As a couple, Richard and Claudia Bushman are among the most prominent, productive and popular Latter-day Saint scholars.
Historian Richard Bushman is the premier biographer of church founder Joseph Smith and Claudia Bushman, also a historian and writer, was the founding editor of Exponent II, a feminist magazine for and about women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
To celebrate more than 300 episodes of The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, the couple addressed a crowd last week at the University of Utah.
The Bushmans took turns answering questions about Latter-day Saint history — including those raised by Richard’s latest work, “Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History” — the role of women, the church’s future, the need for more activities, even how to make the faith’s Easter celebrations more meaningful.
Here are excerpts from that lively discussion:
Richard, did you start off your career thinking you would become an expert in Mormon studies or did you come to it later?
Richard • The answer is yes to both. As a young graduate student studying history and trying to explain my life to myself, I did think that, over the long haul, it might be useful to do a study of Joseph Smith. And that I wanted to approach that not by diving into Mormon sources but by going outside of Joseph’s life to the world he lived in. Virtually everything I’ve written was an attempt to understand Joseph Smith’s world. I published a book called “The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History.” That really stemmed from my interest in Joseph Smith and what farm culture was like. Only when I was on the verge of retirement did I actually get down to the work on Joseph Smith himself.
Claudia, when you got married were you planning an academic or scholarly career?
Claudia • Absolutely not. I was going to be a traditional housewife and mother. And really that’s what I was and still am. We were married after my junior year in college, and I could hardly wait to get out of college and put it behind me. But as soon as I did graduate and had my first child, I was hungry to get back into the classroom, so I started taking classes from time to time, when it was possible. When Richard took his job at BYU, I signed up and got a master’s degree, [then later a doctorate]. …The project comes along and I do it. And my education has been like that.
Richard, how was your biography “Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling” received? Did some of the responses surprise you?
Richard • I was immensely surprised. [The publisher got an order for 10,000 from Costco.]... I came to the conclusion that timing is everything. That the book came along in a moment when there was a large Latter-day Saint demographic that was looking for something that’s candid and open, and had a little more scholarly heft to it than a lot of the things we’ve done. And the book has caught on.
But not everybody liked your book, right?
Richard • What most interests me is beginning to understand why it disturbed people. There would be people who would come up to me and say, “Well, I can read this, but you wouldn’t want to hand this to a new member of the church.” I found just the opposite is true. It’s the old members of the church who had the most trouble with the book, because it disrupted parts of what they learned all their lives. New members would read it and say, “That’s interesting.” It all seems to make sense to them.
You’ve now written about Smith’s purported gold plates, which he said he translated into the Book of Mormon. Were they really gold?
Richard • The Book of Mormon never calls them gold and Joseph Smith didn’t speak much of gold plates. It’s the outsiders who are fascinated that they’re gold. They call it “the Gold Bible”...Most people nowadays, most scholars, would say they probably were an alloy of gold, silver and copper.
Claudia, Joseph’s wife Emma reportedly moved the plates around, but they were always covered and she allegedly never peeked at them. Would you have?
Claudia • Well, I’ve certainly done many things like that in my life, things I wasn’t supposed to. But did she really see them? I think she would have said that if she had. I wish she had left her description, how valuable it would be for us…I would certainly have peeked.
Richard, after all your study, do you believe there actually were plates?
Richard • Yeah, I’ve never doubted the plates. The witnesses are very persuasive. The plates imply so much. They really change the nature of the universe. That is, there are angels. There’s God intervening. There are holy records. And that implies so much about how the world is constructed.
Have your views of the Book of Mormon changed over time?
Claudia • My view of the Book of Mormon hasn’t changed much. It’s still our very own fairy story about ancient people full of adventures and excitement. We’re very fortunate to have it. And I still think it’s wonderful.
Richard • It hasn’t changed a lot. Sounds like history, and I know that’s unlikely. And there are a lot of arguments against the Book of Mormon. But none of them is very persuasive to me. So I’ve stuck with it. Where I’ve changed is that it used to be almost a cliche, that the Book of Mormon may be an interesting history, but it’s a dud as a work of literature compared to the Bible. It’s shallow and lacks psychological depth and so on. I don’t think you [can] say that so much anymore. If you read the Bible straight, it’s pretty dull reading, but it seems deep because it has centuries of commentary, opening up what’s there. So we see things. Now our scholars are working on the Book of Mormons, which is getting richer and deeper and more enthralling all the time.
Claudia, what’s your view of Heavenly Mother?
Claudia • This is an interesting topic because the church certainly says there was a Heavenly Mother. And we all agree with that. But nobody knows anything about her. We ask questions of the church leaders but they have no answers for us, and they don’t want us to pretend what the situation is, because that could very well be wrong. But we all feel that we have a Mother in Heaven, and maybe many mothers in heaven. When I think of a mother in heaven, I think of my own mother. One of the best things about our Mother in Heaven doctrine is that we can create the mother that we need for our religious uses.
How have your views of women in the church changed since the founding of Exponent II?
Claudia • Well, certainly women have always been very heavily involved in the church in my lifetime. Of course, one of the things is that the church used to be much more heavily cultural than it is now. I call it the “Incredible Shrinking Church.” We have fewer and fewer meetings and almost no activities. When I was young, we had a whole slew of wonderful things going on. And my mother, who was certainly one of the major people that was doing that sort of thing, was central and important in our religious life. Women were wonderful teachers, they were wonderful cultural leaders. Today, women don’t have the same kind of job but they can do anything they want. Women are all powerful in this business …but I miss all the weekly dances and all the wonderful things we used to do. And so I just feel life is a little barren in our church right now.
Claudia, what was your Easter project all about?
Claudia • We give a full month to Christmas and, frequently, we just ignore that springtime event… Also, we only like positive things. So we don’t do much with the crucifixion at all. But the resurrection we really could do a lot with, and we really should. …We’ve got to quit calling it by that fertility goddess name, we have to call it a “resurrection event” instead of Easter. [Before the pandemic, I had planned a whole month of activities.]…But I’m certainly going to try another event next year, including a concert, with a sunrise service on the roof of one of our buildings, a Good Friday event [with] talks about the last words of Christ [on the cross] and then leave the room in darkness, because he would be gone. In honor of our biggest religious event, we’ve got to think about it and devote ourselves to thinking about it.
What do you think the church could or should do to retain its young people?
Richard • What we need most of all is a sense that the Latter-day Saint church is a cause — a cause that is important in redeeming the world. I don’t just mean get people baptized, but the whole world, even those who are not baptized, to make their lives better, that the fate of the global society is our responsibility, and we should be involved. If we can somehow find a way of describing what we’re doing and its global implications … we will enlist young people who will see they’re part of something that’s significant and important.
Claudia • I would like to see more fun and games.
To hear the full podcast and view a video of this event, including an audience Q&A, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To receive full “Mormon Land” transcripts, along with our complete newsletter and exclusive access to Tribune subscriber-only religion content, support us at Patreon.com/mormonland.
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