As a prolific American historian, a respected Columbia University professor, and a believing, practicing Mormon, Bushman seemed right for the task. He spent seven years researching and writing the book, which may yet change the Mormon intellectual landscape.
To date, 80,000 copies have been printed, which would seem to clearly indicate that both Mormons and non-Mormons are reading it.
Interestingly, Bushman kept a diary about this book project and about his speaking and signing tour last year, which has been published in a limited edition, titled, "On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary."
The diary is possibly unparalleled an author of a recent book candidly dissecting his experiences with both Mormon and non-Mormon audiences. There are even descriptions of his own feelings of inadequacy.
This is no arrogant academic proclaiming his perfect product to the world. It is a humble, gentle man with whom we can identify, discussing feelings of anxiety, even panic and frustration over his performance at the podium and the answers he gave to difficult questions.
Now that this limited edition has attracted such avid interest, both the author and the publisher have proclaimed their willingness to pursue unlimited commercial publication. The document certainly deserves wider distribution in part because it shows a talented historian laying open his vulnerabilities, and also because it shows how much any historian lays on the line when he writes about Joseph Smith.
During a conversation by phone from his New York City home, Bushman said he was "flabbergasted" by the print run, and he wondered aloud if there is any other profession (a historian writing about the church leader he reveres) in which someone "joined professional qualifications and personal philosophy so completely."
Bushman said he enjoyed writing the diary. "It was like eating peanuts. It lures you from one page to another."
And reading it is a similar experience.
The reasons for his candor lie "partly in my age," said Bushman, who is in his 70s. "I'm not protecting anything now. I think we reach other people by opening ourselves. So I go back to who I really am rather than to use any pretense."
As he traveled, reviews of the book gradually popped up in journals and newspapers. When the book was reviewed in The New York Review of Books and the New York Times, Bushman found himself perhaps unaccountably bothered by critiques that seemed not to understand Joseph Smith.
Yet none of the writers of those reviews Western novelist Larry McMurtry or popular novelist Walter Kirn, for example is a historian or academic. Kirn is a lapsed Mormon, and Bushman said he doubts that McMurtry read the entire book.
They both tended to review Joseph Smith as a "scalawag, a bit of a buffoon or con artist" rather than the author's treatment of his subject.
But now the reviews have become much more positive, although Bushman is convinced that "it's not possible to hit the right tone with academics at least not yet. If a non-Mormon, non-academic were to have written the book exactly as it is, they might like it."
Bushman remains happy the book is selling all over the country (including at Deseret Book and the LDS Church Museum of Church History and Art). "No one has put it on any forbidden list, as far as I know. It's healthy to get Joseph Smith's history out in the open. It shouldn't be concealed."
At any rate, Bushman is glad he did it and now he's gravitating back to his study of farming in early America. He's also proud of his faith. Being a Mormon is "something I could never give up. It's too delicious." That's a term he borrowed from the preacher of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, "who had a taste for the doctrine of grace."
Bushman is happy that wherever he goes LDS readers seem to like the book and he gets many complimentary letters. "The book seems to have hit the right tone for Mormons," said Bushman, "and every academic will at least have to take it seriously. That's fine with me."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company