It’s a pleasure to be here, this is my first meeting of FAIR though I’ve been very much aware of the work of this organization for a number of years, and I’m greatly honored that Scott [Gordon] invited me to address you.
I’ve actually been leery of one of the key words in the acronym, that is ‘apology’ or ‘apologist.’ It really is an honorable word with a great history and used in its proper sense really means ‘a deeper understanding’ or ‘a fuller explanation’ as in John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (An Apology for my Life) or in the book that is considered by many Christians the premier example of a Christian apologetics, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. So it’s not necessarily an activity of defense or combat but one of demonstrating the power or the usefulness of certain ideas or certain ways of life.
Unfortunately when it’s been applied to me, as it has been in certain instances, it’s used pejoratively as someone who takes a position in favor of heedless of the evidence, you know, in the sense of being a biased reporter. There actually is a review, the first review I saw of this forthcoming book of mine, in which the author, though generally favorable, said at the outset that the book has a veneer of credibility. Presumably, no Mormon could truly be credible writing about Joseph Smith.
Of course as I was writing the book I was not in the least aware of myself as apologizing for Joseph Smith or striving to justify him in any way. My aim was to understand him rather than to defend him because my approach to history basically is empathetic–I wanted to sense the world and his personality, and his relationships, his thoughts, his revelations, as he sensed them and as those close to him sensed him.
That of course is not the only way to write biography. There are some who feel that biography at its best is always critical in a sense it attempts to strip away the pretense and find the true or real self under all the falsity that people project in order to protect themselves. The Marxists used to speak of ripping off the masks of certain figures or certain classes because they believed that under the masks were the true power relationships in a society that had to be disclosed and were in danger of being obscured; and Freudians the same way, there was a true and a sort of a baser self underneath the veneer of civilization.
And I recognize that that style of doing biography, of doing history in general, has its merits–there are pretenses–but I think also that if you rip off all the masks there is nothing left. What we have is a series of masks, this is who we are, this is what it means to create a personality; a set of presentations of the self by which we form our relationships to the world and, in my opinion, the task of a biographer is to understand those presentations of the self, what constitutes them and how do they work. And so my aim has always been to be basically empathetic and the approach to Joseph Smith is no different than would be my approach to Jonathan Edwards or Charles Finney or Abraham Lincoln or whoever. To me the most interesting reality is the person created by the biographical subject, him or herself, and those immediately around him who knew that person best.
So what I wish to do today is to address portions of Joseph Smith’s life that have been traditionally difficult to understand and try to explain how I would approach them in this empathetic manner; that is, to understand what these passages in Joseph Smith’s life meant to the prophet himself.
When I was asked by Scott to give an address, and knowing this was an apologetic assembly and that I had to defend something (Laughter) as long as I was here, I asked him, ‘What are the outstanding problems?’ hoping to get an inventory and I’d tick them off, and cut them down, and throw them in the trash and all would be well in Zion and he provided me with a list of such objections. And then in a second email another list of objections and then a third email came along and I realized that Joseph Smith is still mired in controversy 200 years after his birth and doubtless always will be. There are always going to be people who want to identify flaws in his character, missteps in his life, and every possible contradiction.
But faced with this bevy of questions and somewhat daunted by the task of treating them all at once in any coherent fashion I decided that instead of treating these one by one I would deal with the issues that loomed in my own mind as I undertook to write about Joseph Smith’s life starting with the first volume, the one that’s been out for a while, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, and continuing into the writing of Rough Stone Rolling.
And I tried to recall what were the hazards that I foresaw where I thought it was going to be difficult to understand what in the world the prophet thought he was doing and I have five of these–I’m only going to talk about three–but I’ll tell you the five that came into my mind.
