Editor's Introduction:
Reflections on the Reactions to Rough Stone Rolling and Related Matters

Editor’s Introduction:
Reflections on the Reactions to Rough Stone Rolling and Related Matters

Daniel C. Peterson

A good personal friend and an enthusiastic friend of the FARMS Review
died on Friday, 13 April 2007, after a relatively brief illness. The obituary
that appeared in the Deseret Morning News on the following day, prepared
by Davis Bitton himself (with some obvious later modifications by others) roughly
a decade before his passing, captured much about the man:

     R. Davis Bitton 1930–2007. I, Ronald Davis Bitton, have moved on to
the next stage of existence. As you read this, I am having a ball rejoining
my parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and dear friends and
associates I knew on earth. I am wide awake, no longer struggling with the
narcolepsy that handicapped but did not defeat me, and cheerfully taking in
the new state of affairs and accepting the callings that will occupy me there.
It has been an abundant life. Growing up in Blackfoot, Idaho, where I was
born on 22 February 1930, and on a farm in nearby Groveland, I never felt
one moment of familial insecurity. My parents, Ronald Wayne and Lola Davis
Bitton, loved me and did everything they could to see that I had opportunities,
including piano lessons from age six. I learned to work in the house, in the
yard, on the farm, and in local retail stores. I learned to write as a reporter
for the Daily Bulletin. I remember enjoying a trip to the San Francisco
world’s fair, fishing and hunting trips, scouting camps, and community concerts.
I had great friends and was elected to several student offices. I learned
to compete in softball and basketball. I joined a crack high school debating
team. As a student at Brigham Young University, missionary in France, enlisted
man in the U.S. Army, and graduate student at Princeton University, I felt
myself growing in understanding. I went on to be a professor of history at
the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Santa Barbara,
and for 29 years the University of Utah, enjoying many congenial students
and colleagues. I have presented papers at scholarly conventions and published
articles and books. I have loved good food, good books, the out of doors,
music, art, the dappled things. A nurturing home throughout my life has been
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bishops, stake presidents,
teachers, mission presidents, and general authorities I have known have been
people I could admire and follow. My own opportunities to serve have been
numerous, starting at a very young age and including elders quorum president,
counselor in a bishopric, member of the stake high council, and gospel doctrine
teacher for many years. From 1972 to 1982 I served as assistant church historian.
I have loved the hymns, the scriptures, the temple. I am grateful for Aunt
Vilate Thiele, my mother’s sister, a steady friend; my other uncles and aunts
on both sides; my brother John Boyd Bitton; my sisters Marilyn Bitton Lambson
and Elaine Bitton Benson; wonderful nephews and nieces; children Ronald Bitton,
Kelly Bitton Burdge, Timothy Bitton, Jill Cochran, Stephanie Ross, Debbie
Callahan, Larry Morris, Judy Nauta, Earl Morris, Delbert Morris; their spouses;
and 56 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom are to me a delight.
Having learned the value of loyalty, I appreciated the affection and interest
of my family as well as cherished friends. No one has been more important
to me than my dear wife and companion JoAn, a woman loved by all who knew
her. She rallied to my side, stood by me through thick and thin, grew with
me, laughed with me, made good things happen, and, marvel of marvels, agreed
to be my companion through time and all eternity. I have not lived a perfect
life, but I have tried. And I know in whom I have trusted.

Quite a résumé as it stands, but, still, characteristically modest and understated.
A former student of his, Dennis Lythgoe, who himself went on to earn a doctorate
and to teach and publish in history, wrote a tribute to Davis in the Deseret
Morning News,
accurately titled “Gentle Mormon Historian Wasn’t
Full of Himself.”1 Lythgoe praised him for his “distinguished,
even elegant, career as a historian/professor.”

I was impressed that he was not, unlike so many other professors, full of
himself. He was soft-spoken, commented in a group only when he had something
important to say—and he taught his classes the same way. . . .
His writing was like his speaking—carefully crafted, never verbose.
Like Elmore Leonard, the talented crime novelist, he always left out anything
the reader might skip over.

“He gave me,” Lythgoe remembered,

one piece of advice that was very strong, especially for him—he said,
“Don’t ever write Mormon history. It will be controversial, and Mormon
history is so little regarded nationally that you’ll never get a job.”
     Well, I knew that he already wrote Mormon history—even
though he was trained as a European historian and wrote books in that specialty—so
I asked him about it.2
     “I write Mormon history with my left hand,”
he said. . . .
     He meant that he would always keep that part of his
scholarship low key. . . . Although he continued to teach European
history until he retired, he steadily accelerated his contributions to Mormon
history. . . .
     I wonder what else Bitton
did with his left hand? Few people knew of his excellence as a classical pianist—he
seemed always to do everything with just the right touch.

Davis helped to found the Mormon History Association. He delivered numerous
academic papers at its annual meetings and served as its president from 1971
to 1972. He won the MHA’s 1975 Best Article Award for “The Ritualization
of Mormon History” and “The Making of a Community: Blackfoot, Idaho,
1878 to 1910.”3 He
took the MHA’s 1977 Best Bibliography Award home for his invaluable Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies.4 In 1999, he received the Association’s
Best Book Award for his biography of George Q. Cannon.5

I had admired Davis Bitton for many years, and had heard him speak several
times, before I actually met him. I had always especially liked The Mormon Experience, a book that he published
with his friend and colleague Leonard J. Arrington in 1979.6 So it was a delight to get to know
him after I came to Utah to teach at Brigham Young University. During the
time that Davis was teaching in Santa Barbara, a number of Latter-day Saint
friends there had formed a monthly reading group under the whimsical name
of “The Gadianton Polysophical Marching and Chowder Society.” When
many of them relocated to Utah, the GPMCS moved with them, and eventually
my wife and I were invited to join. Every month for roughly two decades, we’ve
looked forward to visiting with Davis and his wife JoAn. Debbie and I will
miss him terribly.

When a special issue of the FARMS Review—then
called the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon—was
being prepared in response to a substantial attack on the credibility of the
Book of Mormon, Davis contacted me. He wasn’t sure, he said, whether he really
had much to contribute, but he wondered whether I would be willing to include
an essay from him in our reply. He was worried, he told me, that some might
be confused as to his stance regarding the truth claims of the restoration,
and he wanted to “fly the flag,” to show which side he was on. I
was, of course, pleased and honored to include the first of several pieces
that he would contribute to the Review.7

In 2001, the mature Davis Bitton critiqued an essay that the much younger
Davis Bitton had published in Dialogue
in 1966.8 More
than one person, seeing “Davis Bitton” rebutting an article by Davis
Bitton, wondered initially whether we hadn’t made a typographical error.

For all his gentleness, Davis was unafraid of controversy when he felt that
something needed to be said. In 2003, for example, he made his opinion crystal
clear about an author who had labored surreptitiously for years to write an
assault on the claims of Mormonism while, at the same time, drawing a paycheck
from the church, and whose partisans were claiming for him a grossly inflated
status as a historian and a scholar.9 The following year, he set forth some
basic rules for identifying anti-Mormon propaganda and distinguishing it from
serious scholarship.10

Davis’s own reflections on faith and history appeared in 2004’s “I Don’t
Have a Testimony of the History of the Church.”11 A few readers, missing the point
of his essay, have again, because of this article, sought to portray him as
a closet unbeliever, or, at least, as someone who accorded the founding events
of the restoration only metaphorical truth and reality. They misjudge him,
absolutely. I knew him for approximately twenty years and had many discussions
with him about Mormonism and Mormon history.12
If Davis Bitton was not a genuine believer, I’m a mushroom.

It was apparent that Davis had health problems, but, nonetheless, his death
came as a shock. From an entirely selfish point of view, moreover, there were
still other projects in which I hoped to interest him. I have lost a friend,
and Mormonism has lost an important voice. We rejoice for him, and pity ourselves.

Mormonism: Academically Respectable?

“There has been much talk among historians of Mormonism,” writes
John-Charles Duffy in a recent article in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal,

about avoiding the “prophet or fraud” polemic surrounding Joseph
Smith. But avoiding that polemic is easier said than done. Had Smith confined
his claims to visions and revelations, it would have been simpler for “faithful”
LDS scholars and others to develop a common discourse predicated on agreement
that Smith sincerely believed he had seen angels and written texts under inspiration.
Matters are complicated, however, by Smith’s claim to have possessed golden
plates which others claimed to have handled. As Terryl Givens has observed,
the claim to tangibility presses us out of “the realms of interiority
and subjectivity.” When witnesses report having hefted something heavy
concealed in a box or under cloth, it becomes hard for scholars unconverted
to Mormon orthodoxy to avoid the suspicion that, in Richard Bushman’s words,
“something fishy was going on.” The plates are thus a potential
“scandal” in the sense of the Greek skandalon: a stumbling
block to conversation about Mormonism across the religious divide and hence
to the mainstreaming of Mormon studies.13

A ready comparison can be found in Muhammad, the founding prophet of Islam.14
Unlike many of those claimed by Joseph Smith, Muhammad’s revelations are never
received in company with others, and they do not involve tangible objects
of reputedly divine origin.15
While it might be possible to dismiss Muhammad’s experiences as merely subjective
hallucinations, it is nigh impossible to dismiss Joseph Smith’s claims as
based on mere personal delusion since others shared many of his experiences
with him at crucial points and since objects like the golden plates and the
interpreters or directors, later called Urim and Thummim, seem actually to
have existed in objective reality, accessible to others besides Joseph. The
contrast with such varied figures as the Buddha, St. John of the Cross, St.
Therese of Lisieux, and Plotinus, as well as Muhammad, is patent.

