Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time

Editor’s Note: In the month of January, BCC Press will publish three new books about the Book of Mormon, in conjunction with the beginning of the 2020 Come Follow Me reading plan. The first book, which will be published this week in print and Kindle versions, is Michael Austin’s Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time. This book collects the 44 #BOM2016 blog posts that Michael did at BCC during 2016 into a single book. The amazing Christian Harrison designed both the book and the cover. Below is the introduction to the volume.

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In 2016, I decided to read the Book of Mormon for the first time in 30 years. The last time I read it was in 1986, during my mission to Central California. Our mission president challenged us to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day that year reading the Book of Mormon from cover to cover, which I did. And that was the last time.

At first, I didn’t read it because I never got around to it. I had stuff to do. Important stuff. I was studying “Literature,” about which I thought very highly. And I had read the Book of Mormon several times before and during my mission. I know enough to get by, and even to teach Gospel Doctrine in three different wards. I read the lesson material and scanned the relevant chapters, usually during Sacrament Meeting, and I faked the rest.

And I read the Bible, almost compulsively, as both a Saint and a scholar. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the way that certain 17th and 18th century British narratives re-framed biblical passages for political arguments. Much later, I wrote a series of articles, which became a book, about a strategy of biblical interpretation called “typology.” And later still I wrote a book about the Book of Job. I found these biblical texts to be complex and rewarding, so I through myself into their study, content that I was “studying the scriptures” the way one should.

At some point, I realized that I had been avoiding the Book of Mormon for years because I was afraid that it would not be complex and rewarding. I was afraid that it would not measure up, that I would find it simplistic and immature—and I was not sure that my adult faith could withstand that discovery.

For several years, this became a serious matter of debate between my various selves. After my mission I made it a point to study many of the world’s great religious texts, but I had not yet, as an actual adult, read more than the odd verse or chapter of the religious text most closely associated with my own religious tradition. And the main reason for this was the paralyzing fear that I would find the experience unsatisfying and disappointing. And that kind of felt like fraud.

So, in 2016, I determined to spend the year reading the Book of Mormon and blogging about my experiences with the text. I wanted to take Moroni’s promise seriously, both spiritually and intellectually. And I wanted to read the way that I had been trained to read—closely, intensely, looking for symbols and types and patterns. And I didn’t want to throw any punches at all at the tar baby of historicity.

I know that a lot of people had done work on the literature, history, and doctrine of the Book of Mormon, but I didn’t read any of it, as I wanted to spend the year responding to other people’s experiences with the text. I wanted it to be just me and the text, mano a mano—not scholarship, but rigorous, serious, close reading of a primary work. The thing that I have spent most of my adult life doing and teaching other people how to do.

And, because I wanted to experience the text with the fewest possible filters, I purchased an 1830 facsimile edition published by the Community of Christ—a version that reads like a book, with no verses, only a few chapters, and not even that many paragraphs. I wanted to wean myself from the scripture-mastery proof texts of my youth, and getting rid of verses seemed like the best way to do this.

And I also wanted to try to experience the Book of Mormon the way that its first generation of readers experienced it—the ones who sold everything they had and walked across the country because they saw something in the book that mattered. Something motivated Martin Harris to put up his farm and his livelihood to secure its publication. Something struck Eliza R. Snow so forcefully that she donated her entire inheritance to help build the Kirtland Temple. Real people made real sacrifices because of this book, and I thought that if I read what they read I might see what they saw.

The forty-four short essays in this volume were all published on the By Common Consent blog between January and December of 2016. They are a record of my year-long engagement with the text of the Book of Mormon. I have made very few changes in the essays beyond some light copyediting and removing a handful of very dated references to political and cultural events of that year. These are not scholarly articles, or even well-thought-out personal essays; rather, they are the record of a deeply personal experiment upon the word.

The language of these essays reflects the immediacy of blogging—a medium in which publication is instant and feedback is quick and often brutal. They are humorous and occasionally irreverent, as befits a forum that draws readership through single paragraphs quoted on social media. And they are all fairly short, as any blog post must be if it is to be read.

