The Lure of Folklore
Though we may owe the Book of Mormon a debt of gratitude for it’s place in our church community, are we comfortable with it today? I feel that a significant number of our members are not; and I believe, in those nations where it would be appropriate to use it, that we really should strive to become comfortable with it, regardless of our positions on it’s status. Doing so seems to me like an ideal way of respecting it’s ongoing foundational role in our church.
In our modern, educated, 21st century society, we often have sceptical views of just about everything. But as a people of faith, we know that God can bring about any work.
Words of Counsel presented to the church in April 2013 state (in the 15th paragraph) “God calls whoever God calls”. Likewise, God can do whatever God desires. Whatever God wishes to do, to further God’s divine purposes, He can bring about.
Therefore, we don’t need to become fidgety when dealing with the Book of Mormon. This is not to say that it must be taken as a historical work. But, I don’t think we need to persecute it either. And sadly, I feel that some people do just that. It has become the victim of a witch hunt by some of our own members, and, in my view at least, that is just plain wrong.
I tend to think that all denominations have what might be termed denominational folklore. Such folklore includes those things that members have believed to be doctrinal, authoritative, scriptural, etc. but which were not truly any of those things.
The Book of Mormon is itself a victim of church folklore, and therefore, where it is concerned, it is imperative that we resist, and overcome, the lure of folklore. There are many examples of church folklore regarding the Book of Mormon, but I only want to go into depth on one of them. However, before I do so, I’ll share a very brief overview of another one.
Many people have indicated that they reject the Book of Mormon because of how Joseph translated it. They have heard, and were shocked to learn, that Joseph put his head into a top hat, and received the words by peering into a stone at the bottom of his hat.
However, that whole story properly belongs in the realm of church folklore. Joseph Smith Jr. never wrote down any such account, and the church has never, to my knowledge, expressed such a notion as the official explanation for how it was translated (in fact, I’m not sure the church has ever officially commented on that – save perhaps “by the power and authority of God”). The fact that this may have been a widely circulated story, that early church members accepted, is irrelevant, plain and simple.
Another common item of folklore that people cite, as a reason to reject the Book of Mormon regards the ancestors of the Native Americans. I have conversed with many church members who say that they reject the Book of Mormon because science has proved that Native Americans are not descended from Israelites. To them, this fact demonstrates a flaw with the Book of Mormon.
But it is a false flaw. The fact might be sound, but the flaw is not. Quite simply, the Book of Mormon does not claim that Native Americans were sired by the Lamanites.
When I point this out, the response I usually get back is “Well that is what Joseph Smith Jr. taught.”
This is, in itself, a very interesting response. If I can make, for the sake of illustrating a point, a sweeping generalization, the membership of the church, at least in first world nations, is more or less divided into conservative and liberal members (in a church context). In my experience, if someone is going to reject or accept the Book of Mormon, liberal members are most likely to reject it and conservatives are more likely to accept it.
Here is the issue that puzzles me. When conservatives resist doctrinal changes, they often quote from the scriptures. Sometimes the Book of Mormon. Sometimes the Inspired Version of the Bible, and very often, from the Doctrine and Covenants. Given that most changes that the church has considered making, pertain to principles set forth in the earliest revelations, the Doctrine and Covenants, when quoted for such purposes, is most likely being used to reference a revelation that came through the founding prophet Joseph Smith Jr.
The responses that I often see or hear from liberals to such quotes, used by conservatives to resist doctrinal changes, tend to focus on the humanness of Joseph Smith Jr.
We are reminded that he was just a man. We are reminded that revelation comes through the filter of humanity, and that Joseph was no exception. We are reminded that everything must be understood in it’s proper historical and cultural context, and so forth.
All of which, incidentally, is as it should be. Such notions are very appropriate, and help us to be more responsible in our efforts to follow Christ.
So why is it that this same response is not applied to what Joseph said about the Book of Mormon? Why is it, that when I point out that the Book of Mormon does not teach that Native Americans are descended from the Lamanites, the response I often get is “Well that is what Joseph taught” – and leave it at that, as if that statement proves something, or is somehow authoritative?
What happened to Joseph’s humanness? Why is he suddenly back on that pedestal of infallibility?
My typical response to the reminder that Joseph taught that Native Americans are descended from Lamanites is: “So what?”
Because I am conservative, I care, a great deal, about what Joseph Smith presented to the church as being derived from the mind and will of God. But, and I may be unique here, when it comes to everything else he said, everything that he spoke, or wrote down that he did not present as revelatory in nature, I don’t really care.
Oh sure, from a historical interest point-of-view, I might be interested in what he said on various topics. But, beyond that, I don’t really care, because what he did not present as revelation is not accepted as revelation, and is therefore not binding on the church. It is not authoritative.
We really should be extending the same courtesies to the Book of Mormon that we now extend to the rest of our scriptures. And in that area I think we sometimes stumble. We want to promote less rigid, less black-and-white, less absolute approaches to the Bible, and even to the earliest sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (and beyond), but we seem stuck about doing the same thing in regard to the Book of Mormon.
In other words, just as we have done with the Bible, and the Doctrine and Covenants, and even with our history, we must separate what these things actually say from church folklore. We must extend scriptural courtesy, respect, fairness, etc., to *all* of our volumes of scripture.