Some Personal Thoughts About the Book of Mormon as a Text

Last Sunday, I completed my march through The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, a version of the Book of Mormon edited by Royal Skousen. Published 10 years ago, it is employs multiple critical analysis tools to account for every textual variant found in the badly damaged original manuscript of the BoM, the printer’s manuscript, and several early printed editions as well, all with the aim of reconstructing, as much as possible, exactly what Joseph Smith recited to his scribes during those “days never to be forgotten,” as Oliver Cowdery put it, 190 years ago. I started through The Earliest Text about a year and a half ago, and it’s been a fascinating read. I’m by no means a scholar of the BoM’s historicity, but I think I’m fairly well-read in the many interpretive arguments which surround the book (which in different versions I’ve read all the way through perhaps a dozen times). Skousen’s achievement didn’t settle any of those arguments for me, but it did give me a new way to think about them–a way that I had, over the past several years, come think I could never apply to Mormon scriptures.

Probably the most valuable thing that I’ve ever done for the faith side of my intellectual life, at least as an adult, has been to read the entire Old Testament all the way through, as a single text. Using my trusty Revised English Bible, and aided enormously by the many wonderful translations and commentaries published by Robert Alter (now finally available in their entirety, if anyone wants to get me a Christmas present), making my way through the Old Testament deepened my sensitivity to what I called the “belabored, overlapping, inconsistent, sometimes simply fragmentary” ways in which we mortal creatures seek out and make sense of the power of God in our lives. The way authorial struggles, both ancient and some not so ancient, are revealed right in the text of the OT itself (assuming, of course, that one is able to get over one’s literalism and King-James-Version-Onlyism, and actually engage with the words on the page, as unfortunately a too-large contingent of our own community are not, despite some excellent reasons to do so), genuinely moved me. Sure, many of the stories of the Old Testament teach important principles, but the effort to tell those stories, as evidenced in a text produced across enormous gaps of distance and time, to my mind actually embodied those principles, at least some of the time.

Though the closest parallel to the Book of Mormon out of the scriptures read within the Mormon church, at least in terms of internal narrative, is the Old Testament, I figured I couldn’t ever have the experience as I had with it with the BoM. As a text the Book of Mormon is too contained, too much the product of one man, whatever else you might want to believe about wordprint studies or Hebraisms or chiasmuses or whatnot. The plain fact is that the nearly 274,000 words in the text of the Book of Mormon were all produced as a single block, in a period of months. What those words say can speak to me, of course; but how could the words on the page themselves do so? Grant Hardy, in his introduction to The Earliest Text, writes that “the Book of Mormon claims for itself the kind of long, historical development that generally characterizes scripture formation”–but how could that development ever be known?

Like a great many other Mormon believers, my assumptions about the BoM’s production, for I think about as long as I’ve ever pondered these things, were similar to what Blake Ostler or Orson Scott Card, in very different ways, both sketched out long ago: that Joseph Smith had some kind of encounter with the divine, and was led to find some kind of artifact in the woods around Palmyra, and though engagement with it was inspired to reveal the narrative of the Book of Mormon. In other words, I assumed that Smith, whatever else he was during those months in 1828 and 1829, was a co-creator of, or an active participant in the articulation of, the text itself. Within this range of belief–let’s call it the “loose translation” camp, since that is what Skousen himself labeled it, and his terminology has mostly stuck in Mormon circles, generating hours and hours of argument over what it all means–you can find everything from A) the idea that Smith pretty clearly recovered, through the power of God, a genuinely ancient document, though one that at certain points he felt inspired to dump some King James Bible text straight into for whatever reason, to B) the idea that Smith was engaged in a grand project of midrashic creation, in which certain recovered artifacts of unknown origin prompted all sorts of questions to and pleadings with God, with the creation of Book of Mormon, and all its genre-shifts and Biblical borrowings, being the narrative result. Over the years I’ve gone back and forth between a) and b). Either way, the historical accounts of Smith staring into his hat, reciting words that appeared to him, and the suggestion that such an arrangement precluded any kind of expansion, requiring instead a belief that the BoM is a “tight translation” of a lost–but very real and multi-layered–text, were, frankly, hard for me to take seriously.