Despite the difficulties inherent in mainstreaming Mormon studies, says Duffy,
“a number of faithful scholars appear confident of their ability to credibly
voice orthodox claims about the Book of Mormon in non-Mormon academic venues.”16
Duffy cites Noel Reynolds as believing that “we are nearing the point
when it might be acceptable for non-LDS academic presses to publish academic
books on Book of Mormon topics that would be written from a faithful perspective.”17 Further, Duffy says, “Brigham
Young University faculty members John Tvedtnes and Noel Reynolds offer anecdotal
evidence that non-Mormon academics are coming to seriously consider LDS scholarship
on the Book of Mormon and even to be convinced of the book’s antiquity or
Hebrew provenance.”18

Duffy disagrees. But with what, precisely, does he disagree? He appears to
be inflating the claims made by Tvedtnes and Reynolds beyond what they actually
Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon
and, to a lesser degree, Richard Bushman’s Believing
seem to indicate that it may indeed be gradually becoming
acceptable for secular academic presses to publish academic books on Book
of Mormon topics that are written from a faithful perspective. But Reynolds
has never suggested that mainstream academic presses will soon be eager purveyors
of Mormon apologetics and advocacy. Nor has he claimed that significant numbers
of non-LDS scholars accept Joseph Smith’s claims about supernatural events.
He has simply noted, with specific illustrations, that certain prominent academics,
seriously reading the Book of Mormon for the first time, have acknowledged
its depth, complexity, and richness. Likewise, John Tvedtnes has related particular
personal experiences in which he understood Chaim Rabin and David Flusser,
two very significant Israeli scholars now deceased, to allow the distinct
possibility that Latter-day Saint claims have authentic roots in ancient Judaism.
He has never declared that such sentiments are common in academia, let alone

Duffy further observes that,

in light of Givens’ assertion that the eight witnesses’ testimony is “perhaps
the most extensive and yet contentious body of evidence in support of the
tactile reality of supernaturally conveyed artifacts that we have in the modern
age,” it is striking that most non-Mormon scholars writing on the Book
of Mormon do not attempt to come to terms with that evidence. Most non-Mormon
scholars, it would seem, do not regard the witnesses as a challenge that must
be answered.20

I agree with Duffy on this point. Occasionally, I’m even puzzled by the phenomenon.
But I’ve long since ceased to be surprised by it. Many years ago, while visiting
from the east coast, a non-Mormon professor who has written on Latter-day
Saint history came to my house as the guest of a member of our monthly (GPMCS)
reading group. At one point during the evening discussion, expressing weary
boredom with regard to the issue of Mormonism’s truth claims, he declared
that the historical study of Mormonism ought rather to focus on such questions
as the origin of the Mormon ecclesiastical unit called a ward.
I suspect that his lack of interest in Mormon religious claims reflects a
presupposition, on his part, that the question of those claims has already
been settled in the negative. Joseph Smith’s supernatural assertions, from
his vantage point, are self-evidently false; genuine scholarly investigation
of them is a waste of time.

Duffy continues by pointing out that, “in the non-Mormon academy, [Terryl
Givens’s] By the Hand of Mormon has
been essentially ignored, a . . . sign of faithful scholarship’s detachment
from academic conversation.”21 Of course, the “detachment,”
if his claim is true (and I have not verified it), is on the side of the secular
or, at any rate, the non-Mormon academy, rather than on that of “faithful
scholarship.” Publishing a sympathetic reading of the Book of Mormon
and attendant issues with Oxford University Press—arguably the most
prestigious academic press in the English-speaking world—hardly suggests
any effort on the part of Terryl Givens to avoid the gaze of the scholarly
mainstream. Whether the scholarly mainstream takes notice or not is beyond
his (or our) power to control.

While faithful perspectives on Mormon claims may, thus far, not attract the
attention of large numbers of non-LDS academics, Mormonism is not entirely
ignored in scholarly writing and publishing. However, when it is mentioned,
its truth claims are either passed over in silence or implicitly assumed (or
expressly declared) to be false. As Duffy correctly notes with respect to
academic protocol and convention, “A lack of symmetry exists: scholars
may openly argue against the orthodox account of the Book of Mormon but faithful
scholars may not openly argue for it.”22

This seems to have been the case even in the Public Broadcasting System documentary
The Mormons that was aired throughout
the United States on 30 April and 1 May 2007. Among its several grave and
conspicuous flaws, the film allowed several of its non-LDS and ex-LDS interviewees
to assert Mormonism’s alleged falsity and lack of supporting evidence, but
no believing Latter-day Saint was allowed (on screen, anyway) to affirm the
contrary, let alone to provide a substantial rebuttal to those assertions.
(As one of those who appeared in both parts of the film, I can definitively
state that at least one interviewee would have been willing to do just that.
Indeed, although the vast bulk of my lengthy interviews with Helen Whitney
obviously ended up on the cutting-room floor, I seem to recall speaking to
those very topics.)23
The sense given by the film, and probably the presumption shared by its producers
and authors, is that, while Mormonism may well give meaning and comfort to
those who believe in it and are capable of living by its standards, those
believers are, in the end, mistaken or irrational. The question of Mormon
truth claims has already been answered, and in the negative. It requires no
actual attention.

Now, admittedly, the academic mainstream and the leadership of PBS probably
don’t regard Mormon belief as substantially more irrational than most other
religious belief. The Mormons more
than once observed that other faiths, mainstream Christianity among them,
have had to grow beyond their founding stories, and suggested that, if Mormonism
is to survive, it too will have to reinterpret or even jettison its original
In any case, vocal advocacy of such claims as nonmetaphorical is considered
by many in the academic and journalistic elite to be, at a minimum, in very
poor taste and rather embarrassing (while skepticism about them would surely
not be). And this is not true only with regard to Mormonism.25

Quite a few years ago, returning from the annual joint national meeting of
the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, I
found myself seated on a flight (from Boston, if I recall correctly) next
to the then-president of the Evangelical Theological Society. As our conversation
proceeded, he mentioned that, in one of the conference sessions he had attended,
an adherent of Wicca (a modern and, in my opinion, quite inauthentic and ahistorical
version of “witchcraft”) had borne a kind of testimony from the
podium, as part of her academic presentation. She found her religious preference
liberating, empowering, satisfying. The audience, even the non-Wiccans among
them, appeared to take her comments completely in stride. However, my evangelical
seatmate speculated that, by contrast, if he ever chose to affirm his faith
and to speak of his trust in Jesus as his personal savior before such an academic
gathering, his remarks would be considered a gross breach of scholarly protocol.

I concurred, and told him so. Why the difference? I suppose that it’s because
few in the academy take Wicca seriously as a theology. And, in fact, many
of its adherents probably don’t take its doctrinal assertions about “the
Goddess” as more than metaphor and poetic symbol, either. Yet theologically
and politically liberal non-Wiccans in academia are inclined to approve of
it, or at least to tolerate it benignly, as feminist, progressive, and subversive
of conservative male hegemony, capitalism, and who knows what else. Christianity,
however, represents the “Establishment,” the dominant influence
in Western culture for nearly the past two thousand years—a force that
is itself, quite absurdly, often held to be responsible for nearly all the
evil, oppression, sexism, injustice, violence, and environmental degradation
that has occurred on the planet.26 Its disciples, particularly in the
growing and vocal evangelical wing of the Protestant movement and in the powerful,
hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, tend to take its claims as literally true
rather than merely poetically symbolic. The American cultural and intellectual
elite are far more frightened of what they believe to be a looming Christian
theocracy than of a resurgence of “witchcraft.”

How does Mormonism fit into this? While evangelical detractors of the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints insist that it is non-Christian, even
pagan, secularists (who pay no attention to evangelical polemicists in any
case) are not fooled. A hierarchical, corporate, powerful, patriarchal, literalizing,
aggressively missionizing movement like Mormonism represents everything they
fear and despise in Christianity generally—but in a much more concentrated
form than usual. Moreover, the recent historical origins of Mormonism and
the tangibility of Mormon claims force the issue of truth or falsity far more
acutely than happens, say, with the ancient and historically irretrievable
origins of Christianity itself.

To cite a recent example: Writing in Slate—a daily online magazine “offering analysis
and commentary about politics, news, and culture”—in December 2006,
Jacob Weisberg argued that Mitt Romney should be rejected as a candidate for
the United States presidency on religious grounds. Anybody who believes “the
founding whoppers of Mormonism” is, he suggested, manifestly unqualified
to lead the nation. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Weisberg wrote, “was
an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want
to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.”
From the perspective of a devout secularist like Weisberg, though, ideas like
the resurrection and the miraculous parting of the Red Sea are no less absurd
than Joseph Smith’s golden plates. Weisberg views reliance upon religious
faith in general, not merely Mormonism, “as an alternative to rational
understanding of complex issues.” (He offers George Bush’s Methodism
as another example of frightening religious fanaticism.) Weisberg regards
all religious doctrines as “dogmatic, irrational,
and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for
himself or see the world as it is.” More commonly held creeds have simply
been granted an unmerited patina of respectability by the sheer passage of
time. “Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and
poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference.”27

A Test Case

The publication of Richard Bushman’s long-awaited Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling in 2005 occasioned
a great deal of discussion in Latter-day Saint circles and a certain degree
even beyond.28
Not surprisingly, it also inspired reflections by Bushman himself. Some of
his meditations have now been made available in a remarkably candid limited-edition
memoir entitled On the Road with Joseph Smith:
An Author’s Diary

For much of the first part of the memoir, which is really a collection of
diary entries, Bushman is anticipating the reviews of his book, the first
copies of which had arrived from the publisher on 2 September 2005. He dreads
them, largely (though not entirely) for reasons already alluded to here.

I will be subject to public humiliation. . . . I keep thinking
of the New York Times review when it comes. More likely than not, it
will go to someone who thinks Joseph Smith was a scoundrel and the Mormons
fanatics. . . . They will think my book is a celebration and anything
but a balanced history. My works and I will be demeaned in the public prints.30

I know it is going to be given only grudging respect in many of the reviews.
There will not be the excitement and enthusiasm Jim [Lucas, a Latter-day Saint
friend] and others expect. . . . I feel myself hunkering down, waiting
for the blows to fall.31

By 24 September, roughly three weeks after he had seen the first copy of
his book, the reviews were beginning to trickle in.

