What you may not know about Mormon historian Richard Bushman — for one, he was agnostic when he went on his mission

Writer of acclaimed Joseph Smith biography explains why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should continue to change but retain its unique teachings.

Nearing his 90th birthday, Richard Lyman Bushman is the godfather, or, should we say, the patriarch of Mormon history.

As an emeritus history professor at Columbia University, with a chair of Mormon studies named in his honor at the University of Virginia, and the author of “Rough Stone Rolling,” the much-heralded biography of church founder Joseph Smith, Bushman is revered as a gentle, thoughtful scholar, who explores the past and present of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with an evenhanded but deft touch.

He is married to the inimitable Claudia Lauper Bushman, also an American historian, scholar, and writer who helped found Exponent II, a feminist magazine for Latter-day Saint women. The couple have six children.

Bushman also has been a bishop and stake (regional) president, lay positions of leadership in the Utah-based faith, using his skills to lead and minister congregations of believers.

This far-ranging December interview was edited for clarity and length.

Was your childhood home a bookish environment? Did your parents value intellectual pursuits?

Well, no, it really wasn’t. It was a good, faithful Latter-day Saint home [in Portland, Ore.]. My father was in advertising and was an artist. My mother was a faithful, truly believing Latter-day Saint. They always had an appreciation for the idea of culture, that it was a good thing to do music and go to museums and that sort of thing. But they rarely did it … and I was never aware of my mother or my father reading books. They probably did, but it just didn’t register on me.

So when did you develop this interest in Mormon history or history itself?

The question is: When did I feel that I needed to think about the world to understand it? That started in high school, when I would ponder and write in my journal and try to figure things out. It was just thinking about the meaning of life and how you could be a good person and what was important, why people developed different kinds of social ranks. ...When I went to college [at Harvard], I started in physics, and then migrated to math. It wasn’t until the middle of my sophomore year that I moved towards history. And it really wasn’t particularly Mormon history, though I did write my undergraduate honors thesis on the expulsion from Jackson County, Missouri, titled “Saints Fled.” When I got to graduate school and was doing history, I was not particularly focused on Mormon history at all. My dissertation was not on a Mormon topic, and it really wasn’t until Leonard Arrington got me involved in the 1970s that I began doing much Mormon history.

Did you ever have any religious doubts? When did you get your testimony of the church?

That sounds like if you have a testimony, you can’t have doubts and issues, but that’s a poor way of looking at it. Here’s what happened. I’m at Harvard. I have a lot of good friends in the church. We meet every Sunday. We’re all talk-talk-talk guys. We’re dealing with everything under the sun. My problem is not Joseph Smith or history. My problem is God. Is there enough evidence to believe in God? I was drawn towards agnosticism, where you cannot say one way or another if there’s a God. That all began to happen in the middle of my sophomore year. And that was a little embarrassing because I had been interviewed for a [church] mission in December that year. I went back to school and lost my faith in God and at the same time got a call to the New England Mission, right back where I had been as a student. I told the stake president when he set me apart, you know, “I’m not sure that I believe in God.” And he said, “That’s all right.” When I arrived in Cambridge (Mass.), the mission president, a professor of agriculture from Utah State [University] and so wise, asked, “Do you have a testimony?” I said, “No, I’m not sure I believe in God.” But he didn’t send me home.

He said, “Would you read this book and tell me what you think of it?” He handed me a Book of Mormon and sent me on the train to Halifax, which took 20 hours to get there from Boston. I spent the next three months asking every question I could about the Book of Mormon witnesses — Were they deceived? Were they hypnotized? Were they in on the game? After that three months, the mission president came up and asked us to bear our testimonies and, when he came to me, I just said, “I know the Book of Mormon is right.” I was prepared to commit myself, which I did, and never wavered from that. But I have had continual questions ever since. They’ve never gone away.

What did you mean by, the Book of Mormon was “right”?

I don’t know what I meant by that. It was just the word that came to me rather than “true.” When I read the book, I believed those things were happening. I could picture them happening. They seemed very real to me. So I’ve just always said it was right. I have a little difficulty with the word “true.” I am willing to say it’s true for me and it is something I’m willing to grasp. But it’s not something I can persuade everyone, including Harvard professors, to believe in.

