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Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays
Richard Lyman Bushman
Columbia University Press, 2004
312 pp., $100.00
by Elesha Coffman
The Historian as Latter-Day Saint
It is dangerous to make too much of the title of a book, as a title may reflect an inscrutable mixture of authorial intention and marketing savvy, inspiration, and desperation. In the case of Believing History, a new collection of Richard Lyman Bushman's essays, however, the title is an apt summation of the issues explored within.
Bushman built his academic reputation through investigations of early American social history, published in books such as From Puritan to Yankee and The Refinement of America. On a parallel track, he studied his own religious tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with special attention to its founder, Joseph Smith, and its seminal text, the Book of Mormon. Believing History brings together 17 of his Latter-day Saint essays, spanning about 30 years of thought. Because nearly all of the essays originally appeared in LDS publications of one sort or another, even readers who are familiar with Bushman might never have encountered these pieces.
The title word "believing" can be read as a modifier applied to "history," the way one might use "social," "Marxist," or "feminist." The editors of the volume, Jed Woodworth and Reid Nielson, suggest this reading in their introduction. They cite historians George Marsden and Grant Wacker, both of whom have argued that religious perspectives have as much right to a hearing in the academy as any others. The argument seems to have carried the day. Marsden recently won both the Bancroft and Curti prizes for his biography of Jonathan Edwards, and Wacker's 2001 book on early Pentecostalism, Heaven Below, earned, among other accolades, an Award of Excellence from the American Academy of Religion. It is no insult to the quality of Bushman's work to suggest that, just a decade ago, in the atmosphere Marsden described in The Soul of the American University, Believing History would not have been published by Columbia University Press but rather, as the editors originally planned, by Brigham Young ...