I realize I don’t like to read any kind of review, even the favorable ones.
I am annoyed by what the reviewers choose to emphasize in Joseph’s life. Most
of them pick up a few fragments and present them as if they were the key elements.
There is something so cavalier about the implicit assertion that they have
delivered the essence of the man.32

Speaking to a small group of Latter-day Saint academics and graduate students
in the Boston area on 6 October 2005,

I posed the question whether a book about Joseph Smith written by a Mormon
can be useful to non-Mormons. I thought, of course, it could until George
Marsden said this is a biography for Mormons only, a theme repeated at the
John Whitmer panel last week. Too sympathetic, bordering on the apologetic,
I guess they have concluded. In my heart of hearts, I say to myself, you don’t
like it because you don’t like Joseph Smith. You want him to be an impostor
and a scoundrel; and when I make him something more, you conclude I am an
apologist. . . . Joseph Smith is simply too far off the map for
serious consideration. Anyone who tries to bring him back on the map must
be a partisan.33

The Harvard religious historian Robert Orsi, who also writes empathetically,
has observed that his critics object to his sympathetic portrayals of people’s
religious faith and practices. The fact that he is a substantial scholar with
standing in the profession makes him all the more dangerous and annoying to
the skeptics.34

There is a manifest asymmetry between academia’s easy tolerance of expressions
of skepticism about religious claims and its general discomfort at affirmative
religious advocacy. In the case of Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, my hunch is that dominant
attitudes toward religion among the academic/intellectual elite class combine
unhealthily with another tendency to torpedo his chances for an enthusiastic
reception: While tell-all biographies reflecting disdain for their subject
are often quite acceptable, admiring biographies, where the author plainly
likes the person about whom he’s writing, tend to be dismissed as uncritical
and unscholarly hagiographies.

A comment on quite a different topic by the well-known British philosopher
Mary Midgley may be apropos here. Writing about scientific attitudes toward
animals, she says:

What is really worrying at present is the impression many people have that
the revulsion is somehow more scientific than the affection and respect. This
idea rests on two very strange suppositions: first, that science ought not
to be inspired by any emotion, and secondly, that disgust and contempt are
not emotions, whereas love and admiration are. It would seem to follow that
all enquirers who have worked out of pure admiration for their subject-matter,
from the Greek astronomers gazing at the stars to field naturalists who love
their birds and beetles, would be anti-scientific, and ought if possible to
be replaced by others who are indifferent to these things, or who actively
dislike them.35

Bushman argues, in fact, that the exceptional nature of Joseph Smith’s stories
makes historical work by a believing historian all the more useful and important:

     One reason is that skepticism about the gold plates and the visions can easily
slip over into cynicism. The assumption that Smith concocted the stories of
angels and plates casts a long shadow over his entire life. Everything he
did is thrown into doubt. His exhortations to godly service, his self-sacrifice,
his pious letters to his wife, his apparent love for his fellow workers all
appear as manipulations to perpetuate a grand scheme. Cynicism has its advantages
in smoking out hypocrisy but it does not foster sympathetic understanding.
Every act is prejudged from the beginning.36

Dan Vogel’s conviction that Joseph Smith was a fraud, albeit a “pious”
one, and that his religious claims are false, illustrates this nicely. The
plates of the Book of Mormon, in Vogel’s view, must accordingly never have
existed, or else they were hammered-tin frauds, and the witnesses, however
credible the historical record may show them to have been, must necessarily
have been hallucinating if they were not flatly lying. The alternative is
simply unacceptable to Vogel. He is an atheist. There is no God and, therefore,
no divine revelation. (Admittedly, in a certain respect such a viewpoint greatly
simplifies the task of a historian dealing with religious claims.)

“My advantage as a practicing Mormon,” writes Bushman,

is that I believe enough to take Joseph Smith seriously. If a writer begins
with the idea that Smith was a fraud who perpetrated a hoax upon the gullible
public with his story of gold plates and ancient Israelites in America, nothing
he did can be trusted. Every act, every thought is undercut by his presumed
fraudulent beginnings. That overhanging doubt makes it difficult for a skeptical
biographer to find much of interest in Smith’s writings or to explain why
thousands of people believed him. What of value is to be expected from the
theological meanderings of a charlatan?
     A few empathetic
historians like Jan Shipps have written with great insight about early Mormonism,
but more often than not, skeptical historians brush Joseph Smith’s writings
aside as banal or vapid. Fawn Brodie, author of a widely accepted biography
of Smith, found his religion faintly ridiculous. Her No Man Knows My History
summarized his teachings only to dismiss them as derivative or strange. She
could not explain why thousands of converts to Mormonism devoted their lives
to building a Zion in the Great Basin, or what was so enthralling in Smith’s
vision of a God who was once a man. A more recent biography, Dan Vogel’s The
Making of a Prophet,
intensely scrutinizes the Book of Mormon but finds
nothing compelling or profound in it.37

Eventually, the reviews of Bushman’s new biography began to arrive in greater
numbers. Laurie Maffly-Kipp, for example, who teaches religious studies at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, responded to Rough
Stone Rolling
in the evangelical review Books
and Culture
. Joseph Smith’s 2005 bicentennial, she wrote, provided
believers an opportunity to “resuscitate the scholarly respectability
of their leader”—as if Joseph Smith had ever enjoyed any notable
degree of “respectability” in academic circles.38
She pronounced Bushman’s biography “an excellent study, well-researched
and adroitly narrated,” “beautifully written.”

Bushman, equally at home within the university and the Mormon tabernacle,
has three essential goals in this work. First, he seeks to explore faithfully
the story of Joseph Smith’s life. He attempts, in his words, “to think
as Smith thought” in an effort to explain his actions and the development
of the Mormon movement between 1820 and 1844. Second, Bushman strives to present
an apologia to a secular and often hostile world. Thus, he labors to convey
the reasonableness, coherence, and historicity of Smith’s doctrinal world.
Finally, Bushman wants to legitimate Smith’s importance beyond the Mormon
world by situating him within a pantheon of American icons, as well as within
the broader currents of Western civilization. Bushman wants to make Joseph
Smith more than Mormon.

Ultimately, though, Maffly-Kipp found Rough Stone Rolling unsatisfactory. For one thing,
it wasn’t negative enough. “From an academic perspective,” she observed,
“Bushman’s is a rosy rendering. . . . Almost invariably, he assumes that
Joseph (unlike most mortals) had only the best motives and intentions.”
Although she acknowledges that “Bushman edges about as close to the divide
as he possibly can,” her reading of Rough Stone Rolling left Maffly-Kipp “wondering
whether it is even possible to write a biography of Joseph Smith, Jr., that
is persuasive to both believers and nonbelievers.”

Reading her review left Richard Bushman wondering the same thing. He thought
Maffly-Kipp a friend (and, presumably, still does), but was surprised by her
response to his book:

     The review tells me that we cannot expect a positive
reaction to the biography—or to Joseph Smith—from scholars. As
Laurie says, an epistemological gap yawns between my view of the Prophet and
that of most academics. Believing Mormons stand on the other side of a gulf
separating us from most educated people. . . .
I had hoped my book would bridge this gap, but after this review, I can see
it will go only part way. I will be consistently seen as a partisan observer.39

“I am surely as sympathetic a nonbeliever as they come,” wrote
Maffly-Kipp. “But I often found that Bushman, rather than finding an
intellectual meeting point for the Mormon faithful and the children of the
secular Enlightenment (if not the evangelical set—but that may be asking
far too much), wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted both inspiration
and rational discourse.”

Her apparent assumption that rational discourse and inspiration are radically
incompatible, that to accept the one is somehow to reject the other, is striking.
She proceeds to declare, probably correctly, that, in order to earn a secular
historian’s acceptance, “Smith’s revelations would need to be explained
materially as a product of his cultural or physical environment.” Some
have gone still further, seeming to deny that anybody, no matter how learned
or rigorous, can be a real historian without subscribing, at least in his
or her scholarly life, to the ideology of naturalism. Thus, for instance,
Norman Murdoch, writing about Joseph Smith and Mormonism in 1986, after citing
Cushing Strout’s dictum that “the historian is necessarily secularist,”
offered the definition that “being an historian means explaining the
past in human terms.”40 Accordingly, if the Strout-Murdoch
decree is granted, a legitimate historian, it appears, must presume (whatever
his or her private beliefs) that Muhammad did not actually receive revelation,
that John Newton experienced no genuinely divine “amazing grace”
during a storm at sea, that the Buddha attained no true enlightenment, that
Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. All such notions must be treated as
false. Real historical scholarship knows that they stem, without any exceptions,
from confusion, error, deception, or hallucination.

It is far from clear, however, how historians know this prior to historical
investigation—solidly indisputable conclusions about religious truth
claims seem unlikely enough even following
such investigation—and it is not at all obvious that believing Muslims,
Christians, Jews, and others are obliged to pretend to be atheists in order
to gain admission to the historical club. A naturalistic understanding of
the universe is an ideological position, a worldview. It doesn’t flow in any
obvious and uncontroversial way from the historical “facts.” Except
in the most obvious cases, as the Oxford philosopher and theologian Keith
Ward has observed, a choice between fundamentally different worldviews “cannot
be based on evidence, for they determine what is going to count as evidence,
and how evidence is going to be interpreted.”41 Asserting absolute naturalism as
the sine qua non of genuine historiography
seems little more than an attempt to gain an advantage for a secular worldview
by definitional fiat. (Once more, skepticism about religious claims appears
to be academically legitimate, while religious belief is not.) Moreover, and
very ironically, it is without historical basis: Herodotus, Plutarch, Eusebius,
al-Tabari, and the Venerable Bede are far from the only great historians who
have written quite openly as believers. While Maffly-Kipp is right in saying
that “a yawning epistemological divide . . . has separated sacred history
from its secular counterpart for over a century,” at least two and a
half millennia of historiography failed to insist on that allegedly unbridgeable