But they are also serious, And they show—I hope convincingly that the Book of Mormon is a profound and complex text full of sophisticated narrative devices, recurring themes and patterns, and big ideas that can sustain a high level of critical analysis. Often, my conclusions map nicely onto the kinds of readings one presents in church talks and lessons. Sometimes, though, they do not. Sometimes, I find the prophets and narrators of the Book of Mormon to be disingenuous and wrong. Sometimes I find Mormon’s redactions to be self-serving. And sometimes I read passages that are clearly presented as examples as cautionary tales instead.

But this, I believe, is what it means to take a text serious as something written by, and about, human beings. In too many Church settings, the Book of Mormon is presented as a near-perfect record of near-perfect people saying and doing near-perfect things. That, in fact, is what I was most afraid that I would find–and that fear kept me away from my own spiritual heritage for 30 years.

To my great relief, I was wrong. I discovered in the Book of Mormon a profoundly human record of people struggling with their relationship to God and to each other. It has all the messiness one would expect of a record compiled over a thousand years, with multiple narrative perspectives, biases, agendas, and blind spots—as the authors and narrators groped towards an understanding of the Kingdom of God. It is book that can bear multiple readings from multiple perspectives without exhausting its treasures. And it is a book that Latter-day Saints should never be ashamed to place alongside the great books of the world’s traditions, both religious and secular.

That, at least, is my story, and I will be sticking to it for the rest of my life.

Michael Austin
January, 2020


  1. It’s the not near perfect stuff that’s really gotten me to change my understanding of what it means for the Book of Mormon to be true. It’s not true because it’s near perfect (as understood in many church settings), it’s true because of those “faults of men” that Moroni talks about in the title page.

  2. Is this the same book a few years ago (#BoM2016) with just a nicer cover?

  3. Michael Austin says:

    Chris, yes. BCC Press never really announced or marketed that version–it was the book that we used to test drive our production capacity and figure out how to use Amazon for Print on Demand Books. It was a first pancake, and its production values weren’t really strong enough for us to be comfortable asking people to pay money for it, so it just sort of sat on Amazon’s servers, where a couple of people found and purchased it. This one has been completely redesigned, inside and outside, by Christian Harrison. But they are the same essays–only proofread.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Good stuff.

  5. Ryan Mullen says:

    Looking forward to re-reading these again this year. I read them as you posted them in 2016. And again when #BOM2016 was published.

  6. Lets discover what the BoM says like stating the Holy Spirit/Ghost is an IT not a HE.

    2 Nephi (LDS 33:2) (RLDS 15:2) But behold, there are many that DARDEN their HEARTS against the HOLY SPIRIT, that IT hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught.
    2 Nephi (LDS 31:8-9) (RLDS 13:10-11)
    8 Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the HOLY GHOST DESCENDED upon him in the form of a DOVE. 9 And again, IT showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he [Jesus] having set the example before them.
    2 Nephi (LDS 32:5) (RLDS 14:6) For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and RECEIVE the HOLY GHOST, IT will SHOW unto you all things what ye SHOULD DO.
    Alma (LDS 34:38) (RLDS 16:237-238) That ye CONTEND no more against the HOLY GHOST, but that ye RECEIVE IT, and take upon you the name of Christ; that ye humble yourselves even to the dust, and worship God, in whatsoever place ye may be in, in spirit and in truth; and that ye live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you.
    Alma (LDS 39:6) (RLDS 19:8-9) For behold, if ye DENY the HOLY GHOST when IT once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny IT, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable; yea, and whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness; yea, I say unto you, my son, that it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness.
    Moroni (LDS 2:2) (RLDS 2:2) And he called them by name, saying: Ye shall call on the Father in my name, in mighty prayer; and after ye have done this ye shall have power that to him upon whom ye shall lay your hands, ye shall GIVE the HOLY GHOST; and in my name shall ye give IT, for thus do mine apostles.

  7. The BoM has tons of hidden things in it, if one takes the time to look. Here is an article on what it says the start of teh day is.

