Interview: Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman, Part I

Terryl Givens is a Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, and author of many books and articles, including The Latter-day Saint Experience in America, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, and By the Hand of Mormon.

Richard Bushman is a Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University and author of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, and more recently, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (coming soon in paperback!).

Both professors have edited and authored for a number of independent and Church-sponsored publications, and the two co-lead each summer at BYU what can be described as the Mormon Studies Dream Camp: a Summer Seminar on varying topics of interest to scholarly Latter-day Saints. This year’s seminar will deal with mormon thought during the fascinating 1890-1930 period. They were gracious enough to answer a few of our questions, presented in two parts.

BCC: Students seem to graduate from Seminary to institute. It is not uncommon for a student to have the full battery of institute classes and still be unaware of “Mormon Studies.” Do you find many undergraduates that have the volition and background to participate in your Summer Seminars? Is there a typical trajectory that such students follow to arrive where they have? What is the undergraduate to graduate student ratio? Is there a willingness on the part of BYU to encourage undergraduate participation?

Terryl Givens: At present, we are only targeting grad students for the summer seminar program. And what we are finding is that LDS students are, by and large, wonderfully conversant with their own historical tradition. There is no typical background or preparation that brings students to the seminar. We have had history students, religious studies students, and last year one from electrical engineering and one from business. What they all share is a passion to engage their beliefs and their past in a more intellectual and reflective way.

Richard Bushman:
In the first years, I accepted about equal numbers of undergraduates and graduate students with a slight predominance of graduates. The Smith Institute had good luck employing undergraduates as research assistants and I kept on in that tradition. My initial intention was for the summer seminar to provide research on Joseph Smith that I could use in my book. On the whole, the undergraduates did almost as well as the graduates. However, as the years went by, I came to see the seminar more as a training ground for graduate students on their way to a career in scholarship. I realized that the research we accumulated was less valuable than the fellowship of the common endeavor. LDS graduate students came to recognize each others’ capacities and spiritual commitments and benefited from that fraternal relationship more than from the specific work they did.

After Terryl joined me in the seminar last summer, he immediately saw the preparation of scholars in the making as our primary aim. He sees the benefits of bringing together young LDS scholars to sustain one another. That revised purpose will doubtless affect our admissions decisions from here on out, though I am reluctant to give up the admission of undergraduates entirely.

BCC: BYU seems to be priming itself to be the big player in Mormon Studies with the formation of the Maxwell Institute. How has working with BYU changed over the years and what do you see in the future as their role? Do you foresee any collaboration with the nascent developments at USU and Claremont?

TG: BYU has both strengths and disadvantages they bring to the table of Mormon Studies. Their strengths are their faculty and archival resources; in the former case especially, much of the best scholarship on Mormon topics has obviously been coming from BYU for a long time. The disadvantage is that anything coming out of BYU on the subject of Mormonism will continue to be viewed with suspicion by large numbers in the academy who think that “faithful scholarship” is an oxymoron. So I think BYU will continue to play a tremendously important role through individual efforts of devoted scholars, and institutionally through the Maxwell Institute and through organizations like the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities that straddle both realms.

RB: I think that BYU, and particularly the Maxwell Institute, will want to cooperate with programs like those emerging at USU and Claremont. Already there is cooperation with USVC. I am not aware, however, of any major plans to go heavily into Mormon Studies. Ambitious though the Maxwell Institute may be, it will be constrained by the BYU’s situation. It is after all a branch of the official church. A division of labor may develop where BYU scholars prepare materials for Church audiences, and LDS scholars in the diaspora engage in dialogue with the larger world.

BCC: There have always been sensitive topics in the Church. Historically, BYU and BYU Studies haven’t been particularly friendly to discussions of such things. Do you see your publications as opening the discussion up beyond closed doors? Are BYU and BYU Studies willing to host discussion and publish on topics that they historically haven’t?

TG: I have never set out self-consciously to push the envelope or challenge the orthodox boundaries of Mormon studies or historiography. I don’t think I have engaged in particularly controversial questions, but neither have I deliberately avoided them. Its just that I find myself fully occupied trying to address questions that I find personally urgent: was there more to Mormonism’s contentious relations with the mainstream than traditional historical accounts tell us? How does one explain the potent capacity of the Book of Mormon to draw millions into its orbit, while simultaneously outraging other millions? Is there really such a thing as Mormon culture? What kind of philosophical and theological depth do we find when we examine Joseph Smith’s thought? Generally, I find much more to celebrate than to deplore when I attack these questions.