Although I’ve grown somewhat embarrassed at citing Dale Morgan’s 15 December
1945 letter to the believing Latter-day Saint historian Juanita Brooks so
frequently, its continuing relevance makes such citation unavoidable. Morgan,
an atheist who hoped to write a scholarly treatment of early Mormonism (but
died in 1971 without having made much serious progress on the project), candidly
indicated his awareness of

a fatal defect in my objectivity. It is an objectivity on one side only of
a philosophical Great Divide. With my point of view on God, I am incapable
of accepting the claims of Joseph Smith and the Mormons, be they however so
convincing. If God does not exist, how can Joseph Smith’s story have any possible
validity? I will look everywhere for explanations except to the ONE explanation
that is the position of the church. You in your turn will always be on the
other side of that Great Divide.43

I can think of no convincing reason why Dale Morgan’s
side of the “Great Divide” should be privileged over Juanita Brooks’s

Finally, the long-awaited New York Times
review arrived, written by Walter Kirn. A writer of fiction rather than a
historian or scholar, Kirn’s only significant relevant credential appears
to be that he is a disaffected Latter-day Saint. (Bushman had first encountered
him via a short story, in the New Yorker,
with a Mormon setting. The story struck Bushman as “vicious.”) Claudia
Bushman and Jed Woodworth quite liked the review, but Richard Bushman “thought
this was another case like Brodie’s where personal history sours the author’s
outlook on the Prophet.”44

“By showing the inadequacy of reason in the face of spiritual phenomena,”
Kirn rather oddly observed of Rough Stone Rolling—which is, after all,
a biography of Joseph Smith rather than a venture in philosophy or theology—”Bushman
seems to be playing a Latter-day-Saint Aquinas.” (Those familiar with
the massive works of St. Thomas Aquinas would surely have been surprised at
this bizarre characterization of one of the most rigorously logical writers
in human history, heir to the recovered legacy of Aristotelian logic and philosophy
as well as of the efforts of the great Islamo-Arabic philosophers and of his
own highly rational Christian teachers and predecessors.) In the same strange
vein, Kirn—who really does seem to have imagined that he was reviewing
a philosophical treatise rather than a biography of a historical person—sneeringly
remarked that “since logic played almost no part in Joseph Smith’s life,
it may be fitting that it’s largely absent from this respectful biography
as well.” “It appears,” Kirn continued, ostensibly about Richard
Bushman, “he wants to usher in a subtle, mature new age of Mormon thought—rigorous
yet not impious—akin to what smart Roman Catholics have had for centuries.”45

Kirn’s was an exceedingly strange review, but it was far less eccentric than
the one published earlier in the New York Review
of Books
by Larry McMurtry, who, like Kirn, is neither a historian
nor any other kind of scholar but, on top of that, lacks even a transient
connection with Mormonism.46
(The choice of Kirn and McMurtry as reviewers seems, to me, to send a rather
unsubtle message of disdain for Mormonism on the part of the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books. A scholarly biography
by a leading academic historian deserved review by scholars.) McMurtry was
most likely invited to review Rough Stone Rolling
because Mormons are headquartered in the American West and because he’s a
writer of Western novels. It seems not to have mattered to the editors of
the New York Review of Books that Joseph
Smith was a New Englander whose church began in New York and who never came
further west than Missouri.

“Once,” McMurtry irrelevantly informed his readers,

long ago, I dined in the fine restaurant atop the Hotel Utah. Beyond the
spires of the Tabernacle I saw the sun setting over the Great Salt Lake. At
the table next to mine, in a wheelchair, sat an obviously dying capo,
rolling his bread into little balls and dipping them in a bowl of milk, while
two dark-suited goodfellas took his hoarse instruction.

The anecdote was evidently intended to demonstrate McMurtry’s scholarly bona
. Unlike most of his audience, probably, he has actually been
to Salt Lake City. In fact, he’s eaten in a restaurant there. Once upon a
time, long ago. He even knows that the Tabernacle has spires.
Thus, when he speaks about Joseph Smith, he speaks with unique authority.

But the tale, such as it is, rings false. What in the world is a Mormon capo,
and how do the uninitiated recognize one? And why use the jargon of a Sicilian
crime syndicate in this context? Let’s suppose, for a moment, that McMurtry
really did overhear an unnamed presiding official of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints doing an impersonation of Marlon Brando while enjoying
a gourmet meal of bread and milk in a relatively elegant Salt Lake City restaurant
at some unspecified time in the past. And let’s assume that, somehow (perhaps
by means of the elderly cleric’s papal tiara or in view of the man’s rich
scarlet vestments), McMurtry knew who he was and what rank he held. And let
us suppose that the old priest really was there with his two counselors, his
consiglieri (from the
Latin cōnsiliārius; compare cōnsilium, “advice,” “counsel”), rather than the
family members with whom I’ve typically seen Church leaders in Salt Lake City
restaurants and at local public events (as recently as last night). Why call
them “goodfellas”? Why insinuate a link with the Mafia? And
what on earth did any of this have to do with the biography of Joseph Smith?

Compounded with his manifest contempt, McMurtry simply doesn’t know much
about Mormonism. “In the Book of Mormon,
he wrote, “the biblical Ishmael, son of Abraham, soon appears and helps
the questing Nephi out of a spot of trouble with the locals.” But, of
course, the biblical Ishmael never appears in the Book of Mormon, and it isn’t
clear what help “with the locals” is given to Nephi by the entirely
distinct Ishmael who does appear.47

But McMurtry didn’t need to know anything
because the claims of Mormonism are, for him, transparently false. “Nearly
a dozen men, some of them Joseph’s scribes, claimed to have seen the plates,
but,” McMurtry told the gullible readers of the New York Review of Books, “their claims
inspire no confidence. It’s not really clear that anyone except Joseph Smith
and the angel Moroni really saw the plates, if there were
plates—a big if.” McMurtry offered no argument. He provided not
so much as a hint of the extensive research and reading, and the serious engagement
with the scholarship of Richard Lloyd Anderson and Larry Morris and others,
that would necessarily have to undergird his sweeping dismissal if it were
worthy of being taken seriously. Once again, it seems likely that he has rejected
Latter-day Saint claims a priori. No
serious consideration is needed. The extraordinarily impressive and consistent
testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses were simply, casually, swept aside.
“It’s possible,” allowed McMurtry, “that, at first, Joseph
Smith didn’t take his own prattle about an angel all that seriously; but,
hey! people not only believed it, they lapped it up. The ability to be convinced
by one’s own statements is probably essential to prophets [note, here, McMurtry’s
implicit general disdain for religious claims], and Joseph Smith had this

Bushman was not pleased by the McMurtry review. In an entry in his diary
for 28 October 2005, he remarked that

The biggest disappointment is that McMurtry did not find a thing in the book
to cause him to reconsider—or even to see a problem in—his understanding
of Joseph. My guess is that he read only the first part of the book and the
sections on plural marriage. That is all he talked about.48

“I am getting pretty indifferent to the reviews,” Bushman told
his diary on 1 November 2005. “They are pretty much what I expected.
People with a preformed view of Joseph as scoundrel will object; Mormons who
like Joseph Smith will take a deep breath and learn from my portrayal.”49

But McMurtry’s review continued to rankle. “All McMurtry could talk
about,” Bushman wrote later, “was the plates and plural marriage,
the two most sensational points of Joseph’s career. Nothing else about the
Prophet interested him.”50

“Mormons,” Bushman reflected,

want Joseph to get the respect he never had before. I think that instead
I am digging up the many layers of suspicion bordering on scorn. We get treated
politely most of the time, so we live under the illusion Joseph is looked
on respectfully. My serious effort to present him as a notable and honorable
man brings out the hidden disrespect. . . .
. . . [T]he reactions to RSR show just how deep the gulf
is. Mormons, including myself, think we are speaking rationally and persuasively
about the Prophet when outsiders think we are in left field.51

A number of years ago, I attended a small regional academic conference at
the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. At one point, I came into the back
of a room where a session was already underway. The topic of the presentation
was a psychology-of-religion attempt to define “religious maturity.”
It turned out that, according to the presenter, belief in an anthropomorphic
deity and in a relationship to God as child to Father are among the marks
of an immature spirituality. Afterwards, during the question-and-answer period,
a professor from the University of Utah indicated that, very possibly, a majority
of her students believed that God is indeed anthropomorphic and that he is
their Father. What, she wondered, should be her response to this problem?

The audience erupted. “Don’t the Mormons have any concept of idolatry?”
demanded one. Another informed the professor from Salt Lake City that it was
her duty to educate her students out of these absurd and contemptible beliefs.
(To her credit, she responded that she didn’t think that the taxpayers of
Utah had hired her to destroy the faith of their sons and daughters.) I sat
in the back, unnoticed, stunned by what was being said by people with whom
I had shared panels and lunches at several of these annual meetings. It continued
for several minutes, growing worse and worse. Finally, a non-LDS acquaintance
from Boise State noticed me and motioned ever more insistently that I should
speak up. So I did. “I thought you should know,” I said, “before
this goes any further, that there is at least one spiritually immature idolater
in the back of the room.”

There was a very brief and very awkward silence, and then several of those
present began to fall over themselves to insist that they respect Mormons
greatly and (I’m not making this up) that some of their best friends are Mormons.
But I had learned something very valuable during those few minutes of comment,
and I’m under absolutely no illusions about the prevailing attitudes among
academics toward Mormonism.

Eventually, feedback on Rough Stone Rolling
began to come in from cultural Mormons. (Although Walter Kirn comes from a
Mormon background, he does not seem to identify himself any longer in any
substantial way with Mormon culture.) I will examine a representative sample
of that feedback.

