Read this first! Some have been confused regarding the position of LDS Answers and the Joseph Smith Foundation regarding the progressive historians quoted and their call for a “reconstructed narrative”. The Joseph Smith Foundation promotes the traditional teachings of ancient and Latter-day prophets. The purpose of this post is to raise awareness of where many LDS intellectuals would like to move the Church. Again, the Joseph Smith Foundation will be providing materials to counter the statements in this article. This is not a discussion of anyone “anti-Mormon”. The scholars quoted are also active members of the Church, although we disagree with their positions. Please see the end of the article for additional understanding.
As Latter-day Saint families gather this weekend to enjoy General Conference, many are unaware that there is a growing movement among members and scholars in the Church to change our history. Though this progressive effort has been proceeding for decades, in the last few years we have seen an ever increasing number of prominent LDS historians and scholars calling for a “reconstructed narrative.”
“. . . A Reconstructed Narrative.”
Richard Bushman is a prominent LDS historian and considered by some to be the “world’s foremost scholar on Joseph Smith and early Mormonism.”1 During a recent fireside, Bushman responded to a participant’s question regarding whether the traditional understanding of Church history is accurate.
Question: In your view do you see room in Mormonism for several narratives of a religious experience or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong they would have to hold to that dominant narrative?
Richard Bushman: I think that for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that’s what it is trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change.2 (Watch full video)
The following month, Bushman elaborated on his meaning with the following statement:
I consider Rough Stone Rolling a reconstructed narrative. It was shocking to some people. They could not bear to have the old story disrupted in any way. What I was getting at in the quoted passage is that we must be willing to modify the account according to newly authenticated facts. If we don’t we will weaken our position. Unfortunately, not everyone can adjust to this new material. Many think they were deceived and the church was lying. That is not a fair judgment in my opinion. The whole church, from top to bottom, has had to adjust to the findings of our historians. We are all having to reconstruct.3
Bushman is not alone in calling for a new “Joseph Smith”, a new Church history and a new Mormon culture. In this post, we will hear from historians who are encouraging a “new era.” One scholar has even called for the “foundation” to be torn down and completely rebuilt.
Who is this new “Joseph Smith” and what constitutes this “reconstructed narrative”? For those who are unaware, Rough Stone Rolling presents a “Joseph Smith” that differs dramatically from the “Joseph Smith” taught by past Presidents of the Church. According to Rough Stone Rolling,
- Joseph Smith was “involved in magic” (page 53)
- The Prophet’s involvement in “magic . . . was a preparatory gospel” (page 53) and “Remnants of the magical culture stayed with him to the end.” (page 51)
- Joseph Smith suffered from “treasure-seeking greed.” (page 51)
- The Smith family were drawn to “treasure-seeking folklore” and saw astrology and magical “formulas and rituals” as connected to their spiritual well-being. (page 50-51)
- “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture.” (page 51)
- Joseph Smith Sr. was an “oft-defeated, unmoored father” (pg. 26-27) who “partially abdicated family leadership” (page 42). His “life [was] blighted by shame” (page 42)
- The Smiths were a “struggling family.” (page 106)
The proposed “reconstructed narrative” of LDS Church History as well as the life and character of the Prophet Joseph Smith is admittedly a departure from the traditional or “dominant narrative” given to us by past Church historians including Willard Richards (present at the Carthage martyrdom), George A. Smith (cousin to the Prophet Joseph Smith), Presidents Wilford Woodruff and Joseph Fielding Smith.
What would the testimony of a member of the Church look like who holds to this new image of Joseph Smith and Church history? Many tout Rough Stone Rolling and Richard Bushman’s new history as an aid to faith in crisis. Could this new history lead to, rather than help, a crisis in faith? When describing the faith crisis Bushman experienced at Harvard, he explained, “[I am] not someone who has a ‘simple faith’ where just everything is absolutely true beyond any doubt.”4
Question: And so how did you, how did you become a believer again, or, or re find your “believingness”?
