Posted by: rusch | September 1, 2006

Bushman

joseph-smith.jpgA few months ago I posted that I had read Richard Bushman’s book about Joseph Smith the Prophet. On several occasions I have been in situations where this book, among others, has been the topic of conversation. The people who have taken part in these discussions have ranged in their opinions from, “I think it is a great book”, to, “What Bushman and historians like him are doing is dangerous because it could undermine someone’s faith”.

I have been fascinated by both perspectives and would like to share my perspective on this book.

As a missionary in California, I took an interest in the life and teachings of the Prophet Joseph. As a missionary I satisfied my interest with Truman Madsen’s “Joseph Smith the Prophet”. For anyone wanting to study the life of Joseph Smith, this is a great resource. After my mission, I have also enjoyed “The life and Teachings” series of lectures that Madsen gave along with his “Presidents of the Church Lecture Series”. These works are wonderful, insightful and faith promoting sources of information on Joseph Smith’s life and teachings.

I felt that those works strengthened my testimony not only of Joseph’s call as a prophet, but that also he was a man, who like every other man was with fear and trembling working out salvation by undergoing a period of mortal probation. Joseph Smith himself admitted that at times he did wrong, but in the end did not many of the wrongs he was accused with. My testimony is that we should not hold people to standards that we ourselves are not willing or capable of living, regardless of their position in the world and Church. I gained this perspective not only from listening to Madsen’s work but from discussing these things with friends and religion Professors who have made it their life’s mission to promote faith.

We should take to heart what David O. McKay often taught about the call of prophets. He said, “When God makes a man a prophet, he does not unmake him a man”, meaning that no matter what the call, all are still repenting, overcoming temptation, and taking part in the great process of becoming. To me this is not a negative perspective but a reminder that we are all in this together and must work together.

Bushman’s book was not only helpful in getting to know Joseph Smith the man, but also the time and culture in which he lived. No man or woman lives life in a vacuum. In some ways we are all a product of not only our choices but the cultures in which we live. A mistake that we often make in reading Church history is imposing a twenty first century value system on nineteenth century people. Elder Oaks has said that we should try to see the world of Joseph Smith not through our eyes and values, but through the eyes and values of those living in the 1800’s. Bushman gives us a powerful picture of Joseph’s world and his place in it and his book is an attempt to give us a context in which the amazing events of Church history took place.

Some have worried that this book would undermine the faith of weaker members. The fact that Bushman’s book, or any book, can do this is not the issue. The issue is that person’s faith. A large part of growing and maturing in faith is having it challenged and overcoming doubt. Someone who has a problem with this book is displaying symptoms of greater problems, whose cure is to in humility seek a witness that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph was God’s prophet and to seek a correct understanding of what it means to be a prophet with President McKay’s statement in mind.

I have been careful in who I recommend the book to. Never have I recommended it to those who were new to the church or have problems with what President McKay said about prophets still being men, though as Elder Packer has said they are more then just men, as are all people who are called to serve the Lord.

In the end Bushman is one voice among many. While I really liked this book, there are others that I would like to read. I would like to read some books mentioned to me by a very, very, prominent professor of religion at BYU along with biographies of Joseph F. Smith, Theodore Roosevelt, and other important and influential world leaders.

If you in any way struggle with the Church, Bushman’s book is not for you. If you want a morality play where Joseph is always right and everyone else wrong, then this is not for you. But if you are willing to attempt to set your prejudices and preconceptions aside and consider one very competent author’s viewpoint, then this is for you.

Finally remember D&C 93.

“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;
There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.
Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.
Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;
And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;
And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated.”

This should be the standard set for all we read or listen to that is not canon.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of reading this kind of book about Joseph, you probably should not. But if you feel that you are mature enough to deal with very real and difficult issues that are often puzzling, then go ahead.

In the end God will be the ultimate Judge of Joseph Smith’s life as he will be the judge of all men. And with this in mind, we should not judge Bushman to harshly lest we be judged wit the same judgment.

Happy reading and listening to all!


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