First, Roger Launius. Richard Bushman characterizes Launius quite aptly as
a “critic of Joseph Smith from a Community of Christ background. He sees
few redeeming features in the Prophet.”52 Launius is not entirely wrong when,
in a review published in the John Whitmer Historical
Association Journal,
he asserts that Latter-day Saint believers
tend to “assign near infallible status to the actions of imminently [sic]
fallible human beings such as the Mormon prophet.”53
While I see this tendency as relatively uncommon among scholars and sophisticated
laypeople, though, Launius suggests that it dominates believing Saints generally,
including their academic historians. In particular, he faults Bushman’s biography
as “a loving tribute to the legend of Smith,” “a retelling
of a specific myth.” Lamenting what he calls “the book’s basically
reverent approach,” Launius explains that “Bushman struggles to
maintain an epic aura.”54
“At his worst,” Launius says, “he is an apologist for a simplistic,
faithful master narrative of the rise of the religion and the life of its
founder. Bushman is more often an apologist than not.”55 “The Joseph Smith of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling has a much
more smoothly polished surface than appropriate, probably one so polished
as to be unrecognizable either to the historic Joseph Smith or the people
surrounding him.”56
(Strikingly, many believing Latter-day Saints have been disturbed by precisely
the opposite perception; while Roger Launius thinks Rough
Stone Rolling
too kind toward Joseph Smith, probably the most common
worry about the book among faithful Mormons has been that it presented too
human a prophet.)

“Duke University professor Alex Roland once said of books like this,”
Launius declares, “that it is not so much history as it is a restatement
of ‘tribal rituals, meant to comfort the old and indoctrinate the young.'”57
Once again, we see the nakedly ideological presumption that believers, no
matter how well qualified, no matter how careful and rigorous, cannot, as
believers, write “real” history. “It will be uniquely satisfying
to believing Latter-day Saints, infuriating to those knowledgeable about his
life but less committed to the faith founded by him, and perplexing to the
larger historical community.”58

Here let me comment, parenthetically, that I hope that Joseph Smith will
be perplexing to others. He should
be. Unless and until onlookers come to grips with his claims—in my view,
until they accept them—they should continue to find
him baffling. No Latter-day Saint is obligated to make Joseph Smith completely
acceptable to people who reject Joseph’s claims. And, as I’ve noted above,
no historian is obliged to explain religious claims away simply in order to

satisfy atheists and agnostics.

Launius appears to insinuate that Joseph Smith:
Rough Stone Rolling
is part of a broad church-orchestrated campaign
to whitewash and falsify history:

LDS Apostle Boyd K. Packer has even invoked an espousal of the progress of
Mormonism as a religion as the primary purpose of historical investigation,
telling church educators in 1981 that “Your objective should be that
they [those who study Mormon history] will see the hand of the Lord in every
hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now.”59

Launius apparently opposes anything that savors of apologetics. Bushman,
says Launius, is “most assuredly misinformed” in saying that those
who defend the Book of Mormon believe themselves to be building a cumulative
case of probabilities, and do not imagine themselves to have attained to decisive
proof. “If there is one thing that Louis Midgley and the lords of FARMS
are convinced of, it is that their ‘case is conclusive’ and that all should
agree with them.”60 (However, it is Roger Launius who
is mistaken on this point, and not Richard Bushman.) Unsurprisingly, Launius
rejects the antiquity of the Book of Mormon. To question the book’s historicity,
he announces, “does not cast into doubt the legitimacy of the religion
nearly so much as Bushman seems to believe. All religions—all ideologies—are
predicated on myth and symbol and they are not any less useful, compelling,
and true because of it.”61

Well, yes and no. Would it really make no difference to Christianity, say,
if it were somehow proven that the resurrection, and indeed the life, of Jesus
Christ were mere fiction? Would the zeal of Christians around the world continue
unabated in such a case? That seems highly unlikely. Are liberal Christian
denominations prospering? It will not, I hope, be considered uncharitable
for me to observe that the contrasting historical and demographic trajectories
of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its much more liberal
“Reorganized” cousin, currently called the Community of Christ,
strongly suggest that abandoning literal belief on core matters makes a palpable

Launius quotes Anthony Hutchinson, who has since left the church and, it
seems, abandoned the Book of Mormon, as advising that “Members of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should confess in faith that the
Book of Mormon is the word of God but also abandon claims that it is a historical
record of the ancient peoples of the Americas.”62 “I agree,” says Launius,

and I must confess that I fail to understand what all the fuss is about.
I would agree with the conclusion of non-Mormon William P. Collins that “When
I examine the Book of Mormon for truth rather than facticity, my reading reveals
powerful, eternal, and relevant truths which are capable of changing and guiding
men’s lives.”63

This is all well and good, of course. I’m happy that William Collins perceives
something of the power of the Book of Mormon, which I strongly agree is there
in abundance. But some truths derive all or most of their virtue from their
facticity. If they lack a basis in factual reality, they lose their force.
Indeed, they disillusion. The significance of Christ’s resurrection is vastly
different when understood as a literal bodily return from death that opens
the gate to eternal life, than when it is understood merely as a nonfactual
symbol of the return of spring after winter, of hope following despair.

On 12 April 2006, thinking about the approaching May meeting of the Mormon
History Association, at which Dan Vogel, Bill Russell, Gary Topping, and Martha
Bradley were slated to comment on his book, Bushman expressed his curiosity
about “the criticism this gang of four is likely to come up with.”64
He had reason to be concerned. Dan Vogel, whom Bushman has characterized as
“perhaps Joseph’s chief antagonist these days,”65
typically maintains that he has no agenda except historical research. But,
occasionally, he suffers an attack of candor. “When you debate with the
apologists,” he recently confided in a post to an anti-Mormon message
board, “it’s not them you have to convince—it’s the disinterested
or questioning lurkers. The apologists’ goals are to create reasons to keep
members from leaving the church, but our goal should be to keep people from
joining and validate those who want to leave anyway.”66

As it turns out, I was there in Casper, Wyoming, for that session, and Bushman’s
concerns were entirely justified. Of the four respondents, only Martha Bradley
manifested anything like a sympathetic understanding of his book. Dan Vogel
was critical. Bill Russell regretted, in otherwise rather frivolous remarks,
that Bushman had not devoted more time to careful study of the work of Grant
Gary Topping was openly contemptuous of Mormon beliefs.68

I could go on, but there seems to be little or nothing in the reception of
Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling
to suggest that alienated exbelievers, let alone the academic/intellectual
elite, are likely, now or in the foreseeable future, to give Latter-day Saint
truth claims a respectful hearing. John-Charles Duffy’s diagnosis appears
to be correct. But then, it’s not at all obvious that any knowledgeable and
astute observers ever thought otherwise.


Writing in his journal about Rough Stone Rolling,
Bushman remarks that “part of my purpose in writing is to introduce the
troublesome material into the standard account to prevent horrible shocks

The real question is, Should we hide troublesome things from the Saints and
hope they will never find out? The problem then is what happens when they
do. They are disillusioned and in danger of mistrusting everything they have
been told. . . . Amazingly, many LDS don’t know Joseph married thirty
women. We have to get these facts out to be dealt with; otherwise we are in
a vulnerable position. It may be my job to bring the whole of Joseph’s story
into the open.70

I keep hearing of young people who are shocked to discover the ideal Joseph
Smith they learned about in Church is not the Joseph Smith most scholars perceive.
Taken aback, the young Mormons not only wonder about the Prophet but about
their teachers. Everything comes tumbling down.71

I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly
Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they
may lose faith in the entire teaching system that brought them along. If their
teachers covered up Joseph Smith’s flaws, what else are they hiding?72

I share Bushman’s concerns and have reflected on this issue for a long time.
I’ve repeatedly used the metaphor of inoculation to express what I have in
mind. A friendly and well-intentioned healthcare professional injects a patient
with a benign form of a disease under favorable circumstances so that, later
on, when the patient encounters a more threatening form of the disease in
more hostile environs, he or she will be immune to its ravages. It seems to
me far preferable that Latter-day Saints hear about potentially difficult
issues from fellow believers who have accommodated the facts into their faith
than that they be confronted by such issues at the hands of people who seek
to use new information to surprise them, undermine their confidence in the
church and its leaders, and destroy their religious beliefs.

Many years ago, while a graduate student in California, I heard the late
Stanley B. Kimball (a Latter-day Saint scholar who taught at Southern Illinois
University and published extensively on both European and Latter-day Saint
historical subjects) speak to a small group about what he termed “the
three levels of Mormon history.”

He called the first of these “level A.” This level, he said, is
the Junior Sunday School version of church history, in which Mormons always
wear the white hats, nobody disagrees, no leader ever makes a mistake, and
all is unambiguously clear.

“Level B,” he said, is the anti-Mormon version of church history—essentially
a mirror image of level A or, alternatively, level A turned on its head. On
level B, everything that you thought was good and true is actually false and
bad. The Mormons (or, at least, their leaders) always or almost always wear
black hats, and, to the extent that everything is unambiguously clear, Mormonism
is unambiguously fraudulent, bogus, deceptive, and evil. Much in the level
B version of Mormonism is simply false, of course; critics of the church have
often failed to distinguish themselves for their honesty or for the care with
which they’ve treated the issues they raise. But, in more than a few instances,
level B approaches to Mormonism and its past are based on problems that are
more or less real.

The church, Kimball reflected, tends to teach level A history. The trouble
with this is that, like someone who has been kept in a germ-free environment
and is then exposed to an infectious disease, a person on level A who is exposed
to any of the issues that are the fodder for level B will have little resistance
and will be likely to fall.

The only hope in such a case, he continued, is to press on to what he termed
“level C,” which is a version of church history that remains affirmative
but which also takes into account any and all legitimate points stressed by
level B. Those on level C are largely impervious to infection from level B.
Level B formulations simply don’t impress them. (Davis Bitton was a signal
example of this. He knew far more about the Latter-day Saint past than the
Internet critics who so glibly assert that Mormon testimonies cannot survive
exposure to accurate Mormon history, yet he remained exuberantly faithful
to the end.)

Kimball said that he and his fellow historians operate on level C, and that,
on the whole, that’s where he (as a professional historian) would prefer members
to be. He was deeply convinced, he said, that level C was essentially like
level A, except that it is more nuanced and somewhat more ambiguous. (He emphatically
denied that level A is “false,” or that the church “lies”
in teaching it.) He acknowledged, though, that, were he himself a high-ranking
church leader, he would be hesitant to take the membership as a whole to level
C by means of church curriculum and instruction for the obvious reason that
moving people from level A to level C entails at least some exposure to some
of the elements of level B, and that such exposure will unavoidably lead some
to lose their testimonies. Still, he felt that those who make it through to
level C are more stable and resilient in their faith than those who remain
on level A.