The first was treasury seeking, ‘Peepstone Joe’; the second was his psychology, that currently has depicted him as some kind of a pathological character; the third was women, which may not be exactly an issue in Mormon polemics these days I’m not precisely sure but of course in the historical world at large women are an issue in every subject and Joseph does not necessarily come out as a proto-feminist in 1844 and so I thought I had to deal with that; the fourth which I won’t talk about so much is violence, that is the Mormon tradition of violence culminating in Mountain Meadows but starting in Joseph Smith’s time, these accusations against him as another Mohammed; and the fifth is that collection of reactions and initiatives in Nauvoo that can be grouped roughly under the label ‘megalomania’–the sense that Joseph sort of went berserk in Nauvoo, giddy with his own power and overstepped all sorts of bounds. Those two I’m not going to deal with in the talk though we can discuss them in the question period if you choose.
Well let me begin with treasure seeking. It’s a strange one to start with but I think it has an interesting moral to it. I’m not sure that treasure seeking is in anyone’s mind nowadays much of a problem when it comes to understanding Joseph Smith–at least not among anyone who has read the recent historiography. But when I began work on Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism in the late 60s and early 70s it was the premier problem of Joseph Smith couched perhaps most acutely by Jan Shipps in her essay The Prophet Puzzle in which Joseph Smith seemed to have this bifurcated history and personality. On one side, he’s the young visionary and on the other side, he’s the young money digger; and the two seemed to be totally incompatible. One is superstitious and kind of greedy, the other is exalted, and religious and pious in every way.
It was interesting at that time because there were a whole set of sources lined up on each side of this divide. On the money digging side the two primary bodies of evidence were the affidavits that Philastus Hurlbut collected in Palmyra when he was on his mission to discredit Joseph Smith and the neighbors happily provided him evidence–many of the accusations having to do with treasure seeking. And the second being the 1826 court trial which was recorded in documents whose provenance was questionable and so no one was able to say for sure whether this trial occurred but in these transcripts of events in court Joseph Smith speaks of money digging; even his friends speak of him as a treasure seeker and so on. Well that set of documents was available to Fawn Brodie and everyone else who wanted to build up the treasure seeking side.
But among faithful Mormons, among which I counted myself, these documents were not just judged and evaluated like every historical document has to be–they were totally discredited. They were just said to have no validity at all. The very occurrence of the 1826 trial was in doubt and everything was thought to be a pure fabrication; and the Hurlbut affidavits were considered to be so biased, probably almost totally the creation of Hurlbut himself that they simply weren’t taken into account, you didn’t even deal with them in a faithful history of Joseph Smith.
Of course on the other side, on the visionary side, you have countless accounts beginning with Joseph Smith’s own records; and Lucy Mack Smith’s; and Emma; and Oliver Cowdery; and Martin Harris and many others who talked at length about Joseph’s visions.
So we had sort of these two parallel histories scarcely touching one another and my question, as a historian, was how am I going to deal with this? Am I really going to discredit all these documents or not? I felt like I had to deal with them in some way as evidence.
Well a couple of things happened as I began to work on this earlier book. First, it became evidence that the faithful sources–Martin Harris, Lucy Mack Smith and others–also spoke of money digging and treasure seeking. So it became almost impossible to deny those activities. The Josiah Stoal search for treasure had always been accepted but now it seemed apparent there was much more money digging in the Smith’s lives than had been thought of before.
The second change in the evidence was the 1826 trial was validated by this little scrap of evidence that Wesley Walters discovered seeming to prove that the event had taken place and I remember I was just in the middle of writing that book all of this evidence was being debated and I had to write in such a way that I left room for those who still doubted the 1826 trial to sort of have their say and their voice and at the same time to bring it within the Latter-day Saint canon of acceptable evidence.
So altogether my task was to conceive, not to deny money digging, but to conceive of what part it played in Joseph Smith’s early life. I couldn’t escape that fact.
