how much being involved in this paper had meant to them. Because it really was a very rich experience for all of us. Working together, doing hard things, it’s been difficult so they wrote all these letters. I already knew that I was out because I guess I’m not going to be the person who gets my husband fired as the Stake President. Anyway, so they wrote these letters, I didn’t write them, and they went to Salt Lake and they all took them to L. Tom Perry, who had been a stake president, but there’s no [unintelligible] probably is in Salt Lake. And Hales said to him, “I think these women deserve a response.” So Elder Perry got on a plane, flew out to Boston, and met [unintelligible].
I mean nobody gets that kind of response. And so Elder Perry said, “There’s nothing wrong with this. This looks wonderful. I’m sure it’s good, but the wife of the stake president cannot be in control.” So well, I retired, went back to college, but it’s carried on. It’s over 40 years old and if you’re interested in women’s studies, [unintelligible].
Audience: Talk to me, I’m the poetry editor.
Claudia: Yes, it’s a great thing. It’s a great thing for all the women involved, builds their talents and gives them interesting things to do, builds friendships like nothing else and one of the things I wrote in the first editorial was that it’s Exponent II is [unintelligible] are compatible, we aim to improve the pages in our lives. That just came out of my mind. I’m just that self-centered.
But I just like to say that over the years they decided that they [unintelligible] so they changed it, they had that connection to Mormonism rather than to [unintelligible] and actually it’s wonderful that I have writings about it because we would then continue by [unintelligible].
Audience: I will ask a second question again, but I would not forgive myself if I didn’t ask this question. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this question, this question is for Richard. I think one can plausibly make the argument that you know more about Joseph Smith than anyone alive, and I would be curious to know [unintelligible] what your opinion is of Joseph Smith as a man and Joseph Smith as a prophet?
Richard: Well, your assumption is wrong. I don’t know more about Joseph Smith; I’ve just written more. Seeing and Jesse [?] and Ron [unintelligible] and a lot of those people who Joseph Smith [unintelligible] really know everything so this book was dedicated to them but [unintelligible]. So what do I think of him as a man?
Audience: And a prophet.
Richard: Yes, there were times when I thought I liked him as a prophet, not as a man, because I discovered he had this temper and I don’t like people who herd [?] by force, anger and he would snap [unintelligible]. I reconciled myself to that by realizing he wasn’t just some ill-tempered person, he was a man of feeling, who bore his feelings on his sleeve and he would get angry very fast, but then he’d switch and he filled with love, so that passage about reproving betimes with sharpness and then showing an increase in love, that’s Joseph Smith. So I came to this [unintelligible] imagination, this divine imagination, this revelation, going on and on, I admire that immensely, and I admire his resolve. Nothing discouraged him. People turned away and turned against him, he just trotted on. He just had this vision of what had to be done and he just did it.
[01:58] So as a person, I think he’s magnificent. I do believe he was a prophet. I believe in the gold plates, I believe in the witnesses and all the [unintelligible] as historical evidence. [unintelligible]
I will say [unintelligible] that Emma’s view of Joseph [unintelligible] she never lost faith in his [unintelligible]. She didn’t think he could write the Book of Mormon and she knew him better than anyone else. So I believe he did have a [unintelligible] and I believe the Book of Mormon is beyond explanation [unintelligible] because I don’t think that there’s [unintelligible] I say it’s a work of genius or a work of inspiration. But the definition of work of genius is a work that goes beyond human capacities. It’s an extra-[unintelligible] thing which is very close to inspiration. So all along the line, I think [unintelligible] I’m not going to say, “In the name of Jesus Christ.”
Audience: Claudia, what do you believe?
Claudia: What do I believe? I believe in the church, I believe everything about it is good. Do I believe about the plates? [unintelligible] I believe more that you should write about your [unintelligible].
[02:00] And I think this is a great thing we need to do. You’ve listened to Richard tonight, so now you people that are thinking and striving about all this, go home and put it in three or four paragraphs, what you actually think. You don’t know what you actually think until you have to write it down. You will write down until you think you have a document that has some meaning to you. And let me make my closing statement while I’ve got the chair.
I really think you ought to take seriously what I say about putting pen on paper [unintelligible] and I gave you five options, five things that you could do that would be very beneficial. Okay, they’re about half way through June. Try and keep a baby journal. Just try and do it for those two weeks and then if it goes okay, see if you can continue with that. Item two. Many of you are young enough that your fathers and mothers are still alive. Go record somebody’s story, get it down before they die. One thing I did as a project was to do oral histories with my three sisters and then transcribe them all and give them to each of the sisters for a Christmas present. Everybody stayed up all night reading them and discovering things about each other they have never known, all new information. So, oral history. Try and do one.