Stanley Kimball’s analysis strikes me as profoundly true.73 Some have objected to Rough Stone Rolling on the grounds that, by presenting
Joseph Smith as a fallible human, Bushman has provided material that critics
of the church can use to argue against Joseph’s prophetic claims. “The
problem with the fuel-for-enemies objection,” Bushman correctly observes,
“is that the fuel is already there. I don’t provide it. We have to deal
with it or it will be used against us.”74

There is no basis for the belief, common among some anti- and ex-Mormons,
that simple exposure to “the facts” about Mormon history mandates
an exit from Mormonism. Everything hangs on selection and presentation, as
well as on overall presuppositions. I note, for the record, that, so far as
I can tell, the large majority of professionally trained Mormon historians
who deal with church history are believing and committed Latter-day Saints.
I know (or have known) many of them. “After all these years of studying
Joseph’s life,” says Richard Bushman, “I believe more than ever.”75
In fact, Bushman’s faith and his earnest commitment to Christian discipleship
are apparent throughout his memoir. “I like what Mormonism has produced,”
he writes.

Mormon communities effectively help people to grow spiritually and serve
one another. Because of their beliefs, Mormons give selflessly for a cause
higher than themselves. Though far from perfect, Mormons do strive hard to
be unselfish and to be better people. That seems to me to be confirmation
of the value and religious truth of the founding experiences.76

In my case believing in them helps me to make sense of the world and to be
a better person. It is like Jesus said in the New Testament: If you live his
commandments you will know if they be of God or if he spoke of himself. Living
inside Mormonism, it all makes sense.77

I might add that what seems outlandish from the outside can appear quite
rational from the inside. Mormon scholars have assembled lots of evidence
for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.78

Bushman told an 18 April 2006 audience at the Lehman Center at Columbia University
that “I did not think Joseph Smith was capable of writing the Book of
Mormon—the book was too complex—and that how it came about remains
a mystery.” Thinking about the meeting afterwards, though, he wished
he had been “more forthright.” Among other things, he felt that
he should have said “I think Joseph Smith was a truth-teller. Angels
do not seem like an impossibility to me—nor gold plates. But what attracts
me most strongly is the inspiration I find in the text itself.”79

In a 9 August 2005 note to Quincy Newell, a teacher of religious studies
at the University of Wyoming, Bushman implicitly addresses the frequent boast
of certain evangelicals that their beliefs are based in reason and evidence,
while Latter-day Saint faith rests merely on subjective and irrational “feelings.”

     I wish I could strike a responsive chord in Christians
like you. Mormons wonder why all Christians don’t understand that we believe
in the Book of Mormon on the basis of a spiritual witness. It is very hard
for a Mormon to believe that Christians accept the Bible because of the scholarly
evidence confirming the historical accuracy of the work. Surely there are
uneducated believers whose convictions are not rooted in academic knowledge.
Isn’t there some kind of human, existential truth that resonates with one’s
desires for goodness and divinity? And isn’t that ultimately why we read the
Bible as a devotional work? We don’t have to read the latest issues of the
journals to find out if the book is still true. We stick with it because we
find God in its pages—or inspiration, or comfort, or scope. That is
what religion is about in my opinion, and it is why I believe the Book of
Mormon. I can’t really evaluate all the scholarship all the time; while I
am waiting for it to settle out, I have to go on living. I need some good
to hold on to and to lift me up day by day. The Book of Mormon inspires me,
and so I hold on. Reason is too frail to base a life on. You can be whipped
about by all the authorities with no genuine basis for deciding for yourself.
I think it is far better to go where goodness lies.
. . . Educated Christians claim to base their belief on reason when
I thought faith was the teaching of the scriptures. You hear the Good Shepherd’s
voice, and you follow it.80

Still, Bushman confides to his journal his fear that perhaps he has been
too subtle in making his own faithful position clear to readers of Rough Stone Rolling. Preparing, on 14 September
2005, for a talk at the Princeton Club in New York City, he confesses that
“I have a tendency to be too diffident and overly modest. Claudia [his
wife] hates that. I intend to confront the gold plates problem head on, the
foundation for thinking of Joseph Smith as a fraud.”81 On 19 April 2006, still reflecting
on the Lehman Center discussion of the previous day, he asks himself:

Am I afraid to come down unequivocally for fear of cutting myself completely
out of the academic discussion, like a Jew covering up his Jewishness or a
pale African American trying to pass? I say to myself that I confess my belief
on the opening page, and from there on I am simply trying to make room for
a non-believer. Long ago I said on a radio interview that Fawn Brodie cuts
Mormons out of her book. There was no room for believers among her readers
unless they accepted the status of idiots and dupes. I didn’t want to leave
non-Mormons out of my account, so I tried to address them and say, I understand
your needs. Do I go so far in this direction in RSR that I play pitty-pat?
In my effort to make the Book of Mormon intelligible do I fail to convey my
own conviction that it is true? And the same for the revelations and for Joseph
Smith’s divine calling.
     Somehow I felt like I was
playing pitty-pat yesterday at the Lehman Center. I fell somewhere short of
complete unequivocality in my answers. I have thought of many better answers
since. Perhaps the best is the simplest: “Yes, I believe the Book of
Mormon is true. I am a Mormon; that is what Mormons do.” Or on another
tack: “Yes, I believe Joseph Smith’s story. I don’t think he was a fraud.”
Or: “Yes, I believe the Book of Mormon is true. That is why I want it
to be treated with more respect. Whether you believe it or not, the book is
a marvelous creation.” These answers retreat into the personal like most
testimonies. They don’t assert that everyone must accept my truth; they call
it my truth, implying you can have your truth. I am simply presenting my point
of view; take it or leave it. The advantage of listening to my point of view
is that you can come to understand what it was like to be a Mormon or to be
Joseph Smith.82

Eventually, Bushman begins to think that maybe he should have been forthrightly
and explicitly Mormon in Rough Stone Rolling

I can see now that I could have written the whole book inside this framework.
Instead of trying to keep the reader and myself in the same place, creating
a common point of view amenable to believer and non-believer alike, I could
have taken on the role of guide to a Mormon perspective on the Mormon prophet,
acknowledging the differences and saying this is how we look at it. The point
of persuasion would be to show the benefits of examining Joseph from a believer’s
perspective. What can you learn by looking at him through believing eyes that
might be lost if you begin with the assumption he had to be a fraud. It would
not take many changes to rewrite the book in that way. A few alterations in
the introduction, a few others at key points would do the job. At these junctures,
I would step forward and say, This is where a Mormon and non-Mormon historian
will part company. Here is what you can learn if you will follow me. Once
again, candor is the best policy. Why didn’t I see that earlier? Live and

Nonetheless, he has high hopes for the long-term impact of Rough Stone Rolling and similar ventures in frank
and forthright Mormon historiography:

The overall effect will be to move the Church toward greater candor, even
though I suffer in the mean time. I am concerned about the discrepancy between
the idealized Joseph in Institute classes and the criticized Joseph in secular
and hostile sources. Young Latter-day Saints are left to reconcile these two
without help from their teachers. Simply denying the validity of the criticism
is not enough when facts are involved. Some will shut their minds to the criticism;
but others will become disillusioned, not just with the Prophet but with the
entire teaching apparatus. They will feel they have been misled. My book may
encourage a dialogue about candor within CES. The instructors will ask each
other what is lost and gained by telling the full story. Gradually the center
of opinion will move toward openness.84

Very much in the spirit of Stanley Kimball’s California remarks, Bushman
predicts that “People will mull over the facts about Joseph and eventually
accommodate even the tough parts. In the end we will be more stable for having
assimilated all this material.”85 Another worry also occupied Bushman’s
mind occasionally: “Whether or not they agree with the book, the General
Authorities don’t like someone like me taking control of interpretation. They
objected to FARMS on those grounds after they seemed to be monopolizing Book
of Mormon interpretation.”86

Candidly, I’m not sure that I know what he has in mind with this comment.
The Brethren have never, to my knowledge, come down on FARMS in the way he
suggests, and I know from personal conversation with a number of them that
at least some of the General Authorities appreciate the work done by FARMS.
In particular, it seems to me quite clear that the permission given by the
Brethren to rename the overall organization in which FARMS rests “The
Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship” constitutes a vote
of confidence, not a rebuke.

In This Issue

A vocally obsessive critic of mine (and of all things Mormon) recently declared
on an anti-Mormon message board that “there really aren’t any ‘effective’
defenses of the Church which do not entail ad hominem attack. That is why
FARMS Review is so rank with ad hominem attack that DCP feels compelled to
post self-deprecating jokes about it.”

He was being charitable. As another message board poster put it, the FARMS

is in truth the food of death, the fuel of sin, the veil of malice, the pretext
of false liberty, the protection of disobedience, the corruption of discipline,
the depravity of morals, the termination of Concord, the death of honesty,
the well-spring of vices, the disease of virtues, the instigation of rebellion,
the milk of pride, the nourishment of contempt, the death of peace, the destruction
of charity, the enemy of unity, the murderer of truth.

No. Wait a minute. Scratch that. It wasn’t a message board poster. It was
Johannes Cochlaeus (d. 1552), an opponent of the Reformation who interfered
with the publication of William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament.
And he wasn’t talking about the FARMS Review.
He was denouncing “the New Testament translated into the vulgar tongue
[i.e., English].”87

Anyway, readers of this number of the Review will, yet again, be able to judge for
themselves whether (as a number of vocal critics routinely say) it consists
largely of vituperation and name-calling.

James Allen (Lemuel H. Redd Professor of Western History Emeritus at Brigham
Young University and former assistant church historian of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints) and John Sorenson (retired BYU professor of anthropology)
offer tributes to their friend Davis Bitton.88

Brant Gardner critiques an attempt to correlate the Book of Mormon with ancient
Mesoamerica, while psychologist Richard Williams responds to yet another reductionist
theory of its origin. William Hamblin demonstrates that “reformed Egyptian”
and the writing of sacred texts on metal plates fit very comfortably into
the ancient milieu that the Book of Mormon claims as its own cultural background.