Well my encounter with Joseph’s treasure seeking came in two stages corresponding to these two books published 20 years apart. In Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism my strategy was essentially to neutralize the charge because as I was writing the scholarship about treasure seeking and magic in general was proliferating in Anglo-American historiography so it became evident that these practices were commonplace in the 17th century in all levels of society, in the 18th and 19th century among common people and the lower classes. So that once you spread out this process so that Joseph Smith is not a peculiarly weird version of treasure seeking but that it was widely practiced suddenly it was no longer a blot on his character or his family’s character. It was no more scandalous than say gambling–playing poker today. A little bit discredited and slightly morally disreputable but not really evil; and when it was found that all sorts of treasure seekers were also serious Christians, why not the Smith’s too? So instead of being a puzzle or a contradiction it was just one aspect of the Smith family culture and not really anything to be worried about. Well that’s how far I got in Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism.
In Rough Stone Rolling I go one step further in a slightly more speculative vein but one I think worth seriously considering and that is to see magic and money digging as providential–that is, as useful in the training of a prophet. And why that struck me more forcibly this go-round was that I came to see what a huge leap of faith the translation commandment required. It was a totally unheard of, unprecedented charge from an angel to tell a young man to translate an ancient record without any learning strictly by the use of a stone–the crystals or the found seer stone.
And I wanted to emphasize that because I think we’ve underestimated the problem of self-belief. Why should Joseph believe in his own revelations? We think of them as overpowering, irresistible, but we have to remember that this was a society that was filled with visionaries; filled with revelations; filled with angels coming to people most of which were discredited. Why should this young man believe that his revelations were truly of God rather than a figment of his own imagination?
You do remember that when Joseph Smith went to the hill the first time and could not get the plates out of the stone box. For a moment there flashed across his mind, according to Oliver Cowdery, the thought that maybe it was not an actual vision but only a dream. In other words his mind had concocted it rather than coming from God. So something has to prepare Joseph Smith to believe himself and perhaps even more important for his immediate family to believe in him too.
So that instant when Joseph Smith went to Joseph Sr. and explained that he had seen an angel visiting him in his room, his father’s immediate reaction was, ‘It’s from God, follow the angel’s advice.’ If Joseph Sr. had not reacted that way, who knows what seeds of doubt would have been planted in Joseph’s mind?
Well the money digging experience prepared him for that because of the lore of the guardians of treasure; let us say that Joseph Sr. sees it as a guardian angel over a golden horde and interprets it that way, is that wrong? What I’m saying is that may have helped him to instantaneously react and say, ‘It’s good, follow it.’ Furthermore, what was to prepare Joseph better to look into a stone than to have looked into a stone to find lost objects and therefore prepared to look into a stone to find lost words?
So as I say it’s a speculative leap but considering all of the conditions of Joseph Smith’s life at that time I can see the money digging as possibly having played a part in preparing Joseph Smith for the unique role he was to act out in history.
I would think the problems of his self-identity were immense, figuring out, ‘What in the world am I doing having to translate when I’m totally unprepared and I don’t know of anyone before me who has been asked to do such a thing?’
Well the reason I recount all this to you is to indicate how problems that seemed large at one point, almost insurmountable–the treasure seeking evidence–if it is looked at and examined and thought about, can unfold in ways that we cannot foresee at the beginning and eventually come to be seen as a fairly critical part- contribution to the development of a prophet.
Let me go on then to psychology, which is one of the current ways of ‘taming’ Joseph Smith in the 20th century and that is to label his pathologies. What psychological disease can account for his revelations? This psychological analysis was not necessary in the 19th century because he was almost universally considered to be a religious fanatic and a religious fanatic, a very powerful stereotype is sort of almost as strong in western thought as racial stereotypes, had come with it contained within itself a psychological mechanism–you didn’t have to explain the psychology of the fanatic. It didn’t require analysis; it was just right there in the stereotype itself–fanatics acted like fanatics–that’s what it amounted to.
