Dialogue Topic Pages #7: Book of Mormon Topics, Part 1
September 21, 2021
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Dialogue is proud to launch a new monthly podcast series on the dialoguejournal.com/topicpages, exploring key issues in the history of LDS scholarship. Join host Taylor Petrey, editor of Dialogue and associate professor of religion at Kalamazoo College as he studies Book of Mormon Topics as viewed through the scholarship found within Dialogue’s pages.
This month, we are looking at the history of scholarship on the Book of Mormon. There was so much content on this that I have decided to break it into two episodes. Part 1 in this episode will cover though the 1990s—a key moment of a real ﬁssure in Book of Mormon scholarship—while Part 2 in next month’s episode will go over the 2000s to the present.
The Book of Mormon is easily the most important product of the Restoration. It is a narrative that starts in Jerusalem in 600 BCE, a little more than a decade before Jerusalem is sacked by the Babylonians. The protagonist Lehi is a prophet enjoined to take his family to a promised land, which ends up being on the American continent. Two of his sons factionalize into the Nephites and Lamanites who are locked in battle for much of the book, but the principle story is about how this group prophesied of Jesus Christ before his birth and were visited by him after his resurrection. It then tells the story of the destruction of the Nephites and the rise of the Lamanites in the last days who would come to know Jesus Christ through this record.
Joseph Smith called it the “keystone of our religion.” For many, the entire fate of the church itself stands or falls on the Book of Mormon. This means that one of the key questions has been whether it is a historical record or a product of the nineteenth century. We are going to think a bit about how this binary has structured the scholarship around the Book of Mormon, driving critical and apologetic efforts alike. And there have been many efforts to break this impasse! The nature of the Book of Mormon has also been bound up with another of Joseph Smith’s translation projects, the Book of Abraham. I got over this story in a previous episode, but long story short, the original manuscripts of the Book of Abraham were rediscovered in the the 1960s and were not related to Joseph Smith’s translation at all—thus calling into question the nature of the Book of Mormon.
It is also worth pointing out that scholarship on the Book of Mormon has not only happened in Dialogue. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies innovated new apologetic scholarship, which lives on today in the form of Book of Mormon Central. There is a Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, once housed at the old FARMS and now a central feature of the Neal A Maxwell Institute at BYU. There are also new scholarly societies dedicated to Book of Mormon scholarship. We’ve also begun to see articles and books in non-Mormon journals and academic presses. So, this vast landscape of scholarship means that a survey of Dialogue, as robust of material may be found there, is still partial. I’ll try my best to contextualize broader trends, but even in all of this sea of scholarship, I was consistently surprised at the high quality, important pieces that have been published in Dialogue, up through today. Get ready for a wild ride!
Act I: Setting the Scene
Dialogue is founded in 1966, but it isn’t until 1968 that we see the ﬁrst article dedicated to the Book of Mormon. But Book of Mormon scholarship was undergoing some pretty serious innovations already. A couple important ﬁgures and trends to mention. First is B. H. Roberts, a leading intellectual in the early twentieth century who began to take seriously criticism of the Book of Mormon. Next is Sidney Sperry, a BYU professor trained in biblical studies at the University of Chicago. He’d written a number of important articles talking about how historical critical biblical studies intersected with the Book of Mormon—from its use of Paul and other New Testament material to second-Isaiah and more. The other is Hugh Nibley, a classicist trained at UC–Berkeley who began writing in the 1950s articles that set the Book of Mormon in an Ancient Near Eastern context. This culminated in the 1957 priesthood manual for use in the entire church: An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Back then, before anonymous correlated manuals, the church commissioned trained scholars and intellectuals to write the curriculum. Anyway, these major trends of thinking about the Book of Mormon in a critical, historical context, primarily to defend it and even vindicate its historicity, were already exciting, established trends.
