Finding the Right Words:
Speaking Faith in Secular Times
It warms my heart to sense the friendship of so many people at this conference. When I was young and had published only one book, I used to dream of a funeral where people would talk of my scholarship in the presence of my children. If I was not to be around, I wanted them to know that their father’s work was honorable. This symposium fulfills that dream.
Jerry Bradford was the one who thought up the idea of a festschrift. At first I had reservations. Grant Underwood had already organized a celebratory event at the American Historical Association complete with a reception afterward. My eightieth birthday was marked by a two-day symposium at the Springville Art Museum, generously lent us by Vern Swanson. I was beginning to feel overexposed. It was not my intent in living so long to give people additional opportunities to plan another conference on my behalf.
But when Spencer, Jed, and Kathleen began putting plans together, I saw the possibilities. I have long been interested in how Mormons integrate, exploit, elucidate, get around, or overcome their faith when writing and teaching. Ours is supposedly an encompassing religion. The word consecration plays a big part in Mormon worship. What would it mean to consecrate our scholarship? Is there any way we can integrate our personal religious lives and our work as scholars and teachers? Does our belief make any difference at all in our scholarship?
Sometimes I have dreamed that Mormonism could function as Marxism does in providing a set of issues and categories to be explored. What would be the Mormon equivalent of class or hegemony? Do Mormons have a conception of human nature that would play out in history?
None of these lines of thought have gotten me very far. In an essay entitled “Faithful History,” I speculated on possible approaches to history derived from the scriptures, but none of them held up. I eventually concluded that we will know what a Mormon historiography will look like only when Mormons write it. I could find no systematic framework for approaching historical issues.
The best I can come up with is an attitude toward the subjects of my historical inquiries—an impulse to take people on their own terms. At the conference for my eightieth birthday, Stuart Parker proposed that I practice a hermeneutics of generosity as contrasted with a hermeneutics of suspicion. I try to think the best of people, to understand the world as they see it. I once told a graduate student, Lauren Winner, in a moment of candor, that my belief in an afterlife affected my attitude toward historical subjects. I had to picture myself at some point talking face-to-face with the people I write about.
When my own deliberations did not take me very far, I was still interested in hearing what others would have to say. I thought it would be particularly delicious to have Mormons reflect on the interplay of their personal religious belief and their scholarship and teaching in the presence of non-Mormon scholars—not in the privacy of the Mormon ghetto but before a sympathetic but skeptical non-Mormon public. That would be a useful exercise for everyone: for Mormons to state their perspectives in a public, academic language, and for non-Mormon scholars to seek understanding of a religious outlook that may be foreign to them. And so the project was launched. Spencer Fluhman sent out the invitations, you accepted, and here we are.
As it turned out, the exercise proved to be rewarding for me. Working up my own comments for the occasion, I began to see my experience in a new light. I discovered that my search for a Mormon attitude toward writing history was entangled with my personal search for faith. The stories I planned to tell about how my attitudes about scholarship were formed actually were stories about working out my personal religious convictions.
I have told many times the story of how I lost my faith in God during my sophomore year at Harvard. By that time, I had decided to declare history and science as my field of concentration. It was a tiny concentration, newly put together by various people at Harvard, among them I. B. Cohen and Thomas Kuhn. At my request, Cohen took me on as a tutee if I would agree to read the things he was reading. Every few weeks we got together for an hour to talk over the readings. Cohen took a kind of fatherly interest in me and at one point chose to give me some advice. Knowing my background, he observed that people around here, meaning Harvard, thought Mormonism is garbage. It was not a malicious comment; he was simply trying to help me grow up.
I was set back a little, but his observation was not news to me. I had been hearing a lot about logical positivism, then current among undergraduates, and could see the implications for religion. I was in hostile territory, but I certainly was not going to back away from my faith on the advice of a Harvard professor or the positivist Bertrand Russell. Cohen was challenging everything I stood for, my people, my family, my friends back in Portland. I could not give all that up on the basis of one comment.