Answer: Well, ummm, I probably never recovered at all. Ummmm, I’m not someone who has a “simple faith” that where just everything is absolutely true beyond any doubt.”
“. . . we are in a new era.”
Is Bushman alone in his perspective? Ronald S. Barney was the Executive Director of the Mormon History Association and has previously served as an Associate Editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. He admires the work of Richard Bushman, including Rough Stone Rolling, and has likewise called for a “new era” in how we view Joseph Smith and Church history.
I think new Mormon history will serve for a period of time but I personally believe we’ve passed that. Ummm, I think we are in a new era. And I think this book that uhhh, Laura uhhh, conceived is something that will be representative of a way to think about this period of time that, uhhh, that we are in. I’m working on a, a book that I’ve been working on for many, many years on uhhh Joseph Smith and one of the, the tail end of it is going to be about the historical legacy of Joseph Smith. As I try to look at that and how Joseph Smith has been represented over time there is such a clear point of departure in what has happened in, in the last few years than what, than all that happened previous to this. I think we will see that uhhh distinctly in the future as uhhh, we cast our eyes uhhh back toward this period of time. (Laura Hales & Contributors (A Reason for Faith)–Benchmark Books, 5/11/16)
“Humanistic Trends in Church History”
President Ezra Taft Benson when commenting on similar approaches to LDS Church history stated:
This humanistic emphasis on history is not confined only to secular history; there has been and continues to be attempts being made to bring this philosophy into our own Church history. Again the emphasis is to underplay revelation and God’s intervention in significant events and to inordinately humanize the prophets of God so that their human frailties become more apparent than their spiritual qualities. It is a state of mind and spirit characterized by one history buff, who asked: “Do you believe the Church has arrived at a sufficient state of maturity where we can begin to tell our real story?”
Inferred in that question is the accusation that the Church has not been telling the truth.
Unfortunately, too many of those who have been intellectually gifted become so imbued with criticism that they become disaffected spiritually.
Some of these have attempted to reinterpret Joseph Smith and his revelations; they offer what they call a psychological interpretation of his motives and actions.5
Historicity of the Book of Mormon
Another popular LDS author and historian, Gregory A. Prince, has called for those who still believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon to “grow up”. For those who are not familiar with the background on this issue, many LDS scholars including Greg Prince, believe that the Book of Mormon narrative is merely allegory. Mormon, Moroni, Nephi, Captain Moroni and other famous Book of Mormon characters never physically lived. They are likely figures of Joseph Smith’s imagination or perhaps the narrative should be considered a parable.
Many people act as if the Book of Mormon is the cornerstone of our religion only because we have placed in that position precariously and all that keeps it from toppling is our constant fussing. Quite to the contrary, it gained and maintains it’s position because over a period of nearly two centuries it has been the primary means by which people who have encountered Mormonism have converted to it. Not to the book itself, but through it to a better place of living. That position is independent of the book’s provenance and yet there are many who are willing to die on the hill of ancient historicity. To them I say, “grow up!” (laughter) Science has already informed greatly on the issue of historicity and will continue to inform many great and important things. Relax and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Greg Prince, “Pillars of My Faith” speech, Sunstone Symposium, August 2, 2013)
Past Statements from Leaders of the Church
Margaret Young, a part-time faculty member at BYU-Provo, has not been bashful to announce her desire to see a new LDS Church in the near future. In a blog post entitled “The Future of Mormonism (the Next Five Years)”, she stated:
the future of Mormonism is bright. We are on a bridge. . . . Change comes slowly in the Church, but to those seeking to find miracles, the changes over the past fifty years have been monumental. . . . We will become a church known for exactly the opposite reasons it was known for in the nineteenth century.6
What would this new Church, which is precisely the opposite of what it was 150 years ago, look like? Has God changed or were the prophets of the past simply leading in the wrong direction? The following are excerpts from an audio interview with Margaret Young.
