Lost and Found in the Wilderness

LostintheWildernessI’m still playing catch-up this week as our reading takes us through the end of the Book of Mosiah (11-13 CofC/23-19 LDS). Having left the people of Limhi reunited with the main body of Nephites in Zarahemla last week, we turn from the “the Record of Zeniff” to a new subset of the text introduced by the header “An account of Alma and the people of the Lord, which was driven into the wilderness by the people of king Noah.”

However, relatively little time is spent on the separate existence of the people of Alma. Very quickly they are found by the Lamanites and decide to flee to Zarahemla where the bulk of our reading is set. Thus, the seemingly complex structure that we saw established last week — where the people of Alma, the people of Limhi, and the priests of Noah all existed separately in lands divided by the wilderness — quickly reduces with the first two groups merging back into the main body of the Nephites at Zarahemla, and the last group uniting with the Lamanites.

To sketch out the narrative: the people of Alma are living in the newly settled Land of Helam. They are righteously devoted to their new church and are said to “multiply and prosper exceedingly,” but we are told “the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith” (Mosiah 11:22-23 CofC/ 23:20-21 LDS). This is a somewhat unexpected twist on the Deuteronomic history. Apparently the rule is sometimes if you’re righteous and therefore prosperous, you fall into sin and the Lord sends the Lamanites to chastise you and bring about repentance. However, at other times, if you’re prosperous and stay righteous, the Lord sends the Lamanites merely to test your faith. Either way, it seems, you get the Lamanites. (It’s a little like because the Lord has a hammer, every situation looks like a nail.)

In a kind of ongoing “lost in the wilderness” comedy of errors,[1] the Lamanite army chasing Limhi’s people into the wilderness instead finds the wicked priests and their stolen Lamanite wives. Through the intercession of these wives, the Lamanites forgive the priests and they all attempt to find their way back to the Land of Nephi. Instead, they stumble upon Alma’s people in the Land of Helam. (These lost in the wilderness snafus are a sequel to the experience of the Zeniff’s scouts who found gold plates at the Land of Desolation, imagining that they were in Zarahemla.) King Laman of the Lamanites appoints Amulon, leader of the wicked priests, to be a sub-king over the Land of Helam. Amulon proceeds to enslave Alma’s people who ultimately respond by fleeing into the wilderness (not forgetting their flocks!) and rejoining the main body of Nephites at Zarahemla.


The Acts of the Almas

The bulk of the narrative now focuses on the combined group at Zarahemla, still led by King Benjamin’s son, King Mosiah. Although called “Nephites” in shorthand, we’re now told that the majority of the people were actually descendants of a figure alternatively known as “Muloch” in the original manuscript, “Mulok” in the CofC edition, and “Mulek” in the LDS edition (Mosiah 11:78 CofC/ 25:2 LDS). Presumably Muloch’s story, the founding of Zarahemla, and the original migration of the Nephites to Zarahemla (including the establishment of a Nephite kingly dynasty) were stories lost with the 116 pages.

In arriving at Zarahemla with his people, Alma has brought something new: the church he has previously established in the wilderness. With the authorization of King Mosiah, Alma now begins to “establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla” led by priests and teachers. Alma himself is the “high priest,” which appears to be the title of the head of the church (unlike the way the term has been used in the Restoration tradition since 1835).

As the narrative tells the story of the establishment and growth of the Nephite church, it draws inspiration from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles — with one major twist.[2] The opponents of early Christians in the eastern half of the Roman Empire are, by and large, pagans, Jews, and false prophets and magicians. Essentially no one in the ancient world was an “unbeliever” — everyone, including most philosophers, held some idea of higher powers, God, or gods, even if they rejected mythology and/or cultic practices as superstition. The church in Acts, therefore, is built up as a result of victory over groups and individuals from these groups of rival believers who conspire to persecute the early Christians.

In Joseph Smith’s day, the Christians of the Second Great Awakening squared off, not against Greco-Roman paganism, but against the new kind of skepticism that had been born in the wake of the Enlightenment. Like them, the rivals of Alma’s church are not practitioners of some earlier Nephite or Mulekite religion that predated Benjamin and Abinadi’s prophesies of Jesus Christ, they are “unbelievers.”[3] And it seems that although Alma, as high priest, enjoys religious and political ascendance (including active sponsorship by the king), the unbelievers are still able to inflict great “persecutions” on his church (Mosiah 11:150 CofC/ 27:1 LDS).


Alma Jr on the Road to Damascus

Among the most prominent unbelievers, initially, is Alma’s own son Alma (“Alma Jr”), along with Alma Jr’s friends, the sons of King Mosiah. However, like the most famous episode in the Book of Acts, where the persecuting Saul is confronted by a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus and is converted and becomes the great missionary apostle “Paul” (Acts 9), Alma Jr and the sons of Mosiah are likewise visited by an angel of the Lord.

In Paul’s vision, Jesus asks “Saul, Saul, why persecutist thou me?” (Acts 9:4). The angel appearing to Alma Jr asks “Alma, arise and stand forth. For why persecutist thou the church of God?” (Mosiah 11:165 CofC/ 27:13 LDS). For Saul, the experience was so astonishing that he fell to the earth, and afterward was struck blind and speechless for three days. Then, after his site and speech were restored, he was fully converted to the cause of building up the church, ultimately becoming its greatest missionary.

Alma Jr shares Saul’s experience, falling to the ground in astonishment and losing the power of speech and movement for two days and two nights (Mosiah 11:179-185 CofC/ 27:18-23 LDS). Arising from the experience, Alma announces that he has been “born of the Spirit” and that it is necessary for everyone to become “born again, yea, born of God” (Mosiah 11:186-187 CofC/ 27:24-25 LDS).[4] At this point he and the sons of Mosiah become, like Paul became for the early Christian church, the Nephite church’s greatest missionaries. We’ll have more of their stories inspired by Acts in future weeks.


On Kingship: Sermons of Alma and King Mosiah

The pattern we’ve observed to date in the text are a series of stories told largely by an anonymous narrator[5] interspersed with sermons spoken directly by figures within the stories. At the beginning and end of our reading this week, we have sermons on the topic of kingship. The idea of functional monarchy is rather dated from our 21st-century perspective. The issue was largely decided in the Great War (whose centennial we’re commemorating this year) and its sequel; but the question of monarchy vs. republicanism and democracy was very much open in the early 19th-century.