  8. “I also wanted to try to experience the Book of Mormon the way that its first generation of readers experienced it….I thought that if I read what they read I might see what they saw”

    That would be impossible. You didn’t grow up in a 19th-century rural American setting. You’re reading the Book of Mormon as a PhD in a 21st-century digital age who is fully aware of a wide range of criticisms of the Book of Mormon, which you are trying to read through. Plus, the earliest readers of the Book of Mormon believed in all sorts of lore and magic and supernatural phenomena. Of course, a large number of people today also believe in similar phenomena, but the point is that you don’t and couldn’t possibly see it from their perspective. These early readers also probably believed that the Bible was a history of the human race and that all humans came from Adam and Eve 6,000 years ago. I have every reason to believe that that something, or at least a good part of it, that you mention that motivated early readers to devote their whole lives to Mormonism was the belief that the Book of Mormon was actually a record of ancient Americans about Jesus Christ and filled in the gaps of knowledge about true Christianity that had been lost centuries ago.

  9. Michael Austin says:

    Nate, quite true. I am also not a 17th century, semi-literate British shopkeeper. But when I go to the Globe in London and buy a 5-pound Groundling ticket for Macbeth, I am likely to get a lot closer to the original experience of Shakespeare than I would reading the text on an iPad on the plane home.

    It is never, ever possible for one person to fully inhabit any perspective other than their own. But there are degrees of closeness. And there is value in making the attempt to see from another perspective, even if doing so completely is impossible.

  10. I’ve read the BoM many times, but that last time I read it I did so with a specific purpose. I was looking for distinct doctrinal positions in the text. Instead, I kept getting deflected by numerous questions and problems that presented themselves. I started highlighting verses that I found troubling in some way. I was using a previously unmarked copy. When I finished, there were not many pages without verses marked. Those assurances from the Brethren that reading the BoM will strengthen your faith simply didn’t work for me. Instead, I found that a careful reading of the text produced many conundrums and inconsistencies. The text is indeed complex, but it is also perplexing in many ways.

  11. I identify with your story to a high degree. I haven’t read the BOM cover-to-cover in the decade plus since my mission, I think for many of the reasons you experienced. If you don’t mind sharing (maybe it is in the book), what conclusion did you draw about historicity? Translated ancient text, as advertised?; ancient record with Joseph’s 19th century fingerprints?; inspired fiction?; doesn’t matter? Thanks.

  12. One very fundamental question I’m asking this year is whether the BOM can be an inspired work from God even if it is not literally true. Can “inspired fiction” still bring us closer to Christ? I think the answer is yes, although I understand the argument that it all has to be true to mean anything.

    Once you back away from controversial aspects of the BOM (Moroni, gold plates, translation, etc.) and focus on the content itself, it can be very liberating. Because the content speaks of Christ on virtually every page. In 2020 I’m going to try to take a break from my questions about the origin and literalness of the BOM and attempt to take in the messages.

  13. I too struggle with the BOM, although I’ve read it cover to cover over a dozen times. I am very much looking forward to your book.

    My primary issues with the book are that it utterly fails the Bechdel test hard (and therefore just isn’t that interesting to me), and that its supposed heroes are really irritating people that I don’t like much. I frequently can’t tell whether I dislike Captain Moroni more or Nephi, but across all books of scripture, they are both definitely in the bottom five. And like you, I have always found the Bible to be better literature (at least the NT) than the BOM is. Although, I really like the Brother of Jared quite a bit and Pahoran (who is such a minor character it’s crazy that he’s one of the few really worth admiring). I also find the stories to be so closely paralleled to what’s already in the Bible, that the BOM feels largely superfluous.

    Lastly, my biggest problem with the BOM is that most Church members don’t engage with the text at all, in any meaningful way, and I just hate the constant unqualified gushing over it without any real consideration. If I ask questions that seem obvious to me, they look like I just admitted to worshiping Satan. Why wouldn’t Nephi take Laban’s clothes off before beheading him? Those clothes would be covered in blood! Why does Nephi never refer to his wife by name? Why is he such a whiny self-serving twit? If Ammon really cut off all those guys’ arms, why didn’t anyone bleed to death? (Someone on a blog post recently pointed out that it’s armas not brazos in Spanish which was helpful if true, but nobody in English reads it that way in any class I’ve been in). Why did the judge write out questions to the guy who was mute? He wasn’t deaf! How did these relentless, boring wars make the cut if this is the heavily abridged version? This is really the best stuff, the most spiritual?

