CLAREMONT, Calif. Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 450 people, Church historian Richard Bushman gave the keynote address for the "Joseph Smith and the Prophetic Tradition: A Comparative Inquiry" conference held at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) on October 20-21.
Brother Bushman's address set the tone for this academic conference that examined the impact of Joseph Smith in American history.
The conference was sponsored by CGU's Council for Mormon Studies, whose mission is to "create an environment where the scholarly study of the faith traditions that descended from Joseph Smith can flourish in dialogue with the study of other traditions in the American context and beyond," explained Joseph I. Bentley, council member and the Church's Orange County director of public affairs.
In his keynote address, Brother Bushman said that Joseph Smith was successful because he met the "needs of his age" and "offered new sites for encountering the sacred." Brother Bushman is an emeritus professor from Columbia University in New York and author of the newly published biography, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling."
Brother Bushman, patriarch in the New York New York Stake, asserted that Joseph Smith was singular in his prophetic role because he emphasized "sacred words." According to Bushman, "Other sects prized the printed word, but no other group prized revelation more than the Mormons valued Joseph Smith's." Bushman also emphasized the Prophet's unique belief in "sacred spaces," meaning Joseph's vision of the New Jerusalem and his revelations about temples.
This conference "left us with strong thoughts and memories to reinforce the growing regard for Joseph Smith held by both saints and academics alike," said Brother Bentley. Approximately one-third of conference attendees were not LDS.
Several other scholars spoke at the conference, each discussing Joseph Smith's role as a prophet or examining the prophetic tradition. Jan Shipps, a prominent non-LDS historian of Mormonism, discussed Joseph Smith's charisma and prophetic role. She said his success was because he gave followers a "cartography" of revelation "rather than a timeline." She stressed the unique personality of the Prophet and how it contributed to his success as the founder of the Church.
Other speakers included BYU professor Robert Millet, and scholars who study other religious traditions including Islam, Catholicism and Pentecostalism. Religious leaders contemporary of Joseph Smith were discussed, including Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Church of Christ, Scientist, and Ellen G. White, co-founder of Seventh-Day Adventism.
"There will always be tension between the faith-promoting perspective and the academic perspective on religion, but the Claremont enterprise is proving very successful so far in keeping that tension creative," said Armand Mauss, visiting professor of Mormonism at CGU's School of Religion. Mauss explained that a Chair in Mormon Studies will soon be hired "as part of the creation of the Mormon Studies Program, based on the endowment of the 'Howard W. Hunter Chair' of Mormon Studies."
The Joseph Smith conference was the third event sponsored by the School of Religion at CGU and the Council for Mormon Studies.