As for BYU and BYU Studies, I think in an environment where dissident and alternate voices proliferate in very formal settings, there has been a tendency for many participants in the dialogue to define themselves against the “other,” and this has resulted in more polarization than I would like to see. Recent efforts of some to organize Mormon Studies around facile categories like “faithful scholars” and “New Mormon Historians” and the like aggravate rather than ameliorate this problem. Mormon intellectual culture is not a two party system.

RB: I don’t see many signs of a shift yet.

BCC: The zeitgeist at the LDS Archives seems to be one of opening and liberalization. It would seem that this is also the case at BYU. Why do you think that is?

TG: No one reason. The internet has made our cloistered guardedness of the past impossible; perhaps generational changes, shifting opinions about the value of scholarship to the church, the professionalization of Mormon history writing, the widespread scholarly interest in Mormonism, more moderate coverage by the media and the openness of publishers to let Mormons tell their own story, all have conspired to make the church less suspicious and guarded.

RB: The Archives are now quite open to serious scholars. Even the historians that we label as anti-Mormon work there. There is probably a realization that little is gained by hiding historical materials.

BCC: How long will these Summer Seminars continue at BYU, and who decides that? What are your goals for the conference? What would qualify as a success?

TG: We hope to continue these seminars indefinitely, though not every year. I see our goals as two-fold: provide an intellectually rich environment for the intensive study of Mormon doctrine and history, to assist in the training of the next generation of Mormon scholars who will be doing the important work in any number of fields which intersect with those areas. And we hope to do this in an environment that lends powerful confirmation to the truth that the strongest faith and the most rigorous scholarship are mutually sustaining.

RB: The Summer Seminars are funded by outside money. BYU provides space, use of the library, and many valuable amenities but does not pay any of the direct expenses. Right now we are going from year to year, with sufficient funds for 2007. Beyond that it is impossible to predict.

I would also like to sponsor conferences for LDS scholars like the one for graduate students in Divinity Schools and religious studies programs at Yale February 16-17. I counted it as a great success because I felt the participants were truly sincere and earnest. They were talking about issues involving faith and knowledge that lie at the very heart of their spiritual and professional lives. We need to collect other groups of young LDS scholars to discuss issues of comparable weight.

Next, in Part II: community conflicts, womens’ issues, and (of course) blogging.


  1. Nate Oman says:

    Steve: Good stuff. Thanks for doing this…

  2. Agreed. Thanks for pulling this together, and thanks to Drs. Bushman and Givens for these interesting responses.

  3. I look forward to the next part.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I loved Richard’s notion of a division of labor, and I especially liked his allusion to the LDS diaspora (much better than mission field [g]).

  5. Matt W. says:

    Kevin, I’m glad you brought that up, I was thinking the same. I find it interesting that U of U, and UVSC, and USU are in the diaspora, and BYU(U, I, and H, I would presume) is the Holy Land here. Fun questions are what side of the division of Labour one falls on if the got all their degrees from BYU, but work at USU, or if they got all their degrees from USU and work at BYU, etc.

  6. Mark IV says:

    I agree, Kevin. It is interesting that although the event is held on campus in Provo, Givens and Bushman are not on the faculty there. But it is good to see them all converge every summer.

    Thanks Steve.

  7. I think the summer seminar is an outstanding resource for LDS graduate students interested in incorporating a Mormon Studies angle into their research program. LDS students with such an interest face some very real professional difficulties; this seminar is one of the few institutional programs that gives encouragement and positive guidance. I hope it succeeds and continues. Given all the Mormon money chasing programs at the moment (Maxwell, USU, Claremont, etc.), someone should throw some money at this one!

  8. Kristine says:

    So, I have to ask–what has been the ratio of male/female students in the seminars?