The first sermon on the topic is given by Alma, who is addressing his people while they were still an isolated group in the Land of Helam. His words “if it were possible that ye could always have just men to be your kings, it would be well for you to have a king” (Mosiah 11:8 CofC/ 23:8 LDS) are sometimes cited in support of divine-led monarchy as the best form of government. In fact, Alma’s arguing the opposite, i.e., since it’s impossible for the king to always be a just man, “it is not expedient that we should have a king” (Mosiah 11:7 CofC/ 23:7 LDS). Moreover, Alma quotes the Lord’s opposition “Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another” (Mosiah 11:7 CofC/ 23:7 LDS). Rather, Alma desires that his people:

Ye should stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free and that ye trust no man to be a king over you… (Mosiah 11:14 CofC/ 23:13 LDS)

Nevertheless, when Alma and his people relocate to Zarahemla, they do end up trusting a man to be king over them: King Mosiah. But King Mosiah himself ultimately agrees with Alma as he explains in a much longer sermon at the end of our reading this week.

As Mosiah approaches old age, following the pattern we’ve seen with his father King Benjamin and with King Limhi’s grandfather Zeniff, he would normally retire and confer the kingship on his son. However, all of Mosiah’s sons have become uber-missionaries following their “road to Damascus” experience. None of them wish the kingship, and even if they did, they are currently away from Zarahemla, evangelizing the Lamanites. Mosiah argues that it’s too dangerous to appoint someone else to the kingship, lest one of his sons change his mind, return and spark a civil war (Mosiah 13:11-12 CofC/ 29:6-9 LDS). Also, if the king proves wicked, it’s extremely costly to depose him (Mosiah 13:28-31 CofC/ 29:21-23 LDS).

Instead, Mosiah proposes that after he dies the people will transfer their governance to a set of “judges” chosen “by the voice of this people” (Mosiah 13:34 CofC/ 29:25 LDS). Rule will be by the majority, since Mosiah believes “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth any thing contrary to that which is not right, but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right” (Mosiah 13:35 CofC/ 29:26 LDS). As such he has much more faith in direct democracy than America’s founding fathers. Even so, Mosiah perceives the need for some checks and balances:

If ye have judges and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that he may be judged of a higher judge. If your higher judges doth not judge righteous judgments, ye shall cause a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together and they shall judge your higher judges according to the voice of the people. (Mosiah 13:39-40 CofC/ 29:28-29 LDS)

Mosiah then retires and Alma Jr, who had inherited the position of high priest from his father Alma Sr, was appointed “chief judge,” thus apparently ending the brief Nephite experiment with the partial separation of state and church.


Stray Observations

• When Amulon and the priests of Noah join the Lamanites, we are given the impression that the Lamanites and Nephites have come to speak different languages as the Lamanites are now taught “the language of Nephi” (Mosiah 11:49 CofC/ 24:4 LDS).

• We are once again reminded of the extreme importance of text in the view of the Book of Mormon’s author. When all the Nephite groups are reunited, King Mosiah gathers them together and reads them the various records he’s acquired: the Record of Zeniff and the story of Alma’s church (Mosiah 11:81-82 CofC/ 25:5-6 LDS). This act of devotion is reminiscent of Ezra’s reading of the book of the Law of Moses to all the people assembled in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8). Mosiah also translates the gold plates found by Limhi’s people (Mosiah 12:16-26 CofC/ 28:13-19 LDS) and discovers to his sorrow that it contains the record of a people who emerged from the Tower of Babel and were ultimately destroyed. Our narrator promises “this account shall be written hereafter; for behold it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account” (Mosiah 12:26 CofC/ 28:19 LDS). Finally, Mosiah confers all the records and the interpreters on Alma Jr., who is destined to be both high priest and chief judge (Mosiah 13:1 CofC/ 28:20 LDS).

• Although we learn that King Limhi gets baptized into Alma’s church (Mosiah 11:94 CofC/ 25:27 LDS), it isn’t clear what his status is now that he’s in King Mosiah’s land. Limhi falls out of the narrative and is not considered by Mosiah, when the latter is searching for a possible successor.

• The churches of Zarahemla founded by Alma Sr. are seven in number (Mosiah 11:102 CofC/ 25:23 LDS) which is reminiscent of the seven churches in Asia who are the recipients of John’s letter in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 1:4).

• Pretty much the first thing Alma is faced with after founding a church is the perceived need for church discipline. This is resolved at considerable length by setting up a system of excommunication: if members “would not confess their sins and repent of their iniquity, the same were not numbered among the people of the church; and their names were blotted out” (Mosiah 11:145 CofC/ 26:36 LDS). Unhappily this prefigures the early Restoration experience. Anyone reading early church records can’t help but be amazed at the amount of time early members spent excommunicating each other.

• In the wrap-up of the Book of Mosiah, we’re treated to some chronological reckonings for the year both Mosiah and Alma Sr die, which is 82 years since Alma Sr was born, the 33rd year of King Mosiah’s reign, 63 years since Mosiah was born, and 509 years “from the time Lehi left Jerusalem” (Mosiah 13:66-68 CofC/ 29:45-46). Next week we’ll begin numbering “the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi”.

• The concept of reverting to rule by “judges” draws on the Biblical precedent in the Deuteronomic history, especially the Book of Judges and the First Book of Samuel. In these stories, the early Israelites are led by a series of “judges,” the last of whom, Samuel, only reluctantly accedes to the desire of the people to appoint a king. However, the word “judge” here in Mosiah describes the 19th century American use of the term (a public magistrate who deals with legal matters), as opposed to the use of word in the Book of Judges, where “judges” fill the role of tribal heroes. (The most famous judge in the Bible, Samson, isn’t much of a lawyer.)


Next week we begin the Book of Alma (the son of Alma) with Alma 1-2 CofC/1-4 LDS.


[1] I tend to read the imagery here as a kind of memory or imagination of early colonial New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, prior to the vast clearances of forests by European Americans for plow agriculture. My picture of the various “lands” are cleared areas with farms set in the imagined virgin woodland “wildernesses”. Once you’re in the woods, the Book of Mormon assumes there’s very little hope of knowing which land you’ll find when you come back out. We’ll have occasion to talk more about Book of Mormon geography in future weeks.

[2] Regarding parallels with Acts, we already saw how Abinadi’s speech and martyrdom at the hands of Noah’s priests mirrored Stephen’s speech and martyrdom at the hands of the Sanhedrin. Both Stephen and Abinadi explicitly quote the same passage from Isaiah (53:7-8) as predictive of Jesus (see Acts 8:32-33 and Mosiah 8:33-34 CofC/ 15:6 LDS). Both speeches are lengthy summaries. While the author of Acts puts a summary of the Hebrew Bible into Stephen’s mouth, the Book of Mormon’s author summarizes the Christian gospel in Abinadi’s speech. Finally, Abinadi’s speech led to the conversion of Alma, who had previously been one of the wicked priests of Noah. Similarly, Saul of Tarsis is among the Pharisees who hear Stephen’s speech. As we observe this week, Saul’s subsequent conversion is paralleled with the conversion of Alma’s son Alma.

