Stephen J. Fleming is a PhD. candidate at UC Santa Barbara in Religious Studies and a 2008 Bushman fellow. Steve received his B.A. in history from BYU and his M.A. from UC Stanislaus, also in history. He has been published in Church History and Religion and American Culture, as well as various Mormon journals. Steve has been gracious enough to share his thoughts on this year’s Bushman Seminar.
What is our obligation?
I got into Church history a little backward. Like many, I ran into a little anti-Mormon information on my mission and found it useful to take a Church history course when I got back to BYU. I found the course well-taught and helpful but I felt an aversion to pursue any of the main discussion points about “controversial topics.” The “antiquity” of these debates suggested to me little fruitful ground to change anyone’s mind. I loved history, majored in it, but didn’t want to be a Church historian.
However, in Hist 490 at BYU, is discovered a reference to a group of Mormons living in Toms River, New Jersey, which led to a series of projects; I turned out to be a Church historian after all. I still had an aversion for apologetics and I concluded that the “facts” didn’t prove the Church true or untrue; people made up their minds and read the facts accordingly. There was no neutral ground and I believed because of spiritual experiences.
But half of my family is out of the Church. I was stung by this fact last Christmas (hard to explain why). I’m a believer and a Church historian. I had a higher obligation. But what to do … ?
Then I saw Richard Bushman’s summer seminar advertised on the FARMS website: how to help those who lose their faith over Church history. Richard made it clear we were taking a pastoral and not a combative attitude. We talked a lot about what the issues are and decided that the concern over secrecy was the number one problem. First and foremost we needed to be open and honest, but then what? We often didn’t accept critics versions of events, but we didn’t want to fight with them either. What was the best way to help those who struggled? We all took at shot at the issue by dealing with various topics. We’ll will be presenting them on Tuesday, July 29, 8-4, 382 JSB, BYU. We hope they’ll be printed in the Religious Educator.
I think we made some real progress but it’s only a start. Can the new generation of Church historians be guilty of “feeding themselves but not the flock” (Ezekiel 24:2)? We have a number of papers that really point a way forward; it would be nice to mobilize a greater effort.