Of the Constitution and the Canon

Along with many others this weekend, I attended the Duck Beach of Mormon history nerds: the annual MHA Conference. This year it was in St. George, Utah. It was as splendid as ever. I did not present this year, but I did respond to a panel.

Emily Jensen wrote an article on David Pulsipher’s paper—a history of Latter-day Saint exegesis of the Anti-Nephi-Lehi passages of the Book of Mormon. I noticed that Emily did not comment on the cogent remarks of the responder. Bah.

The gist of Pulsipher’s piece was to show how Church curricula at first used the Anti-Nephi-Lehites as a positive example of pacifism and non-violence. Then, after Pearl Harbor and during the Cold War they were viewed as aberrant and even possibly misguided. Pulsipher’s evidence and analysis was certainly more complex than that; but he outlines a pretty clear relationship between the culture of the Saints and their use of the story.

In one of my responses to the paper (there were other more substantive ideas I felt I offered), I indicated that perhaps more than the particular topic—peace—Pulsipher’s methodology is helpful to elucidate important shifts in Mormon theology, self-ideation, community delineation. Consequently I am interested in other exegetical examples, and how they might show similar trends. Is the ultimate conclusion that Pulsipher makes, that Mormon’s are more likely to find themselves in narrative materials than to try to challenge themselves? How else is this manifest in Mormon History? To turn towards current discourse, does the Mormon approach to scripture—the ever-invoked exhortation to “liken” the text to oneself—limit the prophetic capacity (in the sense of the Hebrew Bible) of that scripture?

However, after asking those questions, I wondered if something else weren’t going on. If I can use a crass analogy, perhaps where due to their obsession with sola scriptura Protestants treat the Bible as “Originalists” treat the US Constitution, Latter-day Saints treat the scriptural canon more like those who look to the US Constitution as a living document. Does it matter how the original authors interpreted the scripture, or can interpretation shift to meet the needs of the community?


  1. I need to get David’s paper. Pulsipher is one of the nicest and sweetest people I have ever met.

    I am looking at applying a somewhat (I think) methodology to D&C 134.

  2. “Does it matter how the original authors interpreted the scripture, or can interpretation shift to meet the needs of the community?”

    I think this becomes problematic when we offer an modern interpretation as the original meaning.

  3. Six months ago, our Stake Conference was received via satellite from Salt Lake. One of the talks used this story as a springboard for how we needed to treat immigrant populations with more consideration and love. It was an amazing talk, and truly unique.

    What I take issue with is that we always study the Book of Mormon in a presidential election year. I pray that the right teacher will be chosen in our ward next year so that we can avoid a repeat of the last time around. I distinctly remember one discussion wherein the merits of a religious government were extolled. Finally, in frustration, one of the class members pointed out that the only religious governments on earth were the totalitarian states in the Middle East. I think our reading the Book of Mormon is intimately tied to current cultural norms, but what sets scripture apart from literature that is merely classic is that the author’s intent matters a whole lot.

  4. Perhaps not modern interpretation so much as modern emphasis of specifically apocalyptic texts has seemed to have taken a marked turn within Mormonism in recent decades. This was highlighted, I believe, in recent posts & threads regarding the Rapture, American exceptionalism, Church globalization, and democratic messianism. The idea of the literal gathering to Missouri, for example, doesn’t seem to preoccupy the Mormon imagination as it once did. Its “latter-day” sense has been tempered so much so that the Evangelicals now outpace Mormons as our premier apocalypticists.

  5. andrew h says:

    “Science Teacher Mommy”

    I’m glad you pointed out that BOM/Election cycle issue, I’d somehow missed that connection.

    We recently had a Priesthood lesson on “Honesty” that degraded into a Bill Clinton/Democrat bashing session. I made several comments to try and get things on track and was shot down. I spent the rest of Priesthood reading old BCC posts on my phone!

  6. I am a huge proponent of the reader-response theory of literary criticism. This is an approach that says it is impossible for us to interpret a story based on the author’s “original meaning” because we use our own life experiences as the framework by which we interpret the story. (I am grossly over-simplifying, but that is the gist of it.)

    To put it another way, though, reader-response is essentially following Nephi’s counsel to “liken the scriptures” unto ourselves. When it comes to the Book of Mormon, we don’t know Mormon’s specific reason for including any of the stories he selected–only that the general purpose of his book was to prove that Jesus Christ was (and is) Jehovah. We don’t have any author’s note to explain what he wanted us to learn from the Anti-Nephi-Lehis (or is it -ites?) So we are left to our own devices, which means we are going to put a modern spin on it.

    I see nothing wrong with doing this, so long as we acknowledge that we are putting a modern spin on it, and our interpretation and understanding may change over time.

  7. I suspect it’s more akin to how people “Bible bash” on missions or the like. It’s less about exegesis (either open or closed) but purely about self-justification or rationalization. You have a belief you are attempting to defend rather than an inquiry.

    It’s more like the typical lawyer will use whatever argument best defends the client regardless of consistency.

  8. Brent I think one change in what “preoccupies the Mormon imagination” shifts simply because there is such a new influx of members bringing with them different perceptions, biases and so forth. That said I still hear plenty about the literal gathering to Missouri in Utah along with stories about the Church buying up a lot of land there. (Some of which is true – although I doubt they have any apocalyptic intents)

  9. I’ve been preoccupied with the nature of canon lately. Especially the way early Mormons dealt with it as compared to mid 20th century Saints. I think a significant fraction of Latter-day Saints have moved into state of closure in some sense and it’s manifest in two extremes of presentism. I *am* coming next year!