[3] Prior to his conversion, as leader of the “unbelievers,” Alma Jr is described briefly as a “very wicked and an idolatrous man” (Mosiah 11:159 CofC/ 27:8 LDS). While it could be argued that this implies he is literally worshiping idols, there’s no description of such idols in the text thus far. I read this as “idolatrous” in the figurative sense of a Second Great Awakening sermon, e.g., putting worldly concerns above faith in God.

[4] Although the need to be “born again” of the Spirit through a dramatic spiritual experience was a huge part of Second Great Awakening religious revivals, the terminology in the Restoration tradition today receives less emphasis, having been subsumed into the ordinance (LDS) or sacrament (CofC) of confirmation.

[5] The main exception, thus far, was the narration by Zeniff at the beginning of the Record of Zeniff.


Abinadi Re-Imagines Isaiah

589px-Michelangelo,_profeti,_Isaiah_01Our reading this week (Mosiah 6-8 CofC/9-16 LDS) is the beginning of our book within the book. We’re now reading “The Record of Zeniff” which is engraved on one of the two sets of plates mentioned in the Ammon and Limhi story. The record starts in the voice of our first named narrator, who begins his story with a familiar Book of Mormon formula: “I, Zeniff, having been…” This will later recur when the new beginning of the text is dictated and we hear the famous phrase: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…” (I Nephi 1:1 CofC/1 Nephi 1:1 LDS).[1]  After King Zeniff tells his tale and retires (conferring his kingdom on his son Noah), the voice once again shifts to anonymous narration (as King Noah does not keep the record).

The story within the story is set across the wilderness from Zarahemla, in the Land of Lehi-Nephi (sometimes just called Nephi) and the neighboring lands of Shilom and Shemlon. This week’s reading gives us our first taste of warfare and slaughter between the Lamanites and Nephites and it also introduces the Book of Mormon’s take on the Deuteronomic history embedded in the Bible. Put briefly, the Biblical author/editor(s) who composed the related books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, envisioned a history for Israel which showed that the nation was alternatively punished by disobedience to God and redeemed and blessed by obedience to God. This is most evident in Judges where God uses foreign nations like the Philistines to chastise the Israelites, later calling a judge to deliver the people when they are sufficiently chastened. Similarly, the kings of Israel and Judah in the books of Kings are portrayed as either wicked or righteous depending on their commitment to the Lord.[2]

The parallel in “The Record of Zeniff” comes as the righteous King Zeniff is succeeded by his wicked son, King Noah. As frequently happens to unrighteous kings in the Books of Kings, King Noah is treated to a lengthy rebuke from one of the Lord’s prophets, in this instance a man named Abinadi. After some relatively boilerplate jeremiads where Abinadi promises the Lord is going to do a whole lot of smiting,[3] the priests of King Noah enter the ring to debate. In a move reminiscent of questions posed to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, the priests ask Abinadi to interpret a passage of scripture (Isaiah 52:7-10, quoted from the King James Version): “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings…” This is the beginning of a passage that Christians came to read as a prediction of Jesus and it is our first block quote taste of the Book of Mormon’s love of Isaiah.

At first, Abinadi refuses to play that game: if they claim to be priests they ought to know what it means themselves! Instead he asks them what it is that they teach. They reply that they “teach the law of Moses” (Mosiah 7:84 CofC/12:28 LDS) and after some sparring they additionally affirm “that salvation did come by the law of Moses” (Mosiah 7:93 CofC/12:32 LDS). Abinadi rebukes them for not keeping the laws they claim to teach using repeated rhetorical questions that he himself answers: “Have ye done all this…? Nay, ye have not!” “Have ye…? I say unto you: Nay!” in between which he “reads”[4] the complete text of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20:2-17 (KJV).

The multi-page discourse Abinadi delivers is a second major sermon, which shares some of the same ideas and themes with King Benjamin’s sermon. The recitation of the Ten Commandment leads Abinadi to a higher teaching about salvation:

And now ye [the priests of Noah] have said that salvation cometh by the law of Moses. I say unto you that it is expedient that ye should keep the law of Moses as yet; but I say unto you that the time shall come when it shall no more be expedient to keep the law of Moses. And moreover I say unto you that salvation doth not come by the law alone. And were it not for the atonement which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses. (Mosiah 8:3-5 CofC/13:27-28 LDS)

After quoting an entire chapter of Isaiah (53:1-12 KJV), Abinadi goes on to lay out a Christology similar to that described by King Benjamin:

God himself shall come down among the children of men and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in the flesh, he shall be called the Son of God… and they are one God, yeah the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth (Mosiah 8:28-29, 31 CofC/15:1-2, 4 LDS).

Abinadi then interprets the Isaiah passage he quoted to predict details of Christ’s ministry:

…after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led — yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so that he opened not his mouth — yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain… (Mosiah 8:33-34 CofC/15:6-7 LDS)

Beyond reiterating the message that salvation comes through Christ’s atonement, the new message here is that all the prophets of the Old Testament predicted Jesus Christ. It’s not just King Benjamin and Abinadi who knew the details and meaning of Jesus ministry, all prophets of the Old Testament knew it. As Abinadi rhetorically asks, “did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah and that God should redeem his people?” (Mosiah 8:11 CofC/13:33 LDS) Sadly he fails to answer that one up with an “I say unto you: Yay!” But he does later assert that “all the holy prophets have prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord” (Mosiah 8:41 CofC/15:11 LDS).

Abinadi then turns back to the passage of Isaiah that the priests had asked him about and re-composes it. The original went:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, the publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation.

In Abinadi’s re-imagining this becomes explicitly Christological:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that is the founder of peace, yea, even the Lord who hath redeemed his people, yea, him who hath granted salvation unto his people (Mosiah 8:51-52 CofC/15:18-19 LDS).

This is a point that Christians have attempted to make all the way back to the era when the texts of the New Testament were being composed — as the evangelists repeatedly argued that the Old Testament scripture predicted Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon continues this tradition of re-imagining the Hebrew prophets by setting Christian interpretation in the mouth of a character who is meant to have lived before Christ.

