Notes, commentary, and questions for LDS Sunday School teachers using the ‘Doctrine & Covenants and Church History’ manual. Feel free to share your thoughts or ideas regarding the lesson in the comments.
The Book of Mormon is as important closed as it is open. Its power and meaningfulness derive as much from its origin story as it does from the content of the book itself. As a result, it behooves us to look at this origin story as closely as we can.
The complexity of the historical context of the period can lead is in many directions, but a 1988 Ensign article (‘A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon‘ by Kenneth W. Godfrey) provides detail and comes from a source with which class members will be comfortable. (If you want to get into details about the process of translating, ‘“By the Gift and Power of God”‘ by Richard Lloyd Anderson (1977) goes into hats and seer stones and all of that.)
There’s a lot to talk about, so I’ll hit the bits I found most interesting:
The Joseph Smith–History gives a bit of information about Joseph Smith’s coming of age —
‘…I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been.’
He provides this information to set up his need for repentance which directly leads to the first visitation of Moroni, but this little addition is curious:
But this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth, and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament.
What did people who were close to Joseph Smith think of him? How did he bridge the credibility gap between how he was perceived and what he was claiming to have done and what he was about to do? We tend to apply the stick-pulling/leg-wrestling motif here — just a bit of harmless fun — but I wonder if there wasn’t something more fundamental being alluded to here. I don’t know enough about the context in which Joseph Smith–History was written and edited, but I think everyone involved in the process knew Smith personally, and it’s interesting that it was considered important enough to make the final cut.
It’s also interesting that repentance leads to the visit of Moroni. It has certainly been my experience that spiritual growth and clarity comes most readily in moments of repentance and rather than moments of self-congratulation or pious judgement of others.
When Moroni arrives, he does some serious Bible quoting, establishing his legitimacy to Joseph in that context. (Except for the changes he makes to the texts — is this inspiration for further ‘translations?’) It might be interesting to go through all of them and see how Moroni was contextualizing the Book of Mormon. Malachi 4:5-6 is especially interesting as we now read that verse in light of temple work, but what did it mean to Smith and others in the years before the temple had that function? Protestant Bible commentaries focus on the warning more than the family aspects and as a reference to John the Baptist, a parallel to Smith in a millennial sense. I cannot say what Moroni’s intentions were, but it seems likely that early readers would have read these verses differently than we do today.
The Godfrey article tells us more about Joseph Smith’s difficulty in obtaining the plates: ‘Apparently the thought of the gold had severely tempted the youth, and the actual sight of the plates moved Joseph to thoughts of riches.’ I recommend his summary of the different accounts of this issue. Godfrey also mentions the treasure hunting trial, which adds to the complexity of Joseph Smith’s attitude about the plates at this point. While this might make some members uncomfortable, I believe this raises some important questions about prophethood and discipleship.
I’m quite interested in this myself, and of course there has been lots written about it. Here’s Godfrey again:
The scriptures indicate that translation involved sight, power, transcription of the characters, the Urim and Thummim or a seerstone, study, and prayer. David Whitmer and Martin Harris testify that if the Prophet made the proper preparation, sentences would appear, which he dictated to his scribe. If the scribe wrote them correctly, the words would disappear, and others would take their place.
The contrast with modern Mormonism is pronounced here, and I find that very curious, although I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do with that in a lesson. At any rate, the word ‘translation’ as we use it generally does not really explain what was happening very well.
The wacky misadventures of Martin Harris
The traditional reading of this is so familiar (and clearly developed by the leading questions in the manual). I might take a different approach, seeing if we can understand him a little better. Harris deserves better than being a mere morality tale. Given his role in the community, what would have motivated Harris to be so involved in the Book of Mormon project?
The Wikipedia page for Martin Harris offers this: ‘Harris’s neighbors considered him both an honest and superstitious man.’ Please go through the footnotes on that page. Harris was not just a nice, rich farmer: he was a see-er of visions in his own right. Considering that his experiences and religious world view must have been crucial in motivating his interest in the Book of Mormon, I wonder how we as modern Mormons think about them, especially considering that all three of the Three Witnesses had similar experiences before meeting Smith. Martin Harris would have been considered a nut in 21st century Mormonism (and maybe 1840s Mormonism — I don’t know), but that nuttiness seems to be a fairly essential to getting the book published.
One of the questions I have about the entire period: are the experiences of Joseph Smith — with visions and visitations, translations and revelations — are these essentially the same as our modern experiences with revelation and inspiration but much more intense? Or are they a completely different thing altogether?
There’s lots more to the lesson, and I would love to dig into the three witnesses as well, but as so often happens in these classes, I have run out of time.