(Photo courtesy of Richard Bushman) Claudia and Richard Bushman dance at their San Francisco wedding reception in April 1955.

How do you define truth?

We have a very confined notion of truth that’s really defined for us by science, which requires evidence or proof to be accepted. In ancient times, truth was connected to goodness — truth was what led you to a good life. And, for me, that’s always been more important. I’ve always valued the truth that led me to the right kind of life, the one which makes me a good father and husband and prompts me to help people be good. With that kind of truth, I’m very much willing to say, I know the gospel is true.

Have you changed your mind over the years about any of the church’s founding events?

In terms of the particulars — the overall story about the First Vision, gold plates, translation and a set of revelations to form a church — my view remains pretty much the way it was. But I do think about some things differently.

The Book of Mormon is a problem right now. It’s so baffling to so many that Joseph was not even looking at the gold plates [to translate them]. And there’s so much in the Book of Mormon that comes out of the 19th century that there’s a question of whether or not the text is an exact transcription of Nephi’s and Mormon’s words, or if it has been reshaped by inspiration to be more suitable for us, a kind of an expansion or elucidation of the Nephite record for our times. I have no idea how that might have worked or whether that’s true. But there are just too many scholars now, faithful church scholars, who find 19th-century material in that text. That remains a little bit of a mystery, just how it came to be.

But you stand by your view that there were physical gold plates, right?

Yes, I am developing the idea that there are objects that prompt revelation. Objects like the gold plates, the seer stone or Egyptian manuscripts were instrumental, important and significant [in the translation or revelation process], but used differently from the way we would use an object to translate the writings of Augustine, for example.

You are completing a book about the plates, which Smith claimed to have but then returned to an angel. What is your fascination with them?

All they are is an imaginary object. We can’t see them or touch them, but they’re in our heads. Gold plates figure in the imagination of modern Mormons and especially educated Mormons. They’re one of our great fantasies, one of the most fabulous and unbelievable parts of our history. I am really curious about how today’s Latter-day Saints feel about them. If Joseph Smith had kept them, they would have just become another artifact, and he would be like the Bedouin shepherds who found the Dead Sea Scrolls, minor characters in a great archaeological discovery.

How do you — as a person who once studied physics and math — explain the kind of mystical experiences claimed by Smith and his followers, the witnesses, and those who attended the dedication of the Kirtland Temple?

The kind of faith that early Mormons used to have or the kind of experiences that various peoples around the Earth have, where visions and powerful things come to them, are sort of shut down by our insistence on what we call “rational.” I want to leave room for the mystical — not that I necessarily accept everything every mystic says — but I want to be very tolerant of that mode of apprehending world. When people report those experiences, I believe they have to be taken seriously as part of the human experience. It’s like saying, “I’m not going to listen to music or to let myself be moved by romantic feelings.” You’re cutting off part of yourself and your life if you say that’s just beyond human capacity.

Do you think that openness helps you capture the past better?

I have come to believe you should always treat the people that you write about with the same respect you would show them if you knew them in person. That is, you must honor the way they think of themselves. Your first responsibility is to re-create their life as they lived and experienced it, not to judge it. I once told a graduate student that I always felt I had to respect people because they may be dead now, but I might meet them in the hereafter. And I was embarrassed because at my farewell party when I retired from Columbia, she told that story to the whole faculty.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) HIstorian Richard Bushman gives a talk at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City in 2018.

You can have respect but don’t you always have to report their flaws as well, like Brigham Young and his views on race?

My heart goes out to Brigham Young right now. He’s becoming the fall guy [for the church’s former racist priesthood-temple ban.] We really need someone to go through his biography and treat the latter half of his life empathetically. But on race, he really was off base. There seemed to be not just a sad acknowledgment of the limitations of African Americans in the church, but sort of a vindictive quality to him. And he spoke with some force. We just have to say he was wrong. But it’s not our job to condemn him or to say, therefore, we’re canceling him, that he’s worthless. We have to keep it all in perspective.