  14. I finally saw how important the war chapters were when I understood the importance of protecting my family from the enemy and how to do so.
    I am looking forward to new insight from Michael. Thanks for your work.
    The Book of Mormon is inspiring. It continues to increase my faith in the Lord, in His prophets and in His power. For me, it never gets old after reading it every day for decades.

  15. Kevin Christensen says:

    I look forward to reading the essays again in print form. Though personally, I am more interested in understanding the Book of Mormon from the point of view of the original authors, than to experience what the first readers did. Jesus took pains to point out that the same seeds (words) can produce a vastly different harvest, depending on soil, nurture, and time. I get a lot more from the text after another 46 years of preparation and exploration than I did from my first solo read through. All I have learned to see comes with an accompanying clamor that there is more to see yet. So I pay attention both to close readers (such as Hardy, Spencer, Goff, Austin, and so on) and to careful contextualizers (Nibley, Peterson, Welch, Tvedtnes, Gardner, Poulson, and so on). It was a comment in a Feb 2016 discussion of one of Micheal’s essay’s here that prodded me to read Ethan Sproat’s “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon” in JBMS in 2015. Rather than consider the content, one thread reader dismissed even the idea that there was anything to learn:
    “I’ve seen arguments by those who try to explain that “skin” in the Book of Mormon really means a “spiritual skin,” something metaphorical. But that is what we might call wresting the scriptures. It’s an attempt to take the inherent racist attitudes that are plain in the book and twist them to something more politically correct. It’s very obvious that “skin” in the Book of Mormon means “skin.” Just as “north” means “north,” not some other direction.”

    That particular comment collides in an instructive way with the specific passage that triggered Sproat’s essay:

    “Alma 3:5–6 is comprised of two sentences, in each of which the word skin(s) appears. Commentaries handle the two sentences in one of three ways: (1) by treating both of them independently, as if two very different things were at issue; (2) by commenting on only the second of the two sentences, remaining silent about the first; or (3) by failing to comment on either sentence.3 All three of these approaches miss the fact that, when read in context, the use of skins in the second sentence appears to form part of a historical explanation of the use of skin in the first sentence. Here is the text:

    “Now the heads of the Lamanites were shorn; and they were naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins, and also their armor, which was girded about them, and their bows, and their arrows, and their stones, and their slings, and so forth. And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.” (Alma 3:5–6)4

    “According to a reading I will defend in the course of this article, this passage suggests the possibility that “the skins of the Lamanites” are to be understood as articles of clothing, the notable girdle of skin that these particular Lamanites wear to cover their nakedness. Significantly, these are the only two references to skins in Alma 3, which contains the Book of Mormon’s most thorough explanation of the Lamanite curse and the curse’s relationship to skins. Thus situated, Alma 3:5–6 might serve as an interpretive Rosetta stone. If both instances of skins in Alma 3:5–6 refer to clothing, then the other five references to various-colored or cursed skins in the Book of Mormon could also refer to clothing and not—as traditionally assumed—to human flesh pigmentation.”

    Notice the knee-jerk argument I quoted earlier, that “skin means skin” and the appeal to “obviousness”, the charge of “wresting the scriptures” and no evidence that the one who made the objection had read or considered the scriptural evidence cited in Sproat’s essay. Notably in Alma 3:5-6, that the “skin girded about their loins” contradicts the objection that “skin means skin”, that is the word “skin” always refers to human epidermis. Skins can also be garments.

    Indeed, Sproat’s essay could have been strengthened by considering other passages on garments in the Book of Mormon that are direct equivalents to various skin passages.

