Interpretation: A Place of Peace in the Book of Mormon Wars

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.


  1. I like this post, JNS. I have to admit to not being particularly interested in the Book of Mormon Historicity debate yet. While I do believe in the historicity (with a heavy dose of expansion theory), my main concern is one of devotion. I like the idea of squeezing as much spirit as we can out of the book.

  2. JNS, it seems like you want to butter your bread on both sides. Maybe you can do that with a devotional reading, but once you embark on a reflective (i.e., rational) reading you can’t have both historicity and 19th-century origins. Furthermore, I’d argue that Moroni 10 encourages readers to make a reflective reading of the Book of Mormon, not a devotional one: readers are supposed to put the book to the test, not adopt it for devotional reading. Consistent with this, Mormons want rational belief. Trying to have it both ways, however peaceful that may be for one who seeks respite from the Book of Mormon wars, doesn’t offer rational belief. At least that’s how I see it.

  3. Dave, about the origins of the book, one certainly can’t have it both ways (unless that one is Blake Ostler). The two major theories of Book of Mormon origins are certainly mutually exclusive.

    My argument here, though, is that, in addressing the meaning of the book’s narrative and doctrine, we can — indeed must — incorporate ideas from both the 19th century and ancient time periods. Interpretation is both a rational and a devotional activity and as such is consistent with your desire for a rational reading of the text.

    While interpretation doesn’t solve the question of origin, I think there’s more we should want to know about the book than just where and when it came from. In fact, it seems remarkably important to know what it means — and that’s where we’re entitled to have double-buttered bread, I think.

  4. Like Jonathan (comment #1), I don’t spend much energy on considering whether the BoM is historically accurate. Unlike him, I assume it is not (I think about a fifth of my High Priests group shares that assumption, about the BoM and the PoGP, but we don’t discuss that during church). Like JNS, I am interested in drawing the spiritual value out of the book, and I very much appreciate his post.

  5. JNS,

    I’m knee-deep in Givens’ book right now, and I love it. In fact, I just started the “wars” chapter yesterday. It’s a great read.

    Let me ask you this: If Mormons in general (not the heirarchy) begin to view the BofM solely for its devotional value and forsake its purported historicity, do you feel that Mormons would then be conceding defeat to BofM critics?

  6. J. and Oaxaca, thanks — I’m glad you’ve found something to like in the post.

    David J., I think the origins of the Book of Mormon will never stop being an important issue. Therefore, it’s hard for me to imagine discourse about historicity fading away completely. But before I answer your question directly, let me offer some ideas about the meaning of “devotional” with respect to the Book of Mormon.

    The Book of Mormon’s value at least potentially lies in several different domains. 1) The book may be useful as a history of some portion of pre-Colombian America. 2) The book may be useful as a signal of the divine authorization of Joseph Smith’s mission. 3) The book may serve as an authorization for the current Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 4) The book may present a theological message, particularly regarding Jesus Christ and the Atonement. 5) The book may be useful as basically a meditative tool that invites the Holy Spirit into the reader’s mind and heart. (Many other uses of the book are obviously possible, but these five suffice.)

    If by “devotional,” you mean use #5 exclusively, then I think that would be a dramatic retreat by Mormons. If, by contrast, you intend “devotional” to mean some combination of #2-#5, then I think that’s an entirely different affair. However, I see even that as remarkably unlikely.

    My point here is simply to point out that many or most of the pieces of evidence that scholars from all perspectives develop in debating historicity (use #1 of the book on this list) can also be used to help us develop a deeper understanding of the narrative and theological meaning of the book (uses #4 and #5).

  7. You make a very interesting point, J. Nelson-Seawright. I agree that regardless of one’s take on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, it is valuable to understand ancient and modern connections. For example, I find Thomas’s essay on the Book of Mormon sacrament prayers in New Approaches (based solely on contemporary sacrament practices) to be among the more insightful explorations of the topic.

    Though the quality of the essays in New Approaches is certainly uneven, it’s unfortunate the folks at FARMS chose to adopt the same condescending approach toward New Approaches that real scholars are prone to take towards the FARMS folks.

  8. Why should one necessarily embrace the view that the primary audience for the Book of Mormon was the 19th century? Certainly one can argue that the 19th century context affected the translation. But reading the text one can’t help but come away with the feeling that the primary audience are the remnant of the Nephites and the Lamanites who thus far haven’t yet really embraced the text.

    I’d argue that the primary audience is an audience yet to read it.

  9. DKL, aren’t most of the FARMS regulars “real scholars?” One might question the academic nature of their FARMS writings. But most have published in peer reviewed academic arenas – often prestigious ones.

  10. DKL, I tend to value Thomas’s interpretive work quite highly; his Digging in Cumorah really helps me appreciate the complexity of narrative structure and thematic coherence of the Book of Mormon text.

    Clark, I agree that the Book of Mormon has many intended audiences, including audiences yet to be reached. On the other hand, the 1830s as the primary intended audience is defensible on multiple grounds. First, the scriptural references presented above to the target audience being alive at the time the book “comes forth.” Second, the published Book of Mormon text is said to be in the language of the primary target audience; even a superficial perusal should be sufficient evidence that the language isn’t 21st-century American English. Third, the book is said to reflect the “understanding,” i.e. cultural context and mentality, of its primary audience. In this sense, it is noteworthy how much easier it is to find 19th-century religious themes in the book than 21st-century themes.

    This certainly doesn’t mean that the Book of Mormon isn’t for us today. Obviously, it is. However, I feel that the evidence supports the conclusion that the Book of Mormon was written with an early 19th-century audience more centrally in mind.

  11. I love the timing of this post. I recently read (on the side of a u-haul truck no less) of Hagerman horse fossils dating back a couple million years or so (
    as a result I enjoyed laughing off the old critique that there are no horse bones to support the claims of horses in the BoM. This is one more reason that I not only believe in the historicity of the BoM but will forever be defiant of the ridiculous “scientific” claims made by its critics.
    Yes yes, I know that DNA evidence has concluded that blah blah blah. I’ll just file that away in the “yeah, right.” file until someone releases the results of a study about the metamorphosis and consequent inaccuracies of DNA linking or something else that challenges the assumption regularly made by the scientific community. Don’t get me wrong, I love studying science but I also love how theories are floated based on certain implausible presuppositions and then the general public just spouts off the implications of these fallacious theories. Raise your hand if you still believe that oceanic tides are caused by the moon. Sorry folks. That one is no good anymore. Word hasn’t quite gotten out yet though.
    If our leaders say the Book of Mormon is historically accurate, debate, among faithful members, should be over.

  12. I suppose it might seem by my post that I missed JNS’s point. What I failed to add to my post was that the problem with just setting aside the historicity debate is that the Book of Mormon is so bold in it’s assertions that to take it any less seriously than it demands is to patronize those who gave their lives to bring it to pass.
    I imagine Moroni looking down and being appalled by those who would not bother to defend his very existence. It seems to me almost worse than challenging the tenets he espoused. The man was hunted while he wandered alone for years and years. Let’s at least recognize that he lived.

