Interview: Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman, Part II

Part I of the interview is available here.

BCC: What sort of conflicts (social, personal, religious, or professional) do you encounter as Mormon scholars studying your own community? What tactics have you adopted to negotiate your paths through such conflicts?

Terryl Givens: I can’t say that I have encountered any real conflicts to speak of. The term “Mormon Studies” arouses some suspicion, as it should. We haven’t yet reached consensus on whether or not there is such a creature, whether there should be, or how it would or should be defined. But when it comes to faith and scholarship, I have not. Richard has, I understand, to the extent that some historians say you can’t do a study of Joseph Smith without a naturalistic explanation for his visionary experience. Similarly, I imagine any number of critics might say, you can’t do a study of the Book of Mormon without proposing a naturalistic explanation for its origin. Well, that problem was largely obviated because my study was a reception study, and therefore included naturalistic accounts along with the accounts of LDS orthodoxy.

As far as scholarship that must be divorced from one’s faith, I don’t believe that is generally possible or necessary. In any case, it would be to play on an uneven playing field, and concede to the myth of pure objectivity. As Gadamer said, prejudice of one kind or another is the inevitable starting point for all interrogations, and “opens us up to what is to be understood.” The question isn’t are we objective, it is, are we honest?

I think it is hugely telling, that in my particular case, the New York Times, Harpers, and other major media called my work fair and impartial. Only certain constituencies more closely associated with things Mormon raised objections. I think this reaction is very similar to what Eugene England referred to so insightfully as Mormons’ “provincial anti-provincialism.”

Richard Bushman: My confession that I am a Mormon does, I think, raise doubts about my objectivity among some readers. The same book written by a non-Mormon would not evoke the same degree of criticism. I sometimes wonder if I would be better off not to show my colors, but that is what I do. The criticism is not really a detriment. I think it is better for me to face people’s actual objections to a Mormon writing on his own culture than to skirt the issues. Actually other scholars are fascinated by my situation. They love to hear me explain myself and are usually sympathetic. My aim when criticized is not to lose my composure. Rule one: never cry in public.

Do you think you will specifically revisit as a theme church women’s history, given the occasionally rocky reception of the fellowship program the year that it was devoted to women’s history? Do you think that could ever happen again?

TG: (I will let Richard answer this one)

RB: I would like to have another summer seminar on a woman’s theme. The scholarship that came out of the seminar Claudia directed was terrific, and the young women who participated have become fast friends. There is a lot more to do in this field, and I would prefer that LDS historians get in on the ground floor rather than letting outsiders set the terms of the debate.

BCC: So far as we can tell, neither of you sprang forth as fully-formed Mormon historians and scholars. Would you mind telling us a little about how you became interested in the field, and maybe address what each of you consider to be the minimum criteria for someone to be considered a “serious” scholar of Mormon Studies?

TG: I am still not a “fully formed” historian or scholar. I began my career as a scholar of nineteenth century literature, with special emphasis in Romanticism. My father was a book collector and historian, and amassed quite a collection of nineteenth century anti-Mormon texts. For some time I considered them little more than an amusing sub-genre of American. With some prodding from him, I soon came to see that this area had received very little scholarly attention. I then realized that literary studies gave me a special vantage point to investigate one question in particular: What light did 19th century popular treatments of Mormonism shed on the real sources of, and cultural means of resolving, anxieties about the “Mormon menace.” Viper on the Hearth was the result.

Later, I again used literary studies as a point of departure to ask, What can the reception history of the Book of Mormon tell us about the various ways it has functioned as a keystone of Mormonism and as a magnet for opposition. By the Hand [of Mormon] came out of that adventure.

To be a serious scholar of Mormon Studies, to my mind, requires first of all a good critical grasp of one’s own discipline and its tools. And then it requires a fresh question, that such training gives you the means to pursue.

RB: I sometimes say that every LDS scholar is partly a member of the BYU faculty if only to claim the right to complain about BYU practices. The same is true for Mormon historians and Mormon history. I have always been interested in Mormon history even when only dabbling in it. Mostly I wrote on Mormon topics only by invitation. The Beginnings of Mormonism came out of Leonard Arrington’s request that I contribute to his series. Similarly Rough Stone Rolling was a result of an invitation from Ronald Esplin. Even now I am eager to get back to my studies of eighteenth-century farming.