    2 Nephi 8:14 “clothed with purity, even with the robe of righteousness” Jacob speaking as a consecrated High Priest on the Day of Atonement

    Jacob 1:19 “laboring…their blood might come upon our garments… and we would not be found spotless”

    Jacob 3:5, “cursing which has come upon their skins…”

    Jacob3:8-9 “their skins shall be whiter than yours

    Try Mosiah 3:28, rid my garments of your blood (temple and high priest on day of atonement context)

    Alma 5:21-24, garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness contrasted with prophets whose garments are cleansed, and are spotless, pure and white

    Alma 7:25, garments spotless… in the kingdom of heaven

    Alma 13:11-12, garments washed white through the blood of the Lamb… garments made white, being pure and spotless”

    Alma 34:36

    Helaman 9:31-34 (where the symbolic use and the literal use combine, as the blood on garments testify to the sins committed)

    3 Nephi 19:25 (literal in a different way, transfiguration) compare with Moroni 7: the sons of God,…we shall be like him… purified even as he is pure”

    3 Nephi 27:19 “washed their garments in my blood”

    4 Nephi 24 (pride and costly apparel)

    Mormon 9:34, garments and the priestly obligation to testify to “rid our garments of the blood of our brethren”)

    Ether 12:37 “thy garments shall be made clean…sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father”

    Ether 12:38, “my garments are not spotted with your blood”

    Moroni 10:31, “put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion”

    Close reading and careful contextualization (Nibley provides several examples of Semitic and Egyptian cultural language convention that provide similar enlightenment) can change the harvest from the same seeds in unpredictable ways. We can’t see the difference it might make until we try. Settling on obvious first impressions and seeking out the most telling contextualization is the difference between Inspector Lestrade and and Sherlock Holmes.

  16. Billy Possum says:


    “[M]any conundrums and inconsistencies” CAN strengthen faith, if you see them through. (Most of) the brethren don’t mean it that way, of course, when they say reading the book will strengthen your faith, but they’re not wrong. The Savior himself was a great purveyor of such “hard sayings.” With time and greater understanding, one approaches some answers, as Jesus did. And for the unanswerable, one learns to live with paradox.

    There can be a tenaciousness – a ninja dexterity – added to your faith when you allow yourself to grapple with the world’s (and the text’s) real problems. Yes, there be dragons, but don’t give up yet!

  17. Mike, I just finished a rereading of this book, and it’s so good. Thanks again for this.

    I was struck by how many type scenes you identify; I started making a list in my notes. Do you know if there’s one place where you or others have listed all the various “type scenes” in the Book of Mormon, and where they occur? It’d be neat to see that in a “handout” kind of format that could be shared in a Gospel Doctrine class or something similar.

  18. Lovely. I read the BoM every time I am writing a history book that will use it as a source text. I love it and agree that it’s incredibly rich independent of metaphysical allegiances (and that it’s even more fun when it’s allowed to exist within a robust metaphysics.

  19. More and more over the last decade (maybe beginning with Terryl Givens and Grant Hardy, but there may be predecessors as well), I see people trying to engage the Book of Mormon strictly as literature without taking into consideration the historicity element. More and more I see people who consider themselves to be believers “coming out” and saying that they do not regard the BOM to be historical, but still valuable and worth reading. I have my PhD in history (I’m not saying this to boast, just matter-of-factly), so I have long viewed things from the historical angle, and I must confess that in the academy there always seems to be quibbles between literature and history departments. They often don’t see eye to eye. I have had my fair share of run-ins with literature majors and professors over historical questions. Postmodernism and relativism seem to have a strong influence in literature departments, where the focal point isn’t what really happened, but how the author conveys emotions and tells stories. In literature, people seem not to like to leave things to imagination, but lay everything out in their imaginations on paper. With historians, we like to try to make cases for what really happened (a very non-postmodernist thing) and be a bit more sparse with imagination on paper, leaving the speaking to the sources and the evidence. Literature specialists sometimes tend not to be good critics of historical literature, and historians tend not to be good critics of fiction.

