Attempting to think as Joseph Smith thought

October 15, 2012

Using old texts in the modern world: number six in a series

In the preface of his 740-page biography of Joseph Smith, Richard L. Bushman describes the challenge he faces as “a believing historian.” He cannot “rise above” the battles that rage around his subject nor can he “pretend nothing personal is at stake.” He has to “look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws.” He has to be careful that his defensiveness as a believer does not compromise his historical exposition.

Not only for Bushman writing on Mormon topics, but for all persons of faith who address issues that matter to them, a keen sense of self-awareness is the first component of an adequate methodology.

A second component in Bushman’s list is to use good models for the book he wants to write. For this biography, he cites W. Jackson Bates’s biography of Samuel Johnson and Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad. Even though she subscribes “to no particular religion herself,” Armstrong’s “irenic viewpoint” enables her “to write about Muhammad’s visions as if they actually occurred, giving readers unimpeded access to his mind.” Noting that the “contradictions and incongruities” in Joseph Smith’s record have to be dealt with, Bushman states that his book “attempts to think as Smith thought and to construct the beliefs of his followers as they understood them.”

These two methodological factors make it possible for Bushman to develop a finely tuned exposition of the complex mixture of necromancy, legend, superstition, social unrest, and religious ideas in early nineteenth century America. While locating the Prophet in this world and acknowledging that to a considerable degree he was shaped by these elements, Bushman identifies specific moments, especially in 1828, when he experienced important turning points that defined his prophetic role.

A third methodological feature in Bushman’s biography is that he unflinchingly describes the hard-to-believe details of one of the most challenging aspects of Joseph Smith’s story, the transcribing (which is the verb that Bushman prefers) of the golden tablets. Furthermore, Bushman outlines the various interpretations given to these episodes, including the efforts to explain it all away, and carefully points to strengths and drawbacks to each one of them.

Although he stops short of endorsing the conclusions that “believers” would choose, Bushman arranges his exposition so that readers—whether or not they believe—can readily perceive the reasonableness of the believing options.

A fourth element in Bushman’s methodology is to be precise in his identification of what the Book of Mormon claims to be and to insist that evaluations of its truthfulness and value have to be based on those claims. For example, while the Book of Mormon includes accounts of ancient migrations to North America and of subsequent episodes in the history of people on this continent, it does not claim (Bushman makes clear) to be a pre-history of North America. Furthermore, its appeal to believers in Smith’s time and ours has not rested on claims that it is an historical exposition.

Near the end of treatment of the emergence of the Book of Mormon, Bushman calls attention to important themes that it contains. In each case, he shows how the book confounds readers by presenting unexpected, often unsettling, explanations about the purpose and meaning of the alternative narratives that it presents.

One of Bushman’s keenest sentences is this one that comes after he identifies contradictions in the efforts to “situate the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century.” Here’s the sentence: “The book elusively slides off the point on one crucial issue after another” (italics added, p. 99).

Thus the question for Bushman and for anyone trying to understand and be instructed by the Book of Mormon is this: What kind of book is it anyway?

Bushman answers the question of authenticity by stating that the Book of Mormon presents itself as a new Bible suitable for America. It justifies this role by claiming that this was God’s intention, that an additional witness to the gospel would arise that was pointed toward life in this part of the world.

The Book of Mormon, therefore, can be understood as an alternative narrative for America, one that could be claimed by people who found themselves alienated from the narrative that prevailed in their time. Bushman lists seven reversals in the narrative, the first being that it “proposes a new purpose for America: becoming a realm of righteousness rather than an empire of liberty” (105).

Sooner or later, readers of the Book of Mormon have to decide in their own way the questions of its historicity. What Bushman has done is to shift the focus away from the details of the history-like narrative on which the teachings rest. Instead, the focus of historicity is placed upon the remarkable character of how the book came to be. Did it happen the way Smith said it did, or did it not?

In either case, the emergence of the Book of Mormon is without parallel in American history. However one answers the historicity issue, the book and its message, the way of life it contains, and the community it inspires command respect.