There is a short YouTube video making the rounds — I don’t know whether or not it was recorded with his permission — in which Richard Bushman, whom I consider a friend, is shown saying that “the dominant narrative” of Mormon history is “false”:
Some critics take this to mean that, in Dr. Bushman’s mature judgment, after a highly respected career spent not only in Mormon history specifically but in American history more generally, and after years of service as a bishop and stake president and patriarch, he’s concluded that the fundamental story of the Restoration as it has been taught in Sunday school and seminary classes for generations is untrue. Perhaps even a lie.
Here’s a transcript of the videotaped exchange above, provided by one such critic:
Audience member: To me, a lot of the incongruity that exists now, that is giving rise to a lot of crises of faith, seems to be caused, in my view, by the disparity between the dominant narrative, or what I would call the orthodox narrative, what we learn as missionaries, what we teach investigators, what we learn in Sunday school, and then as you get older you kind of start to experience Mormonism in different ways, and those ways become very important to you and dear to you, but sometimes they may not jive with some elements of the orthodox narrative, and so what I’m wondering is, in your view, do you see room within Mormonism for several different or multiple 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 narrative?
Bushman: 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, so the church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds, and that’s what its trying to do, and it’ll be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially, but I think it has to change….
Now, I haven’t checked the transcript, but I’m going to assume that it’s accurate enough. (Of course, Brother Bushman didn’t actually speak the words it can’t be sustained in all capital letters. That’s a helpful contribution from the critic.)
It’s important to point out, though, that, as Jim Bennett has helpfully observed elsewhere, “Watching the video, the context of Bushman’s statement is that the way people have talked about the First Vision is incorrect — that the first words that were spoken to Joseph were an assurance that his sins were forgiven. So in other words, Bushman still fully accepts the First Vision, but thinks the ‘dominant narrative’ about it is incorrect. This is a far, far cry from claiming that he rejects the entirety of the Church’s take on history, but ripping that snippet out of context gives that impression.”
Brother Bushman and I are on the same page here. In support of that, I cite something that Richard Bushman himself said in response to an earlier iteration of the critics’ claims:
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.
I agree completely with Dr. Bushman’s comment above.
I firmly believe, as he does, “in inspiration and divine happenings—in angels, plates, translations, revelations.”
That, in fact, is precisely what I understand to be the fundamental story of the Restoration, as the Church has taught it.
I also acknowledge that some, confronted with details (and, perhaps even more so, with interpretations) of Church history with which they weren’t previously acquainted, have experienced pain, anger, and alienation. I regret that, and I’ve devoted many, many hours to trying to help with such cases — both on an individual basis and on a larger scale — and to inoculate against such pain and loss in the future. I continue to do so.
I have, moreover, long maintained that telling our full story, warts and all, is the best defense against such disillusionment and anguish. I absolutely believe in honest and accurate historiography, and I absolutely believe that the claims of the Restoration can and will withstand the most serious scrutiny. Indeed, Professor Bushman and I have had conversations on precisely that subject.
I see nothing in what Professor Bushman has said with which I disagree.