Interpreting ancient texts in the modern world: part five of a series
In earlier parts of this series, I have discussed how some Muslims and many Protestant Christians use sacred writings from long ago to make decisions about life in the world today. It now is time to turn to a third faith tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Like Muslims, Mormons use the Bible as one of their foundational books, but add more recent writings to their list. Mormons are distinctive in that their additional books were written in the United States rather than the Middle East and in recent times. Joseph Smith transcribed the Book of Mormon scarcely a generation following the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
Because the book came into existence so recently and also because of the historical narratives it contains, issues of historicity are especially important in understanding how this sacred writing can be understood and used. Here, I turn to the work of Richard L. Bushman, a preeminent historian with Harvard degrees and a long career on the faculty of Columbia University. Bushman has published highly regarded books, including From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765, for which he received the Bancroft Prize in 1967.
In 2001 Bushman, who is a deeply committed Mormon, wrote an essay, “A Joseph Smith for the Twenty-first Century,” which was published three years later in Believing History, a collection of essays and addresses prepared primarily for Mormon audiences.
When he wrote the essay, he was writing a biography of Joseph Smith, and he delivered it at a symposium at the Joseph Smith Institute symposium on writing Mormon biography.
Bushman reports a conversation with Alfred Bush, who was curator of Western Americana at the Firestone Library at Princeton and also a person with Mormon background. In the forthcoming biography, he was told, Bushman would have “to address the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. “The historian is responsible,” Bush declared, “for determining whether or not the book is true history” (p. 264).
In his written response to this challenge, Bushman refers to Dan Vogel, “one of Joseph’s best-informed critics,” who offers three choices: Joseph Smith consciously deceived people, unconsciously deceived them, or told the truth. Bushman calls this the “strict enlightenment” position in which Smith’s visions, and also Mohammad’s, St. Theresa’s, Native Americans’, and St. Paul’s “encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus” and hundreds of other accounts, “are conscious deceptions, or they are the product of the visionaries’ imaginations and thus are unconscious deceptions” (p. 267).
Today, Bushman continues, this strict enlightenment view has moderated and even people like Vogel are ready to classify people like Smith (and I suppose many others listed above) as “a sincere believer.” Bushman states a widespread point of view this way: “We grant visionaries the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that they may have had experiences beyond conventional understanding and knowledge. They are part of a grand human effort to discover meaning through poetry, art, and revelation. We can delight in the diversity of human experience and rejoice in all that God has wrought among his children” (p. 268).
Bushman believes, however, that believing Mormons will not be satisfied with this condescending acceptance of Smith’s revelations. “By giving in to tolerance, there is a danger that Mormonism will be treated like voodoo or shamanism—something to examine in excruciating detail and with labored respect, while privately the ethnographers believe these religious manifestations are the product of frenzied minds and a primitive, prescientific outlook. Wouldn’t we prefer to be taken seriously enough to be directly opposed rather than condescended to?” (p. 269).
The test case for Bushman is the golden plates. Did Smith receive them from an angel? “Was he guided by heaven, or was he not? There is no hiding behind the marvelous workings of the human spirit in explaining the plates. Either something fishy was going on, or Joseph did have a visitor from heaven?…the old issue that has hovered over accounts of Joseph’s life from the beginning: Did God speak to him or not?” (269, 270).
In the 2001 essay, Bushman offers only glimmers of how he as a mature historian on American life, culture, and religion answers this question. His full-orbed answer appears in the Smith biography, a 740-page book that was published in 2005 with the title Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, which Bushman describes as “a cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder.”
Although Bushman’s discussion of historical fact and religious faith has special relevance for Mormons, his treatment is instructive for all people who affirm faith and at the same time are serious in their regard for historical truth. My next entry in this series on using ancient texts in the modern world will present my understanding of Bushman’s careful and constructive treatment of this topic.