    The point I’m making is that when it comes to the BOM, I think that viewing it through a literature perspective only gets you so far. Joseph Smith clearly intended for the book to have a pretty strong historical element. In his claimed translation, he was clearly trying to communicate that these people really existed and really saw Jesus Christ. So viewing it through the literary perspective short-changes the book.

  20. Michael Austin says:

    Nate, as I see it, the relevant skill here is not “history” vs “literature.” Rather, it is close reading vs contextual interpretation of a text. There is plenty of room for both approaches in both history and literature (and religious studies, and legal studies, and media studies, and etc.). Some historians are close readers of texts, and some like to situate texts in a larger context and let the text speak for itself. Same with lit. people. Personally, I have not been a part of an English Department for about 15 years, and I haven’t dabbled iwith postmodernism or relativism since the late-1990s when I was a graduate student. In my current role as a university provost, I spend a lot of time mediating between faculty members who see their particular set of disciplionary perspestives as inherently superior to all others.

    You are absolutely correct that “treating the Book of Mormon as literature only gets you so far.” The same is true of the various attempts to situtate it in either an ancient or a 19th century context. That does not mean it is not worth doing. No single approach, and no single book, is capable of going beyond “so far.” I enjoy reading the way that historians have attempted to set the BOM in various contexts, but that is not my training. I am trained to take difficult texts, spend a lot of time reading every word very carefully, and try to come up with some answer to the question, “what does this mean?” Usually, in my experience, the answer to this question is not nearly as simple as most people believe.

    Some people find value in such an approach when applied to the scriptures. Some people don’t There are plenty of books in the world for both kinds of people.

  21. I always enjoy reading of those who take a different approach to their reading of the BOM than I do. It reminds me that there is much more than than I have seen in my reading.

    I am not one who has had a spiritual confirmation that the BOM is true. My belief that it is true (I won’t take the time/space to define “true”) without such confirmation has been rewarded, I feel, by all of the scholarship that has been done that shows that the likelihood that Joseph Smith (or any of his contemporaries) could have written the BOM is extremely small. I won’t list all of the things I’ve read, but there’s just too much there to believe he made it all up.

    For that reason, I sometimes wonder what, exactly, people mean when they question the historicity of the BOM. I vaguely recall some people suggesting that perhaps whoever put the words on the plates was just telling stories (Moroni, etc.). I’m guess that not all people are using that definition. I can’t imagine, however, that people who have spent enough time examining the BOM to question its historicity are not aware of the mounting evidence scholarship has produced that refutes any claim that Joseph, et. al. made it up.

    I would greatly appreciate a link or some info leading me to the essays the author wrote in 2016.

  22. Ok. I’m an idiot. I see the link at the top. Sorry.

  23. Ok. I’m an idiot. I didn’t see the link at the top (not sure why this comment didn’t post the first time).

  24. Michael Austin, fair enough point on the close vs. contextual readings of texts. Still, I think the tendency is stronger in historian circles towards contextualization. And don’t interpret my comment as establishing the supremacy of historical methods of inquiry in textual criticism (I don’t work in academia and roll my eyes at hairsplitting among the different departments). My point is that the Book of Mormon is probably best read in some historical context since it was written as a history and not just a didactic text (like Jesus’s parables or the Book of Proverbs). Still, I do acknowledge there is room for the type of approach you describe and look forward to reading what you have to say.

    Mike, honest question (and I don’t want to get too sidetracked), you seem to be saying that the historicity of the Book of Mormon can be established on its merits and that a spiritual witness is not even needed to believe this. If that is the case, how come there appear to be no non-Mormon scholars in different fields (Mesoameircan and Near Eastern history, anthropology, archaeology, etc.) who accept the Book of Mormon as historical? It isn’t as if the Book of Mormon isn’t known or talked about outside the Mormon community. Also, I find it hard to believe that a sort of anti-religious or anti-Mormon bias is the main reason that non-Mormon scholars aren’t accepting historicity. I think the main reason that the case for historicity on the merits is not gaining traction outside Mormonism is that it really weak and severely lacking in evidence.

