Q&A: Historian Richard Bushman and the relevance of Latter-day Saint art

What was the first substantial work of art in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

If you ask Richard Bushman, considered by many as the dean of historians in Mormon studies, the answer centers around the church’s earliest temples.

“The Saints, without means, in their time of poverty, put a huge amount of effort into the Kirtland temple,” Bushman told the Deseret News. “They carved those sunstones, moonstones and star stones because the temple deserved to be beautified and honored by art. If you put beauty at the center of our religious culture, that means it’s sort of essential. Our greatest work of Mormon art, by far, is the Salt Lake Temple — it’s powerful, beautiful, uplifting, everything. Putting art as the center means that it becomes a model of our own lives.”

Bushman and his wife, Claudia, were in Salt Lake City this past weekend for a dinner celebrating his 90th birthday and events sponsored by the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts, which seeks to tell a global story of the Latter-day Saints through the arts. Bushman co-founded the center and serves as chairman.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, attended the dinner Saturday evening.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks with author, historian and scholar Richard Bushman at a dinner in the Marriott Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Rebecca Reed

During the dinner, the center announced an initiative to raise $2 million toward a survey of Latter-day Saint visual art from the beginning to the present, with the first step being the publication of an extensive “Guide to Mormon Art” featuring the work of 24 scholars.

The center is also planning an inclusive 2025 exhibition of Latter-day Saint art in a New York venue on Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum, followed by another installation in Salt Lake City in the Church History Museum and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, with travel to other Latter-day Saint population centers in the future.

Bushman hopes these efforts will help establish a scholarly benchmark for ongoing research.

“We need to have art. It’s a way of enhancing, exploring and manifesting our deepest religious feelings, including our despair, yearnings, strivings, fears and rejoicings,” Bushman said. “We need to honor our art and understand it better, use it better.”

In between weekend events, the author, scholar and historian spoke with the Deseret News about his birthday, his next book, the state of Joseph Smith studies, highlights of his career and which Latter-day Saint artwork he admires the most.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What goes through your mind when you turn 90 years old?

Richard Bushman: There are reflections on my life. What does it amount to? Have I done worthwhile things? Can I be pleased and satisfied?

That’s one side. The other is, in my case, I’m deeply preoccupied with the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts and with a book I’m writing on Joseph Smith’s gold plates. So I’m thinking the same thoughts I had when I was 40 or 50 — can I get my work done?

So my thoughts are sort of a cross between those two.

Richard Bushman blows out candles on a birthday cake at a dinner on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Author, historian and scholar Richard Bushman blows out candles on a birthday cake at a dinner on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Rebecca Reed

DN: What can you reveal about the topic of your new book?

RB: It’s about Joseph Smith’s gold plates. It’s called a cultural history, which means the history of how people thought about the plates. It’s not my effort to say what were they and to determine the exact truth of them, but to ask how they’re treated by both critics and believers, right down to the present.

Why that project? You know, I can’t give an answer to that. But I’ve always felt the plates were so luscious, something intricate, beautiful and strange. It’s not like just a nugget of gold, it’s gold that has been shaped to serve many purposes, with ancient characters inscribed on them and made by the hands of ancient people. I wanted to explore how people have reacted to that and what it means to Latter-day Saints today.

Richard Bushman, author, historian and scholar, speaks at a dinner on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

Richard Bushman, author, historian and scholar, speaks at a dinner on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Rebecca Reed

DN: What is the state of Joseph Smith studies today and how has it been changed by the Joseph Smith Papers project and books like your biography, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling?”

RB: Well, the massive change is the adoption of what the Church History Department calls transparency, and that is a willingness to seriously consider critical works about Joseph Smith. At one point, we just dismissed them as the works of wicked men, fabrications.

But every historical source has terrible biases in it. There’s no avoiding a bias. We’re beginning to be able to sift through the anti-Mormon biases to find out what truth is in them and try to assimilate them into our system. Thoughts that at one time would just seem too negative or totally out of keeping, we are now beginning to assimilate, and that’s being done primarily by the Joseph Smith Papers, which is considering every negative, every difficulty in the sources and finding a way to understand it.

My book was a part of that because I was one who ventured into a full-scale biography of Joseph Smith to be as candid as I could about the historical materials. I would just add that this has led to something of a crisis in that people who had been brought up with one story of Joseph Smith and suddenly had to grapple with another version of Joseph Smith that had flaws in it. For some people, that’s very disruptive. They couldn’t handle it. For others, it was kind of a relief because Joseph Smith appeared more human and real. So it’s been varied and sort of turbulent times, but in the end, if we can pull it off, we’ll be much more secure. We’ll finally have founded our stories on an evaluation of the sources that’s as accurate and balanced as possible.

DN: Which project in your career has been most rewarding?

RB: There are two books I put in that category — one is “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” as it did have a high impact and a lot of people have bought it and read it.

The other is a book called “The Refinement of America,” which is the coming of genteel culture to the United States, beginning in the 18th century, which resulted in erection of beautiful houses, the attempt to acquire beauty in your life and good manners, creating a refined person. That’s probably the book that has had as much influence as any that I wrote.

Richard Bushman, author, historian and scholar, speaks during his birthday dinner

Richard Bushman, author, historian and scholar, speaks during his birthday dinner on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.
Rebecca Reed

DN: What do you hope people will take away from your career’s work?

RB: I hope that they take away fearlessness, that they won’t be afraid to look at historical facts; that they will be patient in trying to understand the meaning; and that they will realize that history can never be totally objectified. That is, you cannot find the truth that everyone is obligated to accept, that the sources do not yield to that kind of demand. You have to realize that there’s going to be perspectives — some people will see the very same facts from a different point of view. If they do that, they will be able to respond when our story is criticized or undermined. They will look for another point of view and then decide for themselves which one they believe.

DN: What do the divisions in the United States mean for Latter-day Saints today?

RB: The first response is surprise, that our own brothers and sisters could differ so radically on certain things. They can’t decide whether it’s good or bad to wear a mask, and that sort of thing. From my own perspective, I think we have to think about how we value civilization. Because civilization involves moving away from dog-eat-dog, every man for himself. Fighting for your rights and putting your trust in broader institutions. Do you trust the clergy to give you a religious truth? Would you trust the courts to deliver justice? Do you trust scientists to arrive at truth? As soon as you give up on the institutions that allow us to live together, because we have some arbiters of what is true and right and good, as soon as give up that trust, then you’ve kind of destroyed civilization and you are moving back towards the law of truth, and that it’s just every man for himself. So that’s a very biased analysis of the world today. But it’s the way I see it.

DN: Is there a piece of Latter-day Saint art that you admire or has inspired you?

RB: I’ve always admired Minerva Teichert. Who can resist her?

But when I was doing research on art of the First Vision, I ran across a piece by a man named Paul Forster that showed Joseph Smith recovering from the powers of darkness as Christ and God come through the woodland to his rescue, and God commands the evil forces to depart, and Christ reaches out to the young Joseph Smith to give him succor and assure him all is well. It’s done in kind of a magical way and I really love that. There are other pieces, but that’s certainly one that captured my imagination.