But the ﬁrst article published in Dialogue actually takes a different tack. Douglas Wilson’s 1968 article, “Prospects for the Study of the Book of Mormon as a Work of American Literature” comes at the book in an entirely different way. You’ll recall Gene England, one of the founders of Dialogue, came from a literature background, and literature scholarship was an important part of this new endeavor. Wilson was a non-LDS scholar of literature and a relatively important scholar of the period. He talked about how the book is difﬁcult to read, its concerns are not the concerns of twentieth century readers, but is nevertheless important and deserves serious study by scholars of American literature. He suggests that scholars begin with theologically neutral textual criticism, now a robust ﬁeld in Book of Mormon Studies, but then non-existent. Then he suggests myth-criticism as a framework for analysis. But he says this is just the beginning. A brief comment on this. Literary approaches have always a been a small subset of this scholarship, but growing increasingly important. Still, I recall sitting in a Harvard Seminar room where Richard Bushman was speaking to various scholars, making the case for the Book of Mormon as a work of American literature. The conversation was weighty, but one missionary who happened to hear about the talk and came to visit then bore his testimony that it was not an American book, but an ancient one because of chiasmus. It was an awkward moment that illustrated the resistance within some quarters of the LDS community to including the Book of Mormon as an object of study—and probably reinforced concerns that such scholars in the room might have harbored. So, more than fifty years after Wilson’s plea, this remains a controversial appeal.
Summer 1969 examines an interesting, initially promising approach to New World archeology, a project that included Latter-day Saints interested in locating a context for the Book of Mormon. But in the mid-60s, there was a broader popular theory in non-LDS circles of ancient contacts between the Near Eastern and American peoples. A roundtable in this issue examines some of these early efforts (Cyrus H. Gordon, “Toward a History of Ancient America”; Dee F. Green, “Book of Mormon Archaeology: The Myths and the Alternatives”; John L. Sorenson, “Ancient America and the Book of Mormon Revisited”). In the 1950s, Thomas Ferguson founded the New World Archeological Foundation, which was incorporated into BYU and the Church under the direction of Elder Howard W. Hunter. This ﬁrst ofﬁcial apologetic project wasn’t a particularly successful venture and often led to embarrassment. This hypothesis has not held up over the past fifty years, but these entries capture some of the enthusiasm that was prevalent in this period for some trustworthy historical connection. Still, there were some important long-term outcomes. But what might surprise readers is how much myth busting is going on here—challenging the amateurish ideas that had taken hold. One of the earliest important ﬁgures here is John L. Sorenson. In his ﬁrst Dialogue entry, he lays out the hypothesis of a central American anthropological and archeological context. He draws a number of parallels from pyramids to incense to sacriﬁces.
In Fall 1969, there were a few more entries. Robert E. Nichols Jr. wrote “Beowulf and Nephi: A Literary View of the Book of Mormon.” He notes the same challenges to the literary scholar—the lack of a source text and of a text-critical edition. But still, he attempts to offer a literary reading of 1-2 Nephi—perhaps the ﬁrst one ever. He concludes, “the Book of Mormon remains a challenging critical prize, undoubtedly the major prize of nineteenth-century Americana, perhaps the chief prize of the literature we call English.”
That call for a textual study of the Book of Mormon ﬁnally came to fruition in 1977. Stan Larson was the ﬁrst to offer a text critical study in “Textual Variants in Book of Mormon Manuscripts.” Since then, so much more has been done, especially the backbreaking work of Royal Skousen, to establishing a workable text critical edition. But Larson paved the way by looking at the 146 pages of the Original Manuscript held mostly by the LDS Church, the 464 pages of the Printer’s Manuscript held by the RLDS Church, as it was known then. Larson worked for the Translation Services department of the LDS church and was an important ﬁgure in 1970s Book of Mormon scholarship. Now, textual variants were well known in theory. Anti-Mormon literature, including that of the Tanners, frequently noted the substantive changes to the text not only in the early manuscripts, but also the later printed editions. Apologists had engaged these, but there hadn’t really been a systematic study. Larson divides them into four categories: corrections of mistakes, clariﬁcations, corrections that were better left unmade, and mistakes in the manuscripts. He goes through about fifty textual variants here between the Original and Printers manuscripts.