  13. JNS,
    Thanks for your thought-provoking post.
    In the Feb 2004 Ensign First Presidency message, “Four Cornerstones of Faith,” Pres. Hinckley described the BoM as the 3rd cornerstone of our faith, and says, “Reasonable people may sincerely question its origin; but those who have read it prayerfully have come to know by a power beyond their natural senses that it is true…”

    Here’s the full paragraph. Note that it seems to apply well to anyone who accepts all or any one of your 5 uses of the BoM (described in your comment #6).

    “The evidence for its truth, for its validity in a world that is prone to demand evidence, lies not in archaeology or anthropology, though these may be helpful to some. It lies not in word research or historical analysis, though these may be confirmatory. The evidence for its truth and validity lies within the covers of the book itself. The test of its truth lies in reading it. It is a book of God. Reasonable people may sincerely question its origin; but those who have read it prayerfully have come to know by a power beyond their natural senses that it is true, that it contains the word of God, that it outlines saving truths of the everlasting gospel, that it “came forth by the gift and power of God … to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ” (Book of Mormon title page).”
    Gordon B. Hinckley, “Four Cornerstones of Faith” (First Presidency message) Ensign, February 2004, 6.

  14. Ryan, I admire your faith and easy acceptance of instructions from leaders. As the scriptures tell us, some are given the gift of relying on the testimony of others. Other faithful members are not given that gift, and instead find themselves forced to work through their difficulties and dilemmas of belief one step at a time.

    I want to quickly clarify that I’m not arguing that debates over historicity be set aside. Rather, I’m advocating a recognition that everyone can profitably use contributions from both sides of the debate in the separate intellectual and spiritual sphere of interpretation.

    I don’t have the tools necessary to honor Moroni by defending his existence. But I do have the tools to honor him by getting every ounce of meaning that I can out of his text. For the moment, I’ll have to hope that my efforts are sufficient…

  15. Ryan,

    For background I lean towards a real, historical BofM, primarily because those who passionately say otherwise conveniently ignore the witnesses. But, if the BofM is inspired allegory, I’m ok w/ that too. That said, I can’t let some of what you’ve brought up go w/o comment.

    We know humans have been in the Americas for tens of thousands of years, probably w/ multiple entries. The BofM describes a few tribes/nations within a very limited geography (Smith’s interpretations aside). The idea that most or all America Indians are descended from BofM peoples is extremely unlikely. It is far more likely that Lehi’s lineage completely died out. As far as horses, NA was full of horses and I don’t know anyone who has disputed that. But the evidence is they were hunted to extinction, as were most large mammals, several thousand years ago. Could there have been a remnant of indigenous horses left in BofM times? Perhaps, but unlikely. All horses in the Americas today are of Old World extraction, hence the criticism of the BofM. To me it doesn’t matter, as the point of mentioning horses was to indicate that domestication and farming was going on; the specifics aren’t of issue to me.

    As far as Smith totally missing the limited geography and origin of American Indians, to me that agues the book wasn’t his, just like he said.

  16. “As the scriptures tell us, some are given the gift of relying on the testimony of others.”

    This doesn’t quite apply to my sentiments because all people are given the light of christ and specifically members are given the gift of the Holy Ghost which allows us to know the truth of all things. Including the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

    “everyone can profitably use contributions from both sides of the debate”

    I agree that this is the case, and that there’s something to be gained from all things, be they evil or good. The reason for my sharp reaction to abandoning a hard-line approach to the historicity of the BoM is this: It is not difficult for attackers to latch onto a public discourse about the positives of BoM critiques by members as a tacit endorsement of said critiques. There’s a fierce effort by Satan to very slowly and deliberately manipulate the truth by mingling it with philosophies of men. I think we would do well to be extremely cautious about making concessions or suggesting acceptance of something to which just about every prophet has been very clear.

  17. Ryan, to help me understand your argument, can you please add an explanatory clause to your last sentence in #11?

    “If our leaders say the Book of Mormon is historically accurate, debate, among faithful members, should be over [because….?].”

  18. #17 (

    The following are a few excerpts from a talk given by Ezra Taft Benson, the entire text of which can be found at: )

    If our leaders say the Book of Mormon is historically accurate, debate, among faithful members, should be over [because…?]

    “…In section 132, verse 7, of the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord speaks of the Prophet–the President–and says: “There is never but one on the earth at a time on whom his power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred.” Then in section 21, verses 4-6, the Lord states:

    Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;

    For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.

    For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you.

    Did you hear what the Lord said about the words of the prophet? We are to “give heed unto all his words”–as if from the Lord’s “own mouth.”

    Said President Harold B. Lee:

    You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life…. Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow…. Let’s keep our eye on the President of the Church. [in Conference Report, October 1970, p. 152-153)
    The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning. There will be times when you will have to choose between the revelations of God and the reasoning of men–between the prophet and the politician or professor. Said the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof until long after the events transpire” (Scrapbook of Mormon Literature, vol. 2, p. 173).

    Would it seem reasonable to an eye doctor to be told to heal a blind man by spitting in the dirt, making clay, and applying it to the man’s eyes and then telling him to wash in a contaminated pool? Yet this is precisely the course that Jesus took with one man, and he was healed. (See John 9:6-7.) Does it seem reasonable to cure leprosy by telling a man to wash seven times in a particular river? Yet this is precisely what the prophet Elisha told a leper to do, and he was healed. (See 2 Kings 5.)

    For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8,9]”

    Hopefully these explain why I am suggesting that when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.

  19. Ok, I understand your approach a little better. (I disagree with it, but thanks for the clarification).

  20. What is it that you disagree with? (if you don’t mind me asking) :)

  21. Ryan, I can’t speak for Stirling, but my objections to your summary point are (1) “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over” is not official policy, it’s an LDS urban legend based on selective quotes; and (2) those who quote it are generally themselves involved in debating, and use the quote not to argue against debate but just to argue against those whose views differ from their own. The thought that their own views may differ from offical LDS views never seems to occur to them. It’s fine if you want to use that standard to guide your own perspective, but it is incorrect to think you can apply it to everyone else.

  22. Selective quotes, Dave? You mean like this one,

    “When the Prophet speaks, … the debate is over”

    which comes from an Ensign first presidency message in 1979, entitled, conveniently enough, “The Debate is Over?” We could find any number of other quotes and teachings that say essentially the same thing in different words.

    Why is it that rather than people just saying disagree with some church teaching, they insted deny that the teaching is “official?”

  23. Yes, Ed, selective quotes. You would probably be surprised to learn that the editor of the FARMS Review attacked secular critics of the Church for misrepresenting as official policy the very point you are now defending (scroll down to the paragraph containing footnote 11). He called that view a “myth.” All that means, of course, is that you (and everyone else) are entitled to think for yourself. Not such a bad thing.

  24. Dave. that’s not official FARMS policy :-).

    Actually, I just looked at that Peterson piece a few minutes ago before I posted my previous comment. Peterson attacked the idea that the thinking is over, not that the debate is over, which is a subtle but real difference.

    But that’s beside the point…the quote I posted about the debate being over is about as “official” as it gets in the church, and it’s entirely consistent with everything else I hear taught there. Whether you or Peterson or anyone else denies this doesn’t change the fact. Ryan’s statement that you took issue with is repeated, verbatim, twice in the first presidency message I linked to (not counting the title).

