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By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion
By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion
Terryl L. Givens
Oxford University Press, 2003
336 pp., $19.95

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by James E. Bradley


Evangelicals and Mormons Together?

Conflict and conversation.

On September 22, 1827, in upstate New York, a 21-year-old farm boy announced that he had recovered a cache of metal plates from a nearby hill where they had been buried for some 1,400 years. Using several instruments deposited with the plates, Joseph Smith, Jr. translated the Book of Mormon in about nine months, from September 1828 to June 1829, dictating the text to several close friends. The new world scripture that was published in March of 1830 in Palmyra tells of a civilization sprung from the Hebrew prophet Lehi, who had departed Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ and migrated to the new world. These people were advanced for the times in which they lived; they constructed magnificent cities and temples, produced advanced implements, and drafted sophisticated laws. The account continued through the fourth century AD, when these people were privileged with a visitation by the resurrected Christ and promised a future ingathering in which a new Jerusalem would be set up in North America.

A little more than a decade after the publication of this book, explorer John Lloyd Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood returned from an expedition to Chiapas and the Yucatan with remarkable descriptions and drawings of ancient cities, including temple complexes, palaces, stone towers, and hieroglyphic tablets. This first English-language account of Mayan civilization in 1841 was, in the words of Terryl L. Givens, a "defining moment in the history of the Book of Mormon." It is a mark of Givens' candor (he writes as a committed Mormon), and an indication of the rigor of his method, that he describes in detail how Joseph Smith immediately shifted the provenance of the Book of Mormon from its connection with native North Americans to the ruins of a lost civilization in Central America. It was Smith himself who thereby "decisively thrust the Book of Mormon into a role from which it has never fully extricated itself." The new world revelation was, by this act, forever ...

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