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Reasons

Behold, that which you hear is as the voice of one crying in the wilderness–in the wilderness, because you cannot see him–my voice, because my voice is Spirit; my Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound. (Doctrine and Covenants 88:66)

I was born in Salt Lake City to parents who had been married in the temple. I am a fifth-generation Mormon on both my mother’s and father’s sides. I had ancestors who knew Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. All of my immediate ancestors were in Utah before the railroad was completed in 1869. By the official definition, that makes them all pioneers. I have never wandered even for a few months from church activity. I have held many positions in our basically lay-run church from scoutmaster to bishop, stake president, and patriarch. You could say that I was born Mormon and will likely die Mormon.

Why then am I always interrogating my own faith? I am always asking why I believe. What do my beliefs mean? How can they be explained and justified? I have sympathy for questioners because I am a questioner too. Settled as faith is in my own life, I understand why people doubt. I see in questioning something deeply religious as well as deeply human. A Doctrine and Covenants scripture speaks of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” and then goes on to explain itself: “in the wilderness because you cannot see him.” That is the human plight. We live in a wilderness where we cannot see God. We must believe in him in his absence. The scripture goes on to further explicate itself by explaining “my voice, because my voice is Spirit” [88:66]. We live in a wilderness and listen for the voice of a person we cannot see, coming not by sound waves to our ears but as a spirit voice. If that is our situation, as it truly seems to be, how can we not sympathize with bewildered questioners? Under those circumstances, I too question God.

My answers to my own questions are partially philosophical but mostly practical. During my first semester in the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University, one of my new colleagues invited me to lunch. We had barely given our orders when he asked quite kindly: how is it that you believe in Mormonism? He did not elaborate but I could imagine him thinking of our belief in angels, revelation to ordinary men, gold plates and ancient records, and all the other extraordinary parts of Mormon history and religion. As a Catholic theologian and philosopher of religion, he probably was looking for an answer along the lines a Thomist would give–something reasoned and philosophical. Not stopping to think, I told him I remained a Mormon because when I followed my religion I became the kind of man I want to be. No philosophy, no evidence, nothing elaborate. Simply the personal reality that my religion helps me get better. That’s what it comes down to in the crunch. The scripture verse explains what will happen when you listen to the spirit speaking in the wilderness: “My Spirit is truth; truth abideth and hath no end; and if it be in you it shall abound.” For me that promise becomes a simple matter of fact: when I hearken to the spirit, truth seems to abound in me as the verse promises. By that I mean not just truth as propositions about the world but truth as in the true and highest way to live.

Staying in that practical vein, I sometimes tote up a few specifics about the church. What makes it work? While I am a constant inquirer, I like being a Mormon. I like its gritty, down-to-earth feel, and when I stop to think about it, lots of good things come to mind. Here are a few from a recent list.

1. I like what I call the basic discipline. By that I refer to the commandments Mormons are taught to live by. We don’t drink alcohol or smoke or drink tea and coffee. We stay away from extramarital sex. We pay tithing, exacting from ourselves ten percent of our income for use by the church. We give freely of our time to church work, as much as twenty hours a week for bishops. When I explained all this to a group of students at Columbia, one responded, “Ugh, you don’t have much fun.” But think of all the misery the world would be spared if no one got drunk, if no one cheated on wives or husbands, if no one smoked. Think of all the good that would be brought about if everyone gave ten percent of his or her income to charitable causes. We would live in a happier, saner, healthier, more orderly and elevating world if everyone lived like Mormons. I want all my children to follow this basic discipline for their own good here and now, apart from any eternal benefits, and so far as I can tell, the Mormons do better than anyone in making this discipline stick. Children are much more likely to adopt these good habits when everyone in the congregation lives by the rules. The whole village teaches the kids how to live clean and upright lives. For me, that is a big plus.