Looking back now, I realize that I was not just encountering one professor or one philosophy or even the intellectual culture that reigned at Harvard. I was encountering modernism itself with its skepticism about all things religious. I was glimpsing a world where, as Richard Rorty has said, the universe does not speak. Only we speak. There is no friendly intelligence beyond our own, nothing like spirit or soul, no angels, no gold plates, no divinely inspired prophets, no listener to our prayers. That empty universe was the modernist world I was called upon to confront.
As I have told the story for many years, the pressure of all these influences wore me down. By the end of my sophomore year, I had to admit that I was no longer sure that there was a God. Religious agnosticism seemed like the only viable position given what we know for sure. Before this loss of faith, I had been interviewed for a mission and was to enter the field in June. I carried through on my commitment and left for New England, my assigned mission field. Soon after arriving, I was asked by my mission president if I had a testimony. I told him no. I did not know there was a God or that any of the things Mormons believe had actually happened.
Then in the usual telling of the story, I go on to relate how during my first three months in the mission field I wrestled with my doubts, asked all the difficult questions, and prayed the agnostic’s prayer for light. When the mission president arrived for the first conference and I was asked to speak, I said that at last I knew that the Book of Mormon was right. End of story.
That is a story Mormons like to hear, faith overcoming doubt and the doubter ending up in the right place. But I have always been troubled by one inconsistency in my own story. If I was such a doubter, why did I go into the mission field where I would be called on to testify of my beliefs virtually every day? At the time, I recognized there was a problem, but there was no anguished debate about going or not. I did not worry about being hypocritical or misleading people. I was up front about my skepticism, but I did not hesitate to go. How could that be?
Not until a few years ago did I face up to this contradiction and reformulate the story. I have come to believe that in actuality my problem was not faith but finding the words to express my faith. The problem was that when Cohen said that Mormonism was garbage, I did not know how to reply. I knew that the words I had been taught in Sunday School or in my home would sound silly to him. I was left speechless.
Harvard is all about talking. Much of the education takes place at the dinner table where undergraduates yak on endlessly about everything. There was an unwritten rule that you could believe nearly anything, but you had to explain why. You did not need to persuade everyone, but you had to make sense. I needed a way to state my beliefs that would sound reasonable even if they were more than a little weird.
That was what I lacked at the end of my sophomore year. I had no critique of Russell or Nietzsche and no language for Mormonism that made sense over the dinner table. I think I believed all along through that year—why else the mission?—but I was dumb, unable to speak.
Over the years, what can be thought of as a growth in faith can be thought of as an improvement in language. I have learned to speak in a way that can be understood in a secular time. There is nothing particularly clever or overpowering about this speech. It just comes out of a perspective. Soon after I arrived at Claremont, the man soon to be dean of religious studies asked me to lunch. A Catholic himself, we had no sooner sat down than he blurted out his question: “How can you believe in Joseph Smith?” I replied in one sentence: “I find that when I live the Mormon way, I am the kind of man I want to be.” That was anything but a noble defense—there was nothing deep or clever—but the words did the trick.
Often I find the language only after I have muffed an occasion to use it. At the time, I fumble a reply and work out what I should have said only later. My colleague Ken Jackson runs a lunch table for scholars at Columbia’s Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History. Soon after Rough Stone Rolling came out, he asked me to lead a discussion. I made some comments about Joseph Smith, and then Andy Delbanco, the literary historian, asked what my personal relationship to the Book of Mormon was.
It was a logical point of inquiry and one I should have been able to answer in a second, but I froze. I was obviously paralyzed, and Jackson had to come to my rescue by saying a few words about his own religious belief. I froze because Mormons know precisely what they should say when asked this question. They should bear their testimony about the Spirit revealing the truth of the Book of Mormon. The answer is prescribed.
I froze because I knew that such an answer would not work. It would be like a lawyer defending the church in court. When the lawyer was asked why he knew the church was in the right in the case, it would not do to say it was because he knew that this was the true church of God. A testimony of that kind would not work in a courtroom. It would weaken the lawyer’s case rather than strengthen it. I felt the same way at the lunch table. Testimony was not the answer. The “I know” formula would not do.
