Everyone who pays attention to the academic Mormon Studies literature is aware of what Terryl Givens, among others, has described as the “Book of Mormon wars”
(see By the Hand of Mormon, pgs. 130, 132, 143, 173, 175, and 179). In short, the Book of Mormon wars revolve around questions of historicity: did the events described in the Book of Mormon actually happen somewhere in the Americas between 600 BC and 400 AD, and should Latter-day Saints condition their religious loyalty on the answer to this question?
These issues have been debated since the publication of the Book of Mormon. Alexander Campbell, one of the leaders of a competing restorationist church called the Disciples of Christ, published one of the earliest statements in the Book of Mormon wars in his 1831 review of the new volume of scripture. The most famous quote from this review, arguing that the Book of Mormon is purely a product of 19th-century cultural and religious forces, is the statement that,
This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in N. York for the last ten years.
The official Latter-day Saint perspective on Book of Mormon historicity was also argued from a relatively early date. Latter-day Saints in the 19th century often interpreted archaeological and anthropological findings regarding the Precolombian Americas as evidence of the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, as shown, for example, in a June 15, 1841 article in Times and Seasons, Vol.2, No.16 (p.440) with the headline, “AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES MORE PROOFS OF THE BOOK OF MORMON.”
Essentially the same debate — albeit conducted at a far more sophisticated level on both sides — continues today. Some of the major statements of the anti-historicity position in recent years can be found in Brent Metcalfe’s collection, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe’s American Apocrypha, and Simon Southerton’s Losing a Lost Tribe. Two of the main sources for scholarly arguments from the pro-historicity position are the FARMS Review and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. While each side in this debate tends to confidently proclaim intellectual victory over the other on a relatively regular basis, the debate nonetheless rages on unabated. (For more discussion of Book of Mormon historicity within our internet community, click here, here, here, here, here, here, or here; also read virtually any post here. I apologize to the many people whose posts I’ve missed, but life is finite and this list is already too long.)
In the end, one of these points of view is correct and the other is mistaken. Does this, perhaps, mean that the tremendous intellectual energy expended on the (eventually) losing side of the debate will have been wasted? If, in fact, the Book of Mormon is of 19th-century origins, then are all of the ancient Middle Eastern and Mesoamerican parallels discovered by ardent proponents of the book’s historicity merely a curiosity? If, on the other hand, the Book of Mormon is of ancient origin, are the various 19th-century influences analysts point to in the book mere coincidence? Barring acceptance of Blake Ostler’s much-maligned expansion theory of the Book of Mormon (see helpful discussion here), a strict focus on the issue of the Book of Mormon’s origins would seem to require an affirmative answer to at least one of these two questions.
However, turning our attention from the origins of the book to its interpretation allows a quite different response. The Book of Mormon text itself suggests the value of a 19th-century interpretive frame. In his closing statement, Nephi writes that,
For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding. (2 Nephi 31:3)
This statement is an obvious precursor to the Doctrine and Covenants’ statement that the Lord speaks to people “after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). Whose language and understanding (i.e., ideas, symbols, historical reference points, and doctrinal debates), exactly, were the target for the writers of the Book of Mormon? A few different statements in the Book of Mormon point to a specific target audience of Jews, Gentiles, and Lamanites at the time of the book’s “coming forth” (see, for example, 2 Nephi 30:3-8, Mormon 5:12-15), an event that obviously happened in 1830. Hence, it is clearly reasonable to ask what any given portion of the text might have meant — in terms of language, certainly, but also in terms of cultural assumptions, historical parallels, political discussions, and most especially theological debates — to the 19th-century audience for which the book was, first and foremost, written.
But if the Book of Mormon claims to have been written to a 19th-century American audience, it is equally true that it claims to have been written from an ancient Near Eastern and subsequently American perspective. The initial setting of the narrative is confirmed as Jerusalem as early as the 4th verse of the book, and Nephi tells us that he plans to write the book using a combination of “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). These statements, which are in effect echoed throughout the book, serve as a direct invitation for the reader to bring her best knowledge of the Near East circa 600 BC to bear on interpreting the book — regardless of the book’s origins. Whether the Near Eastern setting is fictional or historical, it nonetheless remains true that a full understanding of a narrative requires engagement with context, as well as text. The same is, of course, equally true about the American setting of the majority of the narrative.
In other words, when we change our focus from determining the origins of the Book of Mormon to getting all the meaning that we can out of that book, we create a situation in which we are able to take advantage of the insights of both camps in the Book of Mormon wars. Unfortunately, to date, most scholarly and devotional interpretations of the Book of Mormon have neglected at least part of the legitimate meaning of the text, with some largely neglecting insights from the Near Eastern and Ancient American setting, while others fail to take advantage of legitimate interpretive strands drawn from the 19th century. I hope that we can do better, taking advantage of the interpretive island of peace in the Book of Mormon wars and drawing together all of the relevant information in framing our understanding of the book’s meaning.