Temporal Anomalies and the Mechanics of Composition by Dictation

I think the overall concept of a predictive Christian gospel — perhaps a prophetic proto-gospel — is clever. That it was composed after the fact, is actually in keeping with the general character of literary prophecy in scripture. For example, the Biblical Book of Daniel, although set in the 6th century BC, can be fairly precisely dated to the 2nd century BC because of “predictions” (technically postdictions) it makes about the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus IV Ephiphanes.[5] Nevertheless, as anybody who’s ever watched a time travel episode in Star Trek knows, talking about the future of the past from the perspective of the present where the past’s future is also now past is complicated. And it’s very easy to mess up your verb tenses.

This happens pretty starkly when Abinadi begins a phrase saying “And now if Christ had not come into the world…” using the pluperfect had from Joseph Smith’s perspective (Mosiah 9:79 CofC/16:6 LDS). Then, before finishing the thought “there could have been no redemption,” we have a tangential explanatory phrase “speaking of things to come as though they had already come” which brings things back to Abinadi’s literary time frame.

This appears to highlight an interesting feature of the Book of Mormon’s composition process. When not quoting (reading directly from) the Bible [recall note 4], Joseph is dictating the text to scribes. Once he’s said it, it’s composed. Fixes have to be made in the next lines as they are orally composed. A regular author could just go back and fix the verb tense “if Christ will not come into the world.” That option isn’t open to Joseph and so the correction takes the form of this odd, supplemental explanation “speaking of things to come as though they had already come.”

Just prior to this, Joseph actually made a much bigger error. In predicting Jesus Chirst, although using exactingly precise details like the crucifixion, Abinadi had nevertheless gone out of his way to name him “the Son of God,” the Messiah, or the Lord. But when explaining that “there cometh a resurrection, even a first resurrection, yea, even a resurrection of those that have been and which are and which shall be, even unto the resurrection of Christ” (Mosiah 8:55 CofC/15:21 LDS) he slips up and mentions “Christ.” As we remember from our last reading, the very heart of King Benjamin’s sermon was the idea that he was going to reveal a name to his people as a reward for their righteousness, possession of which would make them choice above all other exiled Israelites. And now Abinadi, whose story is set a generation before King Benjamin’s story, has revealed the word “Christ” to wicked people he’s in the middle of cursing and rebuking. Once again, the error must have been obvious when dictated, because the following phrase quickly explains “…for so shall he be called.”[6]

Other Observations

• With Mosiah 6 (CofC)/Mosiah 9 (LDS), we’ve come to our first chapter header in the original text: “An account of his people from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time that they were delivered out of the hands of the Lamanites.” Although left out of the versification schemes, this header is an actual part of the Book of Mormon text unlike the many additional chapter headers in the LDS version which are, like the chapter headers printed in many Bibles, simple editorial helps added by the publisher.

• We’ve started to encounter original Book of Mormon words beyond names. “Neas” and “sheum” are included among a list of seeds, and “ziff” is twice among lists of precious metals.

• In this reading, we encounter some pretty terrible European American biases in their contemporary view of Native Americans. The Lamanites are described as “a lazy and idolatrous people” (Mosiah 6:15 CofC/9:12 LDS) and as “a wild and ferocious and bloodthirsty people” (Mosiah 6:45 CofC/10:12 LDS). Obviously, I believe these say nothing about actual customs of Native Americans and merely stand to condemn the bigotry of European Americans in the 1820s.  Nevertheless, I want to punt a broader discussion of this at least one more week.


[1] This formula is reminiscent of the introduction to the Book of Tobit “I, Tobit…” (Tobit 1:3), a book of the Apocrypha commonly included in King James Bibles which is notable for the appearance of the angel Raphael and many magic-like miracles. Since the beginning of the book of Mosiah was lost, we don’t know if it might have begun with a similar formula. In fact, the narrator of the surrounding Ammon and Limhi story is still anonymous at this point in the text.

[2] We will have plenty of occasion to discuss the Book of Mormon’s cycle and the Deuteronomic history in weeks to come.

[3] After all the smiting, the Lord promises King Noah’s people that “except they repent, I will utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth. Yet they shall leave a record behind them, and I will preserve them [the record on the plates] for other nations which shall possess the land. Yeah, even this will I do that I may discover [sic] the abominations of this people to other nations” (Mosiah 12:8 LDS). Thus Abinadi’s prophecy of national destruction predicts the colonization and possession of the land by “other nations” and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

[4] Abinadi says “And now I read to unto you the remainder of the commandments of God” (Mosiah 7:111 CofC/13:11 LDS).  Given that the quotation is read verbatim from the King James Bible, I believe we can assume that when block quotes are read from the Bible, Joseph switched from oral composition to simply reading from the Bible directly.

[5] This is generally accepted. See the Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993): “The book of Daniel is one of the few books of the Bible that can be dated with precision… The discussion of the date of the book can be summed up as follows. With the possible exception of minor glosses, the book reached its present canonical form in the middle of 164 BCE…” (p. 151)

[6] I’m aware that Christ is not actually a name and that the word is the English version of the Greek word for the word in Hebrew that comes into English as “messiah”. But it’s clear from Abinadi’s phrase “for so he shall be called” that he views the word the way King Benjamin did, “he shall be called Jesus Christ” (Mosiah 3:8 LDS).

Reading the Book of Mormon in 2014 with Fresh Eyes

BooksOfMormonIn 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)[1] 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.[2] 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!




[1] 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.”

[2] 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.

Growing in Comfort with the Book of Mormon – Part 1 of 5

Today, there is a spectrum of belief in the church about the Book of Mormon. Affirming room for differences of belief about the Book of Mormon is a hallmark of the Reorganization and the church today.

—President Veazey, “Facing Our Challenges Interview” Part 2 (2009)

BoMComboAs I know some people struggle with the Book of Mormon, and its place in the church, I decided to try to write a series of blog posts about it, as I felt that it might be worthwhile to write something that seeks to help all members of the church grow more comfortable with the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon is one of my favourite features of Community of Christ; but I know that many people struggle with it, and so I hope that my posts will help people overcome some of their concerns with it, and hopefully be open to the merit that it may have.

There are many diverse opinions among Community of Christ members regarding the nature of the Book of Mormon. Some people, like myself, regard it as both a historical and scriptural record. Others view it as scriptural, but not historical. Some would prefer that it would not be viewed as scripture, and may not be comfortable with its position in the church. Others regard it in such high esteem that if the church abandoned it, they might abandon the church.

In 2009, in the Facing Our Challenges interview (part 2) conducted by Apostle Linda Booth, President Stephen Veazey stated “It seems the Book of Mormon defies any simple explanation or theory”. It seems to me, regarding the many views people have of it pertaining to its status or role, it quite clearly (and understandably), also defies consensus.