  25. Nate GT: To paraphrase someone smarter than I am, I believe that if non-Mormon scholars examine the evidence and are intellectually honest, they would say they’re not sure what to make of it, but that it doesn’t appear that Joseph Smith or his colleagues made it up. So your implication is correct, that what I “make of it” is tied to my faith, even if that faith is not based on the type of singular spiritual experience some have and Moroni encourages.

    I’ve never thought that “evidence” would compel anybody to believe that it’s true. My comment is really directed to those who are believing members of the Church but question the historicity of the BOM.

  26. Michael Austin says:

    Nate, I am not at all saying that the Book of Mormon can be proved, on its own merits, to be historical. I am saying that it can be proved, on its own merits, to be complex and interesting. This is not the same thing. The Brother’s Karamazov is an extremely complex and interesting narrative, which does not mean that it is historical, and many absolutely true historical texts are dull and simplistic.

    As for historicity, the point I am making is that there are a lot of intelligent, interesting, and even uplifting things that can be said about the Book of Mormon without ever coming down on one side or another on the issue of historicity. Close textual analysis can give us readings that can be shared in equally by those who, for largely spiritual reasons, believe it to be historical and those who believe it to be a product of a 19th century imagination.

    And what I want to say to both groups is something like: If you say that the BOM is historical, then stop treating it like bad fiction, with characters who are unproblematically good or irredeemably evil, because that’s not how people are. Calling it “history” means that you have to acknowledge the messiness and complexity of its major figures. And if you think it is fiction, then at least acknowledge that it is good fiction and that it is worth our time and attention to read closely. Calling it “fiction” does not release you from the responsibility of taking it seriously.

  27. Mike: My response is that let’s put it to the test. Let’s contact as many experts as we can and ask them to evaluate the merits of the BOM. The church leaders say that this is probably the most important book ever, so let’s get it out there. Now, bear in mind that to a good degree, the BOM has already been analyzed and dissected by non-Mormon scholars, and I simply can’t find anyone willing to accept its historicity (please correct me and let me know if you know of any). For someone to say, “I’m not sure what to make of it,” can be easily interpreted as a polite way of saying, “I’m not convinced.” Religion clearly is a sensitive topic, and the prevailing norm in academia is to treat religion in a separate bracket whose truth claims shouldn’t be subjected to the conventional academic scrutiny. And that is mostly how the more PC academics appear to treat Mormonism and the BOM.

    “I’ve never thought that ‘evidence’ would compel anybody to believe that it’s true”

    And now you seem to be granting that belief in BOM historicity really is more a faith-based claim, which was my point all along. As for believing and semi-believing members who question historicity, why should they have to believe on the BOM’s merits? Shouldn’t it be regarded as a faith issue for them as well? Here is where your reasoning seems a little conflicted. Everyone should belief that the BOM is true (true historically as well) on faith (for evidence can’t “compel” belief as you mention), except for those doubting Mormons, who are obligated to make a case that it isn’t true on the merits. Shouldn’t it be enough for doubting Mormons just to say, I don’t have faith in the BOM’s historicity or I don’t believe the BOM to be historical? They shouldn’t have to debunk an idea’s supposed merits which appears to have no acceptance outside Mormonism. Saying that no experts outside a particular faith-based community accept some extraordinary truth should be reason enough to reject an idea on its merits, right? Have faith, sure. But say that there is strong evidence? We’re probably getting a little ahead of ourselves here.

  28. “I am saying that it can be proved, on its own merits, to be complex and interesting”

    Well said, I agree.

  29. Nate GT: I’m not going to take the time to go back and review the things I’ve read and point out where non-Mormon scholars have either participated in the specific efforts, or their work has been used to support (E.W. Bullinger, an Anglican clergyman who in 1898 authored Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, describing in detail seven types of parallelisms found in the Old Testament, which are also found in the BOM. But maybe there’s a modern-day scholar who has exposed Bullinger as a complete fraud, or perhaps even a Mormon posing as someone else. I doubt it).

    I can’t take the time to list everything, but there is a good number of ancient literary devices (words, phrases and expressions) used in the BOM that JS could not have known about, yet used them appropriately. Those aren’t things that conniving Mormon scholars made up. There is a lot of information in this regard in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon.