The first breakout from that view of Joseph was I. Woodbridge Riley’s Yale dissertation which was published as a book in 1902 at a moment when all of American social thinking was changing from moral analysis to social or psychological analysis. The moral analysis is what is good and what is evil; and why are people good and why are people evil. The psychological analysis is more like sick and well; how do people get sick and what happens to them and how do you cure them and make them well. And so, modern social politics is really based on this notion of social pathologies that must be cured rather than social evils that must be denounced and eradicated; and Riley was the first to take this tack which has continued down to the present and seeing in Joseph Smith an epileptic and his visions were a result of his seizures and since then, a variety of labels have been attached to him.
Fawn Brodie thought he fit Phyllis Greenacre’s imposture type with his weak personality that- a feeble kind of cracked up personality that gained strength when it was in its imposture roles. Robert Anderson’s narcissistic personality; William Morain’s buried trauma complex beginning with the leg operation when Joseph is so young, ‘Devastating the young boy,’ Morain postulates; and then being suppressed where the memory and pain of this trauma rumbles around in his subconscious and shapes everything he does thereafter–Alvin’s death adding to these traumas. And Dan Vogel’s notion of a dysfunctional family with Lucy as a depressed mother, Joseph Sr. as an alcoholic, the family is in poverty, it’s divided in religion and so forth.
These psychological approaches to Joseph have merits. They draw attention to parts of Joseph’s experience that you might not otherwise see–that’s the whole point of an interpretation or as a theory is to turn facts into evidence. You make them work to sustain some thought and therefore those facts leap out at you; you see things that were otherwise invisible and so they are helpful. But I don’t think that any of them succeed very well in demonstrating that Joseph Smith was a damaged person, that his life was twisted by his youthful experiences and therefore he became fundamentally pathological; which I think is what these authors are really trying to do.
And I’ll tell you why I don’t believe in these particular diagnoses of Joseph Smith’s psyche. Let me take the one which I believe has the most merit to it, or at least raises a significant issue, and that is the impact of the leg operation. No matter how you ‘cut it’ it must have been a horrible experience. (Laughter) Just another aspect of my genius, things like that come out all the time!
In must have been a horrible moment for him, for his family, and then to be in effect a cripple, an invalid for three years in those active years hobbling around on a crutch. I kept thinking of my grandson Max who is in the back of the room and how he was from ages 7 to 10 and how it had been for Joseph Smith to have been hobbling around all that time; and I think work does need to be done on estimating the impact of that experience–it’s just too significant. But I don’t think that Morain’s analysis works.
After reading Morain I consulted with a psychiatrist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, a man named Peter Jensen1 whom I happen to home teach that was very useful (Laughter) who is the head of a children’s mental health center and lectures all over the world about the problems of children’s mental health, and asked him, ‘Could a trauma like that have so marred a personality that forever after it would be limping through life or take many bizarre expressive forms?’ and he introduced me to a literature on what’s called the ‘clinician’s fallacy’; the clinician being the practicing psychiatrist who sees patients all the time. And, this method is to note cases of a similar kind and note common characteristics, such as the imposture or the buried trauma victim, and then formulate these common characteristics into this typology which becomes then described almost as a law of nature. And this is the way Morain does it, he says, to sort of sustain his interpretation he says, he keeps referring to, ‘This is what always happens to trauma victims.’
Well what Peter Jensen pointed out to me is that more scientific or statistically oriented psychiatrists and psychologists do is to not just look at those whose lives are damaged but to look at all trauma victims; all children who have passed through a horrid experience. And the fact of the matter is some of them are damaged, others survive, flourish and rise up to live quite normal and ordinary lives. So you cannot predict solely on the basis of a trauma that a child will be damaged forever–it doesn’t always work that way; you have to follow the whole life course.
And that’s the problem with looking at these things psychologically is we are too much inclined, because of our psychological bent, to turn whatever subject we’re working on into patients. We want to make them fit into our medical categories and so we stress all their symptoms, all their agonies, and we often overlook the strengths of the subjects and their ability to overcome devastating experiences.
So that’s one reason why I’m uneasy about taking William Morain and actually these others too seriously.
