The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books, 10)
Paul C. Gutjahr
Princeton University Press, 2012
280 pp., 24.95
Richard J. Mouw
Enlarge the Place of Thy Tent
In the summer of 1830, Parley P. Pratt, an itinerant preacher in western New York state and attracted at that point to the "primitivist" teachings of Alexander Campbell, borrowed a copy of the Book of Mormon. He was so taken up with what he read that he had difficulty eating or sleeping until he finished the volume. He then immediately set out for Palmyra to meet Joseph Smith. The Mormon prophet was not there, but Pratt did meet a number of Smith's associates, and on the first day of September he was baptized in Seneca Lake by Oliver Cowdery, the "Second Elder" of the newly established Mormon church.
The co-authors of a recent biography of Pratt—they dub him "the Apostle Paul of Mormonism"—note that his conversion followed a different path from the one traveled by most other new adherents in those early days. "Up to this point," they report, "the vast majority of converts to Mormonism had been drawn from the Smiths' immediate circles." These converts "first encountered Joseph Smith and his revelatory claims and then read the Book of Mormon," with the book functioning in their minds primarily "as a sign of a divinely sanctioned restoration." Pratt, however, first "became convinced of Mormonism's truth claims by reading the Book of Mormon and not through association with Smith."
In one sense, the difference between Pratt's conversion and that of other early converts to Mormonism is a non-issue. Joseph Smith's claim to being a vehicle for divine revelation and the authenticity of the Book of Mormon are both so important to the faith of the Latter-day Saints that someone could start with one or the other, as long as both end up being embraced. But in terms of logical sequence, affirming the content of the book is secondary. Mormonism's differences with classical Protestant theology do not rest primarily on Mormonism's claim to have one more authoritative body of revealed writings than the rest of us acknowledge—"Another Testament of Jesus Christ," as the official subtitle to the Book of Mormon reads. Rather, the central authority issue is the continuation of the prophetic office.
Joseph Smith's most significant claim was not that he found some golden plates which, when translated, gave us the Book of Mormon. Rather, it was that the age of revelation was being restored, with the ancient office of prophet being re-established in his person. The Mormon poet W. W. Phelps captured the enthusiasm for new revelations in the first verse of the hymn he composed in 1836, for the dedication of the first Mormon temple, in Kirtland, Ohio:
The Spirit of God like a fire is burning;
The latter-day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning;
The angels are coming to visit the earth.
The primary significance of the Book of Mormon for the Mormon system of thought, then, is that it was one of many signals from the realm of the divine that a new era of "visions and blessings" was being initiated in the early decades of the 19th century. To be sure, it is to be accepted by the faithful as an authoritative text, but its authoritative status derives from that of the prophetic office that has—to use a common Mormon term—"brought forth" the book.
That the Book of Mormon is only one of many prophetic deliverances for the LDS does not mean, however, that it functions as merely one among many authoritative texts for the Mormon community. It is certainly the movement's trademark text. And while some of the early converts may have revered the Book of Mormon less for its content than for what it signaled about the inauguration of a new dispensation of direct revelations, careful attention to the book's contents soon became an apologetic necessity.
Already in 1834, an Ohio newspaper editor, Eber Howe, published Mormonism Unvailed, a book-length attack on the credibility of the Book of Mormon. Howe made his case primarily by examining specifics in the text with the aim of undermining its claims to be providing an account of an ancient civilization in North America. In 1 Nephi 4:9, for example, Laban's sword is described as being made "of the most precious steel"—at a time that presumably pre-dated the capacity for producing steel weapons. Similarly, the Book of Mormon refers to the presence of horses well before the arrival of Spaniards.
Howe used these specifics to support a charge of plagiarism, pointing specifically to a manuscript (long lost) written by a Congregationalist pastor, Solomon Spalding, who had woven a tale that Howe claimed to contain many similarities to the Mormon narrative about early America. The basic elements of Howe's efforts to discredit the credibility of Joseph Smith and his "golden book" have continued to characterize much of the evangelical "counter-cult" polemics against Mormonism.
The viability of this approach, however, was called into question by two evangelical scholars, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, in a 1998 essay in a journal published by the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. They argued that typical evangelical attacks on the Book of Mormon ignore the serious scholarship being done within the Mormon community, particularly by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), established in 1979, as well as in other scholarly efforts on the part of Mormon scholars. They argue that "the sophistication and erudition of LDS apologetics has risen considerably while evangelical responses have not."