    Regarding faith vs. merits, I don’t think it’s an either/or issue. I started out saying that my belief in the BOM is based on faith and feel that it’s been rewarded by a lot of scholarship of which I’ve become aware in the past 10-15 years. In my case, they work together.

    You may be misreading/misunderstanding what I’m saying about compelling truths. I did try to convey that the scholarship (which appears to be legitimate) will not compel someone to believe that JS saw God and an angel gave him golden plates. I just don’t see how an intellectually honest person who reviews the scholarship can still believe that JS wrote a book of fiction. It’s fine if they want to conclude that an angel didn’t give it to him, but whoever wrote what ended up in the BOM simply could not, in my opinion, have got so many things correctly (meaning, things that are tied to or are consistent with ancient Hebraic literature, culture, politics, warfare, culture, whatever). Unless that “real” author lived long before JS.

    I recognize that I’m not half as smart as most people who comment here, so I’m sure my comments look pretty stupid. I am certainly open to being referred to information showing that non-Mormon scholars have debunked the work done by Mormon scholars.

  30. Mike, you’re hung up on the evidence question. That was always beyond the point. Of course there are many believing scholars who claim to have found evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. It doesn’t matter so much that believing scholars can convince a non-expert audience, who already believes on faith, that there is evidence for historicity. The real test is can these believing scholars convince their scholar peers. So far, no.

    You bring up how some non-Mormon scholars have participated in efforts or that their work has been used to support historicity arguments. OK. That is insignificant and also beyond the point. Have these scholars professed acceptance that the Book of Mormon is historical? Was Bullinger a professionally trained expert in Mesoamerican history? Did he ever say that he accepted the historicity of the Book of Mormon?

    Your retreats have been, 1) non-Mormon scholars haven’t analyzed the evidence. Not true. The Book of Mormon is widely talked about outside Mormonism. Former Mormons (who are as non-Mormon as people who were never Mormon) have written extensively about the Book of Mormon. 2) Non-Mormon scholars who have looked at the evidence but don’t accept historicity are being intellectually dishonest. So everyone who has read widely but doesn’t accept historicity is intellectually dishonest? I refuse to accept that.

  31. Nate GT: We’re just talking past each other, I think. I suppose it’s possible for someone to accept that there are Hebraic literary devices in the BOM that JS could not have known about, and still claim reject the historicity of the BOM. Perhaps we’d have to define “historicity.”

    I’m making a much more narrow point. I’m interested to know if people are rejecting that there are ancient Hebraic literary devices (for example) in the BOM that JS would not have known about, yet were used appropriately. You seem to be claiming that non-Mormon scholars deny that such devices are contained in the BOM.

  32. “I’m interested to know if people are rejecting that there are ancient Hebraic literary devices (for example) in the BOM that JS would not have known about, yet were used appropriately.”

    I’m a hobby novelist of many years. A couple years ago I came upon a scriptwriting book that explained the very formulaic way story is structured in movies. Thrilled with having learned something new, I looked at some of my previous finished books, and realized I was already using this structure in a very literal way. X goes at the 10% mark – yup, I did that. Y goes at the 50% mark – yup I did that too. For 400 pages, I nailed every marker in every thing I’d written even though I’d never never studied structure in such a way before.

    So I’m not bothered by Joseph Smith having picked up and used structural elements from the Bible that he didn’t understand. The brain is not a straight-forward learner.

  33. Angela C.: “Lastly, my biggest problem with the BOM is that most Church members don’t engage with the text at all, in any meaningful way…”

    I think it’s fair to say that a good argument can be made that says the very same thing about Joseph Smith.

  34. ReTx: I’m not smart enough to compare what you did with what ended up in the BOM, but my guess is they’re not the same. The BOM contains not only structure, but a number of literary devices, as well as references to government, warfare, culture, etc., etc. There are simply too many things for Joseph Smith to have simply made hundreds of wild guesses and got them right.

    When all is said and done, however, a belief in Joseph Smith’s story and the BOM would likely never come about based on this kind of evidence.

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