Serious scholarship in the sense of being taken seriously in the larger world of historians is very much a matter of style. You have to be rigorous, of course, and know the sources, but mainly you must know the intellectual world well enough to speak to it. If you are totally immersed in the Mormon world, it is difficult to hear how you sound when you talk about Mormonism. (The reverse is true too.) That is why so much of our serious scholarship comes from the diaspora. Scholars working in Utah are at a serious disadvantage, although terrific work does come from some of them.

BCC: Many of our readers are new to Mormon history or issues in Mormon Studies outside of what is taught in the course of our three-hour meetings. Where should people start, if they feel an inclination to learn more? Of what hazards should budding scholars be wary?

TG: The field is too large to suggest a reading list to fit all. Find where your passion is, and start with a good history or biography (like Richard’s) published by a major press. When you find a treatment that intrigues you, delve into the bibliography, and work toward sources that get you closer to the time and people in question. Or start with some of the better journal writers who take you right into the thick of church history as it unfolded, like Wilford Woodruff and William McLellin, or the autobiographies of Parley Pratt or B. H. Roberts.

For those weaned on church manuals, there will be the inevitable surprises. Joseph used a peep stone and a hat to translate most of the Book of Mormon. Mormons counterattacked the settlers in Missouri. Joseph Smith got in fist fight with his brother, and plurally married other men’s wives. Its important to remember that all history is selective, and that our construction of people like Joseph Smith into infallible prophets and purer-than-driven-snow Saints was something he expressly repudiated. We need to be a little more like the Catholics, who elevate this principle into a doctrine: the truth of a church, the legitimacy of its authority, and the efficacy of its ordinances, do not rise or fall with the personal perfection of any individual.

But perhaps the most dangerous hazard for budding student-scholars of Mormonism is economic. Feeding your appetite can be a costly addiction.

RB: One purpose of Rough Stone Rolling is to make information about Joseph Smith that is not generally known common knowledge. Church classes cannot deal with all the issues arising from the historical record. People have to seek out these things on their own. My book is one introduction. For the Book of Mormon issues, you can’t beat Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon. The work of the great apologetic organizations, FARMS and FAIR, is less effective because they only give one side of the picture. Looking through their eyes, you don’t see the debates as a fair-minded outsider would coming to the subject.

BCC: Richard’s said a few times now that blogging is a distraction, hobby, or waste of time. As a blogger I’d probably take issue with that or at least qualify it, but the statement to me has an unanswered question behind it — what should we be doing with our time? There’s an implicit suggestion that there is some task or study out there that would be more practical and more worthy — ideas?

TG: I am not a blogger either. On the few occasions when I have visited some of the LDS sites, I have been impressed with the intellectual rigor and intensity of effort that goes into some of the posts (along with abundant portions of fluff). And I always think, why not channel those efforts to a larger audience in a non-perishable form? At the same time, I am quite prepared to consider that blogging may be the nearest equivalent we have had in two centuries to the great European salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, where bright lights met regularly to wheel and deal in the currency of untested ideas and scintillating conversation. Academic conferences seldom have the informality and spontaneity to function in the same way.

RB: I think blogs have a critical function in Mormon culture. They provide an arena for free and open debate. Many Mormons feel perfectly free to talk about their religion from all perspectives but have no place to speak out. They can find like souls on the blogs and sound off on everything. It is said that conversation is the essence of civilized society, and that is what you get on the blogs.

My seemingly negative comments were actually expressions of wonder. People I knew with big jobs and heavy responsibilities kept turning up on the blogs. I could not figure out how they managed. I suppose it is a serious hobby filling time otherwise spent in golfing or TV.

What I would hope for is more serious and focused thought, the kind that Nate Oman turns out, rather than off-the-cuff chatter that is fun but leads nowhere.

Many thanks again to Professors Givens and Bushman for their time.


  1. Wow, that was a fantastic advertisement for T&S…

    Seriously, thanks for putting this together.

    I find the indictment of FARMS and FAIR fascinating. Kevin, since you write for FAIR, would you say this is true of FAIR?

