During BYU-Hawaii’s weekly devotional on Nov. 15, students and faculty were addressed by one of the LDS Church’s most well-known historical scholars, Richard L. Bushman, as he spoke of the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
Bushman was introduced by his wife, Claudia Bushman, as she said he is traditionally known as the “rock star of Mormon history.” She said he received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University. She also said he has received several awards for his books, including his notable biography “Joseph Smith; Rough Stone Rolling.”
Richard Bushman opened his devotional speech by referencing the environment of the university. “This is a very unusual collection of saints, in an unusual location.” He said it was quite different from educational institutions in his area of New York City, where he and his wife currently reside.
In his devotional speech, he drew attention to the work of historical scholars, whose work have discovered nine separate versions of the First Vision. “Some church members might be astonished that there are other versions… each one has a different emphasis,” he stated.
He said many historians believe the first recorded account was in 1838 because this was the year the First Presidency “sought out to record the history of the church for the first time.”
Richard Bushman said many critics of Joseph Smith, including biographer Fawn Brodie, pointed out the large gap between the occurrence of the First Vision and the official recording of it, as a viable reason for their questioning of the authenticity of the event. He said through the work of historians, the idea of the first account being in 1838 was “effectively displaced” as other versions were discovered in 1832, 1835, and others following them.
According to research done by Richard Bushman and other scholars, Joseph Smith wrote the majority of his accounts and documents personally and seldom used his secretary, Fredrick G. Williams. He also went on to describe some of the distinct differences in the accounts of 1838 and 1832.
“In the account of 1838, Joseph Smith did not mention God the Father, and he did not mention the darkness that surrounded him. He only was summing up what happened,” he said.
In contrast, Richard Bushman said the 1832 version placed an importance on worthiness. He said, “This account throws a new light. Joseph was not worried about the state of churches, but on the state of his being. The first thing the Savior did was to forgive Joseph of his sins.” He said Christ’s forgiveness of sins became a common practice of continuing visitations with the prophet.
Breno Rivera, a sophomore from Sao Paulo, Brazil, studying marine biology, spent two years of his life preaching the account of the First Vision in the Brazil Brasilia Mission. He said, “The devotional was incredible. It made me think how blessed I am to have the gospel in my life. With a step of faith, a young boy received the answer to his prayer, so all of us can receive instructions from God.
“I am so grateful for the restoration of the gospel because it was the same message,” he said, his grandparents heard, and as a result, “ I am here today.”
Due to the sacredness and complexity of the First Vision in the first decade of the history of the church, Richard Bushman said it was quite possible many members did not fully understand what had happened. He said the initial message of the church was “to convince people that Jesus is the Christ.”
Towards the end of his speech, he said some members likely base their testimonies off of the wrong foundations. “When [doubters] begin to question the prophet, they lose their faith in the Savior. Joseph Smith had been the foundation of their testimonies. Christ should be the anchor,” he said.
“To know [my husband] is to love him,” said Claudia Bushman. She said her husband’s level of passion for history influences his testimony of the gospel.
Brandon Chan, a junior from Malaysia studying biomedical sciences, said of the importance of the First Vision: “I know it is one of the many latter-day revelations that we received and it’s testimony to me that Heavenly Father still speaks to his children.”
Chan continued, “Heavenly Father knows us on a personal level, as the first words that were spoken by the Father were calling Joseph by name. There is no greater act of love and mercy when the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph than the atonement of Jesus Christ.”
Richard Bushman ended his devotional with a personal testimony of the gospel. He said, as far as his testimony goes, the fact that someone has seen God the Father in this dispensation is valid evidence supporting the truthfulness of the gospel.
Bushman continued onto his second lecture later that evening that focused on “the reconstruction of Mormon history.” He said he has visited with members who faith was wavering regarding Joseph Smith and the history of the church. One woman said she had to reconstruct the narrative of the First Vision. “We must ask questions based on documented evidence,” Bushman said.
In response to these inquirers, the church has since released published essays and compilations to help members and non-members understand the church better. “That’s what the Joseph Smith Papers were about: Getting to the bottom of his life,” he said. “We all have to somehow reconstruct the narrative with this history.”
Those who attended the lecture participated in a Q&A session with Bushman. One student asked about Joseph’s ties to the Free Masons. Bushman said the Masons’ ceremonies do have some relation to temple worship. “[Joseph] sensed inside himself those ceremonies had something potent. The restoration wasn’t just restoring truth from the Old Testament, but wherever the truth could be found,” he said.
Another attendee asked about a notable characteristic of Joseph Smith. One such characteristic Bushman found “troubling” about Joseph was his temper. However, Bushman said, “Not only did his anger erupt, but his love would erupt,” calling Joseph an effective, powerful leader despite his outbursts. “He was someone who wore his heart on his sleeve.”
In response to a question regarding the church’s past practice of polygamy, Bushman said, “Joseph received the commandment to practice polygamy in 1831. He acted when commanded from the Lord, except on polygamy.” Bushman said Joseph had a difficult time telling his wife, Emma, about it.