Later I worked out another answer. I could simply say that I read the Book of Mormon as informed Christians read the Bible. As I read, I know the arguments against the book’s historicity, but I can’t help feeling that the words are true and the events happened. I believe it in the face of many questions.
Searching for the right words may seem like a simple and trivial response to the profound questions about religion coming out of modernism. Saying that living the Mormon way helps me be the kind of man I want to be does not begin to deal with the complexities of the modernist challenge. They may seem like a dodge, but I don’t think the right words are trivial. They are not merely a gambit.
Words are our entry into another culture. They are the way we make ourselves intelligible in a strange land. They not only allow us to connect, to make ourselves understood. They show respect. We are making an effort to communicate in a way that can be understood. If we insist on using standard church language, we are in effect declaring our indifference. We force people to learn our language in order to understand us. We don’t go halfway.
Out of this inquiry came questions about the nature of my faith. Was I really doubting during my sophomore year? Or was I only lacking for words? I think that by nature I am a believing person. It is the point of rest in the oscillations of my soul. But does that faith take a workable form until I find the right words? Do I need to speak it before it is real?
One thing I know is that I could not have written Rough Stone Rolling without decades of practice in speaking my faith among colleagues of all persuasions. Rough Stone Rolling is not notable for its research. There are lots of people who know more about Joseph Smith than I do. What distinguishes the book is its tone, its language. It is written in the vocabulary that I learned at Harvard at the dinner tables and in Cohen’s tutorial. That is its primary virtue. The book is autobiographical in the sense that it comes out of a lifelong effort to make myself intelligible to unbelieving listeners. If you look closely at the book, you can see my personal faith and my scholarship intersecting.
Rough Stone Rolling may have been the culmination of a quest, but it is not the end. Learning how to speak the right words continues down to this very day, to this very moment when we have collected to talk to one another about what we believe. After Cohen, a number of people in this room have been my tutors. I learned to talk from them.
Some of these relationships go back a long way. I have known David Hall since he was a senior in history and literature at Harvard and I as a graduate student sat on his oral examination committee. David does not know how much of an influence he has been. We worked together for nearly a decade on developing the American and New England Studies Program at Boston University. We brought together local institutions like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and Old Sturbridge Village to help us investigate material culture. A lot of the funding came from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Jonathan Fairbanks, then curator of American art at the MFA, said that David could press his hand on a blank sheet of paper and a grant application would appear. What I learned from David is how to do projects, that you can make something out of almost nothing. The summer seminar and many of the other projects I have been involved in are really an outgrowth of what I learned from David during those Boston University years.
Richard Brown and I came together through early American history projects we were involved in. I took to him and his wife, Irene, right away. I have many times told a story on Richard that he may not remember. Years ago when I was a Mormon bishop in Cambridge, I invited the Browns to come to dinner and meet the missionaries. I asked the elders, two young men, to present a filmstrip on the Granite Mountain Records Vault and the church’s record-collection program. I thought the story of Mormon record keeping would appeal to an early Americanist. When the missionaries arrived, they did not bring a Granite Vault film but one on ancient America. Lacking a script to match the pictures, they asked me to narrate the story. That out of the way, they asked if they could have a prayer. Richard agreed, but then they asked him to kneel, and at that he bridled. Next they asked, “Do you believe in God?” Richard drew himself up a little and said, “If you were a person of age and wisdom, I might talk about my belief, but not here.” The meeting was a disaster. But the strange thing is that the very broad-minded Browns seemed to tolerate the young men, and it did not damage our friendship. To the contrary, whenever we meet, we talk candidly about the things that matter most to us. We connect at a deep level, partly I think because I let him see my Mormonism in the raw.
