As an 11-year-old boy, Don Bradley went looking for gold plates.
After all, Mormon founder Joseph Smith said he was directed to a set of such plates, buried in a hill near his house in upstate New York.
On a childhood visit to that hill, Bradley turned over lots of rocks, feeling certain he might find some sacred record overlooked by others.
He never did.
That quest for Mormon gold became a metaphor for Bradley’s lifelong spiritual journey. It led him first to dig into Smith’s history to enhance his LDS devotion and then to uncover uncomfortable facts and omissions in the faith’s story, which bred disillusionment and distance.
Eventually, Bradley’s research helped bring him back to the Mormon fold, this time with a broader view of Smith’s spiritual abilities.
"I could describe many of the events of Joseph Smith’s life, but I couldn’t explain the thing that really mattered: why it all worked," Bradley, now 42, said in a July speech at the annual Sunstone Symposium, a conference in Salt Lake City for Mormon intellectuals. "Joseph Smith wasn’t of interest because he’d been a merchant, a mayor, or even a much-married husband, but because he was the founder of a religion. And it was precisely the religious dimension I couldn’t account for."
Besides rediscovering Mormonism, Bradley learned how to balance faith and facts, science and spirituality, reason and revelation.
Along the way, he spent time as an agnostic and atheist, then back to theist, then Baha’i, then generic Protestant before returning to the Utah-based church where he had begun.
"I overthink things," Bradley said with bemused understatement. "I saw that I’d often done this, to my detriment. … I’d been trying to solve spiritual questions with the tools of history."
Could part of the problem be, he wondered, "that spiritual questions can’t be resolved by scholarly analysis?"
Searching for God » Bradley’s parents were Mormon converts who reared their family first in Baltimore, then in South Bend, Ind., before moving to Utah when Bradley was a teen.
With proximity to the LDS Church archives and library, the would-be historian spent countless hours after school poring over documents, mining every nugget about the church’s past.
"Being a historian is like being a detective," Bradley, now living in Provo, said this week in an interview, "except all your witnesses are dead and you have to piece it together based on clues left behind."
It was going well until 11th grade, when he found an analysis of potential problems in the Book of Mormon by a famed LDS scholar/general authority, B.H. Roberts, at a Deseret Book store.
"It turned me upside down," Bradley said. "If this had been written by someone clearly antagonistic to the church, I would have had my guard up. But I knew [Roberts] was a general authority and church historian. I trusted him."
Roberts’ questions about the historicity of Mormon scripture troubled the young seeker, but he stuck with the faith. He served an LDS mission to Houston from 1989 to ’91, encountering many perspectives and people of all faiths.
"I came back more open-minded," he said, "and a much more critical thinker."
He again took up his Mormon pursuits, majoring in history at Brigham Young University.
"I had a few evidences that I thought were sufficient foundation for my continuing belief," Bradley recalls, "then I picked those apart."Next Page >
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