Dialogue Topic Pages #8: Book of Mormon Topics, Part 2

October 20, 2021

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Dialogue is proud to launch a new monthly podcast series on the, 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 decided to break it into two episodes. Part 1 in the last episode covered though the 1990s—a key moment of a real fissure in Book of Mormon scholarship while Part 2 in this month’s episode goes over the 2000s to the present.
This is a good place to start a new chapter. At the 2000 Sunstone Symposium, Brent Lee Metcalfe described the contemporary moment surrounding the Book of Mormon as “a Galileo Event.” What he meant was that the evidence that had been presented against the historicity of the Book of Mormon was so compelling that the church would have to change is paradigm, much like Galileo’s challenge to the geocentric model of the universe. He was overly optimistic, perhaps, that the Book of Mormon wars would have a significant impact on the church, but the issue certainly hasn’t been resolved in the church more than 20 years later.
Act 1: Book of Mormon Wars Continued
In 2000, we are still in the midst of the Book of Mormon wars. These were about setting the context, whether ancient or modern. FARMS was still coming off its height.
But things weren’t calming down.
First up in the new century, Douglas Salmon, “Parallelomania and the Study of Latter-day Scripture: Confirmation, Coincidence, or the Collective Unconscious.” This remains an important article. This goes right to the heart of things–how to explain the apparent similarities between ancient near eastern texts, cultures, and so on. This was a trend we’ve talked about, really pioneered by Hugh Nibley, whose work is discussed a lot in this article, and continued by FARMS. The author, Salmon, makes the case that rather than a careful methodological comparison, this approach exhibits parallelomania. This means that they were overemphasizing similarities and deriving significance from that supposed similarities. Further, he argues that the parallels rely on extreme selectivity, misrepresentation, and more. He goes after a number of the most important examples up to that point. It remains one of the most significant challenges to Nibley’s method up until then. It also contextualizes this approach in broader scholarship on the study of religion, showing connections to Eliade, Jung, and others. A fascinating article.
While this one was a respectful, if hard hitting challenge to the paradigm. They weren’t always like this.
Robert Patterson’s article, “Hebraicisms, Chiasmus, and Other Internal Evidence for Ancient Authorship in Green Eggs and Ham.” Wow, this was a satirical take on the proofs for antiquity that had become commonplace in apologetic scholarship. When Jack Welch made the argument for chiasmus as an ancient Hebrew literary form in the Book of Mormon just a few decades before, it had remained at the center of the defense of the ancient origins for the book. But over the ensuing decades, a number of challenges had arisen, including the fact that chiasmus was discovered in a variety of different different modern texts.
“I am Sam. Sam I am.” Chiasmus.
Patterson writes, “Upon an initial and cursory reading, the book appears to be a simple morality play. Zealous purveyor of an unusual gustatory selection hawks his wares to an Everyman, whose initial biases preclude his acceptance of the unfamiliar. By the end of the story, the Everyman has overcome his baseless prejudices and rejoices in his newfound knowledge. The book made perfect bedtime reading for the generation of youth later known as the baby boomers. Deeper analysis, however, reveals that the book has complex subtexts comprehensible only when the factual nature of its real authorship is known. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence that the manuscript did not originate with Geisel, who likely fallaciously claimed credit for an archaic work that he or someone else surreptitiously translated from an ancient language into modern English.”
It continues like this, mimicking the seriousness of Book of Mormon literary devices and ancient Israelite themes, and wordprint studies. It didn’t add much to calming things down.
In 2002, Earl Wunderli’s contribution is “Critique of a Limited Geography for Book of Mormon Events,” Like the others, this goes after the FARMS model, this time the main thesis of John L. Sorenson. Sorenson had located the Book of Mormon events in a very specific context in central America, identifying certain features like the narrow neck of land. It also suggests that not all the Native Americans are descendents from Lehi, but rather a specific subset of peoples from this one small area. Wunderli says that lots of people had challenged this hypothesis on external, empirical evidence. Wunderli’s article instead argues against it on internal evidence, of what the Book of Mormon says. This provides a good overview of the major arguments and scholarship, and then critiques the limited geography model, suggesting that the hemispheric model still best fits the internal narrative of the Book of Mormon.
In the same issue, Bob Rees wrote, “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the American Renaissance.” Rees was the former editor of Dialogue, but also was a literature professor. He summarizes the debates over the Book of Mormon. Both groups, he says, find their own parallels. “I have been labeled,” he says, “both an apologists and a naturalist critic…I have watched the exchange with interest.” He tries to offer a different way here. It’s a good introduction to a lot of the scholarship up to that point, much that we haven’t discussed. Like Ostler or others, he was looking for a middle ground. “the Book of Mormon may be genuinely both an ancient and modern text.” There were real Nephites, but Joseph Smith translated the text into his 19th c. mind.