    Personally, unlike Ryan, I don’t have any problem with you thinking for yourself, and even debating…in fact I’m glad you do.

    This is a bit off topic, though, so I’ll drop it and apologize for the threadjack. It’s just a pet peeve of mine that we in the bloggernacle are quick to label teachings we disagree with as somehow “unofficial.”

    BTW, JNS, nice post. Thanks for linking to Jeffery Gilliams “Issues in Mormon Doctrine” post…I’d missed that first time around, and I think it’s excellent.

  25. Stirling #13, thanks for that quote. That’s something I’m going to keep!

    On the rest of the discussion about the fallibility/infallibility of LDS leadership, while I think this is a valuable discussion, it’s a topic on which I’m basically going to keep my peace for now. At some future date, I’d like to write something about the social functions of each belief within the LDS community — and to that end, I’d ask people on both sides of the debate to do some introspection and talk about what positive things flow in their lives from the position they’ve adopted.

  26. Dave,

    You rock, man. I love it. Selective quotations bug the [expletive deleted] out of me.

    You class up this place, man. Keep it up.

  27. Annie Edwards says:

    At some future date, I’d like to write something about the social functions of each belief within the LDS community — and to that end, I’d ask people on both sides of the debate to do some introspection and talk about what positive things flow in their lives from the position they’ve adopted.

    Hey J,
    I hope you do write something about this. What a great way to approach a topic that so easily becomes sore and divisive. I appreciated your first post on this thread also. You have such a great attitude and sincerity. Thanks, seriously.

  28. Annie Edwards says:

    By “J” I mean to say “J Nelson Wainwright”, or whatever the heck you are calling yourself as guest-writer.

  29. ed,

    Nice catch. Both on the officialness of the doctrine and the difference between thinking and debating in the FARMS piece.

  30. Annie — thanks for the kind words. It’s funny, isn’t it, how my real name seems fake after a year of RT?

  31. JNS,

    Thanks for introducing me to the expansion theory, which I had not heard of before. I’m not sure what I think but it may answer one question I’ve had for some time. The reason Joseph Smith gave for not retranslating the book of Lehi never fully made sense. If the initial translation was the only possible rendering of the plates surely a second translation would look identical and therefore I’m not sure how conspiring men could have used them to prove Joseph Smith a false prophet. However, if the expansion theory is correct there may be significant differences between two translations, which obviously could be used against the Prophet.

  32. Ebenezer Robinson says:

    Thanks for the great post, JNS. I appreciate your reasonable, faithful and thoughtful approach. I tend to believe that the truthfulness of the BoM doesn’t have any necessary bond to its historicity, so I, too, am grateful for Stirling’s quote in #13.

    And thanks for introducing me to Ostler’s theory; it has initial resonance for me — enough to send me out looking for a fuller explication. I don’t think those of us who are not prophets have any sense of what the prophetic experience may be and how it may be expressed in words. And especially we don’t truly know how Joseph translated the BoM, regardless of the fragmentary memories of people who assisted in the process.

  33. Ryan says, “Raise your hand if you still believe that oceanic tides are caused by the moon.

    [Will raises his hand.]

    Ryan says, “I recently read (on the side of a u-haul truck no less) of Hagerman horse fossils dating back a couple million years or so

    [Will scratches his head, wondering what million year-old fossils have to do with the Book of Mormon.]

  34. Regarding Stirling’s quote from #13, I agree that it’s striking how well the “inspired fiction” model can be reconciled with what Pres. Hinckley said. But I wonder how much we should read into this. Do you think Hinckley was aware of this implication when he made the statement? Has he made any other recent statements that would confirm or contradict the idea that he doesn’t think the question of historicity is important?

  35. “Some who term themselves believing Latter-day Saints are advocating that Latter-day Saints should abandon claims that the Book of Mormon is a historical record of the ancient peoples of the Americas. They are promoting the feasibility of reading and using the Book of Mormon as nothing more than a pious fiction with some valuable contents. These practitioners of so-called “higher criticism” raise the question of whether the Book of Mormon, which our prophets have put forward as the preeminent scripture of this dispensation, is fact or fable–history or just a story.”

    “Some Latter-day Saint critics who deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon seek to make their proposed approach persuasive to Latter-day Saints by praising or affirming the value of some of the contents of the book. Those who take this approach assume the significant burden of explaining how they can praise the contents of a book they have dismissed as a fable. I have never been able to understand the similar approach in reference to the divinity of the Savior. As we know, some scholars and some ministers proclaim him to be a great teacher and then have to explain how the one who gave such sublime teachings could proclaim himself (falsely they say) to be the Son of God who would be resurrected from the dead.”

    “The new style critics have the same problem with the Book of Mormon. For example, we might affirm the value of the teachings recorded in the name of a man named Moroni, but if these teachings have value, how do we explain these statements also attributed to this man?”

    And if there be faults [in this record] they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire. (Mormon 8:17.)

    And I exhort you to remember these things; for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust? (Moroni 10:27.)
    “There is something strange about accepting the moral or religious content of a book while rejecting the truthfulness of its authors’ declarations, predictions, and statements. This approach not only rejects the concepts of faith and revelation that the Book of Mormon explains and advocates. This approach is not even good scholarship.”

    “The Book of Mormon’s major significance is its witness of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God the Eternal Father who redeems and saves us from death and sin. If an account stands as a preeminent witness of Jesus Christ, how can it possibly make no difference whether the account is fact or fable–whether the persons really lived who prophesied of Christ and gave eye witnesses of his appearances to them?”

    “As Jack Welch and I discussed the topic of my address this evening, he pointed out that this new wave of antihistoricism ‘may be a new kid on the block in Salt Lake City, but he has been around in a lot of other Christian neighborhoods for several decades.'”

    “Indeed! The argument that it makes no difference whether the Book of Mormon is fact or fable is surely a sibling to the argument that it makes no difference whether Jesus Christ ever lived. As we know, there are many so-called Christian teachers who espouse the teachings and deny the teacher. Beyond that, there are those who even deny the existence or the knowability of God. Their counterparts in Mormondom embrace some of the teachings of the Book of Mormon but deny its historicity.”

    “Brothers and Sister, how grateful we are–all of us who rely on scholarship, faith, and revelation–for what you are doing. God bless the founders and the supporters and the workers of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. The work that you do is important, it is well-known, and it is appreciated.”

    “I testify of Jesus Christ, whom we serve, whose Church this is. I invoke his blessings upon you, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
    – Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, The Historicity of the Book of Mormon, FARMS annual dinner on October 29th, 1993

  36. JNS, I apologize if I am ruining your post or if you feel that I am missiong the point. Indeed I recognize that the historicity debate is precisely what you were trying to avoid.. I feel however that resolving the historicity issue is a precursor to moving forward with trying to find the benefit in the teaching of false and misleading doctrines. Elder Oaks seems to think so at least. So does Elder Holland by the way when he spoke at a CES fireside re the BoM shortly after his calling to the apostleship.

    Also, please don’t mistake my comments as a condemnation or a criticism of anyone’s testimony, wherever it may be. I am only hoping to help support what I believe is an extremely important tenet

  37. Elder Oaks was probably dead on and I would like to add the following.

    In the last 40 years or so the mainline Protestant Churches have “rethought” or “reshaped” their doctrine in an attempt to “keep up with the world” “Keep current with todays youth” etc.

