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The rest is history: How a Mormon scholar turned doubter, then believer
Spiritual journey » For LDS historian Don Bradley, the search for truth about Joseph Smith led to disaffection and, finally, devotion to the faith’s founder.

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"I was drawn to the only hope I could see that Charles, not just some aspect of him, but my brother, would live on: the hope of resurrection," Bradley said. "Re-examining the claim of Christ’s resurrection, I … became persuaded that God had raised Christ."

He tried to ground his faith solely in the Bible, but that seemed impossible. Christianity’s sacred book does not offer a single, easy-to-grasp set of beliefs; it has to be interpreted through some kind of lens. He chose a vague kind of Protestantism.

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As Bradley returned to devotional life, he felt drawn to the one book he knew would bring him even closer to Jesus: the Book of Mormon.

"I didn’t believe in the Book of Mormon per se," he said, "but if it had worked so well for me before, why not use it now?"

So he become a devoted, though not believing, Mormon.

Faith reawakened » At USU, Bradley worked on a little-studied element of early Mormonism — the first 116 Book of Mormon pages, which Smith said he translated and shared with a friend, who then lost them.

Bradley found primary and published documents that described the lost content and, piece by piece, he began to see more clearly Smith’s grander vision for his restored Christianity.

"Using my same historical-critical methodology I found things … good things, that bowled me over," he said. "I discovered that Joseph Smith’s early religious claims and texts already anticipated Nauvoo Mormonism, and that his early prophetic narratives displayed a complexity, power and intricate relationship with the Bible beyond what I could grasp a teenage boy coming up with."

While looking for reasons to believe that Smith was an opportunist after money, sex and power, Bradley found a number. But when he sought examples of how the Mormon founder benefited others and served religious purposes, he found even more.

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He could now re-embrace Smith, not in a simplified way but as a complicated man capable of revealing God’s messages to the world.

"The questions we ask largely determine the kinds of answers we find," Bradley said. "I had pushed the cynical interpretation as far as it could go, tried to explain as much as I could using that model, only to find the model ultimately deficient. It could not explain the spiritual power of Joseph Smith and of the faith he founded. … I have no doubt, on historical grounds alone, that Joseph Smith is vastly bigger than the cynical caricature of him and that he was a sincere seeker after truth and a magnanimous soul."

At the same time, Bradley regained his faith in the validity of religious experience and a church’s good works.

Bradley’s longtime friend Trevor Luke, who teaches classics at Florida State University, saw this transformation.

"He really believes that he’s experienced the presence of God," Luke said. "At one point in time, he tried to explain it away, but when he looked back, he saw that it was a miraculous event and he wasn’t going to reject it."

Not sure what to do, Bradley met with an unknown neighbor who would be his current bishop. The man was nonjudgmental and welcoming, telling him he would have to answer the questions he had asked in his resignation letter.

Oh, yes, and go through the lessons with 19-year-old missionaries — like Bradley used to be.

Though approaching the experience as a kind of anthropologist, Bradley said, "I experienced something my own investigators had described, that during the discussions and after, there was a light with me."

Five months after Bradley rejoined the faith, he was invited to work on the church’s "Joseph Smith Papers" project, he said. All his temple and priesthood blessings were restored.

"In the eyes of the church, it was as if I’d never left," Bradley said in his speech. "I can tell you with certainty: It is a gospel of forgiveness."

Barlow was surprised to get an invitation to Bradley’s rebaptism into the LDS Church but had noticed subtle changes in his student’s tone and approach to Mormon history.

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