  9. larryco_ says:

    First of all, I have to say that Richard Bushman is one of my two favorite LDS historians (Thomas Alexander being the other). Yet, I’m amazed at his continuing high standing at BYU and among other conservative authorities after writing “Rough Stone Rolling”. Yes, we all know that he wrote very little that was not already known by individuals who follow LDS history and that he framed it in a fair but apologetic slant.
    But one of his chief quotation sources was Michael Quinn, for goodness sakes, and look what happened to him. He got exed, BYU professor friends shunned him like the plague, and now the man struggles to find a job. And Quinn is one of the more orthodox of his sources. Strident anti-Mormons (and just plain anti-religion) authors like Dan Vogel are also heavily quoted. Now, I’m not questioning anything about Bushman’s magnum opus; I’m just surprised that the book that laid out, in one convenient volume, many of the flaws and controversies of Joseph Smith to the general public has not has a greater backlash from the Brethren than being pulled fairly quickly from Deseret Bookstore shelves.

  10. Mark IV says:

    larryco_, I don’t think it got pulled from DB. I was in the store across the street from church headquarters last December and bought a copy. I just checked DBs online site and it is readily available there, too.

  11. Larryco_, Mark IV is right. Prof. Bushman’s book is alive and well at DB and Church-owned bookstores near you. There has been no backlash from the Brethren; in fact, if you do a little digging you will see that the reaction from the Church has been overwhelmingly positive.

    And I would also take issue with your statement that Quinn is one of the book’s “chief quotation sources.” Those who have the book in front of them can verify this quicker than I, but I am fairly sure that this is not the case.

  12. larryco_ says:

    A better phrase may be that the book has been “de-emphasized”. For it’s first two weeks, it was in center display in most DB’s, but I have not been able to spot it the past year in either the Valley Fair Mall or Jordan Landing locations. But your observation is all the more to my point; that Br. Bushman has escaped ecclesiastical scrutiny while others, writing the same information, have paid dearly.

  13. Larryco_, again — he hasn’t “escaped” scrutiny in the least. Rather, the scrutiny has resulted in praise.

    As to why you might not see the book in some locations…. there a host of reasons: 1. It’s transitioning to paperback; 2. They were out of stock; 3. It was elsewhere in the DB locations…. who knows. But nobody has been “de-emphasizing” the book or blacklisting it or anything.

    Your comments seem to rest on the presumption that Prof. Bushman’s work and Quinn’s work are the same, or “writing the same information.” That is most definitely not so.

  14. Ditto to Steve. Especially take a look at Quinn’s entry for Women and Authority which reportedly was the actual text that got him in trouble. I don’t think most would have trouble with most of the paper. It was that last page where he starts drawing implications with clear political aims that I think some get uncomfortable. Agree or disagree with Quinn or those who attacked him. But there is a clear difference there from Bushman. Move into some of the books post-ex communication and there are even more differences. Say the second edition of Magic World View.

    I just can’t see Bushman doing a lot of those things even if Bushman might agree with a lot of the historic interpretations.

  15. Eric Russell says:


    Anything that is not published by Deseret Book is fairly quickly “de-emphasized” in Deseret Book bookstores.

  16. Kristine says:

    Um, it’s fairly common for retailers to market a book more heavily in the first few weeks after its publication. Nothing nefarious there.

  17. Thanks Steve- this is very informative- looking forward to more.

  18. Terryl,
    Have you written a children’s book called, “Dragon Scales and Willow Leaves”?!

  19. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    These seminars are such a great thing. Bushman and Givens are really supporting young scholars and giving them a chance to grow. I hope the series will continue long into the future.

    “the strongest faith and the most rigorous scholarship are mutually sustaining.”


  20. Joe Doaks says:

    The frank comments of Bushman and Givens are much appreciated, but Bushman’s use of the term “diaspora” is not well-chosen. The Jewish diaspora is in exile from their Holy Promised Land, while Mormon Utah is a temporary refuge or way-station on the path back to Jackson County, Missouri. More important, most LDS intellectuals (including Bushman & Givens) live outside Utah, something which Carl Mosser & Paul Owen had a hard time understanding in their important 1998 article in Trinity Journal. Indeed, life in Provo may tend to lead to insularity and a notion that the bipolar Utah atmosphere is normal and acceptable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  21. Steve Evans says:

    Joe, I don’t think you’re understanding what he’s referring to by the term “disapora.” He’s not referring to Missouri. And your sentence about the “bipolar Utah atmosphere” not being normal or acceptable is not only offensive to many, but unprovable. Please keep wild rhetoric in check.


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