(RNS) As an 11-year-old boy, Don Bradley went looking for gold plates.
After all, Mormon founder Joseph Smith said he was directed to a set of such plates, buried in a hill near his house in upstate New York.
On a childhood visit to that hill, Bradley turned over lots of rocks, feeling certain he might find some sacred record overlooked by others.
That quest for Mormon gold became a metaphor for Bradley’s lifelong spiritual journey. It led him first to dig into Smith’s history to enhance his LDS devotion and then to uncover uncomfortable facts and omissions in the faith’s story, which bred disillusionment and distance.
Eventually, Bradley’s research helped bring him back to the Mormon fold, this time with a broader view of Smith’s spiritual abilities.
“I could describe many of the events of Joseph Smith’s life, but I couldn’t explain the thing that really mattered: why it all worked,” Bradley, now 42, said in a July speech at the annual Sunstone Symposium, a conference in Salt Lake City for Mormon intellectuals. “Joseph Smith wasn’t of interest because he’d been a merchant, a mayor, or even a much-married husband, but because he was the founder of a religion. And it was precisely the religious dimension I couldn’t account for.”
Besides rediscovering Mormonism, Bradley learned how to balance faith and facts, science and spirituality, reason and revelation.
Along the way, he spent time as an agnostic and atheist, then back to theist, then Baha’i, then generic Protestant before returning to the Mormon church where he had begun.
“I overthink things,” Bradley said. “I saw that I’d often done this, to my detriment. … I’d been trying to solve spiritual questions with the tools of history.”
Could part of the problem be, he wondered, “that spiritual questions can’t be resolved by scholarly analysis?”
Bradley’s parents were Mormon converts who moved to Utah when Bradley was a teen.
With proximity to the LDS church archives and library, the future historian spent countless hours after school poring over documents.
“Being a historian is like being a detective,” Bradley said in an interview, “except all your witnesses are dead and you have to piece it together based on clues left behind.”
In 11th grade he found an analysis of potential problems in the Book of Mormon by a famed LDS scholar and church leader, B.H. Roberts.
“It turned me upside down,” Bradley said. “If this had been written by someone clearly antagonistic to the church, I would have had my guard up. But I knew (Roberts) was a general authority and church historian. I trusted him.”
Roberts’ questions about the historicity of Mormon scripture troubled the young seeker, but he stuck with the faith. He served an LDS mission to Houston from 1989 to ’91.
“I came back more open-minded,” he said, “and a much more critical thinker.”
He again took up his Mormon pursuits, majoring in history at Brigham Young University.
He began to look cynically at all LDS accounts while rejecting religious experience as an avenue to truth. Yet faith built on historical evidence alone, he felt, was untenable.
Using the Joseph-as-fraud model, Bradley examined Smith’s statements with the question: “How could this benefit him?” Not surprisingly, he found lots of supporting evidence.
The historian determined he no longer could be, in good conscience, a Mormon. He also abandoned all belief in God and Christ.
Bradley delivered a letter to his LDS bishop, resigning his membership with such strong language that he believed it would be impossible for him to return.
In 2009, Bradley was accepted into Utah State University’s graduate program in history, with Mormon scholar Philip Barlow as his mentor.
“Intellectually, Don is uncommonly brilliant,” Barlow said this week. “In a roomful of Ph.D.s, he’d be among the smartest and most well-read.”
Barlow also sensed Bradley was not a believing Latter-day Saint, though they never talked about it.
Even before his graduate studies, however, Bradley had yet another awakening, while reading "Biocosm," atheist author James Gardner’s discussion of the origins of the universe without God.
He again became a believer — at least in God.
From there, he moved into a general theism, then to the Baha’i faith.
“I wasn’t sure about its founding claims,” he said, “but I loved its teachings about the oneness of humankind. That was the kind of vision I believed God would want us to live out.”
A few months later, another event would upend his world even further: His 25-year-old brother, Charles, died unexpectedly.
Bradley’s views on the afterlife were sketchy and uncertain, but he couldn’t imagine never reconnecting with the brother he adored.
“I was drawn to the only hope I could see that Charles, not just some aspect of him, but my brother, would live on: the hope of resurrection,” Bradley said.
As Bradley returned to devotional life, he felt drawn to the one book he knew would bring him even closer to Jesus: the Book of Mormon.
“I didn’t believe in the Book of Mormon per se,” he said, “but if it had worked so well for me before, why not use it now?”
At USU, Bradley worked on a little-studied element of early Mormonism — the first 116 Book of Mormon pages, which Smith said he translated and shared with a friend, who then lost them.
While looking for reasons to believe that Smith was an opportunist after money, sex and power, Bradley found a number. But when he sought examples of how the Mormon founder benefited others and served religious purposes, he found even more.
He could now re-embrace Smith, not in a simplified way but as a complicated man capable of revealing God’s messages to the world.
“The questions we ask largely determine the kinds of answers we find,” Bradley said. “I had pushed the cynical interpretation as far as it could go, tried to explain as much as I could using that model, only to find the model ultimately deficient. It could not explain the spiritual power of Joseph Smith and of the faith he founded."
Bradley also regained his faith in the validity of religious experience and a church’s good works.
Five months after Bradley rejoined the faith, he was invited to work on the church’s “Joseph Smith Papers” project, he said. All his temple and priesthood blessings were restored.
“In the eyes of the church, it was as if I’d never left,” Bradley said in his speech. “I can tell you with certainty: It is a gospel of forgiveness.”
(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)