Richard Bushman on Mormon scholarship
A recent symposium at the Springville, Utah, Museum of Art honored Richard Lyman Bushman on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Bushman is an American historian and Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University. He recently completed an appointment as the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling," a biography of the Prophet, and serves as one the three general editors of the Joseph Smith Papers project.
Bushman spoke at the June 18 conference on the state of Mormon history and scholarship, telling his audience that Mormon scholarship is flourishing and that we are living in the “Golden Age” of Mormon history. He described a progression from the “Camelot Age,” when LDS Church history was under the direction of Leonard Arrington, and sometimes had a sanitized cast to today’s “Age of Full Disclosure.” Today there is the belief that Joseph Smith can “stand up for himself” and that history thrives when historians are free to pursue truth — including the warts as well as glories.
Bushman anticipates the future of Mormon scholarship as the “Age of Mormon Cultural Power.” He foresees Mormonism perceived by artists, scholars and popular culture as exerting an intellectual and cultural force that is gravitational and magnetic.
This, in a very real sense, is where excitement, vision and participation by LDS Church members worldwide needs to come into play. Scholarship, writing, sculpting, painting and performance are plausible and practical pursuits in a growing church that now has the capacity to sustain such artists and scholars. It is thrilling that dedicated scholars and artists can find a market for their efforts. And such synergistic vitality has the capacity to greatly empower and expand scholarly and artistic expression.
Bushman described some signs that are indicative of the upcoming “Age of Mormon Cultural Power”: the rise of Mormon studies in universities, the expanding core of Mormon scholars and the exploitation of Mormon themes in a wide array of cultural productions. While Mormonism may be admired or despised, it is acknowledged. This is critical to its advance.
Bushman also described a new attitude toward Mormon apologetics, “not an aim to prove Mormonism true, but rather to find the truth about Mormonism.” The coming “Age of Cultural Power” presupposes freedom of inquiry and an uninhibited search for the truth.
It is heady times for arts in the Mormon community and for Mormon scholarship. It is also time — and, in a sense, Bushman’s remarks can serve as a call — for church members to dedicate themselves, as Bushman advocated, to becoming good citizens of the kingdom and of the world. Members need to become conversant with theory, to keep abreast of modern scholarship in many fields, and to be knowledgeable about American and world cultures.
In a world where it is far too easy to be distracted and get caught up in the superfluous and the inane — and in a worldwide church — we need to make it our quest to be lifelong learners and scholars, either public or private. The Lord commanded this shortly after the Restoration of the gospel. He counseled in the Doctrine and Covenants, “Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand. Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms — That ye may be prepared in all thing.”
In the 181st Annual General Conference in April, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf advised, “As a people, we rightfully place high priority on secular learning and vocational development. We want and we must excel in scholarship and craftsmanship. I commend you for striving diligently to gain an education and become an expert in your field. I invite you to also become experts in the doctrines of the gospel.”
Bushman expressed in closing, “Mormon scholars are really cookin’!” Perhaps each member needs to ponder and to commit, here and now, to also start percolating.