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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 on the American continent. It never happened; to believe it is lunatic, madcap. How can Bushman stare out at us from his photos in the book, looking serene and benign?

Bushman wobbles a bit when he stoops to a theoretical defense of his position. He is no philosopher of history. Sometimes he argues that the likes of me are too devoted to the "scientism" of the culture, while at other times he nods agreeably in the direction of science. He says explicitly that the postmodernists have rightly demolished claims of objectivity. Here he mistakes what is already regarded as one of many academic fads for something more—and, I think, does not understand that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend: postmodernists are more dangerous to him than I am. At other times, Bushman suggests that merely telling us accurately what the sources say is enough for the historian to do—another view that is false.

Coffman does let Bushman mostly off the hook on these issues. But for Bushman they are minor. He has listened to incredulous critics before and, as he intimates again and again, ultimately he believes because he believes. Faith trumps history, as it should. But even Coffman is "dumbstruck" at this conclusion. You sense this in her legion of negatives: "it does not … work well as history, at least not for non-Mormons."

Confronting Bushman presents one problem for evangelicals and a different one for me. James Bradley, in his review of two different books on the Mormons, sees a possible rapprochement between them and evangelicals. I don't think so. Ecumenism may develop in Christianity because there is a consensus about the historical basis of Christian beliefs, even if there is disagreement about what they mean. This is not the case for Mormons and evangelicals. If all those things Dick Bushman talks about really took place, evangelicals have to pack up their tents. The key issue for evangelicals is not the possibility of rapprochement but that their disbelief in Mormon facts should give them pause about Christian facts.

The passage of time has diminished the unbelievability of the core Christian historical beliefs for evangelicals. Their problem is that 1800 years is a blink of the eye, and exactly the same sort of reasoning that makes us wary of Bushman's account should make us wary of the historical accuracy of what evangelicals might tell us happened during the ministry of Jesus and at his death.

My problem is different. What do you do with a historian who elaborates a connected series of ideas we have every reason to think are false, and who defends his narrative by simply saying he has faith? It is clear to me Bushman is not functioning as an historian; if he is, he merits our contempt, not a respectful review. Coffman seems to think that we have made progress because Columbia University Press, where Bushman taught, and not Brigham Young University has published the book. I find it disturbing.

Bushman has two reputations. He has carved out a niche as a trustworthy historian, but his other life, as an apologist for Mormon truths, has been largely lived within the community of Latter-day Saints. The editors of Believing History collected these essays and proposed their publication at first by BYU. In some ways they take Bushman out of the closet. One can imagine George Marsden submitting an essay to the American Historical Review arguing that the Great Awakening really manifested God's choice of New England as the specific carrier of His will in the world.

Both Bushman and evangelicals are aware of a line whose crossing has some consequence. Bushman is clearer about the nature of the transgression he has made and what it means for his chosen profession. Evangelicals, as Coffman says, are more "diffident." She also says that they are more "responsible." I am not so sure—I would say more fearful of trespass.

My problem is the stretching of my tolerance. I am a great believer in the virtues of open dialogue. People ought to speak their minds, and free conversation will lead to accommodation, forbearance, and mutual understanding. Let's talk, I want to say. Bushman shows the limit of my commitments. His religion is a conversation stopper.

—Bruce Kuklick, University of Pennsylvania

Richard Bushman replies:

Obviously Bruce Kuklick is much more invested in historical method than I am. He believes that anything that escapes that method is "lunatic, madcap." I am less certain about the comprehensiveness and the exclusiveness of written history. I wouldn't bet my life on any historian's findings, including my own. I am always conscious of the contingency of my scholarship, how much it depends on the facts I happen to select, on the ideas that come to mind from heaven knows where, on my unconscious predilections. Desire enters far more freely into our rationality, in my opinion, than Kuklick's airtight confidence in historical reasoning acknowledges.