Louis Midgley reflects on Richard Bushman’s important biography Joseph
Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,
a landmark in Mormon-related publishing,
and M. Gerald Bradford considers the current state and future prospects of
Mormon-focused scholarship. Terryl Givens surveys the challenge that new religious
movements like Mormonism pose to mainstream religion, and James Faulconer
offers a specific example of that challenge with his critique of conventional
approaches to theology. So, too, does Alyson Von Feldt’s essay on the question
of whether God has a wife—a question to which Latter-day Saints emphatically
answer Yes—which dovetails nicely with the exchange between evangelical
biblical scholar Michael Heiser and Latter-day Saint doctoral student David
Bokovoy on the subject of the “divine council” among the ancient
Hebrews. The Heiser-Bokovoy exchange, incidentally, provides a wonderful model
of civil, respectful, and informed discussion between evangelicals and Latter-day
Saints, a model with far too few analogues elsewhere. I’m grateful to both
authors for their scholarship and for their exemplary manner of expressing

Jacob Rawlins and Alison Coutts examine four recent Latter-day Saint treatments
of the apostasy of the ancient Christian church. Stephen Ricks examines a
unique perspective on the book of Daniel, and and John Gee critiques a study
of the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham. Ralph Hancock contemplates the decline
of secular higher education, a relatively recent experiment that, for various
reasons, many have mistakenly come to regard as the only legitimate paradigm
for modern universities. And, finally, a series of book notes briefly treats
recent publications of which we want our readers to be aware.

Just as we were going to press with this issue of the FARMS Review,
we learned of the recent passing of Robert R. Bennett, who reviewed Duwayne
R. Anderson’s Farewell to Eden: Coming to Terms with Mormonism and
in the FARMS Review 18/2
(2006): 1–43. We regret
his passing and extend our condolences and best wishes to his family and friends.
We are pleased to have provided him with a venue in which he could express
his faith.

Editor’s Picks

For several years now, we have offered in each number of the Review
a list of recommended items, compiled through a complex and rigorous process
of asking ourselves what we think and then choosing more or less whimsically
between conflicting opinions. As I’ve said before, the fact that a book appears
in this list is more significant than the rather arbitrary number of asterisks
it receives, which could easily have been different. Since nobody has ordered
us not to offer such recommendations, we’re going to do it again. (Stop us
before we pick again!)

****     Outstanding, a seminal work of the kind that
appears only rarely

   ***     Enthusiastically recommended

     **     Warmly recommended

       *     Recommended

Here are the recommendations from this number of the Review:

****     Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph
Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

   ***     Alexander
B. Morrison, Turning from Truth: A New Look at
the Great Apostasy

   ***     Noel B. Reynolds, ed, Early
Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy

Tad R. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy and
the Promised Restoration

     **     William G. Dever, Did
God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel

     **     Scott R. Petersen, Where
Have All the Prophets Gone?

       *     C. John Sommerville,
The Decline of the Secular University

Although the official editor’s picks does not include selections from those
works presented in the book notes, I would like to call favorable attention
to Margaret Barker’s The Hidden Tradition of the
Kingdom of God,
Alan Jacobs’s The Narnian:
The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis,
Ramsay MacMullen’s Voting
about God in Early Church Councils,
Peter McEnhill and George Newlands’s
Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, and Christian
Smith’s Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual
Lives of American Teenagers
. And, well, um, my Muhammad biography may not be the worst book
ever published, either.


Sadly, the tenure of Shirley Ricks as production editor of the FARMS
—nineteen years’ worth—comes to a close with
this number. For essentially twenty years, she has been the person who organized
it, kept it moving along, and saw it through to completion. (She missed one
issue when she and her family were overseas.) She has worked wonders. Consistently.
She has always been dependable. We have relied on her solid good judgment.
Now she takes those qualities into her assignment to finish the Collected
Works of Hugh Nibley in time for the centennial of his 1910 birth. It’s a
very worthy project, but her departure is, at best, bittersweet. I’m grateful
to her for her work not only on this number but for an amazing thirty previous

I’m also grateful to the two associate editors of the Review, Louis Midgley and George Mitton, whose
counsel, insight, and sheer hard work are indispensable. Paula Hicken orchestrates source checking and proofreading
tasks, doing much of it herself; she was assisted in these tasks by Julie
Adams, Brette Jones, Linda Sheffield, and Sandra Thorne. I also greatly appreciate
the fine work Jacob Rawlins does in typesetting the FARMS Review and the support from Alison Coutts
and others in the administration of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious

Finally, as always, I want to thank those who have written for us. Besides
a free copy of the Review and, where
applicable, a copy of a book that they may not even like, our writers receive
nothing but thanks. (Persistent claims
by our critics that Mormon apologetics pays well are no better founded in
actual reality than most of the rest of their assertions.) Without our writers,
though, there would obviously be no FARMS Review.


Dennis Lythgoe, “Gentle Mormon Historian Wasn’t Full of Himself,”
Deseret Morning News, 29 April 2007.

An example of his scholarship on European history is The
French Nobility in Crisis, 1560–1640
(Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1969).

“The Ritualization of Mormon History,” Utah
Historical Quarterly
43/1 (1975): 67–85; and “The Making
of a Community: Blackfoot, Idaho, 1878 to 1910,” Idaho
19/1 (1975): 2–17.

Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies (Provo,
UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1977).

Davis Bitton, George Q. Cannon: A Biography (Salt
Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999). Bitton also contributed an essay on Cannon
to the FARMS Review: “George Q.
Cannon and the Faithful Narrative of Mormon History,” FARMS
Review of Books
14/1 (2002): 1–17.

Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon
Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints
(New York: Knopf,

Davis Bitton, review of New Approaches to the
Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology,
ed. Brent
Lee Metcalfe, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon
6/1 (1994): 1–7.

Compare Davis Bitton, “Anti-Intellectualism in Mormon History,”
Dialogue 1/3 (1966): 111–34, and “Mormon
Anti-Intellectualism: A Reply,” FARMS Review
13/2 (2001): 59–62.

Davis Bitton, “The Charge of a Man with a Broken Lance (But Look What
He Doesn’t Tell Us),” FARMS Review 15/2
(2003): 257–71.

Davis Bitton, “Spotting an Anti-Mormon Book,” FARMS
16/1 (2004): 355–60. And under the pseudonym of Rockwell
D. Porter, Davis collaborated with none other than Louis Midgley on “A
Dancer/Journalist’s Anti-Mormon Diatribe,” FARMS
15/1 (2003): 259–72.

Davis Bitton, “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church,
FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 337–54.

Davis also contributed to FARMS publications outside of the FARMS
see Bitton, “B.
H. Roberts and Book of Mormon Scholarship,” Journal
of Book of Mormon Studies
8/2 (1999): 60–69; Bitton, “The
Ram and the Lion: Lyman Wight and Brigham Young,” in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History
and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson,
ed. Stephen D.
Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 37–60;
and Bitton’s role as editor of Mormons, Scripture,
and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson
UT: FARMS, 1998)—his contributions included the acknowledgments (pages
vii–viii), the introduction (pages ix–xliv), and a chapter entitled
“Mormon Funeral Sermons in the Nineteenth Century” (pages 27–50).

John-Charles Duffy, “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story?
Academic Discourse on the Origin of the Book of Mormon,” John
Whitmer Historical Association Journal
26 (2006): 142. Duffy’s
citations are, respectively, from Terryl L. Givens, By
the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 12, and from Richard
Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, ed.
Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004),
269—both very important works. Duffy’s reference to the Book of Mormon
witnesses as “having hefted something heavy
concealed in a box or under cloth” (while failing to mention their repeated
claims of having seen the plates directly and, in the case of the Eight, of
having held the plates and turned their leaves) leads me to suspect that he
subscribes to Dan Vogel’s tendentious revisionism on the subject.

I offer a basic narrative biography of the Muslim prophet in Daniel C. Peterson, Muhammad:
Prophet of God
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,

Joseph Smith’s shared revelations include (but are not limited to) the experiences
of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the Aaronic and
Melchizedek Priesthoods (jointly received with Oliver Cowdery), the vision
of the three degrees of glory recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 76 (shared
with Sidney Rigdon), and the visions of Jehovah, Moses, Elias, and Elijah
recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 110 (shared with Oliver Cowdery).

Duffy, “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story?” 142.

Duffy, “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story?” 143.

Duffy, “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story?” 142–43.
Actually, just to be precise, although John Tvedtnes was, until his recent
retirement, employed by FARMS and then by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for
Religious Scholarship, he was never a member of the BYU faculty.

Duffy’s readings are sometimes unreliable. For example, he misguidedly conflates
the positions of Louis Midgley and David Bohn on the question of historical
objectivity (Duffy, 156–57 n. 59)—a surprisingly common mistake,
given the distinct differences between the two. And he portrays me as rather
giddily “excited” by Terryl Givens’s By
the Hand of Mormon
(Duffy, 157 n. 61).
I do indeed like the book very much, but, so far as I can tell, my
pulse remained fairly calm throughout my reading of it. “BYU’s John Clark
affirmed, during the Joseph Smith symposium at the Library of Congress in
May 2005, that archaeological evidence compels the conclusion that the Book
of Mormon is an ancient record translated through supernatural means” (Duffy, 160). “I can’t imagine using this language,”
wrote Professor Clark in a personal e-mail response to me (dated 16 April
2007) when I asked him about this summary of his alleged view. “I looked
it up: ‘The scientific trend of archaeological evidence of its historic facticity
indicates that the Book of Mormon is what Joseph Smith claimed it was—an
ancient book.’ In science, few things are compelling. I guess this statement
is closer to my views than the alternative.” Clark was referring to his
own summary in “Archaeological Trends and the Book of Mormon Origins,”
in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial
Conference at the Library of Congress
(Provo, UT: BYU Studies,
2005), 98.

