Today I had the privilege of attending the 2008 Bushman Seminar, entitled “Joseph Smith and His Critics” (for a preview of the conference by Stephen Flemming, one of the participants, see here). I brought along my laptop to take notes, though they not very detailed. What follows is a combination of my notes and my reflections on the proceedings. They are very scattered and random, but I hope they give at least a little sense of what was said.
First, I think it is important to point out that this seminar was quite different than previous Bushman seminars. This time, rather than inviting grad students (though one was still accepted), Bushman brought in LDS instructors: Institute teachers, Church Curriculum writers, and BYU Religious Department professors. Also, the desired audience was quite different: rather than writing for other scholars and researchers, they wrote for CES teachers and people struggling with faith. The goal was to address “controversial” issues with a “pastoral” approach, rather than attempting complex analyses and critiques. Therefore, there were not many things introduced that would be new to us; instead, they were presenting previously known things in what they felt important frameworks for their desired audience.
One of the highlights for me was Richard Bushman’s introduction. While I won’t go much into it here (hopefully we will have a post with more information on his remarks in the near future), there were some things that really stood out to me. He mostly spoke on this new approach of apologetics they were trying to achieve in this seminar. He gave a detailed explanation of the different phases many people go through when they are presented with tough issues, as well as the stages some later go through when they are shown a better way to deal with those issues. As we try to deal with those who are struggling with historical problems, we must remember that silence is not an option; refusing to talk about the specific problem or even acknowledge that they are problems ruffles the doubter’s feathers more than anythings else. One of the top symptoms of those going through this type of crisis is loneliness. Therefore, when trying to help, we need to make sure to let them know that we understand. One of the best ways to do this is to repeat the issue as clearly as possible and acknowledge that the issue is in fact troubling. Then, the most powerful message to me, Bushman said that when engaging the specific problem, we need to focus more on embracing the seeker of truth rather than arguing with the adversary (the troubling information).
Robert Lund (Church Curriculum): The Kirtland Safety Society
Lund’s presentation gave a basic overview of the Saint’s attempt at a Bank in Kirtland. While mostly known information, there were a few things new to me (possibly because I am not a Kirtland Safety Society expert). Apparently there were two banking acts, one in 1814 and one in 1826, that seemed to be somewhat contradictory, so there was some ambiguity on whether a venture like Joseph Smith’s was legal. He acknowledged that while not all of Joseph’s decisions were the best, they were somewhat understandable. Lund also presented some challenging, yet important, questions, like “How did God allow a prophet to do such a thing?” and “Why didn’t Joseph Smith knew it was going to fail?”, though he didn’t really go into giving legitimate answers. Also, probably the most disappointing point of his presentation is that he fell back on the “Joseph Smith’s promises concerning the bank were conditional upon the people’s faithfulness” argument, which seemed to go against the very kind of “acknowledging fault” approach this seminar was going for. However, coming from an individual who didn’t appear to have any background in scholarly writing or research, I was impressed with his effort. Heck, if all of our curriculum writers were willing admit that Joseph made some faults in the endeavor, which Lund did several times, I would be more than happy. Given the circumstances, I think this is a good starting step for gentlemen like him as well as for CES personnel if they incorporate these types of views (don’t get me started on an institute class I attended last summer that talked about the Kirtland Bank…)
Stephen Harper (BYU Religion): The Book of Mormon Witnesses and “Spiritual Eyes”
One of the stronger presentations of the day, Harper took on the accusation that the Book of Mormon Witnesses claimed their witness experience was only through “spiritual eyes.” He affirmed that all of the primary documents, whether written by them or authorized by them, clearly stated that it was a temporal experience. On the other hand, almost all of the accounts where one of the witnesses claimed that it was only a “spiritual” or “revelatory” experience come through second-hand accounts. Harper proposed that these “controversial” accounts reveal more about the person collecting the information rather than the person giving it. It shows how they attempted to understand these supernatural experiences they didn’t believe. Harper argued that the reason some historians choose to emphasize these “hearsay” accounts is so they would fit their own agenda or ideology. If one chooses that the Three Witnesses did not see tangible plates, then it is necessary to find accounts, even if they are second-hand and problematic, that support your thesis. This is not only an important point on this specific issue, but it is an important point for historians in general.
John Beck (UVU Institute): Freemasonry and the Temple
This was an interesting presentation. Apparently Beck has had a “prestigious career” (Bushman’s words) teaching institute in Utah Valley for like forty years. His presentation didn’t really bring anything new: Joseph Smith was exposed to Masonic rituals, he felt that there was something there, went to the Lord, and God revealed the true endowment to him. Beck emphasized Joseph’s teachings that Masonry was a “degenerate form” left over from ancient rituals, and that through revelation he was able to extract the true principles (perhaps the newest and most interesting thing to me was Beck’s description of George Adam’s relationship with Joseph in Nauvoo, suggesting that it was Adam’s influence that eventually pulled Joseph into Masonry). While none of this information is probably new to many of us (and many might take issue on whether the Masonic ritual is really a remnant of ancient sacred rituals), I think it is significant that he, an established institute teacher speaking to a primarily CES audience, admitted that Joseph was influenced by Masonry at all. He acknowledge that while only a small portions of the Endowment specifics are copied from the Masons, they are still very significant portions. Bushman seemed excited about this and asked during the question and answer section, “what do you feel the average response would be to this type of thought?” Beck didn’t really give a straight answer, but then a nice group discussion began exploring why we are ok with Joseph copying things out of the Bible but not with him copying things from sources like the Masons or his magic culture. I hope it was a new and enlightening discussion for many in attendance.
Brian Hauglid (BYU Religion): The Kinderhook Plates
I was rather impressed with this presentation. Hauglid is an Egyptologist, specializing on the Book of Abraham, so this was new territory for him (it’s also new territory for me, so I was intrigued). He argued that the common approach apologists have taken in the past, i.e. that William Clayton was misinformed when he recorded that Joseph had translated part of the plates and that they were from a descendent of Ham through the loins of Pharoah, is problematic because Clayton was a stickler when it came to details. Rather, Hauglid thinks we should accept the fact Joseph probably did look at the plates and focus on other elements. Most important to Hauglid, he stressed the fact that Joseph either realized that the plates weren’t authentic or that he just lost interest in them because he never made it beyond the phase of preliminary observations. Specifically, Joseph didn’t even get far enough into the hoax for the conspirators to spring the trap on him. The Prophet’s normal sequence with ancient records was transcribing, publishing, and publicizing, all usually in a short manner of time, but we have no evidence for any of these taking place with the Kinderhook Plates. The discussion period for this topic was equalling pleasing, because Mark Ashust-McGee, an editor on the Joseph Smith Papers Project and someone who has written on this topic, was present and gave some added details. He thought that the people behind the hoax didn’t really expect the fraud to go so far–he thinks that the “practical joke” was meant for the local Mormons in Kinderhook and they never expected to to actually be taken before the Prophet.
It turns out I have more to say on the seminar than I thought, so I am gonna go ahead and break this up into two parts. Expect the second part shortly.