In the new year 2014, I’m going to read the Book of Mormon.
I’ve opined more than once that as a major work of American literature, the Book of Mormon is unfairly ignored by readers outside the Restoration tradition. I believe the book can (and should) be read as an epic of the young American republic in the first generations after the revolution. With a few exceptions like Harold Bloom, most non-Mormons have either followed Mark Twain’s humorous panning of the text (as impenetrably boring) or they’ve disregarded it altogether.
Even within the Restoration tradition, the book has tended to be used in particular ways. For the earliest members in the 1830s, the Book of Mormon was apparently more important as a sign of the end times and prophetic authority than as a source of theological content for preaching. Over the years I suspect that readers within the tradition have tended to read the text as a history book — in keeping with the idea that the religion of Mormonism has history in place of a systematic theology. Recently, for many readers committed to reading the text as a literalistic history of the ancient Americas, this has led (in my opinion) to substantial distortions of its original meaning as the book is reframed through the prism of our ever-expanding knowledge of actual Meso-American history. (In Community of Christ, it’s been read less and less according to informal feedback from members in my own congregation and around North America, with many people unsure how to approach the book anymore.)
I’m planning to approach the text differently. Instead of reading the book as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority or the authority of one of the successor churches of the religious movement he helped found or trying to read into it a history of the ancient Mayans or Olmecs, I’m intending to read the Book of Mormon for its theological and philosophical content. To better understand this content, I’ll attempt to place it within Joseph Smith’s immediate context — the fervent North American Protestant religious revival in early the 19th century known as the “Second Great Awakening.” I’ll try to read the stories for what they are trying to teach as stories, rather than as histories of past events. I hope to track the early development of Joseph Smith’s religious thinking and how it influenced the early Restoration, but I also want to see how I will find meaning in the Book of Mormon’s theology and philosophy for those of us living now in the 21st century.
I think I’m returning to the Book of Mormon with a unique vantage. On the one hand, I’m fairly knowledgeable about the background history of its composition and publication and I think I’m rather familiar with its contents in a general sense. But I haven’t actually read the book cover to cover since I was a young teenager. I’m therefore approaching the text with eyes that are at once informed but also somewhat fresh.
I also come at the text armed with a different understanding of scripture than many other faithful members of Restoration traditions that are more literalistic. My views are largely in keeping with Community of Christ’s statement on scripture. This view includes the idea that scripture is not inerrant scientifically or historically. Rather, scripture is a human response to the Divine and the prophet or evangelist who authored the text was subject to the biases and errors inherent in his or her historical context. Rather than excuse ethical or philosophically bad teachings in scripture, in my view we need to understand them for what they are and use them to help us explore the ethical and philosophical questions we face in our lives today.
My own bias at the outset includes my belief that the Book of Mormon is a work of 19th century scripture, composed orally by Joseph Smith and written down by various scribes (especially Oliver Cowdery). If you believe the text is a translation of an ancient American text, I think you may still derive benefit from reading along with me and examining the text in a different light. However, the resulting discussion will not be a forum for historicity debates; those can be held elsewhere. Similarly, if you aren’t sure about or don’t believe in God or have value for the word or concept of “scripture,” I think you may still benefit from reading along and examining the book’s content in context.
Scope of the Project / How You Can Read Along
The text of the Book of Mormon as we have it today is different from the text as it was composed. Thousands of edits were made in Joseph Smith’s lifetime and the different churches and publishers made subsequent changes. One of the biggest changes was the division of the book into numbered verses, which each church did on its own. The LDS Church also divided the long, original chapters into shorter chapters — thus the chapter and versification between the Community of Christ and LDS versions are entirely different. (I’ll cite both reference systems as I post.) To get at the earliest text, I’m going to do my principal reading from Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale, 2009). I’ll supplement it using Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003) for the LDS text along with my copy of the Community of Christ’s “Authorized Edition” of the Book of Mormon (Herald House, 1992).
In order to take in the development of the Book of Mormon’s ideas, I’m going to read it in the order it was composed, rather than in the order of its internal chronology. The earliest part of the text is famously lost: the so-called “116 Pages” given to Martin Harris. When Joseph began to compose again, he started at the point of the narrative where he’d left off with the story of King Benjamin in the Book of Mosiah. He then dictated the text to the end of the Book of Moroni before starting in on I and II Nephi through Words of Mormon. Using that order, I’ve divided the book into reading sections, which I’m posting here for anyone who wants to read along. Each Wednesday I’ll publish a blog post with my reflections on that week’s reading and we can share in discussion here.
My first post will be next Wednesday (on New Year’s Day), where we’ll talk a little bit about the book’s composition process and the original, lost part of the text. Since we don’t have the “116 Pages,” our reading will come from the Doctrine and Covenants (Community of Christ Section 2, which is LDS Section 3).
Next year I’m teaching adult Sunday School in the Toronto congregation who will be reading along with me and discussing the text each Sunday at 10 am. I’ll be posting posting on Wheat and Tares for the Mormon audience and here for the Community of Christ audience. Feel free to read along and join us!
 Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872). Twain devotes chapter 16 to a humorous review of the Book of Mormon. Although Twain’s quip that the book “is chloroform in print” is much quoted, the joke no longer translates as people have ceased to remember chloroform as a sleep-inducing anesthetic. I much prefer Twain’s take on the Eight Witnesses, which still holds up: “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”
 In her study of the writings of William McLellin, one of the original Latter Day Saint apostles, Jan Shipps noted that “although the Book of Mormon is always mentioned, at only three points does this extended account of six years for Mormon preaching in the early 1830s [i.e., McLellin’s journals] indicate that this scripture was used as a source for sermon texts.” More important than its content for early members was “the fact of the book” and “its coming forth a the opening event in the dispensation that was serving as the ‘winding-up scene’ before the curtain rose on the eschaton.” See Jan Shipps, “Another Side of Early Mormonism,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, eds. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 6.
I wonder, John, and your thoughts on this would be interesting – if the lack of use for sermons and such of BoM passages in the early Church (and presumably its two main successor organizations, at least for some time) is due not only to its main importance and function as tangible evidence of the Restoration (“the fact of the book”) but also to the fact that in its original form, it’s so darned hard to locate and cite passages in it.
In the LDS tradition, we really couldn’t do that effectively until Orson Pratt sliced and diced it in 1879. I’m not sure when the CoC/RLDS chapter and verse references (which correspond much more closely to early edition chapters and paragraphs) were “normalized” or to what extent the BoM ever became standard sermon fare in the RLDS tradition.
In addition, I’m an adult convert to Mormonism and was baptized just before Ezra Taft Benson delivered his scathing 1986 address to the Church condemning us for not using the Book of Mormon enough. It may be that the widespread use of the Book to which I am accustomed was accelerated greatly by that talk, and I just came along too late to be able to tell the difference.
New Iconoclast: I think that could certainly have been a factor — perhaps one among many.
Also, apostolic preaching like McLellin’s was missionary preaching and the audience of potential converts would have been unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon, but imminently familiar with the Bible. Preaching from a list of Bible verses that could be interpreted a particular way would have had much more authoritative punch.
And then, once a member was inside the movement, you’re there with a prophet who is doling out new revelation — so it may well be natural that the focus kept shifting.
I imagine you’re right that the experience of a post-Ezra Taft Benson member of the LDS Church regarding the Book of Mormon is different from that of earlier years.
[…] beginning because it is lost. However, we do have something else. (If you’re following along in our weekly readings, you’ll already know what that something is.) In July of 1828, Joseph dictated a new text — […]
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