My second reason for doubting them or questioning them builds on what I’ve just said. And here I rely on the work of Erik Erikson, a name that 30 or 40 years ago everyone in the room would’ve known, probably half of you do now. Erikson is the famous German psychoanalyst who came to America and had an illustrious career here as a therapist but also as an intellectual and as a historian; his most famous book being Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History that attempted to explain Luther’s theology and his life and his religion and all of his experiences in psychoanalytical terms. Erikson, whom I studied with for a year and half so I got to know him and his work pretty well, was an ego psychologist and what that meant in those times was that he accepted the basic Freudian structural system of the superego, the ego, and the id. The id being ‘the deep passions;’ the superego ‘the conscience of the monitor;’ and the ego being ‘the I’, the conscious self that’s trying to hold a life together.
And what Erikson felt had been the error of psychoanalysis to that time was to underestimate the powers of the ego. Psychoanalysts, beginning with Freud, had seen the id and the superego as too cruel or unbounded forces that just crushed the ego and life was just sort of a constant struggle to ride this bucking bronco that your psyche truly was.
Erikson looked at the ego and its strengths, and its powers to mediate between the internal psychic forces and he came to admire the courage and the ingenuity and the strength of people in managing all the things that their culture, and their upbringing had thrust upon them and they were incorporated into their personalities. He thought people were extraordinarily resourceful in making lives for themselves despite the damage that had been done to them.
In fact, his theory of eminent leadership which moved from Luther to Gandhi was that the great men, the truly influential men, are those who had suffered from precisely the psychic illnesses of their time–confronted those problems, and dealt with them.
So my reply to Vogel claiming that the Smiths were a dysfunctional family is that they did indeed suffer from a father who failed to provide and who turned out to alcohol and treasure seeking and a mother who was under stress, and poverty that was debilitating, and disease–these were the ailments of poor rural farmers everywhere. Furthermore, I would add to his list the one that I think is most powerful and that was the ongoing insult of class. It’s equivalent to the ongoing insult of race, that those who are poor are continually thought to be inferior or incompetent in some way, degraded even and the insult of classes everywhere in the Hurlbut affidavits. The Smiths are condemned for their poverty, they’re considered to be lazy and a whole set of insults that were directed at all poor rural farmers in those days; and the Smiths had to live their lives under almost constant conditions of humiliation.
So you put all those things together and you have a Joseph who did indeed pass through many sorrows, many agonies, many rages I’m sure; but the very fact that he confronted all of those and dealt with them, and rose above them was a source of confidence to those who know them and what is most significant, I believe in this, is that Joseph Smith invested plain people like themselves with dignity, self-respect and hope. If there was ever a theology that gave hope and the promise of greatness to those who had suffered humiliation through their lives it was the theology that Joseph Smith presented.
So those are my responses to the psychological attacks–I call them attacks on Joseph because I sense they are just that. They are attempts not just to understand him, but to discredit him.
Which brings me then to the third question and that is the problem of women. The problem is that women were not officially involved in the Church for the first decade. They were certainly important as women always are; Emma was probably the most influential person in Joseph Smith’s life. I had the feeling he talked about almost everything with her–polygamy was probably the exception but my guess is he talked to her about that at first, early on too.
But she was the one who went to the hill with him; she helped translate; she confirmed his faith with her belief; she was a believer in Joseph’s revelations and she consoled him. And I don’t want to underestimate that. She was called, it’s almost an official call, to console him. Console and consolation are two of the largest words in Joseph Smith’s vocabulary–he needed consoling; he was a melancholy person who needed to be upheld and Emma did all that for him.
So Joseph never demeaned her or any women that I know about. Emma was told to expound and exhort, to write and to learn so she’s a woman who is highly honored. But neither she nor the other women had any official position in the Church–no priesthood, no missionary service, no preaching, no administrative authority. Some of them may have been present at councils and conferences but they were not a regular part of the council organization.
