Title: The Book of Mormon: A Biography
Editor: Paul C. Gutjahr
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Genre: Religious Studies
Pages: xix, 255
Binding: Cloth with jacket
Reviewed by Blair Hodges
The Book of Mormon, that curious text said to be dug from a hill in upstate New York and translated by the gift and power of God, has been reincarnated over its 180-plus year lifespan into an interesting variety of bodies: from its various print editions, to films in silent black-and-white and full color, as children’s editions and comic books, even inspiring an award-winning Broadway musical. It’s spawned paintings, cartoon show episodes, and action figures. Since its birth in 1830 the Book of Mormon has been argued over and analyzed in print—approaches ranging from polemical to academic and any mix of the two. Most significantly, it has served as a key religious devotional text within the still-growing branches of Mormonism, the most prominent being the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has shepherded the text through translation into 109 world languages from Afrikaans to Zulu, with more on the way.1 All of this and other interesting elements of its impressive life are explored in Paul C. Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography, part of Princeton University Press’s impressive new “Lives of Great Religious Books” series—handsome little clothbound volumes short enough to get through in one or two sittings.
As an extreme bibliophile with an interest in Religious Studies, I frankly couldn’t be more thrilled than to see books about religious books. Religious books are born and raised in particular contexts and communities, they grow up to make various friends and enemies as their popularity waxes and wanes. They die and are resurrected again to—as the Book of Mormon itself puts it—speak from the dust. Where does the text end and the reader begin in all of this? Series editor Fred Appel wanted part-memoir/part reception history of a variety of world religion texts. Each is designed to provide an introduction to an educated general reading audience who “are curious about a particular religious tradition, but who may be too intimidated or simply too busy to pick up a primary text.” He sought out scholars capable of crafting memorable prose while also remaining true to the best of what contemporary scholarship has to say about religious books.2Gutjahr, a professor of English at Indiana University, was selected to cover the Book of Mormon largely due to his familiarity with American Bible print culture in the 19th century, the context in which the Bible-like Book of Mormon was born.3
Gutjahr’s description of the book’s birth (complete with contrasting claims about seer stones in hats, or fraud, or the power of God) makes it clear that the Book of Mormon’s future inclusion alongside Augustine’s Confessions, the I Ching, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and a growing list of similar religious works in Princeton’s series seemed far from inevitable at the outset:
“No matter whether one considers the Book of Mormon to be divinely inspired holy writ or the work of one man’s impressive imagination,4 it is increasingly hard to argue against the growing scholarly consensus that ‘the Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature.’ While the book stands an important artifact in the study of American history and culture, it is no less important as a contemporary religious text with global influence” (9).
This biography focuses minimally on the actual content of the Book of Mormon—its story line and characters don’t receive primary attention—but instead looks at the life of the Book of Mormon in its contemporary environs.5 Gutjahr’s work here is secondary and by way of summary: early Latter-day Saints were not as familiar with the Book of Mormon as the Bible, it functioned largely as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic status, others viewed it a forgery, more recently the LDS tradition has increased its focus on the text, etc. In other words, Gutjahr isn’t advancing a new hypothesis, or arbitrating between present hypotheses, but rather trying to simply lay various options out on the table as aspects of the Book of Mormon’s ongoing life.
Cleverly borrowing a metaphor from the Book of Mormon itself, Gutjahr structures the biography in three parts: Germination, Budding, and Flowering. The first part deals with the translation of the book and its immediate reception, and the second with 19th- to early 20th century acceptance and use of the book in the mainstream LDS Church and various other Mormon branches. Part three discusses the LDS Church’s missionary use of the text, academic discussion of the text (from places like Signature Books to the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, with attention in the wider academic world), and appearances of the Book of Mormon on canvas, screen, and stage (Arnold Friberg and Minerva Teichert get their places in the sun).
