Richard Bushman, Mormon History, and Evangelical Historians -- John Fea
John Fea, Is There a Mormon View of the American Revolution?
The New York Times had an interesting piece last Sunday on Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon and prominent historian of early American history, who, in light of the Romney presidential candidacy, has found himself as the media’s “chief explainer” of Mormonism. (See, for example, his response to Damon Linker’s January 2007 New Republic essay on Romney).
I have always been a big fan of Bushman’s work. My copies of The Refinement of America and From Puritan to Yankee are well worn, as is my edition of his primary source reader on the First Great Awakening. I only met Bushman once. He responded to a paper I delivered at an Omohundro Institute conference in the mid-1990s. As a graduate student I will never forget the graciousness and encouragement that characterized his comments.
I have not yet read Rough Stone Rolling, Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, but I did hear him speak on the topic a couple of years ago at the ASCH winter conference. Most of the questions Bushman fielded that day had to do with the relationship between his Mormonism and his scholarship. This leads to my question—which is an old one but still worthy of discussion. Is personal faith a help or a hindrance to the study of American religious history? As the Times article notes, Bushman has been criticized (by Jan Shipps and others) for being too sympathetic to Smith. Bushman has never been shy about his beliefs. His book Believing History is a collection of essays about how he, as a Mormon, studies Mormonism. There is even an essay entitled “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution.”
Many evangelical historians (Mark Noll and George Marsden jump to mind) have argued that their personal faith aids them in understanding the evangelical tradition in America (at least this is the argument that Marsden makes in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship). Of course these evangelicals have had their critics—Penn’s Bruce Kuklick has been the most vocal—who claim that personal faith commitments have nothing to do with good scholarship in American religious history. If evangelicals are serious about doing a uniquely “Christian” brand of history, Kuklick and others argue, then they should not pull their punches in order to win acceptance by the secular academy. Would an evangelical historian ever argue in a scholarly forum that the First Great Awakening happened because a transcendent and sovereign and real God decided to intervene in history for the purpose of drawing eighteenth-century Americans to a greater reliance on Him in their everyday lives? I doubt it, even though some might believe this. (Is the fact that I just capitalized the word “Him” too revealing of my own religious beliefs?).
I think most of the readers of this blog have heard these kinds of questions before, but as a person of faith and a historian I am still looking for new ways to think about all of this.