2. Mormon theology casts life as a time of learning. We are here to gain experience, Joseph Smith was told. Mormons hold to the standard Christian idea of a Fall and Redemption through Christ; the great object of life is indeed to cross the cavernous gulf that separates us from God. But we are put in this situation for a good reason: to learn about good and evil in a fallen world. In the long run we will be much better off for having struggled with evil. God has not cast us aside because he is furious with our rebellious behavior. The fall was fortunate. It introduced us into a phase of existence where we can become as the gods, knowing good and evil. This frame of mind goes back to a time before earth life when God came among the spirits and offered to be their God and to teach them how to attain eternal life—that is, a life like His. Mormons think of God as their ally, teaching and cheering them on as they struggle to make the best of their lives in this fallen state. The atonement of Christ enables us with his grace to battle with sin and eventually return to the divine presence. I like this because even in moments of despair we can understand our agonies as part of a plan of learning. Mormons rarely blame God for the evil in the world. We knew beforehand from our instruction as spirits that life would be hard and extremely risky. But we chose to come here anyway, and we have the faith that, by placing our trust in God and helping one another, we can pull through. I think that is about as good as you can do by way of explanation for what Mircea Eliade has called the horror of history.

3. Going back to the scripture about “my voice is Spirit,” Mormon theology instills a belief in heavenly guidance. Mormons take very seriously scriptures about “the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father” (John 16:26). We believe that anyone who will open his or her mind and heart can hear the voice of the spirit and learn from it. Mormons teach their little children to “listen to the Spirit.” In all our church callings, in making life decisions, in seeking to comprehend, in choosing good over evil, we listen to that inner voice. Experienced Mormons are almost always listening with a “third ear” for promptings about how best to proceed. Mormon theology generously extends this good spirit to people everywhere—to the whole world, for that matter. The spirit of Christ, we believe, bathes all of his creation and all who will pause to listen can receive its inspiration for any good cause—for art, for invention, for good works, for peace-making, for scholarly inquiry, for just management of a family or a corporation. The spirit of Christ—his voice—can be heard by all who will listen. Again from personal experience, I find this doctrine works and I recommend it to everyone. Creative and good people act under this principle anyway, as their accounts amply testify, but this doctrine recommends that quite ordinary people seek the same intuitive guidance for their lives. In the church it leads to the idea that our brothers and sisters can speak under inspiration; our bishops can give us righteous counsel; Sunday School teachers can be guides to our children; in a sense we can all be God-speakers to one another. A revelation to Joseph Smith before the Church came into existence sums up the doctrine:

And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good–yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, and to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy. (Doctrine and Covenants 11:12-13)

4. In my experience, Mormons know better than anyone how to work together for good causes. A bishop can make a few phone calls to members of the ward and turn out scores of people to clean the chapel, help with a flood emergency, paint a house, help at a shelter. At Claremont Graduate University, where I teach, the Mormon students have formed an association, and they get the same results. Put on a party, arrange a lecture, hold a conference—they can do it because they have been habituated from their youth up to working together. The absence of a paid clergy strengthens the cooperative impulse. Every Mormon knows the bishop is working day and night without pay for ward members. The least they can do is reciprocate. From the time they are teenagers, Mormon children are called to hold positions as class leaders or home teachers. They grow up knowing cooperative ventures are a basic part of life. Their effectiveness is more than habit. It results from a kind of simple selflessness. You don’t engage in church service to promote yourself. The idea is to get a job done, not to buck for an advancement or an increase in salary. You try to overcome obstacles and solve problems. I believe that because Mormons know what it means to work for the good of the order, they can be useful in many settings, not just at church. Because of their willingness and selflessness, they can be useful in advancing good causes in schools and universities, businesses and sports teams, and virtually every other site where people try to work together.