Mormon readers of this biography will undoubtedly learn much from Gutjahr’s story no matter how familiar with its history they believe they are, although some may note the rhetorical advantage is occasionally weighted more toward a secular assumption of origin. However, the same complaint will likely be registered by present critics of the Book of Mormon who might feel that as a non-Mormon, Gutjahr shouldn’t refuse to use words like “purported” or “alleged” when talking about angels appearing to a boy in upstate New York. Some will surely feel his straightforward recounting of witness testimony grants too much the other way. Considering the often-rancorous debates still swirling around the Book of Mormon, Gutjahr does a very admirable job navigating these waters.6
Perhaps the two most significant unique contributions of this volume is the attention Gutjahr pays to the life of the Book of Mormon in traditions other than the mainstream LDS Church, and his attention to translation and proselyting use of the book within the LDS tradition. In regards to the former, he spends around 15 pages total on the use of the text by Bickertonites, Rigdonites, Strangites, and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now the Community of Christ. By Gutjahr’s telling, such usage revolved more around the question of authority and ownership of the book as opposed to differing interpretations of its actual contents.7
In regards to the latter point, Gutjahr pays close attention to how different printings of the official LDS edition have impacted the Church’s use of the book, and have reflected the cultural contexts into which the book is introduced. For instance: “in certain Middle Eastern cultures, any printed page containing sacred writing frames the printed text with borders, highlighting the special status of the page’s words,” thus the Church’s Farsi edition follows suit (131). The Japanese version is printed on cream-colored paper because a white sheet would signify death. Most stunning to me was his recounting the Urdu translation process. To meet the cultural standards for such a sacred text, Church graphic designers had to construct from scratch a twenty-thousand character set of stylized Arabic-based script—the translation and production process took 15 years, completed in 2007 (131). Much of Gutjahr’s work in this section is drawn from email correspondence between him and Tod R. Harris, manager of the Church’s Translation Division of the Scripture Translation and Support department and other church employees (229). He even includes a handy list of the official set list for partial translations of the Book of Mormon—used when the book is translated only in part into a particular language.8 There is so, so much more work to be done in this most fascinating area of Book of Mormon research—studying the translation of translations.
Gutjahr’s biography is an easy-to-read overview of the Book of Mormon’s life, a reminder that the Book of Mormon is the world’s text, not merely the text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in spite of the Church’s careful efforts (through copyright measures and other means) to maintain the text’s integrity. And even within the LDS tradition itself, the book shapeshifts as it traverses landscapes of differing historical contexts and rhetorical objectives. Such is the life of books, such is the life Gutjahr ably recounts.
Check out the free sample chapter here.
1. See Gutjahr’s Appendix 2, “Book of Mormon Translations,” which lists each language, publication date, and whether each has been translated as a whole or in part in the respective languages (205-208). The first appendix lists “Notable Book of Mormon Editions in English” (201-4).
2. From Ruth Braunstein, “I would love to read the biography of a book…” The Immanent Frame, 13 April 2012. See also “Fred Appel on Lives of Great Religious Books,” The Front Table, 26 April 2012.
3. His past work includes the excellent “The Golden Bible in the Bible’s Golden Age: The Book of Mormon and Antebellum Print Culture,” American Transcendental Quarterly, n.s., 12/4 (1998): 275-93; reprinted as an “Occasional Paper” with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He also reserved seven pages for the Book of Mormon in his book An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford University Press, 1999).
4. To be more precise, Gutjahr later describes “three basic lines of argumentation” regarding the Book of Mormon’s origins: the “supernaturalist or revelatory school,” the “plagiarist school,” and the “naturalist school” (45, and throughout the chapter “Holy Writ or Humbug?”).
5. In this way, his book is somewhat the inverse of Terryl L. Givens’s The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), which spends more time analyzing the contents of the book itself.
6. I hope to more carefully address his discussion of academic and polemical debates regarding the Book of Mormon in a future post. Nitpickers will find things to nitpick. Witness accounts of the actual translation process are one of my hobby-horses, while Gutjahr’s aim was to present a general narrative rather than to dig for the best possible account of what the available historical data depicts.
7. Again Gutjahr presents something of an attentive inverse to Terryl L. Givens, who spends only about a page in his reception history of the Book of Mormon talking about the Community of Christ tradition. See By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 183-4.
8. Gutjahr presents the following as the set list of scriptures used in partial translations of the Book of Mormon: 1 Nephi 1-7 and 16-18; 2 Nephi 1-4; 5:1-20; 9; 29; 31-33; Enos; Mosiah 2-5; 17-18; Alma 5; 11; 12; 32; 34; 39-42; Helaman 13-16; 3 Nephi 1; 8; 11-30; 4 Nephi; Mormon 1; 4; 6-9; Moroni (229).