    KyleM made an interesting and relevant comment here.

  10. #7: Clark,
    “It’s more like the typical lawyer will use whatever argument best defends the client regardless of consistency.”
    Or__never argue with a man who’s income depends on you being wrong.

  11. Josh B. says:

    Scriptures are to living documents, as human will’s are to textbooks.

  12. wandering says:

    This is one of those classic dichotomies that traps people so often. IMHO the answer is both reader-response and originalism are the right way. One thing that should be very clear to every one about the Church, both as an institution and doctrinally, is its very strong push towards orthodoxy (e.g. “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the father but by me”). But equally strong is the drive to find meaning individually, as explained cogently above. The only problem comes when these are set as mutually exclusive opposites. They’re not, just as the originalist/living constitution argument is an academic/political farce which does more to divide people with fallacious arguments on both sides than it ever did to convince people of the truth. If you ask me (and I know, you didn’t) people need to learn simply to love each other enough to help them reach whatever truths they can, and stop worrying about convincing people. The more people learn to value God, life, and sincere love, the more they come to a proper understanding of the Gospel and where orthodoxy is important and where it is not.

  13. WVS, you just made me very happy. I wondered about blowing that comment out into its own post, but nobody responded to it so I figured it was rubbish.

  14. “The only problem comes when these are set as mutually exclusive opposites.”

    We can deny that the two sides are mutually exclusive, but I think we have to acknowledge the tension between “original” teachings and current ones. The question of “What would Jesus do?” and “What would Joseph Smith do?” have been causing doctrinal and societal rifts since the beginning of their respective followings. And I think they’re fair questions to continue to ask, even though “What would Thomas S. Monson do” might be the more pertinent question.

  15. Well, it’s no surprise that Scalia, a Catholic on the Supreme Court, is an ardent opponent of theories of a “living Constitution” in favor of an originalist reading.

  16. Raymond says:

    I’m uncomfortable analogizing Constitutional Originalism to Scriptural Originalism. Legal theorists (e.g., Scalia, not Jon McNaughton) who advocate “original intent” base their argument in democratic or republican principles: if the people have agreed to X but not to Y, it would be undemocratic for an unelected judge to change X to Y. Any purported divinity or inerrancy of the original document has nothing to do with it.

  17. excellent comment, Raymond.

  18. #16: Unless the people, through it’s document, have granted the judge the power to state what is X and what is Y.

  19. Raymond says:

    #18: Fair enough.
    But I challenge the assumption that “sola scriptura Protestants treat the Bible as ‘Originalists’ treat the US Constitution.” I understand sola scriptura Protestants to hold that the Bible is the complete and final word of God. Legal originalists, on the other hand, believe that any law can be altered or added to, whether by amendment (in the case of the Constitution) or the enacting of new laws.

  20. #7 Clark. Yep. It’s the method of proof-texting either the Constitution or Scripture to support preconceived notions or self-justification that bothers me.
    #12 Wandering. I agree that intent is important. And that is why everything fails but Charity.
    (and I like the tag “wandering.” “Not all who wander are lost.”)

  21. WVS, I missed your post due to MHA, and I will give it a closer reading in a bit. But my quick reading of it and Kyle comment is a big thumbs up. JS’s willingness to reinterpret revelations, sometimes radically is an important bit that is often lost on current Mormons.

    Regarding the original post, I’ll admit that it is a bit of a throw-away offering, for which I apologize. I’m consequently not too motivated to defend it. That said, and I agree that a comparison to the US Constitution ultimately fails, I do think that Mormons are much more interested in a living interpretation (either from their own inspiration or that of prophetic leaders) than any sort of historical interpretation. I also think that sola scriptura does result in trends in the opposite direction.

  22. “…I’ll admit that it is a bit of a throw-away offering,…”

    I should put that at the start of all my posts.

  23. Wandering says:

    #19 Raymond – While what you say is true for a segment of the population, I don’t think it’s true that all originalists “believe that any law can be altered or added to,” particularly in regards to the Constitution. There are segments of society (represented by Glenn Beck and others like him) who view any attempt to interpret, alter, or adapt the Constitution in a manner contrary to their own interpretation as an affront to the memories and intentions of the Founders.

    #14 Kyle M – agreed, although I’d like to make clear that one problem I see with articles/papers like Pulsipher’s and Jensen’s is that they often mistakenly identify the “original” or earlier interpretations of scripture as the “right” or “true” interpretation, a habit equally as problematic as presentism.

  24. Raymond says:

    #23 I guess I would argue that Originalism represents true conservative intellectual legal thought. Beck’s version as you presented it would be an imposter. Originalists routinely point to the Article V Amendment process as evidence that, if the people want to change the Constitution, they are perfectly free to do so – judicial intervention is unnecessary. As Bob pointed out, opponents of this theory would counter that judges are supposed to interpret the Constitution. So, from a legal perspective, the whole Living Constitution vs. Originalism debate is a matter of where to separate powers between the Judiciary and Congress (I know, kinda boring).
    If some people claim that originalism stands for the proposition that the Constitution or any other law cannot be changed, then they don’t know what they are talking about (I think we agree on that), and they make me sad.

  25. wandering says:

    #24 – Amen. It’s nice to find other *true* conservatives out there. Sometimes I think I’m the only one.

    And as for the whole Living Constitution v Originalism thang – that’s why I’m in law school.