Revelations are addressed to elders and high priests but not to women as a body. A few women are mentioned in the scripture–Emma of course being one, Vienna Jacques is another. They’re present, receiving spiritual gifts, they’re supporting their husband–they’re engaged. Elizabeth Haven Barlow, whose letters I’ve just been reading, a woman who just wrote home to Connecticut just after the- or I guess it was Massachusetts just after the Missouri persecutions, her mind is right out there–it’s like Joseph’s mind–always is aware of where the Saints are, what’s happening to them, what’s happening to the leaders of the Church. She had great scope, she wasn’t just confined in a domestic sphere, she’s thinking of where the leaders are, how are they getting along and so on. So these women are involved and engaged but they’re not ‘officially’ engaged and involved.
Well all of that changes rather suddenly in 1842 and I don’t know exactly why. The women’s movement is in gestation–women are getting more and more active in reform, they’re preaching, they are finding public roles for themselves but these will really burst after the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 slightly after Joseph Smith’s time. But something in 1842–perhaps it is just sheer revelation–suddenly brings women right into the center where before they had been on the margins, they suddenly become central. Just think in that one spring, or that one year after 1843 the Relief Society is organized–not just an auxiliary to the Church, it’s not the Sunday School, it’s not the Mutual, Primary–it is a branch of the priesthood–women aren’t given the priesthood but they’re a branch of the priesthood. And Emma is given an administrative role as president, not on parity with Joseph Smith, but sort of as a match to Joseph Smith’s leadership of the priesthood. These are the years when the doctrine of eternal marriage and sealing comes out and the partnership of men and women is made essential to exaltation. Women therefore and the relationship of men and women becomes theologically essential. It’s not just a nice thing like being kind to your neighbors that you’re good to your wife, you have to be united with a wife for the men to make their way to the peaks of eternal hope.
And then finally women are given the endowment, made part of the anointed council in 1843, going beyond the Freemasons and including women in the highest ordinances. Women in all sorts of cultures were excluded from the Holy of Holies–only men were brought there–but women are brought in to these highest realms of Mormon ritual life.
So all of these things together made a huge difference. I would add however, and importantly, that we must not pretend that these changes meet all the expectations of modern feminists. Quite the contrary, women are more ensconced in the home and family than ever, they’re not told to go out and seek a career just like any man, they’re still under the authority of their husbands and plural marriage, of course, in a way reduces their place in the family. So this is not a feminist paradise but they were given a role at the very heart of Mormonism, Mormon ritual and Mormon theological life that could become an anchor for their dignity and an undoubted certificate of their significance.
I think in the Relief Society there is a potential for further administrative elaboration, which I don’t think we’ve fully realized in the Church even today, and may require more revelation and more expansion as the years go by.
Well, what do I deduce from these experiences with three issues in the life and teachings of Joseph Smith: treasure seeking, and his psychology and women? As the woman’s issue illustrates, I think we must remember we will not always be able to give satisfactory answers to our critics. We will never placate our critics completely and we should not seek to do so. If we placate them completely we are making our gospel, our history, conform to their sense of what life should be and what the path should be. In a sense, we’re caving in if we become too pleasing to those around them. We have to state it as we see it and recognize that there will be differences from what our critics expect of us and of what actually happened to our people.
We are different, we are strange; we’re weird! It’s just what Mormonism means–it’s the religion of the weird–here we are and we love it! (Laughter) And that’s just something we have to live with, it’s one of the insults of our religion that we have to bear. So that’s my first comment.
The second is one that’s obvious and which I’ve said over and over again, that when we run into a problem we should never evade it, we should never circumnavigate it, we should head right into the eye of the storm. In my experience, stating the problem exactly is half the way towards solving it. There may or may not be a satisfactory answer but stating the problem exactly brings the issue under control and paves the way for understanding of Joseph, trying to understand what he was up to.
I won’t claim that I understand everything that Joseph Smith did and probably no one can exactly. We live in a different time, we have different experiences but it helps to bring them- to state the problem exactly.