Duffy, “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story?” 158–59.
Duffy is citing Givens, By the Hand of Mormon,
22. Givens makes a similar point in his important but relatively
neglected work, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction
of Heresy
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 91.

Duffy, “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story?” 158.

Duffy, “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story?” 160.

For a more complete transcript of several interviews, see www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews
(accessed 8 May 2007).

See the interview with Jon Butler at www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews (accessed
8 May 2007).

This is probably one of the points to take away from Hugh Hewitt’s A Mormon in the White House? Ten Things Every American Should
Know about Mitt Romney
(Washington, DC: Regnery, 2007).

Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity
Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success
(New York: Random
House, 2005), is just one of several excellent correctives to this nonsensical
but, in academia, surprisingly widespread view of human history.

Jacob Weisberg, “Romney’s Religion: A Mormon President? No Way,”
Slate, 20 December 2006, online at www.slate.com/id/2155902
(accessed 7 May 2007).

Richard Lyman Bushman: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone
(New York: Knopf, 2005); a paperback version was released
in March 2007.

Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph
Smith: An Author’s Diary
(New York: Mormon
Artists Group, 2006). One hundred copies of this book were made available
to the public. I will, however, with the recent release of a more accessible
edition, cite from the 2007 version published by Greg Kofford Books.

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
25 (13 September 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
28–29 (19 September 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
31–32 (24 September 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
43–44 (6 October 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
25 (13 September 2005).

Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By
(London: Routledge, 2003), 148.

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
124–25 (August 2006).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
125 (August 2006).

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, “Who’s That on the $50 Bill? Placing Joseph Smith
in America’s Story,” Books & Culture
12 (January/February 2006): 11. All quotations from Maffly-Kipp
come from the same page.

39.   Bushman, On the Road with
Joseph Smith,
102 (8 January 2006). “Brodie has shaped the view of

the Prophet for half a century,” he writes on the same page. “Nothing
we have written has challenged her domination. I had hoped my book would displace
hers, but at best it will only be a contender in the ring, whereas before
she reigned unchallenged.”

Norman H. Murdoch, “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and Mormonism:
A Review Essay,” New York History 67
(1986): 224, 230.

Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous?
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 96.

On allegiance to value-neutral historiography as a recent aberration, see
David B. Honey and Daniel C. Peterson, “Advocacy and Inquiry in the Writing
of Latter-day Saint History,” BYU Studies
31/2 (1991): 139–79.

The letter is transcribed in Dale Morgan on Early
Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History,
ed. John Phillip Walker
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 84–91, where the quoted passage
occurs on page 87. As ever, my thanks go to Gary Novak for first calling my
attention to this remarkably revealing comment. For an example of a contemporary
writer on Mormonism who falls squarely on the totally secular side of that
divide, see the discussion of Dan Vogel in Daniel C. Peterson, “The Witchcraft Paradigm: On Claims to ‘Second Sight’ by People
Who Say It Doesn’t Exist,” FARMS Review
18/2 (2006): liii–lxiii.

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
103 (17 January 2006).

Walter Kirn, “Latter-day Saint,” New
York Times Book Review,
15 January 2006. As an illustration of
the supposed lack of logic in Rough Stone Rolling,
Kirn writes that “for Bushman, the fact that his church continues to
grow is proof that [Joseph Smith] was onto something big. . . . For logicians,
this is tantamount to arguing that Santa Claus probably exists because he
gets millions of letters each year from children.” I confess that, if
Professor Bushman made such an argument, I missed it. However, while I certainly
don’t think that success demonstrates truth, I’m inclined to think that any
ideological movement, religious or otherwise, that appeals to large numbers
of people over many generations is indeed “onto something.” Much
like long-lived classics in music, art, and literature—and, yes, much
like the beloved figure of Santa Claus—such movements wouldn’t survive
if they didn’t have something meaningful to say.

46.   Larry McMurtry, “Angel
in America,” New York Review of Books, 17 November 2005, 35–37.

Such uncertain grasp of details ought to inspire modesty when it comes to
drawing big conclusions. But it seldom does. Thus, for example, the militantly
atheistic Christopher Hitchens, in his new book God
Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
(New York: Twelve,
2007), offers a learned aside about Mormonism in which trusting readers discover,
among other things, that Nephi was the son of “Lephi,” that “Cumora”
was the site of a “made-up battle,” that “Smith refused to
show the golden plates to anybody,” that Fawn Brodie had a doctorate,
and that “every week, at special ceremonies in Mormon temples, the congregations
meet and are given a certain quota of names of the departed to ‘pray in’ to
their church” (see pp. 167–68). Mormonism, Hitchens concludes from
his rigorous research, supplies an unusually clear illustration of the fraudulence
of all religion.

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
63 (28 October 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
65 (1 November 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
77 (26 October 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith, 80–81
(16 November 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
36 (1 October 2005).

Roger D. Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” John
Whitmer Historical Association Journal
26 (2006): 314.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 314. As a former classics student
who spent a great deal of time on Homer and Virgil and who has just, for reasons
of my own, finished reading Anthony Esolen’s new translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia, R. K. Narayan’s prose retelling
of the Ramayana, and Burton Raffel’s
new version of Das Nibelungenlied within
the past weeks, I confess that I have little or no precise idea what Launius
may mean by this. Presumably he does.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 315.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 314.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 314. He is citing Alex Roland,
“How We Won the Moon,” New York Times
Book Review,
17 July 1994, 1.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 314.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 316, brackets in the original.
Launius cites Boyd K. Packer, “‘The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater than the
Intellect,'” BYU Studies 21/3
(1981): 259–78 (quotation on p. 262). It isn’t obvious, by the way,
that an exhortation to church educators can legitimately be read—though
it commonly is, by critics—as a command aimed at scholarly researchers.
The two professions have quite different functions and obligations.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 317.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 317.

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 317–18; he is citing Anthony
A. Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough: The Book of Mormon as Nineteenth-Century
Scripture,” in New Approaches to the Book
of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology,
ed. Brent Lee
Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 1. Of course, it isn’t clear
that such a nineteenth-century understanding is enough: The once-Mormon Hutchinson
is now an Episcopalian, and the volume’s editor, Brent Metcalfe, is an excommunicated

Launius, “Defending the Prophet,” 318.

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
113 (12 April 2006).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
120 (31 May 2006).

See mormondiscussions.com/discuss/viewtopic.php?p=17205&highlight=goal#17205
(accessed 14 May 2007).

On which, see Bitton, “Charge of a Man with a Broken Lance”; Steven
C. Harper, “Trustworthy History?”; Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A One-Sided
View of Mormon Origins”; and Louis Midgley, “Prying
into Palmer,” FARMS Review 15/2
(2003): 257–410; and James B. Allen, “Asked and Answered: A Response
to Grant H. Palmer,” FARMS Review 16/1
(2004): 235–85. Recently, Bill Russell has been attempting to spin his
way out of an amusing gaffe in which he plainly seemed to mischaracterize
and criticize essays that had not only not yet appeared in the FARMS Review but had not even been written at
the time he published his complaint. He launched his preemptive strike against
FARMS in a glowing review of Dan Vogel’s highly imaginative psychobiography
Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, in Dialogue 38/3 (2005): 188–92. Kevin Barney
called him on it in a letter, “Fairness to FARMS,” that appeared
in a subsequent issue of the same journal, Dialogue
39/2 (2006): vi–vii. Russell’s not altogether persuasive explanation,
still unrepentantly judgmental and negative, appears as a letter entitled
“What Is FARMS Afraid Of?” in Dialogue
40/1 (2007): vii–ix. (Allegedly, we’re afraid of publishing responses
to our reviews. In support of this, Russell relates a substantially inaccurate
story involving my friend Todd Compton.) Immediately following Russell’s epistle,
incidentally, is a superb response by Mark Ashurst-McGee to comments made
previously by Dan Vogel about the visitations of Moroni.

Gary Topping’s disdain for things Mormon is found throughout
his Utah Historians and the Reconstruction of
Western History
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), which
is a thinly veiled apologia for Dale L. Morgan, Fawn M. Brodie, Bernard DeVoto,
and Wallace Stegner in their roles as critics of the Saints and the Saints’
history. For example, the final chapter of this book, entitled “The Legacy:
Utah Historians and the ‘New’ Histories” (pages 331–40), is an
essentially garbled account of developments in the study of the Mormon past
that have taken place in the last half century.

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
82 (21 November 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
79 (14 November 2005). Some of Bushman’s own reflections on the question of
plural marriage appear on pages 97–98 (30 December 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
102 (8 January 2006).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
121 (31 May 2006).

I thought it a wise and perceptive talk, even though, had I myself given it,
I would have spoken in Hegelian terms (of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis)
rather than in terms of levels A, B, and C.

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
100 (8 January 2006).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
111 (16 March 2006).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
88 (15 December 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
91–92 (17 December 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
88 (15 December 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
114–15 (18 April 2006). His own conversion, as a young missionary, by
the Book of Mormon is recounted at Richard Lyman Bushman, “My Belief,”
in Bushman, Believing History, 20–22.

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
15–16 (9 August 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
27 (14 September 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
115–16 (19 April 2006).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
116–17 (19 April 2006).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
100–101 (8 January 2006).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
85 (2 December 2005).

Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith,
24 (8 September 2005). On page 105, Bushman writes that “There remains
the problem of becoming a rival expert [to the General Authorities] in the
interpretation of doctrine, but I can avoid that by not talking doctrine when
asked to speak. My mind is aswirl with doctrinal ideas which do not need to
be vented, especially when I acknowledge their speculative nature myself”
(6 February 2006). Some of those ideas (which, I confess, resemble certain
of my own speculations) appear on pages 60–61 (28 October 2005).

87.   John S.
Kerr and Charles Houser, Ancient Texts Alive Today (New York: American
Bible Society, 1999), 45. I thank Alison V. P. Coutts for bringing this remarkable
passage to my attention.

They are, incidentally, members of the Gadianton Polysophical Marching and
Chowder Society, mentioned above.