So, the bulk of scholarship in the ﬁrst decade or so of Dialogue’s treatment of the Book of Mormon was laying the foundation for a literary approach, one that was especially interested in the text as text, in narrative, and more. The apologetic arguments with anti-Mormons and the failed archeological approaches were given some small attention, but Dialogue authors—LDS and non-LDS—were making a different case for the Book of Mormon as a work of important and even great English literature. But the schism in scholarship was only just heating up.
Act II: FARMS vs. Dialogue
With the demise of earlier apologetic efforts at New World Archeology, the approach that Hugh Nibley had laid out inspired a whole new generation of apologists interested in establishing the Book of Mormon in the Old World—I’ll just point out the Eurocentrism and colonial frameworks of those labels. Jack Welch, among others, was a part of this movement and founded FARMS in 1979 to become a hub for this movement. It grew in the early 1980s at BYU when Welch moved there in 1980 as a place to defend the Book of Mormon and published his edited volume on chiasmus in 1981. Some of the early Dialogue contributors, like John L. Sorenson, ﬂocked to FARMS. They soon tried to position themselves as the center for Book of Mormon research. One of their targets was George Smith. Smith was a freelance historian and ﬁnancial wizard working in San Francisco. He founded Signature Books.
In 1983, George D. Smith published an article titled “Isaiah Updated.” He discusses a problem that had been earlier mentioned by B. H. Roberts and Sidney Sperry, among others. The problem in brief was this: scholars no longer accepted the unity of the Book of Isaiah nor attributed it all to the historical Isaiah. The problem was that the later chapters from a later prophet, nicknamed Second Isaiah and who wrote during the Babylonian exile, namely, after Lehi had reportedly left Jerusalem. The problem is that this text, which didn’t exist until after Lehi was on a boat sailing to the New World, somehow ends up in Nephi’s record. The paper goes into a lot more issues about Christian and LDS interpretations of Isaiah more generally, challenging the validity of these supposed prophecies. Defenders of the Book of Mormon argued that the evidence should be read the other way around: that the Book of Mormon provided clear evidence that Second Isaiah was pre-exilic, and that Isaiah is a uniﬁed text. Smith’s article called into question these claims. This article got lots of attention in letters, including from Bill Hamblin, an apologetic staple for the next several decades.
In 1984, George Smith had another important article, “‘Is there any way to escape these difﬁculties?’ The Book of Mormon Studies of BH Roberts.” As mentioned before, Roberts was a member of the Quorum of Seventy and a leading intellectual in the church. Beginning in the 1920s he began to seriously examine the arguments around Book of Mormon historicity but also became skeptical of many of those same arguments. For a while before Smith’s article, the debate was whether Roberts was expressing his own doubts or merely laying out the best version of the counterarguments to the Book of Mormon. Roberts seemed to have been persuaded that there were signiﬁcant, meaningful parallels between the Book of Mormon and Ethan Smith’s A View of the Hebrews, a nineteenth-century ﬁctional account that pre-dates the Book of Mormon, but also tells a story of Israelite lineage of Native Americans. He also covers the archeological difﬁculties that Roberts discussed. A lot had changed since the 1920s, but not that much, and the core issues that Roberts faced remain important.
This article too attracted negative attention from FARMS, since Jack Welch had advised Dialogue against publishing it. His connections to Elder Neal A. Maxwell may explain why this otherwise benign piece ended up in a memo by Elder Maxwell, advising that John Sorenson be commissioned to “respond to the recent ramblings of George Smith.” He issued a memo in fall of 1984 commissioning a “scholarship defense of the historicity of the Book of Mormon.”
The Ensign published Sorenson’s essays “Digging into the Book of Mormon, Parts 1 and 2” (Part 1, Part 2) a few months later, and many saw that as a rebuke of George Smith. That same year, Soreson published his classic book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.
In the Summer 1985 issue George Smith writes a letter to the editor at Dialogue responding to John Sorenson, challenging some of the revisionist apologetics—limited geography and the idea that there were other peoples already in the land besides the Book of Mormon people. Robert Smith responds with a caustic letter to the editor back. This went back and forth in the letters to the editor for a while. Spring and Summer 1986 have pro-Sorenson letters on geography and animals.