Finally, let me just say briefly in conclusion, that I do not feel that we have to protect Joseph Smith. We have to understand him. And personally, I take great pleasure in his flaws and in his weaknesses–they make him more appealing. He’s not a smoothed glazed ideal statue for us to examine. He was articulate, he was sharply sculpted, he was mobile and protean, he was ‘A Real Mensch’ as they say in New York!
So we shouldn’t be troubled if Joseph Smith is not a perfect gentleman, and is even offensive to us in some way. I think it’s the nature of prophets that they are idiosyncratic, a little wild, a little odd even. He was not a gentle self-effacing saint which we have some come to believe is the ideal Christian. He was, if I may quote a phrase, a “rough stone rolling” and frankly I think it is wonderful that the Lord should work through people like him.
Q: How can we come to morally accept or explain Joseph’s proposing to and being sealed to married women as per Todd Compton?
BUSHMAN: It’s a fact he was married to ten women who were married to someone else. I don’t know of anyone who has any answer or explanation of that that is founded in evidence. We have to create explanations for ourselves. Probably the best one is that he was very much concerned with bonding. He wanted to unite people. I concur heartily in everything Blake [Ostler]2 said earlier about blending people, unifying them in a bond of love is the essence of the gospel of Christ and of the Mormon gospel. That by working together we can do more than we can alone and Joseph Smith was obsessed with sealing–sealing everybody and this happened in his life to sealing himself to married women. It was not a practice that was carried on except as we know in various compensatory ways after husbands died, after his death, but he thought it was right and I don’t think there’s going to be- right now, I don’t see any explanation that will be satisfying to us on the horizon. We’re just going to have to swallow it, live with it, digest it and do or die.
Q: In the months before Oliver’s excommunication what was his relationship with Joseph like?
BUSHMAN: Testy! (Laughter) Joseph was beginning to feel uneasy about Oliver and his- there are many complaints against Oliver as you know, but I don’t know that anyone knows the inner history of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and plural marriage. There are so many things said about Oliver’s possible involvement illicitly ahead of schedule; and what we do know is that Oliver accused Joseph Smith of having an affair with Fanny Alger and Joseph’s chief concern at that time was to get Oliver to admit Joseph had never said he was himself committing adultery. Joseph was married to her. It was of immense importance to him not to be thought of as an adulterer and because Oliver was making these charges it disturbed those connections. So I don’t think Joseph was particularly unhappy when Oliver left despite their friendship that went back so many years, it’s a tragic moment, a tragic story but their relationship had unraveled by the spring of 1838.
Q: Has your research validated the concept that Moroni required that Joseph be married prior to receiving the plates?
BUSHMAN: There’s a little bit of evidence but I don’t write that down because I’m not sure that it’s true. It’s possible but, I don’t like to get out on ground that’s too shaky and from my point of view that’s shaky evidence.
Q: Do you believe that the money digging events and opportunities take common cause with the repeated visits of the angel that Joseph shared with his family describing the lives of the Nephites over several years?
BUSHMAN: Describing the Nephites’ lives over several years, is what the grammar said, or do you mean Joseph describing for several years the lives of the Nephites?
I don’t think he did describe the lives of the Nephites for several years. Lucy doesn’t say that. He began to describe it immediately after the first visit of Moroni in 1823, it went on for a little while, then Alvin died and that ended it. So that doesn’t go on for long–I’m not quite sure I’m following, “take common cause with the repeated visits of the angel.” (I’ll have to talk to you about that afterwards.)
Q: To what extent might the sea-change regarding women be due to problems associated with the introduction of plural marriage? Are you implying that he’s giving all of these things to women because he’s getting in trouble with women and especially Emma because of plural marriage?
BUSHMAN: I don’t think so. I tried to argue that making him a president of the Relief Society was sort of a sop to Emma and Jill Derr called me on that and said, you don’t have a scrap of evidence to prove that. That Joseph had honored Emma all of his life, it went with his sense of familial priesthood government that a wife would have a coordinate role with her prophet-husband. So, in that particular case I don’t think that the hypothesis can be confirmed.
