For this week's online essay, go read A Joseph Smith for the 21st Century, in three installments over at Meridian (Justin at Mormon Wasp also has a short post on it too). This is a reprint of an article Bushman published recently in BYU Studies. Below are links and comments for all three parts.
In Part 1, Bushman argues that 20th-century JS biographies were split between a viewpoint taken by believers and one taken by skeptics, but that 21st-century JS biographers need to arrive at a more unified view of the man and his life. This suggests the approach he has taken in his own JS biography, to be released in late 2005.
In Part 2, Bushman articulates his objections to the seemingly middle-ground view of Joseph as an unconscious or "sincere deceiver" (as opposed to one who practices conscious deception) employed by Vogel, another recent JS biographer, but doesn't really spell out his own version of a middle ground position. He suggests that many non-LDS might be willing to describe the Book of Mormon as "the inspired book of a great world religion," but hints that most Mormons find that claim too weak, wanting the Book of Mormon to be in a class of its own.
In Part 3, Bushman surveys themes from US history that some have used to embed Mormon history in that larger story: religious seekers, folk magic, republicanism, restorationsists, utopian reformers, Jacksonian democrats, and millenarians have all been used as templates for Mormonism's role in American cultrue and society. Bushman himself adds revelation to the list, noting Shakers and Free Will Baptists stressed revelation as well as Joseph and the Mormons. Here's a parting quote from Bushman on this theme:
To me, that is Joseph Smith’s significance for our time. He stood on the contested ground where the Enlightenment and Christianity confronted one another, and his life posed the question, Do you believe God speaks?I guess this makes Joseph Smith a rough stone rolling across contested ground. [rewritten 1/26/05]