“There were deep conflicts in their marriage. They even contemplated divorce.
But she accepted [the commandment] and he trusted her,” Bushman said. After Joseph was martyred, he said, Emma kept a lock of his hair in a locket she kept around her neck.
Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates
Richard Bushman emphasized the significance of the gold plates at the Joseph Smith Lecture Series on Nov. 16. BYUH students said the lecture helped them understand how the plates were part of the American culture, a learning tool and an evidence of the Restoration of the gospel.
Bushman said the purpose of his lecture was to demonstrate how the gold plates continued to live after they disappeared and said he intended to write a book about it. “The point is they didn’t disappear… Both non-believers and believers have kept the plates alive.”
He gave several examples of how the plates were used in art, which included pop drama and literature such as the “Book of Mormon” musical and the South Park “All about Mormons” episode. He said the use of the plates’ history shows how they have been embedded into the American culture.
Taimi Guiterrez, an ICS major from the Philippines, said she had never realized how important the plates were to the gospel. “I’ve been on a mission and we always teach about the First Vision and the Book of Mormon. However, today I learned how important the gold plates actually were.”
She said she liked how Bushman explained why there were many different replicas and art forms of the plates. “I didn’t know the Mormon Pavilion was shaped as the gold plates,” said she about a building the church once used at a world fair.
Regarding the plates as a learning tool, Bushman said, “In addition to remembering… the past, we need to know what we can learn from it.”
Tatum Sammons, a freshman from Arizona studying business, said she found the lecture interesting, especially the personal stories Bushman shared of meeting different scholars.
“There is so much we can learn from him because he is a ‘Joseph Smith expert,’ as Brother Marcus Martins said,” Sammons added.
Bushman said the gold plates help prove Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. “The plates were the most extravagant and exotic part of Joseph Smith’s story. Although Joseph Smith said he saw the Lord, lots of others have said they have seen God,” said Bushman.
Sammons said Bushman posted a question that made her think of the significance of the gold plates. “He shared how the Moroni on the Hill Cumorah monument, Los Angeles temple and Washington D.C temple, have the gold plates kept on Moroni’s left arm. That shows how important the plates are,” continued Sammons.
Claudia Bushman discussed on Nov. 17 the compilation of interviews with LDS women she published while working at Claremont College, “Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays from the Claremont Oral History Collection.” The book features the stories of Mormon women from around the world and all their different walks of life. The women featured in the book discuss their feelings and experiences regarding faith and womanhood.
Bushman began by asking the audience to record their own stories. “First, you want to do it because you are a historian of your own life,” she said adding, “You don’t know what you really think until you write it down.”
Bushman said it is important for women in particular to write down their stories.
She said because women are socialized to assume their stories are meaningless, they think they should have nothing to say. She said it is hard for women to not apologize for recording their stories because it seems self-important. She promised no one would ever regret taking time to write down their own experiences.
Bushman told students why they should preserve their family oral histories, as well as record their own. “There is a proverb that says, ‘When an old person dies, it’s like a library burns down.’ Think about how much information there is in each person’s mind, and how important it is for the college students to interview their parents and talk to them – not just because they should do it, but because it will help them and situate them for their future lives. You need to know where you come from to know where you’re going. You will find wonderful things that are much more significant than imaginable.”
Bushman shared an anecdote to outline the importance of record keeping. According to her accounts, her husband didn’t remember a particular part of their courtship the way she did. Their differing accounts of the event led Bushman to look through her old journals in order to prove her point. However, when she found her journal entry of the event, she realized both of them were wrong. Having a journal allowed Bushman and her husband to get a correct account of their story.
Bushman said when she and her team were gathering the interviews, they weren’t trying to get anything in specific, just the stories of LDS women. “We went on a fishing trip for whatever we could find,” she said.
Jamie Loveridge, a junior English major from California, said, “I’m here for a women’s studies class, so I thought the stories that she gathered were interesting. The way they did their research was also interesting. They weren’t trying to get a specific sample. They were just trying to record history.”
Caleb Brady, a senior from Arizona studying business management, said, “I thought it was interesting to listen to a lady with a lot of experience and history related to the church and women, and to have her compile a story of women’s views on certain things.”
Rebecca Carlson, a special instructor of physical science for BYUH online, said, “I thought her challenge to keep a journal until the end of the year was very inspiring. I do write a family letter every week, and I write letters to my missionaries, but I haven’t kept a journal very much. I think people don’t realize the time we live in now has never been like this before and will never be like this again. It’s really important for everyone to write about their experiences. It’s going to be so precious to our posterity.”
Martins, chair of Department of Religious Education, said future lecturers will be chosen by the Religion faculty where they list names of LDS scholars, and they put those names to a vote.
“After that, we’ll submit the name for approval by the President’s Council and the Board of Trustees,” he said. Martins said next year’s Joseph Smith Series lecturer will be determined in the coming months.