  2. How is that an indictment? I think it undeniable that FARMS and FAIR don’t give a “big picture” – although I believe FAIR’s wiki is aiming to address the criticisms which entails presenting all sides. Of course that is still extremely immature.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t think he meant it as an indictment. We’ve had both Richard and Claudia speak at our annual FAIR conference, and we’ve invited Terryl. While apologetics has a scholarly component to it, it is at the end of the day still apologetics, or a rational defense of faith. So it is going to tend to be one-sided in how it portrays things.

    I for one feel quite comfortable putting on and doffing my apologist and scholar caps as the situation dictates. Personally, I think the strongest apologetics are deeply rooted in both scholarship and liberality of thought, but not everyone approaches these kinds of issues the same way I do.

  4. I think we’d need more good wine and cheese to make the Blogdom into a salon, though I for one wouldn’t object (I’m okay with faux vin but the cheese should be real).

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I agree with Kevin that there are uses for apologia as well as uses for more balanced scholarship, and I would encourage both.

  5. Spencer says:

    It looks like must have hacked a BCC admin account to be able to modify posts like that. :)

  6. Spencer says:

    Man, I meant to include Nate in that sentence.

    It looks like Nate must have hacked a BCC admin account to be able to modify posts like that. :)

  7. Aaron B says:


    Nate pays the BCC permabloggers $20.00 for every gratuitous, fawning comment we make about him. How do you think we afford to keep this show going given our day jobs? So you were only half right. :)


    I once threw a cheese-themed Bloggersnacker – with some really taste St. Aguirre and Camembert — and nobody came. Maybe next time I’ll provide real vino.

    Great series, by the way. Interesting stuff.

    Aaron B

  8. Great interviews in this series Steve–thanks for the great insights.

  9. AB, just throw said party closer to me, and I will certainly come.

  10. Eric Russell says:

    Nice interview, all. You know, I’ve always thought that we all need to be a little more like Nate Oman, but now I am convinced of the fact.

  11. I just lost all respect for RB.

  12. Did someone say cheese?

  13. Kristine says:

    Professor Bushman, I hope I won’t seem like an ingrate, but I find your response on the question about incorporating women’s history into the seminar wholly unsatisfying. The notion that it’s a separate field that can be treated apart from the male-directed, male-centered history of the church partakes of long-since outdated and discredited theories of history, and does real damage to the church in both members’ understanding and outsiders’ perception of the place of women in the Restoration. I hope that eventually, no historical project will be considered complete without careful consideration of the key actors, regardless of their gender, and that “another summer seminar on a woman’s theme” will seem neither necessary nor sufficient to the next generation of Mormon scholars.

  14. The notion that it’s a separate field that can be treated apart from the male-directed, male-centered history of the church partakes of long-since outdated and discredited theories of history, and does real damage to the church in both members’ understanding and outsiders’ perception of the place of women in the Restoration.

    That’s quite interesting. I’ve been thinking about this in light of the emphasis on women’s history month, but hadn’t come to any conclusions. Or have I made a false analogy?

  15. Kristine says:

    Norbert, I think it’s exactly the same problem; your analogy is apt.

  16. Nate Oman says:

    Kristine: I get your point in the abstract, but I am curious of what it ends up meaning in practice. For example, I take that you view historical writing as containing at least two categories: Authors who implicitly assume that “women’s history” is a seperate field that needn’t be dealt with when one is not explicitly focusing upon it, and authors who integrate women’s stories into their accounts regardless of gender. Can you give me concrete examples of both kinds of works, either within Mormon history or without?

    Put another way, can you operationalize your position at the methodological level, or is this a sort of intellectual “I have a dream” post that is meant to be absorbed at a more viceral level?

  17. Nate, I think it’s roughly fair to categorize most Mormon history work done until relatively recently as either addressing women or addressing “general”/male church history. Naming specific authors is of course unkind, although some have been self-aware enough to point this out about their own work. Thus, Quinn explicitly flags, as a weakness in his “Mormon Hierarchy” books, that women enter the discussion only tangentially — only once in a while, and generally only in their roles as wives of powerful men. This is a decision that Quinn is conscious of; many others working in “general” Mormon history have adopted the same male focus without as much explicit self-awareness. In many of our biographies of church leaders, missionary companions, converts, and peers in the church hierarchy appear as far more developed characters than wives, mothers, daughters.

  18. Nate Oman says:

    JNS: I don’t disagree. I am just trying to figure out what the kind of history that Kristine hankers after would look like in actual practice.