Having finally got around to reading Skousen’s effort to, by contrast, take all that very seriously indeed, I think I may have changed my mind. It’s not that I now believe there’s no place for seeing Smith as engaged in an act of religious imagination in producing the BoM (after all, we have no corroborating evidence of what others said Smith saw appear before his eyes, and for that matter we have no corroborating evidence in support of what those witnesses claimed in the first place, though I suppose there’s also no reason to discount them on the points where they all agree). The fact that dictation took place tells us little about what was taking place in the midst of that broad conceptual category of actions which Smith called “translation.” But I just said “little”–not “nothing.” In reading through Skousen’s edition, following the sense-lines which he used to identify, as closely as can be reconstructed, what the scribes may have actually heard Smith saying to them, there were moments where I found myself called up short. Sometimes it was easy for me to imagine Smith’s creative mind at work in forming or adapting or stretching out the story which appeared before (or just mentally occurred to) him; other times, though, it was not. Sometimes I ended up running my eyes over passages multiple times, wondering if I was seeing, behind these spoken and transcribed words, textual seams, stitches, and fault-lines: that is, traces of some ancient voice being redacted, summarized, edited, rewritten. In other words, the very kind of textual reaching and enveloping that made reading the Old Testament carefully so enlightening and humbling to me.

Here’s one example–it’s fairly long, but stick with me. These are the passages which are marked as verses 3 through 18 in the third chapter of the Book of Helaman in the Book of Mormon, as they appear in The Earliest Text:

And it came to pass in the forty and sixth year
there was much contention and many dissensions, 
in the which there were an exceedingly great many 
who departed out of the land of Zarahemla
and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land.
And they did travel to an exceedingly great distance, 
insomuch that they came to large bodies of water and many rivers;
yea, and even they did spread forth into all parts of the land
into whatever parts it had not been rendered desolate and without timber
because of the many inhabitants who had before inherited the land.

And now no part of the land was desolate, save it were for timber etc.
But because of the greatness of the destruction of the people
which had before inhabited the land,
it was called desolate.
And there being but little timber upon the face of the land, 
nevertheless the people which went forth 
became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; 
therefore they did build houses of cement in the which they did dwell.
And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread
and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward
and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, 
from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.
And the people who were in the land northward 
did dwell in tents and in houses of cement.

And they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land,
that it should grow up, 
that in time they might have timber to build their houses, 
yea, their cities and their temples and their synagogues and their sanctuaries
and all manner of their buildings.
And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, 
they did send forth much by the way of shipping.
And thus they did enable the people in the land northward 
that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement.

And it came to pass that 
there were many of the people of Ammon, 
which were Lamanites by birth, 
did also go forth into this land.

And now there are many records kept 
of the proceedings of this people, by many of this people, 
which are particular and very large concerning them.
But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people
–yea, the account of the Lamanites and of the Nephites
and their wars and contentions and dissensions
and their preaching and their prophecies
and their shipping and their building of ships
and their building of temples and of synagogues and of sanctuaries
and their righteousness and their wickedness
and their murders and their robbings and their plunderings
and all manner of abominations and whoredoms–
cannot be contained in this work.

But behold, there are many books and many records of every kind, 
and they have been kept chiefly by the Nephites.
And they have been handed down from one generation to another by the Nephites,
even until they have fallen into transgression 
and have been murdered, plundered, and hunted
and driven forth and slain
and scattered upon the face of the earth
and mixed with the Lamanites 
until they are no more called the Nephites, 
becoming wicked and wild and ferocious, 
yea, even becoming Lamanites.

And now I return again to mine account.
Therefore what I have spoken had passed; 
after there had been great contentions and disturbances
and wars and dissensions among the people of Nephi,
the forty and sixth year of the reign of the judges ended.

This is a strange passage to get hung up on, I admit. But still–“cement.” Why is this here, in the Book of Mormon, this story of tents and houses of cement? If you assume it’s all the work of Smith suffering from Geschwind syndrome or some such thing, then it’s just another random impulse, of no meaning whatsoever. But if you’re even just remotely open to the possibility that the Book of Mormon is a divine creation, then this is all a little problematic. Perhaps you’re a loose translation person (as I was for a long time, and I suppose mostly still am), and you assume there was some record of sometime that Smith “expanded” upon. Well, was this an expansion? Why? What on earth kind of narrative purpose could it serve? Even the author of these passages recognizes that this is all just an digression: “And now I return again to mine account.” Could Smith have wanted to humanize this distant narrator/compiler? Anyone over the age of four could come up with more efficient way to accomplish that purpose than this. So maybe Smith’s expansions weren’t well thought out, but just occasional manic episodes? But that puts us in the same position as before: as there’s no way of knowing which part of the BoM is “translated” text and which is a flight of fancy, we just have to look at what we have, with the best tools available. And for me, at least, Skousen’s tools forced me, as I quickly read these passages, to stop and think.