How have you seen the church evolve over the decades on race, feminism or LGBTQ issues?

I subsume this category into what I call cosmopolitanism, which is one of the most powerful influences in the church right now. By cosmopolitanism, I mean that we’re suddenly able to see ourselves as others see us and we can picture ourselves as one religion among a number of religions and a number of viewpoints. We can see how Mormonism looks from a global view. And as soon as we do that, then the way we treat women becomes problematic in terms of the way the educated world in general is looking upon women and race and LGBTQ issues and so on. We have to find ways of couching our message so that it makes sense to the world at large. At the same time, we need to hold onto our roots in a parochial way. I mean that in a positive sense. We all, even the most cosmopolitan people, need a home base in Mormonism. We’ll keep trying to find words that will allow us to express what we believe in a way that’s acceptable. We want to sound like we’re reasonable souls. I see the merits of that. But that relieves us of the responsibility of defending the things that are uniquely ours — like angels and gold plates — that should be protected.

Do you see the church changing as it moves into new countries?

Of course it’s going to change. The question is: What is doctrine and what is practice? What are the essentials we have to hold onto at all costs? We speak as if essential doctrines are clearly defined and that they will never change, but we can never say what they truly are. We say we believe God and faith are the basis of a good life, but it is always going to be remolded and reshaped. We just have to live with that. In the end, it can be very therapeutic and strengthening if you have to think through what you really believe, what you could stand up for, what you would speak about at the United Nations or to a group of the Harvard faculty. Then you’ve got something you could really hold onto. If your faith is only good in Salt Lake City, but it doesn’t work in London, then you don’t really have a viable faith.

How do you understand the reverence for Latter-day Saint prophets?

If it leads to the idea that prophets never make a mistake, even basic ones, that’s going to get us in trouble. Brigham did make a mistake on race, and saying he didn’t just gets us in more trouble. It’s better to say they do make mistakes like anyone else. But it’s of great importance for us to believe that God is leading us. And that begins with believing God is leading the church, that God is with the church. That makes possible the Mormon miracles — the fact that we work together so well, that we go along with our bishop, even when we don’t like the way he does things. It leads to our unity, our community, our strength. The idea of revelation permeates everything we do. We can’t let go of that.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photos) Richard and Claudia Bushman in 2018.

Why have you turned to art, helping to launch the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts in New York?

Art is a form of expression, it’s presenting who we are. In my lifetime, I’ve seen Mormon history move from an organized group of a handful of scholars trying to approach the subject but really not being trusted entirely. The “true” Mormon history, the one that was believed academically, was done by non-Mormons. Now, Mormons not only write the history that’s accepted as the “true” history, but those outside the church who write about it have to satisfy Mormon scholars just as we have had to satisfy them. It’s coming to be a realm of real respectability. I see art as a way of telling our story noncombatively. It’s not aggressive. It seemed to me a lovely way to communicate that might be more suitable for the modern times than our kind of heavy-duty preaching and didactic art, which has been our mainstay for so long.

Where do you see the church going forward?

Well, I have these two big words: cosmopolitanism, which I’ve discussed already, and power. We’ve become a very powerful organization, not just because of our wealth — which is a critical part of power — but because of the very loyal members who are in positions of power, especially in the United States, but more and more in other countries, too. In government, business, scholarships, we have men and women who are right in the center of things. We’ve become influential as a people because there are so many Mormons doing good for their communities. That’s a core strength that is unmatched in the world.

Our challenge right now is to know what to do with this power. We have a duty to save the world, but how do we go about that? We’ve done it through missionary work in the past and we will continue to do that, but do we have some larger calling? The ultimate good end of cosmopolitanism is to recognize that the work of God is going to be handled by the 99.9% of the population that’s not Mormon. It can’t just be this tiny speck of a church.

Still, we need a mission that will inspire our young people and everyone who will say, “Yes, my church is taking major action to make the world a better place. And I want to be part of it.”

(Photo courtesy of Richard Bushman) Richard Bushman along with the Boston Stake presidency and high council, 1973-77. Mitt Romney is in upper left.