  19. Kristine says:

    Nate, I can think of a couple of examples (besides the obvious one of the church history summer seminars that went merrily along for a decade or so before anyone thought to give a nod to “women’s issues”).

    One really good example, I think, is the way Greg Prince includes Claire Middlemiss in his McKay bio.–leaving her out because she was “just” a secretary, not related or married to any of the important men around her, would have been a huge mistake.

    On the less good side, I think there have been plenty of things written about Joseph that neglect or trivialize Lucy Mack’s contributions to his character, plenty of articles about the succession crisis that make the mistake of viewing Emma as a tangent. And have you ever read anything about Brigham Young that does more than note in passing that he was married to 38 women, at least some of whom must have been interesting??!

    Women’s histories can make the same mistake–for example, it’s got to matter that Eliza R. Snow was married to both Joseph and Brigham, but most treatments of ERS focus on her work in Relief Society without paying attention to her involvement with men. (We call her Eliza R. Snow, without noting that she referred to herself as ERSS (Eliza R. Snow SMITH) most of the time–there’s a pile of historical work to be done on that one initial!)

    But feel free to absorb this viscerally, if that works better for you(!)

  20. Kristine says:

    Hmmm–that wasn’t quite fair; I don’t know if the seminars were merry, or if people were, in fact, giving a great deal of thought to how to include women in the story. I’m sure that at least Claudia was thinking about it :) !

  21. Nate Oman says:

    “But feel free to absorb this ciscerally, if that works better for you(!)”

    That is where I live…

  22. Hm. I am in favor of paying more attention to the place of women in our “regular” history. I am wondering, though, would this in practice mean that we have to get accustomed to spending a lot more attention on what we would usually think of as people’s personal lives, which we usually prefer to be discreetly reticent about? I mean, it is one thing to write about Brigham Young, or about one of his wives, and quite another thing to write about Brigham Young’s wives as a part of your writing about Brigham Young. Don’t you then find yourself writing about his marriages? and is that what we want to be saying–that our history should be much more personal?

  23. The challenge of creating an integrated LDS history lies partly in the structure of the church itself. Due to the fact that men are the conduit of revelation for the church and the idea that men hold all the important policy making positions, historians have been inclined to create a male interpretation of Mormon history.

    As Nate has noted, we are about 20 years behind in our intellectual framing of ideas. I have said elsewhere that the whole idea of the separate spheres paradigm was called into question in the late 80s/early 90s and I imagine we will slowly catch up. Such integrated history will percieve what happened to men and what happened to women as part of one larger picture, and “women’s history” will be seen as one essential but not primary part of “doing history.” Then historians will see both the men and women and the roles of each will be acknowledged and analyzed as part of a larger whole.

    One concrete way of thinking of this from my own perspective … I’ve been thinking for the last week or so about the manifesto and men and women’s reactions to it. Much is made of the role of Wilford Woodruff (as is appropriate) but what about Zina D.H. Young who was the General RS President of the time. She must have played a huge role in counselling women as to what they should do, and how to handle this huge transition in thought and practice. An integrated history of the manifesto would include both these perspectives. I have yet to see one, but then again, I’ve just started looking …

  24. Ben – I think that what this means is that history should be less institutional, less focused upon the formal exercise of political power. These are spheres in which women have been traditionally marginalized, and to the extent that American history has been about presidents and generals it has been about men. Rather the history we write could more interested in the social, the cultural, the exercise of soft rather than hard power. If we think about slavery in terms of the Dred Scott decision and the Civil War, women are often absent; if we open our history and think about it in terms of a cultural and social debate as well as a political one, suddenly the Grimke sisters and Harriet Beecher Stowe become more central. Given that even presidents (such as McKay or Young) do not only exist in terms of the hard power of their office, thinking about their history as a gestalt requires us to think about people like Middlemass or Snow.

  25. Ben, if we’re doing a general biography of Brigham Young, how can we think about not putting a central focus on his marriages? His teaching and practical leadership was fundamentally about plural marriage. Wouldn’t his marital experience be relevant to that? There is further work that needs to be done here; Brigham’s story is the story of America’s most famously polygamous man. Can we understand him without understanding his wives?

  26. Exactly what Kris said.


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