    Key issues that they have changed to one extant or another on include but are not limited to: Sexuality including Homosexuality, Sin, Satan, The divinity of Jesus, Religious Multi-culturalism (all paths lead to God, the bible etc.

    The result has been the serious and rapid decline and relevance of the mainline denominations. It seems that if you try and take the wonder, magic and even fervency or whatever out of religion then people simply walk away from that belief system.

    I personally believe that this is what Elder Oaks was referring to above when he says this:

    “As Jack Welch and I discussed the topic of my address this evening, he pointed out that this new wave of antihistoricism ‘may be a new kid on the block in Salt Lake City, but he has been around in a lot of other Christian neighborhoods for several decades.’”

    “Indeed! The argument that it makes no difference whether the Book of Mormon is fact or fable is surely a sibling to the argument that it makes no difference whether Jesus Christ ever lived. As we know, there are many so-called Christian teachers who espouse the teachings and deny the teacher. Beyond that, there are those who even deny the existence or the knowability of God. Their counterparts in Mormondom embrace some of the teachings of the Book of Mormon but deny its historicity.”

    The growth of publications, groups etc that advocate a watering down or disbelief in the fervent beliefs of Mormonism point a dagger at the heart of the Kingdom. If these types of views become mainstream then we will be walking down the path that our mainline Protestant friends walked down in the last 40 years to irrelevance as a movement.

  38. Ryan and Bob,

    I appreciate the strength of your conviction with respect to Book of Mormon historicity. Furthermore, I would never suggest that you are wrong or try to argue you out of your position. On the other hand, there are a lot of Saints who evidently cannot or do not know that the Book of Mormon is historical — and there are others who have a position on one side of the line or the other but are exhausted by the conflict. I want to ask what the Book of Mormon can mean, in spiritual and intellectual terms, to these groups of people? For those blessed with personal conviction of historicity, I want to suggest that a productive conversation can also be had, in which all can be edified, focused on the meaning of the text.

    Bob, with respect to the decline of liberal Protestantism, the ideas in question arose in Protestantism in the mid-19th century. But the decline in membership didn’t really start until WWII. Hence, there’s at least a complicated question of causal inference in determining the causes of that transition.

  39. Let’s assume a person, “Jill,” that either doesn’t believe the BoM is historically accurate, or that thinks the evidence weighs against historicity, though she hopes it is historically accurate.

    But, let’s suppose she views it as scripture (similar to her view of some parts of the bible that she assumes aren’t historical) and finds spiritual value in it.

    This is the conversation I’m hearing from the previous comments.

    Jill: “I find spiritual value in the Book of Mormon.”

    Ryan, Ed, etc.: “No, you don’t.”

    Jill: “Yes I do. It has taught me some important gospel truths regarding faith (Alma 32), caring for the poor (Mos. 4.), the nature of God and man (Either), etc.”

    Bbell (quoting the others in the hopes that volume of text is what decides an argument): “No you don’t.”

    Jill: “Do too.”

    JNS: Can’t we all just get along and learn what there is to be learned with each other?

    Bbell, ryan: “No.”

    Jill: “Sure, that’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years in church already.”

    Bbell, ryan: “No you haven’t.”

    etc. etc.

  40. Morgan, I have to admit, the way you phrased the conversation was pretty funny, it had a Monty Python sketch kind of feel :) Admittedly you make a good point in that (although unintentionally) I may have been telling people either how they do or how they should feel. Again this was not my intention. Let me switch up the conversation a bit though…

    Ryan: So because the Book of Mormon makes you feel good, the historicity of it doesn’t matter despite what the prophets say.
    Jill: Prophets Shmophets, they don’t know everything.
    JNS: Can’t we all just get along and learn what there is to be learned with each other?
    Ryan: Yes we can. I hope that you can learn this from me; it is important for everyone who desires true conversion to the Book of Mormon to have a testimony of it’s historicity
    Jill: You’re so closed-minded
    JNS: Isn’t that cute… but it’s wrong
    Ryan(I haven’t said this part yet): You keep insisting I’m wrong but I’m the only one here who seems to be citing any type of authority, everyone else seems to be relying on the philosophies of men. This, to me, is a problem.

  41. Ryan, your position definitely has the most support from ecclesiastical authorities. But not everyone bases their beliefs solely on authority.

  42. A good friend of mine found a way getting a BOM into the hands of the PM of Israel back in 2002. It was not given with conversion in mind, but given to point out how ancient American Israelites (chief captain Moroni & governor Lachoneus) dealt with wars in their lands. Has it made a difference? Think about it. Believe it or not? (3 Ne.3:1-3)Shalum

  43. Line upon line, precept upon precept….

    We all have our ways of learning the Gospel. We seek inspiration where we can find it. When I was in Seminary, ( and by the way I was inactive in the church at the time, ) one of my friends read the Book of Mormon for the war stories, but he was still one of the most spiritual youths I knew. My point is whether you start your study of the Book of Mormon as a historical event or as a religious guide one will lead you to the other. I very much believe in the history and religious aspects of it. Can I point to the ruins spoken of by it, no, but neither can I prove that Jesus visited the America’s either. Sometimes we just don’t know, but as believer’s of the Gospel we need to allow each other the oportunity to find the truth’s

  44. But not everyone bases their beliefs solely on authority.

    I’m suggesting they ought to. In fact, I suspect I’ll be accused of being closed-minded for this but I’ll go so far as to say anyone who doesn’t is wrong. (Remember, that isn’t judgmental any more than me telling a someone that 2+2=3 is wrong. I’m not saying it makes that person bad… just wrong)

  45. Elisabeth says:

    Ryan- I think people should base their testimonies on personal revelation, not on “authority”. The scriptures and teachings of modern prophets are both very important evidence of the will of God for us, but at the end of the day, the most important evidence, and the foundation for each of our testimonies, is personal revelation.


    P.S. Morgan – right on!

  46. And what do you propose we should receive personal revelation about if not the words of the authorities? Do we all just run around receiving our own revealed doctrines? The Lord has made it clear that this is not the case. (Then again, he’s an authority on the matter… why should we listen to Him?)
    This is where the problem is, nothing is personal. We all gain our information from those in authority and then determine based upon the confirmation of the spirit whether it is true. If I remember the scriptures correctly we are commanded to study it out in our minds first and then the Lord will confirm the truth of it.
    This is why I insist, based on the testimony of an Apostle of the Lord, that it is crucial that we accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon. For those of you who struggle with this, the chain of logic works this way (based upon my evidences throughout this thread):
    Joseph Smith = Prophet. Therefore,
    Dallin H. Oaks = Prophet. Therefore,
    Book of Mormon = History.
    Once again, I would like to offer the invitation for anyone to prove me otherwise with the word of the Lord.

  47. Ryan, you are a perfect illustration of why JNS’s plea for peace in the Book of Mormon wars gets nowhere (even on his own thread). It’s just not what we want to hear, is it? It does seem like those on both extremes of the historicity question would rather slug it out than just get along with their neighbor. Is it possible that “just getting along” is a more important tenet than your particular view of historicity?