We have some awful statements from all of the leaders of the Church. So how can Darius and I do what we do and hold current temple recommends and know everything that was said in the past and still support The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? And basically it’s because we don’t believe in the infallibility of prophets. . . .
I’ve had to just kind of pinch my nose as I read through the terrible things that have been said by past leaders of the Church. Understanding the damage that they’ve done and the damage that they continue to do. . . .
The way I see it, it’s kind of like when the Salt Lake Temple was constructed on the foundation of sandstone that simply was not adequate to hold up. And the instructions came down, “tear it down! It’s got to come down. Tear it down so that you can build it on something that will last.” And so all of that work had to be completely torn apart and the temple started again. (Listen to full interview)
As we move into the 21st century, past positions of the Church and statements by our sustained leaders have come under heavy attack from within the Church. We believe this new history has gone unchecked long enough. FairMormon, in contrast, has the following statement published on their website:
We should be forgiving of past prophets who we today would perceive as being “racists,” or otherwise unsophisticated when compared to the present day. Lest we judge harshly, we ought to consider that even the Savior himself spoke of “outsiders” using language that we today would consider grossly offensive (Matthew 15:26). . . . Prophets in all dispensations have been “men of their times,” who were raised with certain beliefs and interacted all their lives with others who shared those beliefs. . . .
From our perspective as “enlightened” people of the early twenty-first century, virtually everyone in America up until the last few decades — prophets and other LDS leaders included — held beliefs that we could now consider racist. But that was the culture of the times, and we, like the rest of society, have progressed (line upon line, precept upon precept, see 2 Nephi 28:30) to become better people in this respect, more tolerant, more accepting.
Fifty years from now, people will probably look back at our time and say, “How could they have been so bigoted?” Or, “How could they have missed issue X, which seems so clear to us now, in retrospect?“
The key point here is that the Lord works with the people who are available.7
Was the Son of God racist? Are we sure we wish to cast the statements of Presidents of the Church behind our backs and . . . under our feet?
Are there answers?
The historians mentioned above are a small sampling of this new movement within the Church but they are prominent and well-respected. Bushman and Barney, for example, were two of the recent authors of the new book, A Reason for Faith. According to the editor, Laura Hales, A Reason for Faith was published as a companion to the recent Gospel Topic essays on LDS.org and features scholarship from some of the best experts within the Church on these topics.
Let people know, we don’t have definitive answers. We had a really hard time finding a title for this book. We had to have some help, but one thing that every single author was insistent on was that the words “truth” and “answers” did not appear in the title, because these chapters are open ended. They’re meant to summarize the best scholarship. It doesn’t, I mean, there’s countering scholarship and that’s sometimes listed in the extra resources. But it’s a good solid basis for someone like me who had nothing, not a drop of oil in their lamp. (Laura Hales & Contributors (A Reason for Faith)–Benchmark Books, 5/11/16)
We appreciate Laura Hales’ commentary because it is an honest statement regarding this new scholarship. The “reconstructed narrative” does not provide answers. The research and conclusions change dramatically over time. This will be the case with any committee of scholars defining history and doctrine. Contrast this new perspective with the Son of God’s declaration to Nicodemus.
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. (John 3:11)
People who “do know” and “have seen” have answers. If we do not have answers today, have we really progressed? (2 Timothy 3:7) These are questions each person must answer for his or her self.
When held against primary sources, credible history and the scriptures, does the “reconstructed narrative” promoted by Bushman, Barney, Young, Prince and many other LDS scholars hold up? LDS Answers is determined to tackle the “tough questions” regarding LDS Church history and doctrine. However, our approach will differ from many of these historians. We will stand by the traditional perspective taught and advocated by the Prophet Joseph Smith, Presidents Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, Ezra Taft Benson and many others.
