As many of you know, Dr. Richard Bushman (LDS patriarch, former stake president, historian, expert on Joseph Smith) recently participated in a fireside wherein the following exchange took place with a participant:
Questioner: In your view do you see room in Mormonism for several narratives of a religious experience or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong they would have to hold to that dominant [orthodox] narrative?
Richard Bushman: 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.
After this video was shared on Reddit and Facebook, rumor and/or speculation began to spread that Dr. Bushman did not believe in the fundamental LDS truth claims. In response to this rumor/speculation, Dr. Bushman has asked me to share the following letter in its entirety:
July 19, 2016
In the middle of the week last week I began to receive thank you notes from people who had read a statement of mine about the Church’s historical narrative requiring reconstruction. I had no idea what was going on until Dan Peterson wrote about a “kerfuffle”—the word of choice for the occasion—on the blogs. At church on Sunday, D. Fletcher asked me, did you know you were the subject of a kerfuffle. A friend who had been mission president in Brazil sent me a link to a blog in Portugese. Eventually I learned it all began with the transcript of a comment I made at a fireside at Mark England’s house a little over a month ago and posted by John Dehlin.
Sampling a few of the comments on Dan Peterson’s blog I discovered that some people thought I had thrown in the towel and finally admitted the Church’s story of its divine origins did not hold up. Others read my words differently; I was only saying that there were many errors in the standard narrative that required correction.
The reactions should not have surprised me. People have had different takes on Rough Stone Rolling ever since it came out. Some found the information about Joseph Smith so damning his prophethood was thrown into question. Others were grateful to find a prophet who had human flaws, giving them hope they themselves could qualify for inspiration despite their human weaknesses. The same facts; opposite reactions.
The different responses mystify me. I have no idea why some people are thrown for a loop when they learn church history did not occur as they had been taught in Sunday School, while others roll with the punches. Some feel angry and betrayed; others are pleased to have a more realistic account. One theorist has postulated an “emotional over-ride” that affects how we respond to information. But the admission that we ourselves are subjective human beings whose rational mechanisms are not entirely trustworthy does not diminish our sense that we are right and our counterparts mistaken.
As it is, I still come down on the side of the believers in inspiration and divine happenings—in angels, plates, translations, revelations—while others viewing the same facts are convinced they disqualify Joseph Smith entirely. A lot of pain, anger, and alienation come out of these disputes. I wish we could find ways to be more generous and understanding with one another.