Recognizing this, my intent with these posts is not to convert people to any particular view regarding the Book of Mormon’s status, but simply, as indicated above, to seek to help people be more at ease with its presence & role in our faith group — and to highlight some of its key themes and noteworthy scriptures. If you are unsure about how you feel about the Book of Mormon, or if you already fully embrace it, I hope that these posts will still be worthwhile to you.

A Debt of Gratitude

One of the things that I cherish most about Community of Christ is our belief in continuing revelation. We not only claim that this concept is one of our doctrines (and one of our enduring principles), but we also celebrate it. We practice it. Collectively. In my opinion, we are unique in this sense.

Naturally, being a church that claims to have extra-Biblical revelations has resulted in us being a church that professes to have an open canon of scripture. This concept and that of continuing revelation, go hand-in-hand.

I tend to think that these foundational principles derive from, and are only possible, because of the Book of Mormon. These concepts, and our heritage, as well as our present cultural identity, and, indeed, our very future, owe a great deal to the Book of Mormon.

The early Restoration emerged during a time when the mere suggestion of extra-Biblical scripture, or new revelations, would most likely result in some very heated conversations (to put it mildly).

Imagine living in the 1800s, and being given a few short documents purported to be revelations from God. You see, in comparison to the Book of Mormon, the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants are brief. In isolation (without the Book of Mormon), with no prior grounding whatsoever in the concept of an open canon, I suspect that it would be very hard to accept a claim of divine revelation for such documents, as it would be difficult to accept something that would not take too much effort to write. After all, many of our revelations are short, and could in theory, with a little effort and time, be written by anyone, and if someone tried to pass one off as having a divine origin, I’m sure that I’d have a hard time being ok with that.

But the Book of Mormon is an altogether different type of revelation. It’s not just a few pages long; it’s an entire book with rich detail, complexities, and more, woven throughout.

Granted, not everyone who read it back in the 1800s was convinced, but it would have been something that I’m sure would be far more difficult to dismiss when compared with the much more brief revelations found in our Doctrine and Covenants.

For whatever reason, many people did accept the Book of Mormon as being just what Joseph Smith Jr. claimed it to be; and therefore, accepting Joseph as a valid prophet of God, they became open to an ever expanding canon, and eventually even comfortable with new scripture and with new revelation. In my opinion, this would never have happened without the Book of Mormon. It paved the way for everything that followed, and the church has been shaped, and deeply blessed, by this willingness to embrace modern revelation.

Growing in Comfort with the Book of Mormon – Part 2 of 5

The Lure of Folklore

tophatThough 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.

Growing in Comfort with the Book of Mormon – Part 3 of 5

Overcoming the Sticky Passages

labanAnother cause for concern for many of our church members regarding the Book of Mormon pertains to the fact that there are some passages or themes that are difficult to reconcile. The two that seem to be the most commonly cited (in my experience) are the death of Laban, and the curse of the Lamanites.

Regarding the first example, the account of Laban’s death states that Nephi was commanded by God to slay Laban. This, quite understandably, does not sit well with many people. It does not sit well with me. We are not accustomed to God commanding people to slay other people.

In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of another example of God giving such a commandment, with regard to one specific, named individual. In the Old Testament, God commanded warfare to take place, but how often did God ask for the death of a specific person?

Actually, one example does come to mind. Isaac. God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac. Of course, God did not actually desire Isaac’s death at Abraham’s hands, and intervened to prevent it.

It is possible that God’s motives in asking Nephi to slay Laban were similar to his motives in asking Abraham to slay Isaac. Of course, unlike Isaac, Laban was not spared. So, on the surface, it would seem that God did indeed desire, and commanded, Laban’s death, and if that is the case, it would take someone who is a much deeper thinker than I am to explain why that was somehow ok.

But, there is another angle to consider. What do we really know from this story? We know that God sent Nephi to obtain the Plates of Brass from Laban. We know that Nephi encountered Laban, drunk, stumbling in the streets. We know Laban collapsed and we know that God then told Nephi that Laban was delivered into his hands. And we know that God then commanded Nephi to slay Laban.

We also know that Nephi resisted. We know that God explained to Nephi why He commanded Nephi to slay Laban, and we know that Nephi then decapitated Laban.

From all of this, it seems quite clear that God commanded Nephi to kill Laban, and that Nephi went through with it. And since God did not intervene, we know that Laban was not spared, as his head was cut off.

So, Nephi killed a fellow human being at the commandment of God.

Or did he?

One thing I came to realize, many years ago, about scripture, or at least, ancient scripture, is that it is … just the highlights. The Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon are each a collection of highlights. We are not told every single thing that befell a particular person, group or society. This often has caused me to ask “what have we not been told?” Or, “what don’t we know?”

With regard to the story of Laban, here is what we don’t actually know. Was Laban, at the time of his beheading, still alive? We must not overlook the fact that the account states that Laban collapsed. The account was written by Nephi, according to Nephi’s own understanding of what transpired. Nephi presumed that Laban had passed out.

It is my own belief that Laban in fact died. Do we know how much wine he had consumed? Do we know how strong his heart was? Do we know what ailments he may have had? God may simply have steered Nephi to Laban right when Laban died of some other cause.

Perhaps Laban had a brain aneurism. We just don’t know – but, people all over the world do have unexpected episodes that often result in sudden death, all the more likely in the ancient world. God knows when it is our time. It is therefore entirely plausible that God steered Nephi to Laban at just the right moment.

God then, for His purposes, asked Nephi to slay Laban, just as he asked Abraham to slay Isaac.

We often presume that our scriptural heroes always pass the tests. But, just as we have come to realize that Joseph Smith Jr. was only human, we also must recognize the same to be true for Nephi. In short, it’s entirely possible that Nephi failed the test.

We might wonder why God would test someone in such a way. What is to be gained? What value or merit is there to do such a thing? I have no answers to such questions – I’ll leave that as a challenge for others to consider, but the immediate absence of such answers, when the questions pertain to the purposes of God, does not warrant a rejection of the account.

The story itself does not offer clues about why this test took place. This is because it was written by Nephi himself – the test subject. Nephi was unaware that he failed the test quite simply because he was oblivious to the fact that he had been tested. Nephi never knew (if my theory is correct), that Laban was already dead. God, most likely to spare Nephi guilt and turmoil, appears to have remained mute on the subject after the deed was done.