In the upcoming months, we will release articles, papers, videos and podcasts delving into the most troublesome issues in Church history and the difficult questions regarding Church doctrine. We do not believe the “reconstructed narrative”, promoted in books like Rough Stone Rolling, is the solution to instill faith and we’ll talk about why! We will not shy away from anything including the following questions:
- Did Joseph Smith marry a 14-year-old girl?
- Was Joseph Smith involved in the occult?
- Why did Joseph Smith engage in polyandry?
- Has the history of some of the most renowned miracles in Church history been exaggerated or even subject to fabrication?
- Does DNA prove the Book of Mormon is false?
- What about the Book of Abraham?
- Why was Joseph Smith a Freemason?
- What did President Brigham Young think about women?
- And so much more!
The exciting news is, there are REAL answers to all of the tough questions!
While LDS Answers is committed to the traditional perspective of LDS doctrine and history, we are also dedicated to discussing these issues in a civil, constructive manner. We are insistent that on this website, no one will be denounced or censured for holding an alternative viewpoint. Our desire is to engage in thoughtful dialogue with the focus of strengthening faith and building the Kingdom of God. These questions should be discussed! No one should be belittled or criticized for asking hard questions. Our desire is that LDS Answers will be a safe environment to discuss controversial issues. We believe the answers taught by the Presidents of the Church and the Revelations can withstand the test of time, but this does not mean that all sides should not be presented. We encourage anyone to comment as long as the discussion remains civil and considerate. We are excited to begin dialogue on these ideas in a respectful, constructive manner. Perhaps we can even set a precedent for it!
Are you willing to help us?
There are many thousands of men and women, returned missionaries, teens and even ecclesiastical leaders who are questioning.8 9 They are confused and looking for answers. Do you have a child who is struggling with his or her faith? Do you have a friend, a neighbor, a relative or co-worker who is abandoning the Church? We can reach them but we need your help. If you are willing to assist with research, verifying sources, engaging on social media, etc. please contact us. We want to flood the earth with the message of hope contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Our desire is to strengthen faith and build the Kingdom of God.
Will you join us in this cause?
- John Dehlin and Richard Bushman, “047-051: Richard Bushman — Experiences as a Mormon Historian,” Mormon Stories, January 22, 2007, https://www.mormonstories.org/podcast/richard-bushman-and-rough-stone-rolling-part-1-experiences-as-a-mormon-historian/.
- Blake Bishop, “Richard and Claudia Bushman,” YouTube video, 00:44:40, June 12, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MA0YS8LWWX4.
- “Richard Bushman and the Fundamental Claims of Mormonism,” Sic Et Non, July 16, 2016, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2016/07/richard-bushman-and-the-fundamental-claims-of-mormonism.html.
- “047: Richard Bushman Part 1 — Experiences as a Mormon Historian.” Mormon Stories. N.p., 06 June 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2016. <http://www.mormonstories.org/richard-bushman-and-rough-stone-rolling-part-1-experiences-as-a-mormon-historian/>.
- Benson, Ezra Taft. “God’s Hand in Our Nation’s History.” BYU Speeches. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016. <https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/ezra-taft-benson_gods-hand-nations-history/>.
- Young, Margaret. “The Future of Mormonism (the Next Five Years).” The Welcome Table. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/welcometable/2015/07/the-future-of-mormonism-the-next-five-years/>.
- “Mormonism and Racial Issues/Racial Statements by Church Leaders.” FairMormon. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016. <http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_racial_issues/Racial_statements_by_Church_leaders>.
- Peggy Fletcher Stack, “’Trust Gap’ Hounds the Mormon Church, Research Shows,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 2017, https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=5196148&itype=CMSID.
- Dehlin, John. “Understanding Mormon Disbelief Survey – Results and Analysis.” Mormon Stories. N.p., 12 June 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2016. <http://www.mormonstories.org/understanding-mormon-disbelief-survey-results-and-analysis/>.