It is in 2002 that one of the most important studies of the Book of Mormon was published. Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, came out from Oxford University Press. It was a bit of a sensation. reviewed in the New York Review of Books and really launched his career. This book summarized many of the debates, but sided more with the apologists. Its another great text that captures the eras assessment of the important of the Book of Mormon and the ongoing debate about its meaning.
Act 2: The 19th-Century Hypothesis Continues
By this time, the Book of Mormon wars were in the second generation and had come to occupy significant scholarly attention. That also meant that the publication venues were seriously polarized. FARMS on the one hand, and Signature Books, and to a lesser extent Dialogue. It wasn’t of course by choice, but just how the scholarly landscape shook out.
In 2003, we see more contributions with several articles on the Book of Momron in the Winter issue. Clay Chandler, “Scrying for the Lord: Magic, Mysticism, and the Origins of the Book of Mormon” made another pass at the magical culture of Joseph Smith’s early career. Since the 1980s Hoffman forgeries and then Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview, and others, folk magic was a big topic. This paper looks at three phases of the Book of Mormon’s production—the discovery of the plates, the practices of mysticism that were part of the translation experience, and Joseph Smith’s transformation from translator to prophet. He looks at the role of magic in all three phases, from seer stones and buried treasures to mystical states to a variety of specific episodes that he says make sense as magical practices.
That same year, we see the publication of Robert Price, “Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon.” By this point, the arguments are all pretty straightforward and the camps are solid. Price argues that Joseph Smith is the author of the Book of Mormon. He rejects the idea that someone outside of Mormonism could have been the author, or that it was a pastiche of other early American works. The main reason is because the Book of Mormon itself, and most importantly Joseph Smith himself, is a significant character of the Book of Mormon.
The last article from this 2003 issue is Thomas Murphy, “Simply Implausible: DNA and a Mesoamerican Setting for the Book of Mormon.” This marks the first time that the DNA issue had really come to the pages of Dialogue. Murphy was a key player in this debate. This article a response to some FARMS and FAIR criticisms of an earlier book chapter published by Murphy, where he answers a number of the objections. They all agreed what the evidence was, that it didn’t support any traditional understanding of the Book of Mormon. Native Americans are not descended from ancient Israelites. The issue was what that meant. Apologists argued that the limited geography model meant that the DNA wouldn’t really be detectable. Others argued that it meant that Book of Mormon just wasn’t a historical record. The essay is organized around the key arguments and walks through the evidence, so it is a good place to start to orient yourself on this debate.
Moving ahead to 2005, we see another new contribution. John Williams, “A Marvelous Work and a Possession: Book of Mormon Historicity as Postcolonialism.” I think that this remains an important paper because it really brings in race and politics into Book of Mormon scholarship—not in terms of hashing out the justice or meaning of the curses, but of how the narrative and its interpretation incorporate or take possession of certain peoples for its own purposes. He compares the book of Mormon to the 13th century book The Travels of Marco Polo. He isn’t drawing crude parallels about influence or origins. Indeed, he is explicitly discussing the hazards of parallelomania that Douglas Salmon had put forward. He wants to reframe this whole question at a meta level—to talk about how the Book and its coming forth are colonizing events, taking possession of a people in the narrative. And he calls the contemporary analysis that limits the authority and totalizing claims of the Book of Mormon’s claim about who the Lamanites are, whether from apologists or naturalists, decolonization. The question of the identity of the Lamanites is at the heart of this process.
Other 19th century approaches continued to be put forward, including Clyde Ford, “Lehi on the Great Issues: Book of Mormon Theology in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective.” Really, he isn’t making a definitive argument about historicity—only that the theological arguments in the Book of Mormon seem “designed to be read and understood by its early nineteenth century audience.” This is an effort to then locate more precisely the theological arguments that it was engaged it by mapping the different schools from Calvinism to Arminianism to Methodism to Universalism and more. He looks at some of the major theological rivalries of the day, and where the Book of Mormon lands on them. He argues that the Book of Mormon doesn’t consistently side with one school, but is an eclectic mix of various theological positions of the day.
The last article in that 2005 issue I want to discuss is about chiasmus. Earl Wunderli’s, “Critique of Alma 36 as an Extended Chiasm.” This article looks at one of the most famous and claimed to be structurally elegant example in the Book of Mormon of this literary form, first noticed by Jack Welch. In Alma 36, Alma the Younger recounts his conversion, from the lowest lows to the highest highs. But Wunderli challenges the evidence here, saying that no such chiasm was intended. There are a number of asymmetries or the pairs are linked in a weak way. If there is extended chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, rather than small examples of a few verses, this chapter is not a good example.
