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Believing History

An exchange featuring Bruce Kuklick, Mark Noll, and Richard Bushman

A pair of pieces in the November/December 2004 issue of Books & Culture—Elesha Coffman's review of Richard Bushman's Believing History: Latter-Day Saint Essays, and James Bradley's review of two books touching on Mormon truth claims—prompted the following comments from historian Bruce Kuklick. B&C invited Richard Bushman and Mark Noll to respond to Kuklick's remarks. Our thanks to all three.

The two recent essays on Mormonism raise all the right issues. I have made my hobbyhorse in Books & Culture the failure of evangelical historians to face the problems that their faith confronts as they practice history. Why doesn't George Marsden tell us in Jonathan Edwards what he really thinks about the Great Awakening? How can he say that he just chooses to play by the rules of the professional game of history but that those rules need not constrain his genuine belief? What kind of professional ethos is this? What does it tell us about history as a rational enterprise that purports to get at the truth about the past?

These questions inform Elesha Coffman's perspicacious review of Dick Bushman's Believing History. As Coffman notes, Bushman does not have the same scruples as Marsden, and indeed tells us what he thinks really happened in Palmyra, New York, in the late 1820s. As Bushman explains in many ways in his collection of essays written mainly for his fellow believers, it was just like the prophet Joseph Smith said. Just what I asked for! This is a good lesson for me, for you may not like it when you get what you ask for.

Many years ago I worked closely with Bushman for a few years as a member of the American Studies Association, and his sobriety of judgment and practical wisdom impressed me, as they have many people. I was not close to him, but his seriousness of purpose increased my respect for his historical writing. Now this: the golden plates, the translation, and, as Coffman points out, even the stories about the ancient battles between Lamanites and Nephites for supremacy ...

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