Book Review: The Book of Mormon for the Least of These

by Nancy Ross

Editor’s note: This review of our most recent BCC Press book, The Book of Mormon for the Least of These, was published yesterday on the Exponent II Blog. Normally we wold just link to it, but we liked it so much we asked if we could cross post it to BCC.  

Abstract book cover for the book "The Book of Mormon For the Least of These: 1 Nephi - Word of Mormon by Fatimah Salleh with Margaret Olsen Hemming."
The Book of Mormon For the Least of These: 1 Nephi – Word of Mormon by Fatimah Salleh with Margaret Olsen Hemming

I devoted a good chunk of my life to reading and re-reading the Book of Mormon. My preferred method in my adult life was to read it very quickly, following a schedule I’d worked out when President Gordon B. Hinckley issued his challenge for LDS church members to read the book in 100 days. I enjoyed my Book of Mormon binge reads and the text grew with me as I worked my way through the church milestones of adult life.

I also remember the growing unease I felt as I stopped recycling the 100 day challenge and vowed instead to read the Book of Mormon slowly, just one chapter per day, and blog my way through it all. I didn’t make it far into the text before the racism, which I’d always and intentionally rushed through, glared at me day after day in a way that I could not avoid. This newfound discomfort with my beloved Book of Mormon was more than my faith could handle. I first read the Book of Mormon when I was 13, but I had to put it down at age 33. My heroic and prophetic Nephi had turned into an unreliable and bigoted narrator. Except for a few brave moments, I haven’t been able to pick it up again. The book of scripture I’d once loved, that had grown with me and helped me mark big shifts in my life and thinking about the gospel, left me feeling confused, betrayed, lost.

For the last seven years, I’ve wondered if the book could be redeemed or interpreted through a non-literal framework. I dreamed about an anti-racist or feminist commentary and about hearing the book through a more intersectional lens. I daresay that hope has been realized in a new book by Fatimah Salleh with Margaret Olsen Hemming: The Book of Mormon for the Least of These: 1 Nephi – Words of Mormon.

In the conclusion, the authors state that “Exegeting the Book of Mormon through a lens of social justice provides a salvific message that binds up the wounds of our faith community. The wisdom and strength of the Book of Mormon is an abundant feast, read and waiting for us to partake.” I have to agree with them and my experience with this commentary has been unexpectedly healing. I feel like this accessible and conversational book has re-enlivened my interested in the Book of Mormon by providing me with new tools and frameworks with which to interpret it. It is the book I will be gifting to friends and family members across the Restoration this year.

A social justice approach to the Book of Mormon, as described and used by Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming, opens the text up to further analysis by asking us to use our scriptural imaginations to see the people that are not directly referenced in the text and to be continually curious about people and their relationships with power. In my experience, traditional readings of the Book of Mormon focus on connecting stories to the worst stereotypes of a demanding Old Testament God who insists upon unquestioning obedience. In this book, Fatimah and Margaret connect the stories to a loving God who can handle our questions and our own struggles with faith and doubt. They model curiosity about the text and hold the narrators accountable for their own bad decisions and bigotry, calling out violence, sexism, racism, anti-semitism, prosperity gospel, ideas about land possession, homophobia, classism, and abuses of power. Whether we believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon or see it as a collection of stories composed in the nineteenth century, Fatimah and Margaret invite us to use our scriptural imaginations to get curious about the text and open it up to bigger conversations about faith, community, and God.

If you’ve been wanting to pick up the Book of Mormon again but are afraid of what you will find there, if you are concerned that you will not be able to move beyond the God-in-a-small-box lessons you absorbed over a lifetime, make this book your companion and your guide.

Buy on Amazon

Salleh, Fatimah, and Margaret Olsen Hemming, The Book of Mormon For the Least of These: 1 Nephi – Words of Mormon, BCC Press, 2020.

Comments

  1. great review!

  2. Hanging in there says:

    Thank you for highlighting this book in your excellent review. I am ordering it today.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you for this.

  4. Rachel Allred says:

    Thank you for this review! I was so excited to read this book I couldn’t wait the two days for it to arrive from Amazon and am now enjoying the Kindle version :-)

  5. Deborah Christensen says:

    I bought a copy last month. It’s fabulous! Worth more than $10.

  6. This sounds like wonderfully popular eisegesis. I’m not excited for this new trend; instead of wresting scripture to current Church orthodoxy (per Correlation), it wrests scripture to an equally flawed social orthodoxy. No thanks.

  7. Rachel Allred says:

    Ben, there’s another way to look at it—of course any lens is flawed (“now we see through a glass, darkly”), but there’s something to be said for the analogy of the blind sages and the elephant. Of course nobody has the full picture, but it’s nice to hear not just from the person holding the ears (correlation), but also from someone who’s holding the trunk (social justice). Multiple perspectives can give us that much fuller a view of the elephant.

    Eg., “If the whole [body] were hearing, where were the smelling?”

  8. I have A Pentecostal Reads the Book of Mormon on my shelf next to Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon; multiple perspectives are not a problem. But is it done well? Based on some posts of the author elsewhere, I have little confidence in that.

  9. Rachel Allred says:

    My curiosity’s piqued; those sound like interesting reads.

    I’m about halfway through so far, and several sections — particularly those that do a deep dive on Lehi, Nephi and Jacob as narrators — are, to me, worth their weight in gold. Do some sections feel a bit prooftexted? Sure. Could the book use a second edition to fix a few typographical issues? Yes. But there’s riveting, original material in there that has made me look at the Book of Mormon in a new way — and I say this as a social worker who considers myself very familiar with the Book of Mormon.

    So, for what that’s worth. Of course, that’s my tusk of the elephant :-)

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