A year later, father and son Boyd and Farrell Edwards respond to this article. They make an argument about statistical probabilities to note that the structural parallels are not an accident. Further, the existence of several other chiasm, large and small, suggest that intentionality cannot be dismissed here.
Act 3: Post-Apologetics
In the 2010s, we start to see a variety of new approaches. Some were really taking Book of Mormon scholarship in new directions entirely, as we will see. Others were continuing to advance to historical analysis.
Peter Huff’s 2010 article, “A Gentile Recommends the Book of Mormon” was just such a new kind of article. This is a matter of interfaith dialogue. The Book of Mormon has often attracted admirers from outside the faith. Huff puts it in the category of “world class scripture.” He also has an interesting line: “In the academic world specialization in Mormon Studies can wreck a promising career.” That was just in 2010 and while there are still some risks, it doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. But he talks about a general prejudice against the Book of Mormon. But he notes, “the Book of Mormon is an extraordinary piece of literature.” So, we see again the resurgence of literary approaches to the Book of Mormon that assess its literary quality. Twain’s assessment of the books as “chroloform in print,” was funny, but wrong, he says.
The truth is that this was a bit of a high point for the Book of Mormon. Terryl Givens followed up his bestselling with a Brief Introduction to the Book of Mormon. Paul Gutjahr published The Book of Mormon: A Biography. Grant Hardy published Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Readers Guide. Rick Turley and William Slaughter published How We Got the Book of Mormon. Royal Skousen was producing a long-awaited text critical edition of the Book of Mormon. Oxford University Press and others were all in, and it wasn’t just LDS scholar but non-LDS ones as well. The dawn had broken and a new generation of scholars was now dictating the narrative—not just the apologists and naturalists.
A 2012 article from Jacob Bender further captures this turn. “For All Things Must Fail”: A Post-Structural Approach to the Book of Mormon.” Bender brings Derrida to bear on the Book of Mormon. “I argue,” he says, “that the Book of Mormon’s text participates in its own self-deconstruction, systematically undermining the reader’s confidence in the text while also engaging in what the Derrida termed ‘freeplay’ with words.” For people into literary and interpretive theory, this is a great read. It really explores the theme of the failures of language in the Book of Mormon. The article is a great example not only of a post-apologetics literary approach, but of the sophistication that Book of Mormon studies was beginning to show.
In 2014 Clyde Ford returns to the journal again with an important follow to his earlier article. In “The Book of Mormon, The Early Nineteenth Century Debates Over Universalism, and the Development of the Novel Mormon Doctrine of Ultimate Rewards and Punishments,” Ford sets the Book of Mormon in the context of debates over universal salvation that were a big part of the scene in Joseph Smith’s day. Further, he locates these teachings in the context of Smith’s own development of teachings on universal salvation. This is an excellent study of the key issues in the history of LDS doctrines, as well as the Book of Mormon’s theology.
That same year, Bryan Warnick, Benjamin Johnson, and Sang Hyun Kim published “Hospitality in the Book of Mormon.” This article compares the theme of hospitality practices to the Bible and other ancient literature. It looks at the stories of Zoram, Alma and Amulek, Ammon and Lamoni, and various homilies in the Book of Mormon that contain elements of hospitality culture and concern, especially that of the Book of Mormon. They conclude, “Hospitality in the Book of Mormon is not just a host increasing his honor by being generous to a potential enemy under his roof; it is also an opportunity to act as God acts toward others, with kindness and mercy, offering up one’s home as a place of safety and protection.” A great discussion of another important theological theme.
In 2014 again, Roger Terry also publishes “Archaic Pronouns and Verbs in the Book of Mormon: What Inconsistent Usage Tells Us about Translation Theories.” You’ll recall that translation theories had been a big deal for a long time—was the Book a word for word translation, read from the seer stone or Urim and Thummim? This had been a popular one, and was dominant in conservative accounts, who had put forward various proofs for this. Or was Joseph Smith responisble for some of the theological and even narrative content of the book? Blake Ostler and others had pioneered this approach of a loose translation to explain the anachronisms and other features. These were perhaps revelations. Terry looks at something else—the grammar of the Book of Mormon. Lots of “ye”s when it should be a “thou,” and so on. He then puts forward what he calls a “new translation theory.” It’s not one that has, to my knowledge, gained wide acceptance—and in the last few years alone several major studies of JS’s translation method have appeared, but is nevertheless an interesting proposal to solve some problems that the earlier theories hadn’t considered.