The question then becomes, why was this story included? If we take the position that the authors of scripture are inspired to write what they wrote, for what purpose then does this story serve, to we who are the modern audience, removed by 26 centuries from the time and culture of the setting? Nephi thought that he knew the lesson (and for him, maybe he did), but it seems very possible that a very different lesson existed, which was not really needful for Nephi to be made aware of, but which warranted the story being preserved for the benefit of future generations.

We of course can only speculate on what that lesson is, but I suspect it has, in part, the function of serving as an example of the need to look beyond the written word; to do what Nephi himself said to do – ponder the scriptures.

The second stumbling block that many people have with the Book of Mormon’s actual content is the curse of the Lamanites. Many people seem to view this curse as an expression of racism. This is actually not at all the case.

When we read scripture, its important to not have “knee jerk” reactions. We need to ensure, just as we are told to do when reading the Bible, that we place, whatever we read, into the proper context.

Speaking of the Bible, one of the individuals mentioned in it from time to time is the adversary of God. There are even verses here and there that record his words. Knowing this, do we regard the Bible as being about the adversary? If we read just those verses, we might.

This illustrates the need to explore and (again) as Nephi counselled ponder the scriptures.

What do we actually know about the curse of the Lamanites? Well, we know that the reason for the curse was because they rebelled against God. It seems that God wanted to keep these rebellious individuals from influencing those who had not rebelled. Therefore, he wanted to encourage the Nephites to avoid the Lamanites. And so, to help make that more feasible, he “cursed” the Lamanites, by putting a mark on them, so that the Nephites would easily recognize the Lamanites.

That mark took the form of a different complexion. As readers of the Book of Mormon today, some of us seem to have the knee jerk reaction of “that is racist!”. But, it is important to understand several things.

First, the Lamanites were not transformed into some other race or ethnicity. The Book of Mormon does not say that God transformed them into aboriginal Australians. Or Africans. It does not link the curse to any ethnicity whatsoever. In short, they remained Israelites.

Second, we don’t actually know what the different complexion looked like. We have no reason to believe that they were given the appearance of any other racial group.

Third, the purpose of the curse was a punishment for rebelliousness. The Lamanites were not rebellious because of the curse. They were cursed because of their rebelliousness. There is no basis to think that the curse is somehow a comment on other races.

Fourth, the Book of Mormon does not condone viewing the Lamanites, or anyone, with contempt. In fact, it counsels people not to do so.

It is also worth noting that the mark was meaningless to God (beyond being a mark). I’m sure he used this mark of an alternate complexion because of how blatantly obvious it would be to the Nephites. But this is the only basis for that mark that we know of. Aside from the merit of being able to instantly know, by virtue of complexion, who was cursed and who was not, there does not seem to be any reason for the mark to take the form that it did.

In fact, we read later on about a group of Nephites who eventually decided to rebel. They too were cursed, and they too were marked (in fulfillment of an earlier prophecy). These individuals set themselves apart by putting a dab of paint on their foreheads. So, they marked themselves. But the scriptures inform us that God viewed this self-marking as fulfillment of his warning that anyone who rebelled would be marked. So, God accepted the self-inflicted mark as a manifestation of the Lamanite curse. This then demonstrates that the actual nature of the curse’s manifestation to God was irrelevant (save of course in how it would serve his purposes). God does not view people of any particular complexion with disfavour.

Doubtless, there are other passages in the Book of Mormon that trouble people. But the point of this exploration on the death of Laban and the Curse of the Lamanites is to help encourage people to recognize that these problematic scriptures need not be the roadblocks that we may otherwise feel that they are.

Likewise, we need to be mindful of the fact that the Bible has many (in my opinion, far more) examples of passages that are highly troublesome, and often far more difficult (if not impossible), to reconcile with the living model of Jesus Christ.

Growing in Comfort with the Book of Mormon – Part 4 of 5

Stance of the Church

explorebookHow does the church view the Book of Mormon? Does it consider it to be historical? Does it matter? I tend to believe that all that truly matters, on this point, is what you believe.

The church definitely gives total freedom to all members to believe what they wish on this point. We are not required to believe that the Book of Mormon is historical. However, we are also not forced, or even prodded, towards rejecting it as historical.

The church does not, at least in this era, offer an official position on the historicity of the Book of Mormon. And that is fine.

But it has occurred to me that there may be some people who have a need for the church to view the Book of Mormon as historical. I’m not sure why this would be, as I don’t feel that we should have any such need. I don’t. I’d be concerned if the church had a requirement to reject it, but, though I believe that the Book of Mormon really is an account of an ancient people, I don’t require the church to officially sanction that perspective.

But, if you do, truly, in your heart, have some sort of need, for the church to view it as historical, then you can just simply have that opinion. In other words, if you want the church to view the Book of Mormon as historical, just make the decision that it does. You won’t be able to quote anything that clearly and cleanly states that we regard it as such. Nor will you be able to claim that such a viewpoint is official.

Nevertheless, there are some things that the church has stated (and which are official), that you are totally free to interpret, if you so wish, as indicators that the Book of Mormon is regarded by the church as historical.

Such statements include:

The church says the Book of Mormon is scripture:

Scripture is writing inspired by God’s Spirit and accepted by the church as the normative expression of its identity, message, and mission. We affirm the Bible as the foundational scripture for the church. In addition, Community of Christ uses the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants—not to replace the witness of the Bible or improve on it, but because they confirm its message that Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God. When responsibly interpreted and faithfully applied, scripture provides divine guidance and inspired insight for our discipleship.  —Basic Beliefs (Scripture) http://www.cofchrist.org/ourfaith/faith-beliefs.asp

Community of Christ recognizes three books of scripture: The Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. We believe in continuing revelation and an open canon of scripture.” FAQ ( Scripture )

Please note (understanding that the church views the Book of Mormon as scripture) that the above quotes contain wording such as:

“Scripture is writing inspired by God’s Spirit”

“The scriptures provide divine guidance and inspired insight”

Understanding the above, we could conclude, if we so wished, that the church does view the Book of Mormon as true, because writing inspired by God’s spirit, providing divine guidance, cannot be based on a grand deception, an outright and massive lie.

Now consider the following statements about scripture:

It is to Christ that scripture points, —Scripture Affirmation 1 http://www.cofchrist.org/OurFaith/scripture.asp

How can a mass lie point to Christ?

We find the Living Word in and through scripture. —Scripture Affirmation 2

Can the Living Word be rooted in a mass deception?

God’s revelation through scripture. —Scripture Affirmation 3

Can God’s revelation take the form of a mass deception?

Scripture’s authority is derived from the model of Christ.  —Scripture Affirmation 4

Christ is not regarded by the church as a charlatan or mass deceiver.