  48. Elisabeth says:

    We all gain our information from those in authority and then determine based upon the confirmation of the spirit whether it is true. If I remember the scriptures correctly we are commanded to study it out in our minds first and then the Lord will confirm the truth of it.

    Ryan – this IS the process of receiving personal revelation. I guess the question is what to do when individuals receive personal manifestations of the spirit that may not be compatible with mainstream understanding.

  49. Ryan,

    Joseph Smith famously taught that “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such” (History of the Church 5:265; also included in this Encyclopedia of Mormonism article). Hence, there’s at least one unresolved dilemma in the final step of your logic: was Dallin H. Oaks acting as a prophet when he gave his speech on historicity (as an academic paper, at an academic conference)? This may well be the case, but it’s at least not initially obvious to me.

    Then there’s also the Hugh B. Brown problem — which arises frequently in these discussions. Brown, of course, was a top leader of the church for many years. Yet he explicitly called for freedom of thought and individual exploration rather than orthodoxy and obedience. Here’s a favorite quote of mine:

    Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts. (See this speech transcript.)

    How can we resolve a call by one of the authorities not to subordinate our belief system to the authorities?

    My point here, of course, is that while Mormonism certainly contains elements sufficient to support your belief system, the tradition is also rich enough to support a belief system in which individual exploration, learning, and development is given the highest value.


    I realize that the position I’ve advocated in this post is one that fails to resolve the Book of Mormon wars, which will obviously continue indefinitely in any case (they’ve been going for 170+ years and show no sign of stopping). For that reason, the point that interpretation is an arena where different perspectives can productively speak to each other is inherently less than satisfying to those committed to one side or another in the struggle. Yet, satisfying or not, I believe there is real value in marking out a domain where the Book of Mormon can serve the fundamentally Christian purpose of bringing the Saints together and making us one.

  50. Ryan,

    Joseph Smith = Prophet. Therefore,
    Brigham Young = Prophet. Therefore,
    Adam = Father of Christ?

    With regards to your position that nothing is personal, I think there is very little in religion that isn’t personal.

    Nobody, not even you, believes everything that has been spoken by every General Authority or every verse of scripture. The decision regarding what to believe and what to reject is largely a personal one. The church lays out a set of required beliefs in the temple recommend interview, but they’re pretty minimal. This leaves room for a large variety of beliefs in the church.

  51. Eric Russell says:

    How do we go about ascertaining what we must believe or not? Can I not say that, though I believe the church is generally true, I think the church gets it wrong about Jesus Christ. He was just a prophet who never performed an atonement and never was resurrected. He may not be historically accurate. But there is spiritual value and important things we can learn from his word, even if they be not historically accurate. Are you going to tell me I can’t get learn spiritual things from his words?

    Obviously such a belief is much more strained than the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but is it impossible? What must we believe, and how do we know? Is there any such thing?

    After all, freedom of thought and individual exploration are preferable to orthodoxy and obedience. And this whole Jesus thing doesn’t really make sense to me.

  52. A couple points, I don’t think anybody doubts but that a long chain of apostles and prophets believe the book to be historical. So it is not just a question of whether _Oaks_ was right in those comments. He is backed up by many other witnesses, including statements like th eone he quoted from the book itself.

    2nd, The Adam=God theory has gotten hammered all over the place by prophets, while historicity has not, so the comparison is a little goofy. It only works against the starw man of infallibility, not the actual argument of “prophets are typically righter than you, especially when several of them witness to the same thing”.

    3rd, if, JNS, your point is that even if some people lack a testimony of the book as being nonfiction, well they can still get something out of it, I don’t know that anybody is arguing with that. But it is a little like saying that a hammer is still useful even if all you do is use the claw on the back to pull out nails, but never use the hammer.

    So if you are saying, “gee, I don’t know how to use the hammer part, but I’m doing the best I can”. Then I applaud you and hope you figure it out soon. If you are saying, “I think the hammer is just a myth and only the claw is real, so can’t we all just agree on the claw?” Well, yes, we have all always agreed on the claw, but you do, in fact, need the hammer part and so people, like Ryan and a host of others, are going to argue with you about that. If you are saying, “I have no need of the hammer because I have ninja hands, so that my testimony and salvation can be achieved independent of the hammer (or the nonfiction witness of the Book of Mormon).” Well I think that is possible, but I’d like to see you build some houses first.

    And it appears to me that, in general, people who doubt the hammer are not coming from that third set of people with super-strong independent testimonies, they are coming from one of the first two. Neither of whom deserves a pulpit to spout about how little they know about hammers. In fact, most people benefit from that BoM _witness_ of the truth, which is why God gives us the law of _witnesses_. I think Ryan is mostly reacting to the second kind of statement, which is certainly one of the views, though not the only view, bouncing around on this page.

    That doesn’t mean we hate you (speaking generecially of one of these people, not to JNS per se) or should be mean to you or condemn you, just that the appropriate response to an inability to use a hammer (whether _you_ see that as a weakness or a strength) is going to look more like pity than like a desire to emulate your “claw-only” approach to house-building. We may well be impressed with how much you do with just the claw, but you are still (in most member’s eyes) going to be lagging behind the people who know how to use a hammer. The prophetic word on the street is that people who use hammers build houses faster.

    Of course, when we are humble, God turns weakness into strength, so maybe He’s got a plan to turn that claw-user into a master hammerer someday. And I’m sure he has done that many times.

  53. Barring acceptance of Blake Ostler’s much-maligned expansion theory of the Book of Mormon

    I do accept it. I’m not sure how maligned it is these days either. Blake posted on it and said it is gaining much wider acceptance in recent years.

  54. Eric, I do think there’s some value in drawing the smallest number of exclusive lines possible, isn’t there? The church, for example, typically requires only two beliefs:

    1. Belief in God, the Eternal Father, in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost; and a firm testimony of the restored gospel.

    2. Sustain the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the prophet, seer, and revelator; and recognize him as the only person on the earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys.

    Frank, I’m left somewhat amazed. Consider the list of five uses of the Book of Mormon that I listed in comment #6. Roughly speaking, historicity corresponds to use #1, whereas uses #2-#5 are available even to those who do not accept historicity. Hence, in your hammer/claw analogy, coming to an understanding of and a conviction in Jesus Christ, the Atonement, the saving ordinances, the Christian moral code, the authority of Joseph Smith, and the divine authorization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the claw — whereas using the Book of Mormon as a reference for ancient American history is the hammer? I would certainly worry about the implicit prioritization.

    However, once again, let me reiterate that the point of this post isn’t to argue that historicity is irrelevant. Those debates are obviously crucial, and I expect them to continue. Rather, my point here is that the evidence about 19th-century parallels and messages in the Book of Mormon which is often used to suggest that the book is modern and not ancient is also a valuable, indeed irreplaceable source of insight into the meaning of the text. So even aside from the inevitable fiery debates over historicity, the research into 19th-century themes in the Book of Mormon has meaning that believers should celebrate.

  55. Geoff, I’m not surprised that Ostler’s approach is gaining wider acceptance. Nonetheless, as far as I can tell, a clear majority of references to it in print have been (unnecessarily) dismissive.