George Smith’s pretty mild criticisms of Book of Mormon historicity became a particular target for FARMS over these early years, and they increasingly went after him personally—Bill Hamblin, Daniel Peterson, Louis Midgley, Robert Smith, and others. Smith was a founder of Signature Books and the conﬂicts between these two presses, FARMS and Signature, dominated a decade or more of Mormon intellectual energy.
In Fall 1984, Grant Underwood wrote a really important article: “Book of Mormon Usage in Early LDS Theology.” Now, this research has since been updated and nuanced, but Underwood made a fascinating observation about early LDS citations of the Book of Mormon—they are very, very rare in the LDS periodicals up through 1846, even to the point of neglect. Underwood’s argument was an interesting intervention in two ways. First, a number of LDS scholars were looking to the Book of Mormon to understanding early LDS doctrinal development. It is notable that the theology of the Book of Mormon departs from mainstream LDS teachings on a number of points, and people began to argue that it represented an earlier Joseph Smith, for instance. Underwood’s argument challenged this by suggesting that the Book of Mormon had minimal use or impact on early LDS thought in general, let alone doctrinal development. Second, this absence was implicitly contrasted with the modern church, where the Book of Mormon was quickly outpacing the Bible in importance. Whether good or ill, the Book of Mormon was treated rather casually in Smith’s day, including by Smith himself. What was important, when it was cited, was the millenarian ideas in the Book of Mormon. So, this is what we call reception history, which looks at how a text has been received. Different from George Smith’s study of B. H. Roberts, Underwood was expanding this kind of research to statistical analysis.
So, the early 1980s was still a time when diverse voices and approaches appeared in Dialogue, but hostility was also increasing from a vocal and forceful faction who believed they had apostolic sanction for their tactics. It is the early phases of what is going to become known as the Book of Mormon Wars.
Act III: Breaking Past Apologetics
As I mentioned, apologetics is really heating up, with two major camps. One who is arguing for ancient contexts for the Book of Mormon and the other arguing for a nineteenth-century context. Fortunately, scholars had been looking at entirely different approaches altogether in the pages of Dialogue all along—from reception history to literary studies—but these battles were being fought here too and sucked up a lot of attention. So I want to discuss a few classics that all students of the Book of Mormon should know that was an early attempt to get past the hostility and ﬁnd some common ground and shared solutions.
First is Bruce Lindgren “Sign or Scripture: Approaches to the Book of Mormon” from Spring 1986. Oh, I love this one so much. This is by an RLDS scholar who says that maybe this whole debate about which context we need to read the Book of Mormon is wrongheaded. That is reading it as a history book. “Why does discussion of the Book of Mormon typically tend to focus on questions of its historicity and authorship, on Meso-American archaeology, chiasmus, and word prints?” This sees the Book of Mormon as a “sign” of Joseph Smith’s prophetic call or his status as a fraud. But that is a pretty narrow way of reading it. Instead, he issues a challenge to focusing on historicity in Book of Mormon interpretation, and instead read it as scripture: “I ﬁnd a more personally relevant question to be: how does the Book of Mormon present the basic doctrines of the gospel? What role should the Book of Mormon play in our religious and intellectual lives? Is it a sign of the divine origin of the restoration movement or is it scripture?” There has grown up a whole school of thought around this latter approach in Book of Mormon theology now, especially from Jim Faulconer, which says that history is the wrong genre for understanding scripture. But we see here this early treatment.
The next article is from Spring 1987, “Book of Mormon as Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source.” Here, Blake Ostler takes on the historicity question and attempts to cut the gordian knot with a hybrid solution. He used source criticism, a method that attempts to separate out distinct underlying sources in a single document. This is one of the classical methods in biblical studies here applied in a distinctive way to the Book of Mormon. Ostler argued that the plates were real and that the Nephites were real, but that Joseph Smith drew on his own experience in the narrative. In this way, he could grant the best of the ancient parallels and the best of the nineteenth-century parallels to argue that there was a base text as an ancient source but also that it catalyzed new revelation for the modern day through Joseph Smith as translator. He conceded a number of anachronisms in the the Book of Mormon, especially relating to theological ideas. But he also found value in ancient parallels to rituals, ancient prophetic practices, and more. This approach was obviously hated by many invested on either side of this, but it has grown in popularity with a number of contemporary believing scholars to subscribe to the basic premise. The details of this analysis have continued to be debated, disputing the validity of the various parallels that he discusses, but it remains a useful survey of some of the major arguments from the time.