Scripture is an amazing collection of inspired writings.  —A Defining Moment, http://www.cofchrist.org/presidency/sermons/_040509Veazey.asp

Inspired writings are not given to spread a mass deception.

Scripture is authoritative, not because it is perfect or inerrant in every literal detail, but because it reliably keeps us grounded in God’s revelation. —A Defining Moment

God’s revelation does not take the form of a deliberate falsification of a cultural history.

The church affirms that scripture is inspired. —A Defining Moment

Inspired to pull the wool over our eyes?

Scripture is an indispensable witness to the Eternal Source of light and truth. —CofC Doctrine and Covenants 163:7a

A lie is the path to darkness, and a falsehood – how can such things be a witness of God’s eternal light and, especially, His eternal truth?

Scripture has been written and shaped by human authors through experiences of revelation and ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit. —CofC Doctrine and Covenants 163:7a

The Holy Spirit does not reveal or inspire people to concoct a mass fantasy, passing it off as truth.

Scripture, prophetic guidance, knowledge, and discernment in the faith community must walk hand in hand to reveal the true will of God. —CofC Doctrine and Covenants 163:7d

A lie does not point to the true will of God.

Growing in Comfort with the Book of Mormon – Part 5 of 5

Uncovering the Gems

gemsIf we can set aside or even undo the concerns that we bring to our exploration of the Book of Mormon, concerning the folklore and sticky passages, etc., we might then be able to more readily consider some of the great stories, themes, and powerful passages contained within it.

Naturally, what constitutes a “scriptural gem” is a matter of personal opinion. However, I’m excited to share some of the ones that I’m fond of.

To begin with, I want to share a few words regarding some Book of Mormon themes.

There are some great themes that run throughout the Book of Mormon. One of these themes is that of community building. I intend to talk more about that elsewhere, so I don’t want to elaborate on that at this time — but mull it over.

Another theme is that of the dangers of pride. All through the Book of Mormon there are warnings to beware pride, and the hardships that result when society gives into pride. This is something I noticed the first time I read the Book of Mormon, and it stands out, as many people have observed it’s presence.

The Encyclopaedia of the Book of Mormon (Herald House, ©1978, 4th printing, 1991) offers the following on this subject (page 269):

Pride set in among the Nephites beginning with their second king. From that time, the Nephites fluctuated between pride and righteousness throughout their history. A period of righteousness brought prosperity. Prosperity led to pride, pride led to dissension, dissension led to desertion, desertion led to war, war led to grief, grief led to repentance, repentance led to righteousness, and righteousness led to prosperity; thus the cycle began again.

Some of my favourite passages from the Book of Mormon include the story of the Vision of Lehi (and Neph’s interpretation of it). There is something intriguing about the love of God, word of God, etc. etc. being represented by the rod of iron, the tree of life, and so forth.

Tangent: I sometimes chat with an LDS member. He often boasts that his church must be the true church because of how large it is. Whenever he (or any Mormon for that matter) does so, I caution them not to be too caught up on that fact. After all, in Lehi’s vision, the great and spacious building represented the pride of the world.

I also have always enjoyed the story of the glowing stones that God provided in order for the Jaredites to have light in their eight barges as they sailed across the ocean. Its just a neat story that reminds me of the fun Old Testament stories we learn about in as kids in Sunday school.

I guess that is one of the things I really admire about the Book of Mormon. It has, like the Old Testament, some “epic” stories, which are sort of lacking in the New Testament, yet, like the latter, it has a great deal of the pastoral wisdom & compassion focused ministry that is not as abundant in the Old Testament.

Some of my favourite verses are as follows:

And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood…your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings; and ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  (CofC 3rd Nephi 4:49)

And I, Nephi, said to my father, “I will go and do the things which the Lord has commanded, for I know that the Lord gives no commandments to the children of men save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commands them.” (CofC 1st Nephi 1:65)

And there came a voice to me, saying, “Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.” I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away. And I said, “Lord, how is it done?” He said to me, “Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen.” (CofC Enos 1:7-10)

…after you have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say to you, No…Wherefore, you must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God, and of all men…and there is no other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen. (CofC 2nd Nephi 13:27-32)

For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children. Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard. (CofC 2nd Nephi 3:29, 30)

O Lord, will you give me strength, that I may cope with my infirmities? For I am infirm, and such wickedness among this people pains my soul. O Lord, my heart is exceedingly sorrowful; will you comfort my soul in Christ? O Lord, will you grant unto me that I may have strength, that I may suffer with patience these afflictions…O Lord, will you comfort my soul, and give me success, and also my fellow laborers who are with me…even all these will you comfort, O Lord? Will you comfort their souls in Christ? (adapted from CofC Alma 16:109-112)

Finally, I’d like to end this blog by sharing what may be my favourite Book of Mormon verse of all. It is in fact, in my own opinion at least, nothing less than the long sought after meaning of life itself; and it is so short, so concise, and so simple, which only makes it seem that much more significant in my mind and heart, and it is something that I encourage all of us to remember.

Adam fell, that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (CofC 2 Nephi 1:115)

The Book of Mormon as a Reflection of Religious History

Dont-look-at-fingerThe dichotomy between believers and non-believers of the Book of Mormon (BoM) was simple for many years following its introduction into the sectarian religious scene. Believers believed it was a literal record of ancient American tribes delivered through Joseph Smith by God. This literal belief is what Marcus Borg would call natural literalism;* belief with little reason not to believe. Non-believers confidently asserted it was the product of a con-man, or perhaps several. It possessed no value whatsoever.

Two reflections can be made based on the above paragraph. First, the early BoM saga represents a microcosm of the intense debate of the early 19th century between skeptics (often Deists) and evangelicals/mystics. Second, the natural literalism which pervaded the early church is similar to that of Christians with regards to the Bible during the Dark Ages and much of Medieval Times.

While, admittedly, my knowledge of Community of Christ history in and of itself is limited, I think it is fair to assert that its reaction to scientific and empirical thought in the 20th century is reminiscent of the Deist reaction in the 17th and 18th centuries. For many, conscious literalism (or fundamentalism) became and has become untenable, even outside of the Community of Christ tradition. On the other hand, many Latter Day Saint traditions continue to assert such literalism. They ask a poignant question of so-called “liberal” members: Is Latter Day liberalism, like Deism, a halfway house on the road to rejection of the BoM?

