How We Got the Book of Mormon: An interview with co-author Richard E. Turley Jr.

Richard E. Turley Jr. is currently an Assistant Church Historian with responsibilities over the Church History Library. With William Slaughter he has recently co-authored How We Got the Book of Mormon (Deseret Book – read Blair Hodges’ review here) and he has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about it.

Who is the target audience of the volume?
RET: In the Preface (vii-viii), we explain: “We have written this book to help members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints better understand the history of the Book of Mormon, a work revered as scripture by the Church’s members. . . . Although we cite scholarly sources, we intend this book for general readers.” Between ourselves, Bill and I have called this book a “crossover” volume because we are trying to bridge the gap between Church history scholars and the general membership of the Church. We feel that general readers can benefit from excellent work done by scholars in recent years, but many general readers won’t approach works written by scholars for scholars. By using the story form and colorful photos, we hoped to entice general readers to taste the fruits of scholarship.

How do you see the volume being used?
Since our purpose was to inform readers and raise their overall level of understanding, we hoped the book would be read cover to cover. That is why we adopted a narrative style and went to the added effort and expense of placing images next to the text that explains them. We tested page proofs on family and friends and found that the pictures got them to pick up the book and start reading. Once they started reading, the story and pictures kept them going to the end. Once people have read the book all the way through, we expect that they will come back later and refer to specific pages for facts that interested them.

This volume appears to by a synthesis of current research. Do you feel that the volume represents the current best scholarship?
RET: The volume is a deliberate synthesis. We have sought to rely on the current best scholarship but recognize that a short synthesis cannot fully plumb the depths of the subject. Some readers, we hope, will want to know more. The source notes will direct them to scholarly works.

What are its major contributions?
RET: The book synthesizes a substantial body of historical work in a way no previous work has. Academic training pushes students toward specialization, yielding scholarly works that are narrow and deep. The results are sometimes heavy on analysis and light on synthesis. Although specialization is important, we feel the world also needs generalists, people who can absorb and comprehend large amounts of information and distill the essence. How We Got the Book of Mormon offers readers a chance to learn the publication history of a sacred text in a way that’s easy to for them understand. Another contribution is the book’s images. Comparatively few readers will ever make it to the Church History Library to see and use the historical treasures we feature. For them, the book provides a chance to see high-quality photographs of these items.

Was there any effort made to identify specific language or tone to render the material more accessible?
RET: Yes. Specialization often leads to specialized language that general readers find hard to understand. We consciously adopted language that didn’t require specialized training (or constant dictionary access) to understand. Since our main target audience was general Latter-day Saint readers, we chose to adopt a devotional tone that might seem out of place in an academic setting in which belief statements are often bracketed. For that reason, the Preface (vii) reads: “Our book also contains stories or statements of belief that will be familiar to Latter-day Saints but may seem new or foreign to others. To the latter, we recommend Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s widely recognized admonition to adopt ‘that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitute poetic faith.’ Or, as a Book of Mormon prophet put it, ‘experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith.’ Doing so will help them better understand what Latter-day Saints believe.”

Do you see this volume used by non-Mormon researchers? If so, how?
RET: Non-Mormon researchers who want to understand Latter-day Saint belief might find it interesting. Also, non-Mormons who wish to read an easy-to-understand history of the Book of Mormon’s publication may find it useful.

The authors are prominent in the administration of the CHL. Was the volume reviewed by Correlation, Matt Grow’s publication department, or both? How did this review process change the volume?
RET: The volume was not reviewed by the Correlation Department. It was read by persons named in the Preface (viii), including Matt Grow, who provided helpful suggestions. Bill and I retained editorial control, however, and as we state in the Preface (viii), “We alone are responsible for the volume’s final contents.”

How did Bill identify which images to use in the volume, or did he simply rely on his extensive knowledge of photo collections?
RET: Bill would be better at answering this, but I’ll give it a shot. Bill has an extensive knowledge of photo collections not only in the Church History Library but also in other libraries and archives. Once he had a draft of the text, he used his knowledge and additional research to identify images that could illuminate the text. I suggested books and documents that we needed to image. Bill recommended Matt Reier, a professional photographer, to take new photographs of artifacts or structures for which we found no suitable images. We also considered our designer, Sheryl Dickert, to be a major player in helping us make the overall product visually appealing. Finally, Deseret Book displayed the patience of Job in allowing me indulge a long-standing interest in design and the book arts to dictate elements of the book’s physical construction and overall look and feel.

Comments

  1. How well do the “images” come across on the Kindle version?

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the interview.

  3. Bob, I don’t know.

    I appreciate Richard Turley taking the time to do this. In the past, I haven’t been too thrilled with the published offerings on the Book of Mormon in anticipation of the change in Gospel Doctrine scripture. This time, however, there are some significant items, of which this appears to be a nice accessible volume, and which may help popularize some of the better scholarship out there.

  4. Excellent. Thanks to Rick for participating, and to J. for doing the interview.

  5. “Comparatively few readers will ever make it to the Church History Library to see and use the historical treasures we feature.”

    Amen – and thank you for making them accessible to the average member. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

  6. Nancy Hart says:

    Hello Rick, I’m looking forward to reading your book.
    Very long time no see…
    Nancy Jacobson Hart

  7. I’m excited for this volume (I’ve already thumbed through it at a local book store). What edition of the Book of Mormon is on the front cover?

    When I saw that Richard Turley co-authored this I thumbed instantly to the account of the translation. I was very impressed to see that the Whitmer account of the translation was included (plates not necessarily needed, interpreters and/or stone used sometimes with a hat, etc) then concluding with the prophet’s reverent account that we don’t know all the details but Joseph “ translated it by the gift and power of God”. Awesome approach giving a simple example that the historic record doesn’t have to be sequestered to garner a faith-filled telling of the story. I know we have seen these sources in our publications before, but RARELY. I thought this was important coming from such a respected scholar AND such a faithful member (not to say Assistant Church Historian).

  8. BTW can I just ask: Does anyone know when Turley’s MMM part 2 is expected to arrive?

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