So what do we have here? We have the author of a passage which is conveying an overarching narrative (“And it came to pass in the forty and sixth year”) who takes the time to include a story about a certain body of people (including “many of the people of Ammon” who “did also go forth” with an unknown set of others), all of whom departed from the main arena of action in the narrative (“went forth unto the land northward”). This is obviously a retrospective account, because of the passage of time involved–the time, for example, which it took to become “exceedingly expert in the working of cement” and to “multiply and spread and…go forth from the land southward to the land northward.” Such developments obviously allow for the emergence of some kind of social or class distinctions, suggested by the observation that, in the absence of timber, those who were part of this new spreading society either “dwell in tents” or “in houses of cement.” (Unless that “and” suggests something shared? But there is no “both” present in that line, as you see later in this passage of scripture.) In any case, all of this presumably could have been contained in some record of some kind, one which would have had to have included an account, or multiple accounts, or those who went northward in the first place, so the author of the narrative could redact and summarize it.

But wait–this is also a story of trade, and that story is, if not contradictory, than at least parallel to or supplementary to the other one. The narrative tells us that “as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they [which “they” is that, do you suppose?] did send forth much by the way of shipping,” with the eventual result that these people built “many cities, both of wood and of cement.” (There’s that “both.”) But did this take place after or concurrently with the plan to “suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land, that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses”? Was that plan a failure, and thus trade pursued? Were both being pursued simultaneously? If so, was that happening from the beginning, all by the same originally defined group of people? Or were some perhaps unwilling to wait for the forests to grow, and thus took up an alternative, presumably (but not necessarily) complementary economic approach? If so, which segment of the people would that have been? And might all of this be relevant to the fact that the author follows up this digression with another excursus, beginning with an emphasis (a reminder which would be needed by which reader, exactly?) that the people of Ammon “were Lamanites by birth,” followed by an observation that the author cannot possibly include in the narrative “a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people,” such proceedings having been kept “chiefly by the Nephites,” which they continued to do “even until they have fallen into transgression,” suffered the consequences of the war and devastation which followed, ending with them becoming “mixed with the Lamanites,” even “becoming Lamanites” in the end?

This is all speculation, of course. But if you contemplate the possibility of Smith having tightly produced a complicated historical and textual record, then perhaps you might think, as I did, that immediately after “all manner of their buildings” in the middle of the third paragraph, you have an interpolation, a supplement or addition which begins with “And it came to pass.” The author’s voice, beginning there as opposed to the next paragraph, as most would probably read it? Or a different textual tradition, maybe just a fragment or a note or an already redacted comment on some other plate, which the author turns to in order to better fill out the story of these emigrants? Who knows? I certainly don’t. But the fact remains that, in reading this passage of scripture, I thought I could discern a break, a point where there words coming out of Smith’s mouth reflected something that had been inserted into something else. And I further thought I could see, in the surrounding language, a perhaps unintended but still discernable authorial account for that break, one rooted in what those who take the Book of Mormon even remotely seriously have to recognize as an ethnically, tribally, and racially fraught history, in which the cataclysmic end of the civilization at the heart of narrative necessarily haunts (and, thus, presumably guides) the editorial struggles which made the text which was brought forth from the dust to us.

Maybe none of this will be persuasive to anyone who takes the time to read it all the way through. But this is what I saw when reading The Earliest Text, and it’s not the only example–there were multiple other points where, thanks to Skousen’s painstakingly careful approach, I found myself reading a single line fragment over and over, and suddenly finding myself unable to discount the possibility that it had a real, tightly translated existence as a distinct text, with a distinct author, who had distinct reasons for writing it in that way and placing it into (or attempting to) the overall narrative where they did. This by no means describes the Book of Mormon as a whole; for the great majority of it, the text just runs on as an endless block, leaving us readers of it to loosely imagine whatever we want about it’s origin (to say nothing of it’s meaning). But Skousen’s work has forced me to really struggle, in a way I haven’t in years, with the possibility that, at least sometimes in Smith’s sometimes fascinating, sometimes boring, and altogether amazing production, something very Old Testamentish occasionally pushed through that hat 190 years ago. That’s a profound possibility. For getting me to think about it, he has my thanks.


  1. Mostly I really enjoyed this reflection. Enjoying both the care and thoughtfulness, and being caused to think.

    Then again, I wonder whether there is anything more here than a “multiple voices” observation. Which is very Hebrew Bible-like by itself. To me the existence of multiple voices is fairly apparent on a straight-through read without preconceptions, with or without Skousen’s help. And is an important thought-provoking way to approach the text.

    Whether or not one takes multiple voices into a historicity or “how did this come to be” debate, which is essentially a question of who’s voice (I tend not to, just not interested), the text is so much richer, so much more provoking, when I read like I would the Old Testament, with the idea of voices and agendas and points of view in mind. So much more than a flat reading as though every verse is the same, in the same omniscient voice, with the same truth-claim relationship to objectively real events.