First, conscious literalism is not evil, or necessarily wrong, at its core. Such beliefs can provide a rewarding life and fulfillment. I know, for many years, I was both a natural and conscious literalist. Like others who have become much more liberal, I have had to ponder the question posed above. The answer is no, it does not have to be. Additionally, the question assumes it is the BoM which makes the religion. For the rest of this post, I will recount how I have come to understand faith in general, and the BoM’s relationship to faith in the Latter Day tradition.

Faith, for me, is not in an object. Using a Buddhist proverb: I don’t believe in the finger, I look to where the finger points. In addition, the words of Paul Tillich summarize another element of faith:

“Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolic name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.”

Continuing a line of Tillich-ian thought, I do not ground my faith in that which is finite, as God, for me, is an infinite reality. However, I can use language and images of God to relate to that which I believe serves as the basis of being.

The finger of the Latter Day tradition, the BoM, can still play an integral role. Just as it can be viewed as a human response to God, time, and man in its own era, we can respond to it as well. By this I mean we can find where it is applicable to our lives, not necessarily as God’s direct word, but as relevant to the divine.

*See Reading the Bible Again for the First Time; I include several references to it throughout this post.

Living Scripture and a Vision of the Living Restoration

Note: The following are my thoughts on Living Scripture and the Living Restoration in Community of Christ.  I’m excited to share them, but (as always), you are not obliged to agree with me to be in communion with me.


The seekers in upstate New York who came together on April 6, 1830, wanted to restore the true church of Christ, which they believed had been lost to the Earth. They called the new church they founded the “Church of Christ” because they believed (based on scripture) that Church of Christ was the original name of the “primitive”* Christian church in 1st century Palestine. In the 19th century seekers’ view, they weren’t “founding” a new church, they were merely “organizing” the old church that had fallen into error and become disorganized. As they moved onward from New York to Ohio and Missouri, and ultimately to Nauvoo, Illinois, they earnestly believed they were literally restoring (and experiencing once again) the church of the 1st century.

And in this belief, they were quite literally wrong.

The restored Church of Christ was not the primitive church reborn again identically from where it had left off. There were no high priests, no patriarchs, no First Presidency or Stake High Councils in the primitive church. There were no Stakes, no wards, no relief societies. There were no Christian temples in the primitive church. The Nauvoo endowment had no precedent whatsoever in antiquity. Rather, the Nauvoo endowment was based directly on the rites of Freemasonry, which likewise (despite Masonic claims) were entirely modern. And, of course, no notion of Joseph Smith’s late theological speculation on eternal progression had ever been imagined among primitive Christians.

The fact that the Restoration was not literal shouldn’t come as any surprise to us. “You can never go home again” is an aphorism, but in history it’s true enough. When Community of Christ re-built Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store in Nauvoo on the foundation of the original Red Brick Store, the original Red Brick Store didn’t come back into being. When the LDS Church re-built the Nauvoo Temple, the original temple was not somehow resurrected. Rather, in both cases, new replicas were constructed. Both new buildings have all sorts of differences from the originals — not the least of which being that the original buildings were original, while the new buildings were structures that were deliberately patterned on structures existed in the past. By their very natures, a replica (in the case of a building) or a revival (in the case of an idea or institution) are inherently different from something original.

I don’t point this out to dismiss the latter-day Restoration or the earnest faith of its early adherents. While they got some things very wrong, I believe they also got some things very right.

Among the most important ideas they got right was a rejection of the “Golden Age Myth.” Living, as they were, in the wake of the Enlightenment, they and people all around them had begun to read symbolic stories as though they were merely literal history. This change created new and highly distorted readings of sacred, symbolic stories in the Bible. New literalists couldn’t help but notice that in the Bible, animals occasionally talked, prophets turned sticks into snakes and caused the sun to stand still, and God talked to humans like humans talk to each other. They likewise noted (correctly) that such things did not happen in the present day. From this, many believers understandably concluded that the past era was different from the present era. In the past there had (apparently) been a spiritual or heroic age filled with miraculous, enchanted happenings — a Golden Age — while in the present age, the heavens were closed. The spiritual gifts of the past were no more.

The early members of the Restoration disagreed. “The heavens were not closed!” they declared. The same spiritual gifts that were ever available of old continued to be available. Prophets could yet respond to the Divine in the prophetic voice. When the Restoration’s first historian, John Whitmer, began his history of the latter-day movement, he used the same scriptural language — so identified in English because of the then unchallenged popularity of the King James Bible — that Joseph Smith used in composing the Book of Mormon and the revelations that formed the initial sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. For the early members of the Restoration, scripture was not just consigned to a heroic past or Golden Age — scripture could still be lived today.

This was partially because early members remained in a liminal period — they had one foot in a world of unexplained enchantment and one foot in a more fully understood and explained world. Standing on the threshold, they were not always to discern between the symbolic and the literal. For example, the witnesses who viewed the plates understood that their visions were visionary,† but many who read the testimonies the witnesses signed did not.  The members who saw angels in Kirtland temple understood the difference between the eye of the spirit and the physical eye. But early members who took up arms at the Battle of Crooked River did not understand that the Biblical account of Gideon’s defeat of Midianites (Judges 6-8) was a myth. In imagining God would similarly deliver their enemies, early members of the Restoration came close to precipitating their own actual extermination in the 1838 Missouri War.

As people in the 21st century, we have largely crossed the threshold into a post-enchanted world. And ironically, that means for the bulk of Restoration believers today, the heavens are again closed — there is no new scripture; there are no new revelations.  The early Restoration now represents a Second Golden Age whose sacred stories (in many cases) are once again misunderstood to have been literal. This is a shame because there are miracles (such as the miracles of love, forgiveness, and transcendence), even if there is not (and never was) magic (such as demonic possession or turning water into wine). The latter can still be meaningfully understood symbolically, while the former can be meaningfully experienced literally.

Fortunately, in Community of Christ, the canon continues to be open. The river of revelation is ever flowing and we are renewed with new scripture that speaks to our experience today. And we are all called to feel inspiration and respond as a prophetic people to our own individual encounters with God.  We are living scripture as our scripture continues to be living.

In my view, the Restoration was never meaningful as a set of correct answers that had somehow been forgotten were relearned. Rather, its true value is understanding that the scripture must be continually Restored as human understanding expands, so that gospel is a living thing that can still be lived meaningfully today.


* In the 19th century, the adjective “primitive” more generally referred to the earliest form of an institution or custom.  The word in our own time has narrowed to refer more specifically to cavemen.

† The plates artifact was handled by multiple witnesses under a cloth and/or lifted while sealed shut in a wooden box; and many people were able to visually inspect transcriptions of the characters.  But there were no direct physical sight eye-witnesses of the plates; all visions of the plates were visionary.