Richard Bushman

(Photo by Ramin Rahimian, New York Times) This morning’s New York Times has an excellent article on Professor Richard Bushman, respected scholar, and author of the groundbreaking Joseph Smith biography, Rough Stone Rolling.

As a young undergraduate at Harvard, one of his professors advised Richard Bushman to leave the relic of Mormonism behind, if he wanted a serious scholastic career. But, true to the Faith, Bushman not only retained his faith, but went on to become a well respected scholar and to write the most authoritative biography of Joseph Smith, the Church’s founding Prophet:

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Richard Lyman Bushman was offered some friendly advice by a favorite professor: he was a fine student, but his Mormonism was seen by the Harvard establishment as a “bunch of garbage.”

Mr. Bushman would do himself a favor, the professor told him, to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints behind as a relic of his upbringing.

“I reacted just the opposite,” Professor Bushman said in a phone interview. “I said, ‘You’re not going to bully me, you big representative of Harvard culture.’ ”

That was 57 years ago. Since then, Professor Bushman has retained his Mormon faith even while forging an Ivy League academic career, earning posts at Columbia and Harvard

As recent media interest in Mormons and Mormonism has increased, so has Professor Bushman’s visibility and defacto status as envoy of Mormonism to the outside world:

In fact, as his teaching and research focused on colonial American history, Professor Bushman also managed to become something of an ambassador for Mormonism to the outside world.

Now, with the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney (whom Professor Bushman knew when both were at Harvard in the ’70s and whose son is a member of Professor Bushman’s New York congregation), Professor Bushman is being thrust further into the public spotlight, becoming the nation’s chief defender and explainer of Mormonism. When The New Republic published a cover article in January questioning whether a Mormon was fit to be president, the magazine asked Professor Bushman to write a “Mormon” response. At the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s journalism conference in May, Professor Bushman was asked to lead a session titled “Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?

Believing that Mormons can only overcome prejudice with vigorous dialogue, Professor Bushman excels at his various and numerous outside media appearances:

And yet he says his stomach for so many media appearances, answering the same questions over and over, is born of duty to his faith. He believes Mormons can overcome prejudice only through vigorous dialogue with outsiders. For the nation’s nearly six million Mormons, a largely insulated community that is barred from discussing rituals outside of temple, it is not a natural posture.

As they receive more public attention, not only from Mr. Romney’s candidacy but also from the HBO series “Big Love,” about a polygamist family, and the coming movie “September Dawn,” about a 19th-century massacre led by Mormon zealots, “Mormons are ambivalent about how to respond,” Professor Bushman said. “There’s this feeling that we’ll rise above the fray.”

“I think we’ve overdone that,” he said. “That’s how a lot of misunderstanding gets propagated.”

Yet, despite, or perhaps because of Professor Bushman’s delicate balancing act between the worlds of faith and reason, he has his detractors in both:

At the same time, Professor Bushman’s efforts to straddle the devout Mormon and secular academic worlds have won him critics in both. His 2005 book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” (Alfred A. Knopf), a biography of Mormonism’s founder, upset some believers with its depiction of Smith’s father as an alcoholic and its claim that Smith wed 10 women who were already married.

Some secular historians, meanwhile, criticize Professor Bushman’s reliance on the writings of Smith and his followers as the best sources on early Mormon history.

“He never follows things to their final conclusions to say this did or didn’t happen,” said Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism at Indiana UniversityPurdue University in Indianapolis who admires Professor Bushman’s work. “He simply tells the story the way that Joseph Smith and his family and followers tell the story.”

Professor Bushman’s philosophy of owning up to our eccentricities, calmly explaining Mormonism’s doctrine is good advice for all Mormons, in avoiding a defensive posture and disarming what many consider the “wackiness” factor:

A Columbia professor emeritus who is being considered for a new chair in Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, he is the first to warn Mormons against defensiveness. He responds to the news media’s questions — which often reflect incredulity at Mormon beliefs — by owning up to Mormonism’s eccentricities, calmly explaining its doctrine, and, if need be, gently setting the record straight.

“Every time you meet a reasonable Mormon, you have to readjust your beliefs about how wacky Mormon beliefs are,” Professor Bushman said. “You have to say, ‘I can’t stomach it myself, but apparently it really works for these people.’ ”

The Church has acknowledged Professor Bushman’s time and talents in defending the Faith. They linked to and acknowledged his part in the Pew Forum on the Church’s website:

Once the conference transcript was posted online, e-mail messages from Mormons poured in to Professor Bushman, praising him for braving “the lions’ den” of reporters.

Even the church, which had not previously endorsed Professor Bushman’s work, linked to the transcript on its Web site. The church has also expressed interest in a seminar he is convening this summer, bringing together Mormon intellectuals to discuss how to better communicate Mormon doctrine and history.

Still, Professor Bushman puts it all in to perspective:

For Professor Bushman, the invitation to address an elite group of journalists on Mormon history and doctrine was itself a victory.

“Simply being accepted as normal is a pretty big step for Mormons,” he said. “That is the only progress we can hope for.”

Great article. The Church couldn’t do much better as an envoy to an often critical and superficial, secular world. I, for one am very grateful that the young undergrad was not at all bullied by the Harvard culture of the time.