Number three. Think about the first thing you remember in your life. What is your first memory? Try and remember it in as much detail as you can and write it down. Why you remember this thing? What is the significance of it? That kind of thing. Try and write that. That’s the beginning if you write a biography and [unintelligible] But again, if you do no more than one of these things it’ll do the trick.
Let’s see, what is the fourth one? That’s the fifth.
Anyway the fifth one is to write your own experience. But all of us read the obituaries from time to time. Find what you really like, use it as a model and use it as your own. Put it in a file with a good picture of yourself —
[unintelligible] and then every year on your birthday revise it, because things change in your life. But if you have an obituary that you like — I can tell you horror stories about obituaries. My very own great grandmother was not mentioned in the obituary of [unintelligible]. Somebody else who was doing it fast just left her out. Terrible family split ensued, never forgiven. Anyway, that’s fifth.
Is anybody going to try and do one of those things? That’s what I like to see. You won’t be sorry. [unintelligible]
Audience: Thank you and just to emphasize what she’s saying. Now, we’re living in a transformative time for the church. 50 years from now they’re going to be researching history to try to write about why in how the church changed to what it’s becoming and that will be up to you guys writing these stories. That’s probably why she’s been so hard — Richard, do you have a final statement?
Audience: Can you elaborate anything more about the quote you gave Peggy, about Elder Packer and his relationship with you, giving a blessing to what you were doing?Faith Again Event hosting the Bushmans, June 12, 2016
So one of the most respected church historians of the day says here “They got a story that didn’t work. So we’ve just had to change our narrative.” He’s pointing out that for a while the church “story” didn’t work, and that we’ve got to change it. The thing is, we can’t just change our story. It’s not a corporation that simply needs a rebranding. Or is it? The thing about history is you can’t change it, what they need to do is start being honest about church history. What they teach should be the real and complete history rather than whatever they can cherry-pick in correlation meetings and rephrase with an ellipsis. The reason they’ve had to white-wash the history is because it’s so awful to begin with! The mountain meadows massacre wouldn’t need a coverup if there was no massacre. Polygamy and child brides don’t need to be forgotten and ignored if the women (and girls) were never manipulated and abused by their spiritual leaders. If the early church leaders weren’t racists and discriminating in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to change policies. If the temple ceremony was stolen from Masonic rituals, then admit it and move on. But instead, the ceremonies are changed little by little over the years with nary a word. If the Book of Mormon really was found and translated, let it stand on its own, don’t invent stories about how it came to be. It wouldn’t need departments of apologists trying to make sense of the discrepancies and anachronisms. It’s an attempt at revisionist history. They wanted to recreate the narrative to make it shiny and happy, but in the long term, they have shown a commitment to feelings over truth.
Bushman (not surprisingly) received a lot of flack for what he said here. He has since clarified that he still believes in the fundamental story of the church, but wants the church to be more honest in it’s approach than it has been.
Over the years, my position has remained pretty constant on the question of divine origins and inspiration of the prophets. I believe pretty much the way I did when I was a missionary. I misstated my position once in a fireside that John Dehlin has made much of as if I had given up belief. I said the history as we believe it is not true, by which I actually meant not accurate. We have had to correct lots of details in the Joseph Smith period. But the fundamental thrust of that history remains the same. God was working among the people I believe and we are the heirs of that great movement.Richard Bushman, in a private email to Stephen Owen Smoot (shared with permission)
There has been much drama and debate regarding the standing and testimony of the historian Richard Bushman. He is still a believing member of the church in good standing. He didn’t mean to say the church’s narrative isn’t true, he only meant to say it isn’t accurate. The purpose of sharing this quote from Bushman is not to cast doubt on his faithfulness or his testimony, or imply that he is giving up the faith, but to point out that a leading Mormon historian acknowledges that the church has not been transparent with its own history. That the narrative the church has been telling is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, flat-out false. It’s really just a succinct way of saying what everyone already knows, the church white-washed its history to make it more palatable to the members and the world. They apparently did this to protect the feeble-minded members of little faith so they wouldn’t be troubled by the hard things they learned when studying the real mormon orgin story and history.
The church has been dishonest by telling an untrue narrative. They got caught telling lies when the world smartened up and did some collective research. It’s time for the church to choose the right and let the consequences follow, rather than hide anything they perceive to be uncomfortable or hard to understand. Let’s see how long members stick around and how long faith lasts once they teach the actual history and how they are connected to it. But no, that’s why we’re told over and over again to not look online for church information. Church leaders are terrified that members will wise up to their ruse. They don’t want members looking behind the curtain or doing their own research because they know the history doesn’t withstand scrutiny.
Did you go down the deep rabbit hole of church history and the dominant narrative being false? How did it go? Share your story.