Act 4: Recent Studies
In this final section, I want to summarize some of the new directions we have seen in Book of Mormon scholarship. The old questions have not been completely settled, and I expect we will continue to litigate these for a long time, but there are new approaches to these questions and new questions entirely as well.
I want to start out with a sermon by Jared Hickman, “Learning to Read with the Book of Mormon.” We haven’t covered sermons here, but this one is an exception. Jared Hickman published in 2014 one of the most consequential, if not the most consequential article on “the Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse” in the journal American Literature. This article challenged the traditional reading of racism in the Book of Mormon, showing how it deconstructs itself. This approach blew people away and has remained hugely influential for rereading the Book of Mormon. The sermon is really a deep analysis of reading. Gorgeous, from one of the great scholars of our day.
In 2017, another amazing scholar Colleen McDannell makes another key contribution. “Mexicans, Tourism, and Book of Mormon Geography.” McDannell brings a material culture lens to the tourism industry that sprung up from apologetica approaches to the Book of Mormon. How has the Book of Mormon shaped the real world and people’s live experiences? This article is so important and innovative. It tells the whole story of how the Book of Mormon geography got debated, from the early 20th century to today. This is hugely important history of the particular subquestion in Book of Mormon Studies. You’ll also meet some key figures in Mexico who are part of this industry. I love this article, and highly recommend it.
We see a collection of important articles in the summer 2019 that all deal with the Book of Mormon, the first issue in a long time to publish so many articles on the Book of Mormon. First up, Brian Hales, “Automatic Writing and the Book of Mormon: An Update.” Here, Hales examines one of the newer theories for the production of the Book of Mormon among naturalists, who argued that Smith wrote while in a trance, or automatically. There are several examples of this kind of unconscious writing, and Hales examines these as comparisons. Most important here is a 1915 written with a medium called The Sorry Tale. There are others as well, but Hales argues that there are too many dissimilarties to classify the book in this way.
Next up is Ryan Thomas, “The Gold Plates and Ancient Metal Epigraphy.” This article is the definitive study of writing on metal plates in antiquity. It looks at all the examples. This is part of a larger trend to study the question of the gold plates. Richard Bushman, Ann Taves, and others have puzzled over this. What Ryan Thomas does is establishing whether there were any ancient precedents for something like the brass plates or gold plates, metal codices. The descriptions in the Book of Mormon diverge from all known examples. An online only appendix goes into more detail.
In the next article, Larry Morris’s “Empirical Witnesses of the Gold Plates,” there is more discussion of the various witnesses to the gold plates among Joseph Smith’s contemporaries.
Finally, Rebecca Roesler wrote “Plain and Precious Things Lost: The Small Plates of Nephi” as the last contribution to that special 2019 issue. This is a study of the role that the small plates of Nephi play in the narrative of the Book of Mormon itself. It was called a “plain and precious” book. This is actually a really big issue in apologetic and naturalistic approaches. Quinn Brewster’s article from 1996 offers some discussion of this. Roesler offers another perspective that, “sometime in the generations before Alma, the small plates of Nephi and the teachings thereon are lost or obscured from view.” Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it is worth mentioning here, that Becky is one of the only women who has published on the Book of Mormon in Dialogue. Recent years have seen a big influx of women scholars into this subfield, but not as many have been publishing in Dialogue. I hope we see that change!
The most recent article we’ve published is by William Davis. Davis’s 2020 book Visions of a Seer Stone was a finalist in the American Academy of Religion book awards. It’s a huge deal. Anyway, his fall 2020 article is called, “The Limits of Naturalistic Criteria for the Book of Mormon: Comparing Joseph Smith and Andrew Jackson Davis.” This takes his book’s research in a new direction. He looks at the claims that Joseph Smith could not have produced the Book of Mormon, and brings new data to this long-standing question. He looks specifically and Andrew Jackson Davis, an American seer who wrote The Principles of Nature in 1847 while in a trance. “In this comparison,” he writes, “we find another complex text produced by a speaker with limited formal education and training, created under similar conditions and circumstances, and a work that stands as its young creator’s greatest masterpiece, even though the text was created at the dawn of the speaker’s career.” This is sure to make a lasting contribution to the discussion.
Okay, so we conclude the most recent period with a bit of analysis. There is so much more to say about the Book of Mormon. We are still seeing some of the classic questions on historicity come up. But even here, there is so much innovation about ancient and modern cultures, new theories of automatic writing that are being debated, and more. But we are also seeing new approaches altogether. New areas of research on the gold plates, on the structure of the book of Mormon, and new innovations on the reception of the Book, including tourism, show a lot of promise.