  56. I’m enjoying this hammer analogy…

    JNS, my only problem with your last comment is that I’m skeptical that most people will be able to effectively do #2-#5 without a belief in historicity. That’s some advanced hammer technique! I think that’s the source of some of the hostillity towards non-historicity thinking…that it’s a dangerous idea that would make most people just drop the hammer and go home.

    (I’m not sure I like the term BOM “wars.” How many people are really actively involved, a couple thousand at most? More like a BOM skirmish. Are you predicting a larger-scale war in the future?)

  57. JNS,

    This may not come as a shock to you, but a lot of people do not agree that the only or principal value of historicity is #1 in your list. I mean, really, why would we bother if all that was at stake was academic knowledge of some old history?

    For just one important example, the whole “law of witnesses” that I mention in my post and that Alma mentions in the book itself. It is a very different witness if the only “witness” is a fictional treatise by Joseph Smith, which he passes off as true (thus impugning his value as a witness already), rather than a dozen or dozens of independent testimonies and eyewitness encounters with the Savior, including as a ressurected being. And since this means the 12 witnesses probably saw no real plates, well then that shows that the whole witness value of the Book of Mormon is in question, if lies are Joseph’s idea of witnessing. And what about that whole Moroni vision? More lies? Well then surely that is going to make his supposed witness rather suspect, since he lies about visions and plates. I imagine that that is obvious to you. Thus the historicity has important repurcussions for 2-4 and possibly 5.

    And I suppose it also has some pretty obvious implications for what Mormon tells us is the purpose of the book–

    “Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever— And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations”

    The book is just not as “convincing” in its stated purpose if it is fiction, your claw notwithstanding. Thus its historicity has obvious implications for fulfilling its purpose.

    Next, look at the part about the “great things the Lord hath done for their fathers”. It is pretty much out the window if the “things” are fiction. So, now what exactly are we to make of a book that claims, explicitly, to be doing A, but, as a fictional account, it actually has nothing to say about A? At this point, the testimony of the 3 witnesses, 8 witnesses, Joseph’s testimony, and the title page all have to be radically second-guessed in the fiction world-view, and we haven’t even got to 1st Nephi. Clearly this leaves the BoM “witness” heavily compromised.

    That’s about all I have time for on a Saturday night :)

  58. Oh, and I see Ed got there first.

  59. Frank and Ed, this thread is not the place for me to argue about whether the various doctrines you mention are inseparably linked to Book of Mormon historicity. Evidently, some people do find it possible to use the book in order to meet its various spiritual objectives while still harboring doubt or even outright rejection of it as a history. Perhaps such people are foolish or misguided and should instead renounce the book and leave the church; or perhaps not. All of this is simply yet another iteration of the Book of Mormon wars, and my goal here was to signal an intellectual and spiritual space where those wars can temporarily be abandoned in the name of unity and peace.

    Ed, I think the term “Book of Mormon wars” is appropriate. While the number of people involved is still relatively small (although not as small as you suppose; the sales of Grant Palmer’s book attest to that), there are two historical reasons for supposing that they will trend toward eventually becoming salient for all college-educated members of the church. First, the trend over the last few decades is for these issues to become important to a growing proportion of Mormons. Increasing interest in and awareness of ideas related to the Book of Mormon wars, including limited geographies, FARMS apologetics work, etc., are signs of that trend. Second, a comparison can be made to the battles over biblical criticism in Protestantism, which more-or-less started in the 18th century among a small number of intellectuals and spread to the point that, today, most college-educated Protestants are familiar with at least the basic contours of the debate. Hence, with trepidation, I’d forecast a steadily rising profile for debates over Book of Mormon historicity for generations to come.

  60. Sultan of Squirrels says:

    Dang, JNS beat me to the Hugh B. Brown quote. oh well, as long as it gets mentioned

  61. JNS, it’s not just a question of whether faith and doctrine are inseperably linked to historicity, (and I’m agnostic on that question), but whether for practical purposes they tend to be linked for most people. If they are, your wish for a rapproachment in the BOM wars isn’t likely to be realized.

    Do you have an idea what the sales of Grant Palmer’s book were? Maybe there are more people interested in this than I thought. Still, I suspect that a lot of the people buying the book were already disaffected for other reasons. In any case, the “wars” haven’t affected the LDS general or local leadership ranks much, as far as I can tell. I suppose the term “BOM wars” would be quite apt for describing the controversey among RLDS, but among LDS I just don’t see that much of it. BTW, thanks for the “Bible Wars” post on the other blog.

  62. I agree with ed. There are, to continue the analogy, claw and hammer parts to all 5 of your uses of the Book of Mormon, as well as the other uses that prophets have made clear for the book. Hence we are right back to the analogy about why your “claw only” (but peaceful!) approach to building a house looks downright silly to some people.

    Also, I know that my interest in FARMS is not because of the purported Book of Mormon Wars, but rather because it gives me a better feel for how to approach the book. And so I think interest in FARMS is not a good sign of a raging war over the Book of Mormon. Certainly there is such a war with anti-mormons, but I would guess that the believers who don’t believe the Book of Mormon are not actually that big of a crowd, though they are well represented in liberal forums :)

  63. In the last 40 years or so the mainline Protestant Churches have “rethought” or “reshaped” their doctrine in an attempt to “keep up with the world” “Keep current with todays youth” etc.

    Key issues that they have changed to one extant or another on include but are not limited to: Sexuality including Homosexuality, Sin, Satan, The divinity of Jesus, Religious Multi-culturalism (all paths lead to God, the bible etc

    bbell, I’m interested in the difference you see between these changes made to “keep up with the world” and the LDS church deciding to quit polygamy and give the priesthood to blacks.

  64. Frank (#52), I wasn’t comparing Adam-God to BoM historicity; I was showing that Ryan’s logic is too simplistic.

    Even those who believe that the plates were real (of whom I am one, accepting it on faith) tend to realize that the BoM isn’t a strictly accurate translation of them. For example, it’s obvious that several BoM chapters are based on the King James Bible, a 17th century source. So historicity isn’t really an all-or-nothing dichotomy.

  65. “Evidently, some people do find it possible to use the book in order to meet its various spiritual objectives while still harboring doubt or even outright rejection of it as a history.”

    Jason, it doesn’t seem like someone who subscribes to the fictional account of the Book of Mormon can know the book’s “spiritual objectives.” If they can’t trust Joseph Smith or the text about its production, on what basis can they trust his explanation for producing it? The text’s explanation of its spiritual objective may be just as phony as its explanation of its origins, and I don’t believe it would be possible to circumscribe the limits of the text’s and author’s’ fabrications because, for all the fictional-account believers know, Joseph’s objective was to prove that some people are gullible fools. (“I feel the spirit and belieeeeve!” Heeheehe.) Or that he was more clever than his brothers. Or that the ladies should pay him attention. Or that some people will “feel the Spirit of God” whenever they’re told to.

    Perhaps I would better appreciate the “Paul H. Dunn version of the Book of Mormon” if Dunn’s stories had effected me more, but because they didn’t, I don’t understand why I should take his stories seriously, no matter how strongly some people feel the spirit hearing them.

    (BTW, Ed, I appreciated your observation that the “not official doctrine” argument is usually made precisely because the person believes “the debate is over” otherwise.)