5. Coming at last to something slightly more philosophical, I admire the empiricism of Mormon belief. By that I mean that it is open to empirical testing, using concrete evidence. I once gave a talk to a group of evangelicals about confirming one’s beliefs by a spiritual witness. I thought we could make common cause in arguing for the validity of “self evidence”—that is, evidence about reality coming from within the self, such as the testimony of the Spirit of God. Some in the room, though, would have none of this. They insisted that their faith was grounded in reason and evidence. It was, they said, “falsifiable”—that is, you could devise an empirical test to prove their beliefs true or false. The example one of them gave (a famous one, I later learned) was that if someone discovered the bones of Jesus, proving his body had never been resurrected, this believer would give up his Christian faith. I was so surprised that I had no answer to give on the spot, but I began to wonder if Christian archeologists were diligently searching for the bones of Jesus, and, if the bones were supposedly discovered, how would they determine that they were authentically his? I realized afterwards that the bones business was not a research agenda. It was an example of what falsifiability meant. Actually digging to locate the bones—that is, to really put the Resurrection to an empirical test—was not the point. All that mattered was the theoretical possibility. I contrasted this with the massive scholarly endeavor to prove or disprove the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Hundreds of books and articles have been written arguing one way or the other. Scores of scholars labor away on the question. The issue is hotly debated. Tons of evidence are brought to bear. As with so many historical questions, a definitive answer may never emerge, but the search is not merely a theoretical possibility. It fuels a scholarly industry. Mormons are in the anomalous position of saying that a spiritual testimony, not empirical proof, undergirds their faith, while all the while furiously working to dig up evidence in support of the Book of Mormon. This is practical empiricism as contrasted to the theoretical empiricism of the bones of Jesus argument. I do not anticipate a conclusive, open-and-shut case in favor of the Book of Mormon, but I like the willingness of Mormon scholars to pursue the question. They are actively putting their faith on the line. They take the risk of failing. I admire their courage, and furthermore their arguments must be taken seriously.

A list like this can be expanded. Items doubtless will be added and subtracted as the years go by. This list and all future such lists are a product of my incessant self-questioning. What does my faith mean? What do I truly believe, and how can I explain it? Over time, these inquiries will doubtless lead to new prospects and broader perspectives. In my case, the interrogation all goes on under an umbrella of faith. I am looking to support what I know in my heart is good and true. Others may have had their confidence shaken and don’t know which way to turn—towards faith or away from it. I cannot say that they must swim toward the shore where I stand, or perish; the truth is that we have to find our own footing in our search for understanding. I can only say that Mormonism has served me well and that I believe most people would be better off if they followed the Mormon way.

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Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University in New York City, and currently occupies the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California.

Educated at Harvard College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and received his A.B. magna cum laude, Professor Bushman went on to earn an A.M. in history and a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization from Harvard University. Before joining the faculty at Columbia University, he taught at Brigham Young University, Brown University, Boston University, Harvard University (as a visiting professor), and the University of Delaware (where he chaired the Department of History 1977-1983, served as coordinator of the History of American Civilization Program 1984-1989, and held the H. Rodney Sharp Professorship of History).

Dr. Bushman’s first book, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), was awarded the Bancroft and Phi Alpha Theta prizes. He has also published Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1984), which was a History Book Club selection in 1985 and won the Evans Biography Award; King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1985); The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), which was a selection of both the History Book Club and the Book of the Month Club; (with Claudia Bushman) Mormons in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), which was republished in a new edition as Building the Kingdom of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), which garnered the Best Biography Award from the Association of Mormon Letters, the Evans Biography Award, and the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association; On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (New York: Mormon Artists Group Press, 2006); and Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). In addition, he has edited The Great Awakening: Documents on the Revival of Religion, 1740-1745 (New York: Athenaeum, for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1970), and Uprooted Americans: Essays to Honor Oscar Handlin (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1979). He has also written numerous scholarly articles in both early American history and Mormon studies, and his current research focuses on “Farmers in the Production of the Nation: Family Agriculture in Eighteenth-Century America.”

Among his many honors, Professor Bushman has been an Interdisciplinary Fellow in History and Psychology at Brown University and an R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Fellow at the Huntington Library, and has won the Regents Fellowship of the Smithsonian Institution, as well as a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He has been a Fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Charles Warren Center, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Delaware, the National Humanities Center, and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton University. He has received the Presidential Teaching Award from Columbia University and the E. Harold Hugo Memorial Book Prize of the Old Sturbridge Village Research Library Society.

Professor Bushman has served as president of the Mormon History Association, 1985-1986; as a member of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1989-1991; as a Council Member for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1982-1984 and 1989-1992; as president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, 1997-1998; and chaired the Advisory Committee to the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at Brigham Young University, 1999-2004. He is currently Co-General Editor for the Joseph Smith Papers project of the History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and chairs the Board of Directors of the Mormon Scholars Foundation.

See, additionally, Professor Bushman’s chapter in Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars.

Published January 2010