Q: Joseph reportedly never succeeded in finding lost items by stone gazing. Would this failure have been a preparation for successful translation?
BUSHMAN: Someone was telling me last night that they got the question, ‘If Joseph Smith had a seer stone and he could find lost treasure why wasn’t he rich?’ And it is a fact that he never did succeed in finding any treasure. I have a little argument ongoing in publications with Dan Vogel about Joseph’s involvement in treasure seeking. I don’t him ever avidly trying to be a money digger. Dan Vogel wants to turn him- this is- into a career path–that he wants to, you know, become the head money digger of the United States. (Laughter) I see him always resisting, his father pressing him into it. I see him not really believing it was possible.
Martin Harris does tell a story of Joseph Smith looking into the stones and finding a pin in some straw and I think there’s evidence that he was able to do that sort of thing, what the magic people called a “knack”–he had a “knack.”
But the question is asking, having failed at money digging did that begin to turn his mind in another direction in preparing him to go towards translation? I would agree that that is a strong possibility. But that’s more in the Vogel sense of you’re defeated in your money digging ambitions so now you try the religious route, you’ve got to keep your options open; and that I don’t think particular true. I think he was overwhelmed by his religious experiences and that’s why he went in that direction.
Q: Can you comment on whether Joseph’s credibility as a prophet was undermined by the Kinderhook Plates?
BUSHMAN: The Kinderhook Plates has always been turned into a problem by those who insist that Joseph Smith was snookered by these characters who made them up and then asked him to translate them. The fact is he didn’t actually translate them. He was sparked by them, but Joseph Smith is sparked by lots of things. I’ve always said that he has a green thumb, he can plant a seed and grow it into a mustard tree so he’ll take a scripture, or a Masonic ritual or something else, and it sort of gets him going and then the revelation comes to him. And the Kinderhook Plates might have started in that direction but the fact is he never walked into the trap and those connivers never sprung the trap, they didn’t come out and say, ‘Aha ha ha! We’ve caught you off base trying to translate plates that are bogus.’ The confession is not made until the 1870s and the reason they couldn’t spring the trap is Joseph didn’t step into it–he never carried on what looked like might be a translation of the Kinderhook Plates. So, I don’t see that as really a damaging incident.
Q: Could the change in women’s standing be instigated by the influx of English Saints, i.e. Suffragists?
BUSHMAN: I don’t think there were many English Suffragists in the 1830s, 40s and certainly not among the people who joined the Latter-day Saint Church. It’s an upper middle class phenomenon–not a working class phenomenon and we were getting the working class.
Q: How much did Joseph Sr.’s drinking influence the prophet?
BUSHMAN: Not much directly. It was a source of great shame to Joseph Sr. and one of the most poignant sentences in all of the record is Joseph Sr.’s blessing to Hyrum expressing appreciation that his son Hyrum did not laugh him to scorn when he was out of the way with drink. And in my view this sense of a father who is damaged, who had really failed as a father, had a powerful influence on Joseph Smith’s psychology and was one of the great rewards of having the revelations of the Church come to be able to provide a Church that his father would accept.
Q: To what extent could the Wesley Walters 1826 trial document be a forgery? Is it universally conceded among LDS historians as being authentic?
BUSHMAN: I don’t think LDS historians think of it as a pure forgery, but it has now moved into the category of all historical documents that is it has to be evaluated. It has its biases. It comes to light, what? 60 years after the event so we have to think and worry about tampering. But I don’t think it’s inauthentic in the sense of it being a pure fabrication.
Q: How would women’s place in the Church have differed had Joseph lived to be old enough to see the second millennium?
BUSHMAN: That’s what my wife is always asking me so why don’t you talk to Claudia she has all the answers!
1 Dr. Jensen is the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental HealthóPutting Science to Work, and Ruane Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
2 “Fallacy of Fundamentalist Assumptions” by Blake Ostler. [FAIR Conference 2005] available at:
< http://store.fairlds.org/prod/p2005DV05.html >