  66. Rosalynde says:

    Okay, Jason, first of all: I truly admire your deeply-felt efforts to unite far corners of our community, I applaud them and you, and I want everybody in all corners to stick around. And also, I argue forcefully with intellects I respect—and frequently get blown out of the water in return!

    Second, a quibble: both the 19th-C and middle eastern interpretive camps are “historicist”—the former is just as much about historicity as is the latter. As I’ve argued before, “historicity” is not something that texts can lack: all texts have some (complex, convoluted, superimposed, serial, to be sure) historical origin, and thus it doesn’t make sense to talk about “pro-” and “anti-historicity” camps.

    And finally: I have no idea what you’re talking about. Really. How can one separate the retrieval of meaning from a text (what I understand you to mean by “interpretation”) from one’s assumptions about the origins of that text? The meaning that I extract from, say, a religious sonnet is going to have everything to do with whether I know that sonnet to be a sixteenth-century English Protestant artifact, or a nineteenth-century English Catholic artifact, because the assumptions I bring to bear on the text will determine the conclusions drawn. In my view, this is precisely as it should be, and although I realize that not all modes of reading are as rigorously historicist as the ones I’m trained in, any mode that wilfully ignores historical context is, in my view, deeply impoverished.

    Furthermore, a myopically structuralist method of close reading, one that disregards questions of authorial intent or context and instead relies entirely on intra-textual features, seems to me to be the one form that is positively contraindicated in BoM studies—whether one assumes modern or ancient origins. Royal Skousen’s critical bibliographic work on manuscript transmission, for example, highlights the extent to which word-level errors crept into the text—and thus the danger of basing readings purely on, say, word choice entirely internal to the BoM.

  67. Rosalynde says:

    Let me add: this is not to say that close reading is not a valid technique among others. But it’s highly performative: when it’s done well—say, Jim Faulconer unpacking a passage of scripture—it’s entirely as entertaining as a fabulous Hamlet. As a result, close reading often yields brilliant and idiosyncratic results, and thus it’s very useful for the sort of devotional reading LDS are encouraged to undertake, in which we seek to find answers to our own problems in our own lives. It’s less successful as a stand-alone technique, I’d say, for critical or analytical reading that aims to retrieve objective, transferable meaning.

  68. Rosalynde, thanks for paying this post the compliment of really engaging with its ideas.

    On “historicity,” you’re obviously correct in claiming that the text must have come from somewhere. I’m using the term as it’s often (mis?)used in scriptural discussions — i.e., to refer to the truth of traditional claims about the origin of the text. But your point is noted.

    Now, in response to your substantive point, I’m not at all arguing for a strictly intra-textual reading. Quite the opposite. I’m instead arguing for a reading that takes into account the fact that the text deliberately positions itself in both an ancient and a 19th-century context. If the book is ancient, it is also true that it is written to the 19th century — so 19th-century language, context, religious debates, political themes, rituals, and historical understandings are directly relevant to figuring out the message of the text. If the text is from the 19th century, it is also true that it is fictionally positioned in an ancient world. Understanding that positioning may depend on the author’s view of that ancient world — but it certainly licences the reader to take advantage of her full understanding of that world. Furthermore, to the extent that we see the production of the text as divine in some sense, we should not be surprised if some layers of the text’s meaning are wrapped in the detail of that hypothetically fictional setting.

    In other words, rather than encouraging a purely internal reading of the Book of Mormon, I’m arguing for a reading of the text in a dual historical context: 19th-century America as well as the ancient Near East and wherever the Nephites were (drawing on that second domain for context is troubled by the fact that we lack details). My concern is that readings tend to be offered from one perspective or the other, and in fact tend to argue against the relevance of the other perspective. But the book is most naturally understood if we allow both.

  69. Rosalynde, one last point. I’m surprised to find “objective, transferable meaning” introduced as a goal for reading a text — do you have a technique in mind that actually breaks the hermeneutic cycle and achieves this?

  70. Well, J. N-S, you might as well know that I harbor a not-so-secret love/hate relationship to all the most dismal sciences, and in another life (after the one in which I become a physician) I would absolutely be an economist. I have a distinct soft spot for objective, transferable meaning. Alas it can be difficult to produce such from the lines of words on a page, but some methods (such as, in my humble opinion, rigorous historicisms, cultural materialisms, and so forth) are much better at it than others. For a very interesting discussion of a new take on the perennial problem, see this blog post (hat tip to the always-in-the-know Russell Arben Fox).

    On the larger matter, thanks for clarifying your position. If I understand you, you’re conflating both origin and intended audience in the notion of “context,” right? This unusual notion of context may seem to provide a DMZ for the opposing fronts, but I’m not convinced that it works logically. It seems to me that the origin of a text must be hermeneutically prior to its audience; that is, knowledge of a text’s origin can tell us something about its audience, but knowledge of its audience won’t necessarily tell us anything about its origin. Thus if one assumes a 19th-C origin but nevertheless takes into account the text’s ancient semitic setting, one could only bring to bear on the text a 19th-C view of the ancient near east. This, I fear, would be wholly unsatisfying to the FARMS crowd. Conversely, if one assumes an ancient semitic origin but nevertheless takes into account specific, intended resonances with 19th-C audiences, one would have to inject an element of the supernatural into authorship, which, I presume, would be wholly unacceptable to the Signature crowd. (Forgive me for using these crude political shorthands, to which I object as much as the next guy.)

    (I personally am not challenging either the book’s ancient semitic origins or its specific 19th-C resonances; I just think your method of conflating origin and audience into “context” is unlikely to resolve the tension. Alas I can offer no resolution myself!)

  71. Rosalynde, there is, of course, no unitary “Signature crowd,” any more than there is a unitary “FARMS crowd”–indeed, perhaps much less. So, while I understand the broad distinctions you have in mind, it will be helpful to be a bit more specific at some points.

    I’m not talking about developing a total shared hermeneutic approach to the Book of Mormon; such a thing seems impossible. Disputes over the origins of the book will inevitably continue, and — even aside from the probability that views on origins will color our reading of the text — theories of origin are in themselves a part of our reading of the text. So total agreement is impossible.

    What I’m looking for is a more delimited segment of interpretive issues where mutually instructive dialogue, rather than zero-sum debate, can take place among people with clearly distinctive overall theories of the text. Hence, with respect to King Benjamin’s sermon in the first part of Mosiah, readers will perpetually disagree about whether there was a person in history named Benjamin, etc. My question is, rather, whether it’s possible for this disagreeing readers to fruitfully discuss the meaning of the rituals surrounding Benjamin’s speech and the contents of the sermon itself — in light of broader understandings of ancient and modern culture, textual preoccupations, and so forth.

    Now, the point with respect to people who believe in the Book of Mormon as an ancient document is simple: they have, for the most part, been remiss in failing to incorporate the interpretive clues to this sermon that derive from its extensive resonance with 19th-century evangelical revival culture. Even reaching beyond Mark Thomas’s description of parallels in language and practice, there is an elaborate web of linkages and interplays between the textual and ritual descriptions of the sermon and 19th-century evangelical preoccupations — all of which seems designed to create, in the 19th-century reader, the sense of a collective covenant community of free, autonomous individuals as a pathway to divine grace. This cultural version of the Christian message was arguably necessary for the Book of Mormon to have a chance of success at reaching its intended audience, and I think deciphering the codes in which it is conveyed can be useful to us today, as well — we no longer share most of them.