Sometimes in this period we saw more close exegetical readings of speciﬁc passages, especially those that loomed large in popular LDS culture. Ezekial 37, the sticks of Judah and sticks of Joseph, was one such case. In 1990, Brian Keck wrote, “Ezekiel 37, Sticks, and Babylonian Writing Boards: A Critical Appraisal,” where he explained what those passages meant in their ancient context.
We weren’t done with the B. H. Roberts story either. Brigham Madsen, a professor at Utah State, wrote in 1993: “B. H. Roberts’s Studies of the Book of Mormon.” Was Roberts a believer or skeptic? Madsen offers more insights into how B. H. Roberts dealt with his questions about Book of Mormon historicity. Madsen offers new historical details to the drama around this story.
So, there were articles that were challenging traditional history or interpretations of the Book of Mormon in these years, but I think that in the late 80s there is a really important period. This brief moment showed sincere and serious efforts to bridge the growing gap between scholarly camps—but it was as unsuccessful as it was short-lived. An attempt to ﬁnd a middle way for believers that could also accommodate the arguments from critics seemed to satisfy no one—least of which the apologists. The war was on.
Act IV: Book of Mormon Wars
It’s worth mentioning, brieﬂy, that there were a bunch of important edited volumes that came out during these years. In 1982, FARMS had published one of its ﬁrst volumes edited by Noel Reynolds, Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins. In 1990, Signature books published The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture edited by Dan Vogel. They followed up in 1993 with an edited volume by Brent Lee Metcalfe, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology. These then sparked further, often hostile exchanges with apologists in the FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, one of the low-points for decorum from BYU authors who often substituted personal attacks and credential-waving for actual argument. The Book of Mormon Wars were underway.
Winter 1991 Neal Chandler, “Book of Mormon Stories that My Teacher Kept from Me”
“It may be no more than a kind of perversity that brings me to admit what I will tell you now, namely, that when it comes to the Book of Mormon, that most correct of books, whose pedigree we love passionately to debate and whose very namesakes we have, all of us, become, I stand mostly with Mark Twain. I think it’s “chloroform in print.” It is a humorous, but serious critique.
“This is a book of men, by men, for men, and openly and conventionally, at least, about men only. “
This got a letter to be sent to his bishop and stake president to not allow him to speak in church anymore. LDS folks were more bold to speak out and even say potentially offensive things, not just air the history.
A 1993 article by Brent Lee Metcalfe also came back to the basic assumptions of competing schools of Book of Mormon scholarship. In “Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity,” Metcalfe pointed out how these positions valued historicity differently. For traditionalists, historicity was necessary for value and authenticity. For critical approaches, religious value was independent from historicity. But the real meat of this paper is in the analysis of methodologies and standards of proof. He goes through a few key examples, from metal plates to geography—with the limited geography model paying strict attention to description of travel, but not animals, to chiasmus. Metcalfe also provides some interesting assessment of Ostler’s expansion theory, and some of the early bibliography responding to it. Metcalfe challenges the theory by saying that if you think that the anti-Masonry of the Book of Mormon is an anachronism, as Ostler did, then you must also think that the idea that Native Americans originate from ancient Israelites is also a common nineteenth-century idea—thus the entire historical claim of the book itself is also a modern concept. So, Metcalfe was obviously on the “critical” side of the spectrum, but provides a great discussion of what he saw as an interpretive starting point—Joseph Smith’s own teachings and understandings as comparison documents for the Book of Mormon.
The response to this article, and Metcalfe’s book, was not great. Signature had threatened to sue FARMS for defaming some of its authors by calling them “anti-Mormon.” Bill Hamblin encoded a message “Metcalfe is Butthead” in a FARMS Newsletter. These events and exchanges were spilling out past the pages of Dialogue, Signature, Sunstone, and FARMS, and into the press who was interested in the rancorous exchanges. A lengthy book review in the Winter 1994 issue of Dialogue of Metcalfe’s book and the 556-pages of responses in the 1994 FARMS Review of Books provides a useful summary and fair assessment of the issues.
