The Book of Mormon and the Americanization of the Christian Mythos #BOM2016

1 Nephi  10-14 

World-historical myths don’t come and go with each new generation. There are only a handful of genuine mythic narratives in the world, and almost all of them have been around for thousands of years. One of the things that great cultural narratives do is reconfigure the myths of earlier cultures in such a way that their appropriation by more recent cultures seems logical and inevitable. [1]

This has been going on for a very long time. Consider:

The Aeneid (1st Century BCE): Written during the long reign of Augustus Caesar, Virgil’s great epic tells the story of the founding of Rome by Aeneas, a prince of Troy and son of the Goddess Venus (Aphrodite). In the process of telling the story of Rome, Virgil incorporates most of the important elements of Greek mythology into the narrative of Rome’s founding—assuring his readers that Roman religion was not simply an imitation of the Greek myths, but an important part of the same great mythic story.

The New Testament (1st Century AD): The central point of the New Testament is that Jesus is the Messiah, or the “Christ,” foretold in the Old Testament. The terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” in fact, only make sense if one accepts this argument. Those who accept the New Testament, therefore, see themselves and their story as the logical and inevitable continuation of a much older culture’s mythic and religious systems.

The Quran (7th Century AD): One of the reasons that the Quran was able to unite the Arabian Peninsula under Islam in a single generation is that it constructs both Judaism and Christianity as earlier parts of a single great religious narrative of which it is itself the final chapter. The five great prophets of the Quran are Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad—a clear narrative progression that that culminates with an Arab prophet and an Arabic scripture.

Divine Comedy (14th Century AD): The two main characters in the first 2/3 of Dante’s Commedia, or The Divine Comedy, are Dante himself and the poet Virgil, who guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory. In much the same way that Virgil interpolated Homeric myths into a Roman context, Dante interpolated Virgil—and by extension all of classical antiquity—into the Christian story, uniting the two major myths of his culture into a single great epic poem.

Journey to the West (16th Century AD): Written during the Ming Dynasty by Wu Cheng’en, the Journey to the West—and its trickster/hero the Monkey King—has become one of the most famous narratives in the Eastern world. The core narrative tells the story of the 7th century priest Xuanzang (who was an actual historical character), who journeyed to India to bring Buddhist scriptures back to China. Journey to the West is the story of how an Indian religion, Buddhism, became even more important to China (in the author’s opinion) than the native religions of Taoism and Confucianism.

We see exactly the same narrative pattern in each of these stories: a young culture interpolates the myths of an older culture into a new narrative that shows how the new culture has been part of the story all along. This clears the way for the new culture to employ the myths without appearing (or feeling) like second-class mythizens simply imitating somebody else’s religion.

This is all just a really complicated way of introducing Nephi’s vision in Chapter 3 of the original Book of Mormon, encompassing chapters 10-14 in most current editions of the same. This vision, I believe, gets to the heart of what made the Book of Mormon so important to its first generation of readers. To put it briefly, the Book of Mormon does what all of these other great cultural narratives did: it takes ancient religious images and concepts associated with another culture and interpolates them into a story that makes the new culture (in this case America) the hero.

Nephi does this in several ways. First, the entire story of First Nephi is a typological reconstruction of the central narrative of the Old Testament: the passage of Israel from Egypt to Canaan. Like the Children of Israel, the Lehites leave a wicked city and wander in the wilderness for a while with God miraculously providing for their needs. Eventually they are lead to a “promised land,” which, it turns out, is America.

Yeah, I know about Guatemala and Machu Picchu and the “two-Cumorah theory.” But all that came later. Readers in 1830 were reading a book that (as they understood it) came from golden plates that had been found in America, by an American, describing an ancient world in which America was historically and theologically significant beyond their wildest dreams, This, of course, corresponded nicely to the sense that Jacksonian Americans had of their own specialness in the eyes of God.

As Nephi unfolds the future history of his descendents, their wars and conflicts, and the eventual discovery of the land by “gentiles,” he is creating a narrative that brings all of the old religion into a context that readers in 1830 could recognize as their own. And as Nephi prophecies of things that are in the future to him (but in the past and present for American readers in 1830), he unfolds a sweeping history of Christianity in Europe dominated by “the Great and Abominable Church of the Devil”–a history that will ultimately be redeemed by Americans:

Behold, after this, thou seest the foundation of a great and abominable church, which is the most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the Gospel of the Lamb. . . . And because of these things which are taken away out of the Gospel of the Lamb, an exceeding great many do stumble, yea,  insomuch that Satan hath great power over them; nevertheless  thou beholdest that the Gentiles which have gone forth out of  captivity, and have been lifted up by the power of God above  all other nations upon the face of the land, which is choice  above all other lands, which is the land which the Lord God hath covenanted with thy father, that his seed should have, for  the land of their inheritance; wherefore, thou seest that the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy  the mixture of thy seed, which is among thy brethren. (p. 30) [2]

This sweeping vision, I would argue, is the beginning of a thread in the Book of Mormon that makes it similar to some of the greatest books in the world’s history: the identification of the new nation of America as an integral part of the grand narrative that has dominated the Judeo-Christian imagination for thousands of years. The Book of Mormon did not create an American religion; it Americanized one of the world’s oldest mythic systems. And to an American reader at the dawn of the Age of Jackson, this would have been a very big deal indeed.

 

[1] I’m sure I don’t have to say, because anyone who has gotten this far certainly understands, that the world “myth” in the context I am using it here means, “a comprehensive narrative that structures most of the smaller narratives within a culture.” Calling a narrative a myth in this context takes no position on whether or not the narrative is true. George Washington is a mythic figure. So is Superman—even though one of them certainly existed in history and one of them is entirely fictional.

[2] If you must have it in modern chapter and verse, try 1 Ne. 26, 29-30

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve long been a fan of this idea (which I originally learned from John Hamer). Being a classicist, I can really relate to the notion that the BoM Americanizes the Bible in the same kind of way Vergil’s Aeneid Romanizes the Homeric epics.

  2. I don’t know why you think Washington is fictional. Really man.

  3. Kathleen Petty says:

    I take your point, that the idea of America’s importance would have played well “at the dawn of the Age of Jackson.” How does that idea play for today’s reader? In all the wrong ways, I am afraid. I show my bias here, but I think “American exceptionalism” is something we Americans need to rethink.

  4. I’m not convinced it’s “American exceptionalism”. It just so happened that many people’s conception of “Utopia” flourished there, but the ideas go way back.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Atlantis

    Of interest: “Many aspects of the society and history of the island are described, such as the Christian religion – which is reported to have been born there as a copy of the Bible and a letter from the Apostle Saint Bartholomew arrived there miraculously, a few years after the Ascension of Jesus”

    Folklore is an interesting thing, and the arrival of the first Gutenberg to United States occurs (mythically, might I add….) in the year 1847. A coincidence I’m sure :-)

    http://exhibitions.nypl.org/treasures/items/show/113

    ….. and please be sure to remove your hats

  5. Colin Austin says:

    It was cool today attending an MLK service at a black Baptist church where they were connecting themselves back to the epic of the civil rights movement, that hearkened to slave struggles, all connected to the Israelite mythology. In about 15 minutes.

  6. Jill Davis says:

    It is altogether reasonable and inescapable that narratives before Gutenberg appropriated contemporary adaptations throughout their centuries but to suggest an anachronistic history developed as recently as the nineteenth century has anything in common with mythology is like saying JRR Tolkien was clairvoyant.