    Moving in the other direction, there is more complexity due to the extreme diversity of perspectives among individuals who see the Book of Mormon as having 19th-century origins. Some of these people see the book as being an inspired, prophetic fictional composition — and such people could scarcely object to the idea that God has encoded meaning within the text in ancient practices or concepts.

    Others see the book as devoid of divinity. For such people, the question of what ancient frames of reference might be helpful in grasping the book’s full meaning is more problematic, since it involves these individuals’ conceptions of who determines the meaning of a text. If they cling to the modernist notion of the author as the determinant of meaning, they will seek to reconstruct Joseph Smith’s view of the ancient world and will reject as spurious any proposed meanings that rely on histories, cultures, or contexts more generally that Joseph could not have known. On the other hand, if these authors see the reader as the locus of meaning, then it is clear that an educated 21st-century reader will bring quite different ideas of the ancient world to bear than any 19th-century reader might have done. In attempting to interact with such 21st-century readers, an interpreter therefore has the right and perhaps the obligation to make use of the best available information about the actual ancient context, in addition to 19th-century theories of the ancient world — which are in any case relevant because they shape the worldview of the intended audience.

    In other words, each kind of participant in this hypothetical discussion would come to the table with different ideas about why each set of interpretive frames might be relevant. Issues of motivation notwithstanding, my point is simply that all of these sets of people are justified in taking full advantage of both the current best understanding of ancient culture and the current best understanding of 19th-century culture. As long as participants in the discussion agree to keep mum about their theories of why each bit of information is relevant to the text, a productive if partial discussion can actually take place.

  72. Rosalynde says:

    Thanks, JNS. I think we’ve described the same critical conundrum, but you perhaps have more faith in the respective parties’ abilities to set aside their foundational assumptions, and see a lesser role for those assumptions in producing the interpretive conclusion. (By the way, forgive me again for the FARMS/Signature shorthand; you’re absolutely right, as I attempted to signal above, but was too tired last night to phrase more subtly.)

    You make a fine point about the diversity of the 19th-C position. Where I’m still hung up is why a naturalistic critic who places the BoM’s origin firmly in 19th-C revivalist New England would have any interest at all in considering ancient semitic resonances that were unknown to Joseph—-unless the critic were engaged in a reception study rather than a textual study. What do you means by “the reader as the locus of meaning”? Are you simply talking about a journalistic study of the ways in which the BoM has been interpreted by its various readers over time? If so, fine. But this is a very different project than an analysis of the text itself: Shakespeare reception studies, for example, are an entirely different ballgame than critical textual Shakespeare studies.

    In my view, the various parties will only be able to communicate, even partially, if they will freely consider the other sides’ best evidence. But to do so would be rhetorically tricky—if not logically disastrous—for most of the critics involved on any side. The nature of academic argument is such that a case must be made, one way or the other. Add to that the nature of religious faith—and the tenacity of naturalistic assumptions embedded in academic discourse—and one has a recipe for a discussion that may never get off the ground. But, like I said, I applaud your efforts, and I’m glad not everyone is as pessimistic as I.

  73. Rosalynde, one further point of clarification may be helpful here. In talking about interpretation, what I have in mind is more directly related to formal theological work with the Book of Mormon than to literary study. This is why the audience for the interpretation — as well as the original intended audience for the book itself — becomes an inescapable element in the conversation.

    In actual fact, you are of course right that this kind of conversation has not yet gotten off the ground. Indeed, essentially nobody has even tried to start such a dialogue. I’m afraid that the kind of discourse prevalent through much of this thread is a strong indicator of the reason why; we as a community possess an immense stock of suspicion and even hostility regarding the diverse points of view about the Book of Mormon, and so rather than try to find points of common ground we simply attack one another.

  74. Rosalynde says:

    Jason, if you’re interested in continuing the discussion (and I understand if you’re not—you’re handling a lot on the blog now!), I’m interested in knowing why and how questions of audience and reception are more pertinent to “formal theological work” than to literary studies.

    Is the goal of the work you describe to recover, as accurately as possible, the theological ideas of Book of Mormon prophets (or of, say, Jonathan Edwards as filtered through Joseph)? Or do such studies merely use the Book of Mormon as ideological material for constructing stand-alone theological frameworks?

  75. Rosalynde, I see theology (setting aside the intellectual-history aspect of theology, obviously, as well as the homiletics practiced so skillfully by our leaders) as primarily about creating a relationship between the canonized text and a contemporary audience. 19th-century understandings are central to this process because everyone agrees that the English text was written to that audience; hence, helping a modern audience to gain access to the text’s meaning requires engaging with that material — regardless of one’s theory of the text’s origins. But, because a modern educated Mormon audience will also be more or less familiar with ideas about chiasmus, ancient succession rituals in Mosiah, etc. Indeed, these ideas have become woven into many people’s understandings of the text. Hence, the theologian can only disregard such material at the cost of marginalizing herself from the debate with exactly those people who take the text most seriously.

  76. Rosalynde says:

    Jason, help me out: “creating a relationship between the canonized text and a contemporary audience”? What? I’d always understood theology to be essentially an analytical discursive project; are you, in contrast, talking about some kind of extra-discusive community-building exercise? Can you give me an example of the kind of work you’re talking about?

    It seems to me that either ancient semitic rituals play a part in the text, or they don’t—and if they don’t, I’m not sure how disregarding them would at all detract from a contemporary audience’s engagement with the text (aside from merely mentioning in a journalistic fashion that others have claimed to see evidence of such, etc). It seems, on the contrary, that if ancient semitic rituals unknown to Joseph play no part in the text, it would be misleading at best to deal substantively with them in any way, if the theologian wants the audience to better understand the original meaning of the text. But maybe that’s where I’m not getting you: is it not the original meaning you’re after at all?

  77. Rosalynde, I think the original meaning needs to be part of the picture. But theology is often held to be about more than that — both analytical and community-building, in your terms. Or perhaps more directly, conveying the essential message of the canonical text to an audience with ever-changing expectations, experience, and preconceptions.

    In other words, the theological objective isn’t only to recover Joseph Smith for an audience, it’s also to recover — not to put too fine a point on it — God for that audience.

  78. By the way, my last statement might seem to raise the question of why people who don’t believe in any kind of divine role in the production of the Book of Mormon might want to engage in theological interpretive work. Nonetheless, atheists have been known to engage in this kind of discourse with the Bible. So perhaps it’s unhelpful to rule anyone out.


  1. […] Bible Wars By RoastedTomatoes As a companion to my recent guest post at By Common Consent on interpretation as a place of peace in the Book of Mormon wars, in this post I’ll briefly discuss the parallel Bible wars that affected English-speaking Christianity in the mid-19th-century.  It’s a common belief (see, for example, this comment) that the so-called “mainline” Protestant churches adopted a more flexible approach to scripture in the decades just after the end of World War II, and that approach to scripture supposedly caused the major decline in membership those Protestant denominations have experienced during that period.  But in fact, debates about adopting a more flexible approach to scripture first became central to English-speaking Protestant discourse, with church leaders lining up on both sides of the issue, about a hundred years earlier than sometimes supposed. […]