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.


Anonymous said…
It seems to me that for intellectual and cultural historians, at least, much of the work of writing history can be viewed as a sort of translation project. The historian tries to make the thought of past persons more intelligible -- and useful -- to a modern audience.

To skip a lot of steps in my argument and go straight to the core of the analogy: I should think that hiring a "native" (or rather, more native) interpreter is often a good idea for unbelievers in the academy. So if an evangelical feels more comfortable with the thought of Jonathan Edwards (and less likely to read alien modern ideas into his work), then having an evangelical on the case ought to be a great thing for everybody else. The same could go for a Mormon translating Joseph Smith.

And I think there's nothing wrong, in such a case, if the believing historian adopts the language of the secular academy. He or she is just trying to explain the topic in terms that both believers and unbelievers can agree on.

Granted, when accounting for the spread of a religious idea, the historian strains that analogy.
John Fea said…
I just found out that Bushman has published a memoir of his experience as a Mormon historian and a biographer of Joseph Smith. It is entitled *On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary* I am eager to read it.
Randall said…
I have skimmed through Bushman's biography of Smith, but have done nothing like a careful read.

What would a Mormon scholar, whose focus was colonial US history, have to say about the pre-Columbian era? Aren't there some limits to what a person of faith can or can't write within the field of history?

Seems like it's pretty difficult to get around the fact that historians work with a post-Enlightenment, materialist agenda.
Phil said…
All of these keen observations and important questions reminded me of one of Mark Noll's little known (perhaps?) essays: "Teaching History as a Christian," in Andrea Sterk, ed., _Religion, Scholarship, & Higher Education (2002).

Noll writes that his faith convictions provide him with "modest epistemological confidence" as a historian, while his historical work, from the perspective of faith, makes him a "dangerous relativist" yet a "naive objectivist." Noll draws deeply from the missiological work of Lamin Sanneh, et. al., and applies this perspective in an essay in Ron Wells's edited volume, _History and the Christian Historian_. Noll’s essay (in the Sterk volume) is a kind of introspective sequel to his famous book _Scandal of the Evangelical Mind_.

It would be a really interesting exercise to compare the work of Noll on this point, to the self-reflective writing Bushman has done (thanks John for those titles), with Kuklick right in the middle to offer a helpful, critical, and contrarian perspective.
Bland Whitley said…
The journal History and Theory recently (2006, I think) sponsored a special issue on religion and history that likely explores these matters. I say likely only because I only read the introductory essay. Participants included Jon Butler.

I think one's faith probably makes a person more interested in studying religion, and that interest can lend itself to better understanding. But I'm dubious of basing any claims of greater (or lesser) authority on a given scholar's religious beliefs (or lack thereof). After all, a modern-day Mormon's world view is rather removed from that of Joseph Smith.
Kelly J. Baker said…
So as I was wondering through the web today, I noticed that _In Character_, an online journal, has an issue on honesty. Marc Oppenheimer, who trained with Jon Butler at Yale, conveys a story in which Butler dismissed professions of religious persuasion as honesty because we (humans) lack the ability for to actually know what we believe. He suggests that we are much more mercurial than constant, and I think this is an interesting take on how our own religious identity, or lack thereof, impacts us as scholars. Is is possible for us to be completely honest? Check out Oppenheimer's article at

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