Monday, June 19, 2017

Mormonism’s secret to success is its imperfections

I was watching Richard Bushman on DVD speak at some conference or other, the DVD — bought at alas, a remaindered discount at Seagull — doesn’t say where the conference was, or maybe I missed that information. In any event, Bushman is a valuable resource to learning about Mormon history.

He reminds us that history demands a catholic interpretation. When learning about Joseph Smith, for example, it’s just as important to learn what his critics thought of him as it is to learn what his most devoted adherents thought. And, it’s important to see all sides of an historical figure — the good and the bad.

Unfortunately, too often in politics and religion, many of us are simply unable to grasp that there is an opposing viewpoint worth respecting or flaws in our religious and political heroes. We know these negatives must exist; we live our own lives, with our personal doubts, failures and shortcomings. But the pedestal fantasy still grasps us.

I like this quote from Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, “Rough Stone Rolling”: “Joseph Smith did not offer himself as an examplar of virtue. He told his followers not to expect perfection. Smith called himself a rough stone, thinking of his own impetuosity and lack of polish.”

A secular reason for Mormonism’s success, or staying power, is its lack of perfection. In “Rough Stone Rolling,” all the contradictions and setbacks that accompany a full life are listed: dabblings in money-digging as a youth; vigilante activities; distinct accounts of LDS revelations; political demagoguery; failed financial ventures; and the secrecy of plural marriage.

Moral of the story: Learning, and correcting, builds lasting endurance.

There are many reasons Smith’s church has endured beyond the “God’s work will never stop” rhetoric we hear each Sunday. Bushman cites at least three in “Rough Stone Rolling”:

• One is that the young LDS prophet did not make himself the center of early missionary experts. Since Mormonism was not a cult of personality, it was able to pick itself up and thrive after the shock of Smith’s Carthage martyrdom.

• Also, doctrines such as latter-day revelation, the gathering of Israel and a priesthood authority — all progressive in that era — was a chief appeal of Mormonism to its early converts.

• Another doctrine Bushman cites as having great missionary appeal was the temple endowments, which he opines offered converts the feeling of a “direct access to God.”

Truth is, any review of Mormonism’s early history is replete with as many failures as successes. Large swaths of the early church members, including most of the original Twelve Apostles, left the church. Many people who left the early church were justified in their anger that drove them from Mormonism. We shouldn’t try to deny that.

On the DVD, Bushman is asked how he can write histories that delve into Smith’s treasure hunting and polygamy deceptions and not meet the fate of other LDS historians, who have been disciplined by church leaders. Bushman’s answer: It’s how you conduct and write about your research. If you don’t deliberately poke certain people, your research is better received.

Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek answer, but true. Bushman has found a solution that works for him. As an active Mormon, he treats Smith as a prophet, not doubting his visions or revelations. But he also reminds us that he was a man, subject to imperfections. The result is the best biography of Smith since Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History.”

-- Doug Gibson

Originally published at StandardBlogs

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