It also polarized the publication venues. Dialogue had run into some trouble with church leaders in 1993, when things culminated with the excommunication of several authors associated with Dialogue and Signature Books. Though Dialogue had always been and remains open to publishing more conservative voices, those authors ﬂocked to venues seen as safer. That left a smaller group of people submitting and publishing in Dialogue.
Quinn Brewster’s 1996 article, “The Structure of the Book of Mormon: A Theory of Evolutionary Development,” discusses an interesting problem: why does the structure of the Book of Mormon change throughout the book? The book itself addresses the issue with large and small plates source material, and early revelations talk about the crisis of the lost portion of the translation.
Later in 1996, Mark D. Thomas, scripture studies editor for Dialogue for a while, published “A Mosaic for a Religious Counterculture: The Bible in the Book of Mormon.” It is an interesting article. It argues that the Book of Mormon needs to be understood as “countercultural” because of its antielitist stance. The central issue that article also tackles how the Book of Mormon uses the Bible for its purposes. It looks at a number of intertexts between the Bible and Book of Mormon to show how they are used as a “mosaic,” small pieces that together tell a larger story.
In 1997, Brigham Madsen’s “Reﬂections on LDS Disbelief in the Book of Mormon as History” generated a lot of controversy. He drew on the research for his earlier work on B. H. Roberts and the Book of Mormon, but just made the case that the Book of Mormon wasn’t historical at all—the problems Roberts had ﬁrst wrestled with had not been resolved and the case had actually gotten worse, not better, with more research. But he wants to make space in the church for those who doubt the history of the Book of Mormon as a matter of research, but who still want to belong to the faith, decrying the standards of orthodoxy that preclude different interpretations of the existing evidence.
The ﬁnal article that I will discuss in this section is David Wright’s, “Joseph Smith’s Interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.” Wright is a well-known biblical scholar and former Latter-day Saint, who left BYU under pressure for his teaching of biblical scholarship and perhaps his views on the Book of Mormon. He was a contributor to the 1993 Metcalfe volume New Approaches to the Book of Mormon. This article provides an essential study of the Isaiah problem in the Book of Mormon—its use of post-exilic elements of the text—from a different approach. Instead, Wright looks at how Isaiah is being used. He shows the dependance of Book of Mormon Isaiah on the King James Version of the Bible, but looks at how speciﬁc passages from Isaiah are used throughout the Book of Mormon, especially Isaiah 48-49 about the return of Israel from Babylonian captivity, as well as Isaiah 29, a classic proof text used as a prophesy for the Book of Mormon. He then locates the interpretations in the Book of Mormon within the broader history of interpretation.
The quality of the articles we’ve looked at is excellent, even though much may now feel dated. But it is hard to look back on the twists and turns that Book of Mormon scholarship was taking during this period without some wistful hope that things might have turned out differently. My sense is that there was huge damage done to the ﬁeld by the alienation of these camps, which not only damaged feelings, relationships, and even careers—some ongoing for those involved in this ﬁght—but ultimately damaged the ﬁeld when the stakes were set so high and the gloves off. I think it is a sad chapter, and the effects still haunt us decades later. There were a lot of great studies that came out of all of this, and I’m sure that the intensity of the battle helped reﬁne some of the scholarship, but the costs otherwise seem to have been too great. I look forward to later periods that we will discuss, including the present, when some of these wounds heal and the founding principles of Dialogue—a community of those who listen and speak with equal rigor—comes to prevail.
Okay, so that takes us up through the 1990s, through the most serious decades of the Book of Mormon Wars. They weren’t over by any means, but this seems like a good place to pause. In the next episode we will pick up the story and bring it up to the present. I was amazed at just how much, and how good, the Book of Mormon scholarship is these days, including some new work that is about to drop in the Fall and Winter 2021 issues of Dialogue! Tune in next month to learn more.