We first got to know Grant Wacker through a group of evangelical scholars that included Mark Noll, Skip Stout, and Nathan Hatch. We felt a kinship because we were all believers making our way through a secular landscape. I did not realize how generous and kind Grant was until we spent a year at the National Humanities Center when he was teaching at Duke. He went out of his way to welcome us and give us a chance to talk to his students. Since then many things have bound us together. The strange thing is how a very small item formed my early impression of Grant. After a scholarly conference, I joined a group of his evangelical friends for dinner—I am pretty sure Mark and Skip were there too. As we sat down to eat and our food was before us, Grant looked around at his colleagues and asked, “What about grace?”—which we proceeded to offer right there in the restaurant. I remembered that moment. It showed that Grant’s belief had a little edge to it.
I first became acquainted with Laurie Maffly-Kipp through Mormon students like Reid Neilson who flocked to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because Laurie was interested in Mormon topics herself. She and I have had an ongoing exchange over her review of Rough Stone Rolling for Books & Culture. In it she said something about how modern scholars will not take the book seriously because it does not offer a material explanation of Joseph Smith. For some reason that comment stuck with me, and I have brought it up in public various times when she was present. I think there has been a misunderstanding on my part. Laurie was not speaking for herself, I now realize, but for a consensus of academic readers. So for any undeserved barbs, Laurie, I hereby apologize, and thank you for your many valuable observations about Joseph Smith and Mormonism. For wisdom and good judgment you can’t beat Laurie.
Not all of you will know that Ann Taves played a large role in establishing the Mormon studies program at Claremont Graduate University. She taught American religion at the Claremont School of Theology, a closely affiliated school, and masterminded the intellectual structure of the Mormon studies program. When she left for the University of California, Santa Barbara, I took over the American religion program at Claremont. Ann is working on a problem raised by Laurie Maffly-Kipp. On a panel I chaired, Laurie gave a talk on Joseph Smith’s sincerity. Can we believe in the religious sincerity of a man who claimed he possessed gold plates? Is there a way to approach Mormonism, Laurie asked, other than going through this disruptive story? Ann has been trying to preserve Joseph Smith’s sincerity by arguing there are ways of conceiving the plates that are religiously valid and do not presume any form of fraud on Joseph’s part. Joseph was not trying to deceive his followers. If the plates were not real in the usual sense, religiously they were. This is a bold and noble effort and an indication of Ann’s goodwill.
I have known Bob Goldberg for less time than any of the others, but I heard of him many years before we met. Bob tells a story of driving in from the airport when he was being interviewed for a job at the University of Utah. As they passed the Salt Lake Temple, the driver made some comment about the temple being a local version of Disneyland architecture. Bob was astonished at this cavalier treatment of a religious monument. He took the job and since then has taken on the task of mitigating if not dispelling the animosity between the church and the university’s faculty, a divide that has prevailed for a long time. Only he knows the battles he has fought, but he has successfully made Mormon scholars feel at home at “the U” and has raised money for scholars in residence programs. The U has now become a venue where the best work on Mormon subjects can be presented and Mormons can be themselves.
As for my comrades in Mormon studies, I can only take pride in all you have accomplished. When the Mormon History Association was formed a half century ago, there was only a tiny handful of historians with PhDs. Now there are scores and scores in many humanistic and social science fields. Mormon studies and Mormon scholarship are thriving.
We are all over the map in our interests and approaches to the issues raised in this symposium. We pursue our investigations idiosyncratically, as I think we should. But I sense one common theme. I think we all feel some tension between our religious convictions and the secular times in which we live. In one way or another, modernism invades and unsettles our thinking, perhaps our thinking about our fields, perhaps our personal beliefs. What I hope we all realize is that this tension is not to be suppressed or regretted. Unanswerable as some questions are, we need not lament the discomfort they bring. The strain of believing in unbelieving times is not a handicap or a burden. It is a stimulus and a prod. It is precisely out of such strains that creative work issues forth. And we can take satisfaction in knowing that we are in this together.
 J. Spencer Fluhman, Jed Woodworth, and Kathleen Flake edited “To Be Learned Is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2018).
 Richard L. Bushman, “Faithful History,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 11–25.
 Stuart Parker, “The Hermeneutics of Generosity: A Critical Approach to the Scholarship of Richard Bushman,” Journal of Mormon History 38 (Summer 2012): 12–27.
 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 6.
 Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).