That being so (and Kuklick might agree with me up to this point), do I have a right to fly into orbit with angels and gold plates? To him this seems like an utter abandonment of rationality. I would agree that it is an abandonment of common sense, that is, what seems plausible to the bulk of educated people. But within Mormonism there is a large body of scholarship in support of the Book of Mormon's historical authenticity. It is highly contested, of course, but it has a rationality of its own. Educated, sensible Mormons find it persuasive. That the majority of the scholarly world dismisses this scholarship does not automatically nullify its validity. The disjuncture between the convictions of Mormons and the common sense of most educated people drives home the point that all rationalities begin with a point of view and something like desire. There are many kinds of rationality.

What I object to in Kuklick's comment is his implicit assertion that his form of historical rationality is the orthodox and only acceptable form. Everyone else is a fool. Anyone who believes in the historical miracles of religion—the parting of the Red Sea, the revelation on Sinai, the Resurrection, the visit of Gabriel to Mohammad, or the gold plates—or anyone who feels a divine intervention in his own life, has lost his or her senses. These convictions must be forbidden in rational discourse.

Does this mean that Catholics who believe in the Virgin Birth are not allowed to write about the New Testament? Can a believing Muslim write about Mohammad? What about orthodox Jews and Genesis and Exodus? Surely secular historians do not wish to reject every effort of believers to write histories based on the assumption that the founding miracles were factual. One may discredit these viewpoints when it comes to choosing how to live and think oneself, but one rationality cannot pass absolute, a priori judgment on all other forms of human belief.

The essays in Believing History are an example of Mormon rationality in action. For the most part, they were not written to persuade nonbelievers to accept the facts of Joseph Smith's miraculous history. They were an attempt to bring together the rationality of ordinary historical discourse with Mormon belief about their scriptures and their prophet. The essays were written from within the system of Mormon thought for the benefit of believers, making them an artifact of Mormon intellectual history. General readers are invited to observe and account for this cultural phenomenon within their own systems of belief.

Insofar as the essays were a challenge to historians to debate the Book of Mormon and Smith's revelations, the appropriate response is to join the argument, not to dismiss the ideas as madcap.

Mark Noll replies:

Bruce Kuklick's challenge to believers who follow one of the classical Christian traditions is straightforward: You (he says) have all kinds of objections to the Mormon supernaturalism that Richard Bushman wants to protect in his writings on Joseph Smith. In your view, Smith, either self-consciously or unselfconsciously, was either deluded or deluding. Yet (he goes on) the critical apparatus you traditional Christians want to use on Bushman cuts just as sharply against the supernaturalism of your own traditions, especially the biblical miracles (creation-incarnation-resurrection-promise of eschaton) at the heart of traditional Christian faith.

Kuklick is convincing in many parts of his critique against both Bushman and traditional Christians. He is especially shrewd in realizing that postmodernism offers no real help for supernaturalists. Tactically, postmodernism may open a little space in the academy for particularist points of view (like supernaturalism), but strategically its denial of universal truth-claims is fatal.

Kuklick's main error is his overconfidence in what history, all by itself, can accomplish. Someday I want to write a book that is entirely devoted to responding to Bruce and his type of arguments. He and they deserve no less. But for now I have time for only a few counter-assertions:

(1) History by itself can neither confirm nor deny claims to the supernatural.

(2) Even modern history-writing, with all of its critical achievements, cannot act as an independent judge of the reliability of accounts about miracles.

(3) History, like science, is great at recording what people observe and say, organizing and assessing those words and observations, and constructing narratives to explain what they mean.

(4) But by themselves, history and science cannot adjudicate truth claims of the sort Bushman makes for Joseph Smith, traditional Christians make for the resurrection of Christ, and Kuklick makes for the impossibility of miracles.

(5) Only much fuller considerations, which are self-consciously moral and philosophical, as well as rigorously empirical and experiential, can do the job.

(6) Such considerations require heightened self-consciousness in argumentation, and (most importantly) they must be read against the lives of individuals and communities who make the truth (and anti-truth) claims in order to arrive at convincing conclusions.

But an essential last word is to thank Bruce Kuklick for pushing his questions with such clarity and such charity.

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