  2. Raskolnikov's Successor says:

    Thanks for this. The sincerity of your thoughts and experience comes through well. I’d be curious to hear if you had any thoughts about the Carmack/Skousen theory that the translation contains a significant amount of Early Modern English from the 16th/17th centuries — almost as if some of the original core (if there was one) was translated into English centuries before Joseph and then adapted by Joseph in the 1800s to what we have. I acknowledge this is a really rough and poor description of the EModE theory.

  3. I like your thoughts on this. The Book of Mormon seems profoundly human to me too. The layers of voices are interesting and palpable. I suppose I take it for granted that my job is to engage with the text on whatever level is most useful to my spiritual growth, and to leave questions of who exactly wrote what words to the grace of God, trusting that they were delivered with the approval of the Spirit, whether in the 600s BC or 1800s AD. But I’m no scholar, and I’m glad that others think deeply about and research the origins of this vital text.

  4. mikerharris says:

    Nice thoughts.

  5. Thank you for this post. Great work and cause for thinking.

    I came to the BoM later in life, after 4+ decades of soaking in the Bible. So the idea that there are multiple voices apparent in the text of the BoM feels very much like the Bible. If you look at the NT Gospels, you see the same thing. Each of the 4 writers experiences the same events, but puts their own words and spin on it. God wasn’t dictating the words for them to copy down. We see the same thing in the BoM, with Joseph’s voice peeking out sometimes too. Bible-readers who don’t know how the Bible came to be get nervous about this fact -as if the Gospel writers were doing some kind of automatic writing directly from God. I imagine some BoM-readers have the same experience.

  6. Owen Witesman says:

    In another window on my computer, I’m currently translating a difficult text between almost entirely unrelated languages. Like you, Russell, I hear so many echoes behind and between the words on the page when I read the Book of Mormon. Whether the translator was Joseph or someone (or group of someones) on the other side who then delivered their work to Joseph, or whether some other arrangement was used, two decades of dedication to my craft tell me that the Book of Mormon is a translation.

  7. Reading Skousen’s Earliest Text is profitable, but if you really want to benefit from his thirty-plus years of research, you need to look at his critical text publications and his summaries in other places. Here’s a little nugget from his recent BYU Studies article: “Is the Book of Mormon English translation a literal translation of what was on the plates? It appears once more that the answer is no. The blending in of specific King James phraseology, from the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, tells us otherwise. The Book of Mormon is a creative translation that involves considerable intervention by the translator (or shall we say translators, since we’re in a speculative mood). There is also evidence that the Book of Mormon is a cultural translation.” He uses an example of an anachronism to make his point. From reading the evidence he has dug up in his incredibly detailed textual analysis, I am convinced that the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be (an ancient record), but it is also an extremely complex book, so complex that it is certain Joseph Smith did not conjure this text up in his head. And he also didn’t “translate it.” He dictated it. If it’s a translation, someone else did it. So what is this fascinating book? That’s the unanswered question.

  8. Owen Witesman says:

    @Wally: “I am convinced that the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be (an ancient record)”

    I wonder, Wally, what for you constitutes an “ancient record” and what aspects that Skousen reveals contradict the BoM claim to be that. I’m genuinely curious, because I think how one defines translation, authorship, authenticity, ancientness etc is incredibly important here.

  9. Nice work Russell. Mormon ‘haunted’ by the spectre(Aus) of annihilation, interpolates from one (or more) of the records that encompass him to set up the narrative frame underpinning its event and scale, in what could be read as a fine piece of proleptic work ie Mormon prefiguring his own world.

  10. I really enjoyed this. Reading Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon helped me realize just how complex the Book of Mormon is on its own terms as a text. I had just never noticed before then the many allusions and structures and payoffs woven throughout the work, on scales as small as a few verses or stretching multiple chapters or books.

    I like the idea of seeing layers in the text, a few chinks here and there that stand out. One interesting example is the theory that homoeoteleuton, a common scribal copying error, caused Alma 13:16 to be misplaced and that it should have followed 13:12 (see “The Book of Mormon as a Written (Literary) Artifact,” also by Hardy). But because the English manuscripts have 13:16 where it is now, the possible error would have to have occurred in a written source previous to Joseph’s dictation.

    So we’re left with the unexpected situation in which a text that contemporary and manuscript evidence points to being dictated orally by Joseph with his face in a hat, with possible indications that Joseph sometimes didn’t know in advance what he would dictate next, also bears marks that would be expected of a written/literary composition.

    There’s a surprising complexity to the text that seems to resist both traditional assumptions and easy dismissals alike.

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