Books have "lives" of their own. That is the assumption that shapes "The Lives of Great Religious Books" series. The assumption is certainly an appropriate one in the case of the Book of Mormon, and it was wise of the Princeton University Press editors to choose Paul Gutjahr to author The Book of Mormon: A Biography.
Gutjahr is an excellent "people" biographer, having written a much praised study of the life of Old Princeton's Charles Hodge, and this book pays much attention to the human realities within Mormonism. In his detailed focus here on the Book of Mormon, however, Gutjahr also brings considerable expertise regarding the "physical" life of books. One of his earlier studies chronicled the history of the production of the Bible in the United States, and in 2001 he co-edited a volume of essays looking more carefully than has often been the case at the influence of the actual appearance and feel of a book's printed page on its literary impact. (Think, for example, of the difference between holding and reading a traditional black leather-bound Bible with pages of very thin paper and holding and reading a cheaply produced larger print paperback version.)
The LDS have maintained strict control over the Book of Mormon as a physical entity. Gutjahr's detailed information regarding the choice of paper and glue, the formatting of pages, font selection, and the like, as well as the carefully managed process of translating the text into other languages, is closely tied in his presentation to the ways in which the Mormon church wants the Book to be received by readers. This means that what otherwise might be a "geeky" discussion serves instead to illuminate the contours of the self-understanding of the LDS.
To view the Book of Mormon from this angle, though, also helps to create some distance between the Book and Joseph Smith. This is an important move for those of us who have been shaped by a subculture whose assessment of the Book has been virtually indistin-guishable from our assessment of Mormonism's founder. All we need to say about the Book, we have long argued, is that Joseph Smith's testimonies regarding his relationship to the realm of the divine are false: a false book from a false prophet.
The fact is, however, that a century and a half after Smith's assassination, the Book has indeed come to have a life of its own. It is the key sacred text of a community that has come a long way from its sectarian beginnings on the cultural margins. This is now a community with a history that extends over a century and a half, and this history features different phases in its theological and spiritual uses of the Book of Mormon. As new prophetic utterings increased during the early decades, for example, more and more attention was given to the record kept of them in Doctrine and Covenants. And as the Mormon movement went international—shortly after the middle of the 19th century, successful missions were carried out in the British Isles and Scandinavia—the emphasis on the more general restoration of "visions and blessings of old" trumped the uniquely American themes of the Book of Mormon.
Furthermore, the Book's relationship to the Bible has been treated differently at various stages of Mormon preaching and teaching. The Book of Mormon may have been introduced to the world as "Another Testament," but the Old and New Testaments continued to be treated as authoritative. Indeed, as Gutjahr reports—quoting the Mormon historian Grant Underwood, who has conducted detailed studies of 19th-century sermons by Mormon leaders—"compared to the Bible, the Book of Mormon was hardly cited at all." And in recent years, when LDS authorities and teachers quote the Book, the passages chosen are ones that clearly echo biblical themes. In our present day, then, it is important to ask how the Book of Mormon is actually used by the LDS community. And how does that usage differ from the way the Book has functioned at other stages in Mormon history?
While many persist in using the "cult" label to describe the LDS, it is undeniable that, with over 14 million members around the world, Mormonism also serves as an important global religious movement, with an increasingly visible influence in the worlds of politics, business, scholarship, and popular culture. (Can anyone visualize a long-running Broadway musical with the title "Science and Health and Key to the Scriptures"?)
Which leads to yet another way in which we must recognize the historical distancing of the Book from the person of Joseph Smith. Harvard University Press's 2009 A New Literary History of America includes the Book of Mormon as one of the nation's 66 most important literary achievements in the 19th century. The entry on the Book notes that "more than 130 million copies of the Book of Mormon have been printed, in more than one hundred languages, making it by far the most widely distributed book ever produced by an American."
Gutjahr makes much of this increasing interest in the Book on the part of scholars who have little specific interest in, or sympathy for, the actual truth-status of Joseph Smith's claims about the Book. Yale's Harold Bloom may have overstated the case considerably when he wrote, in The American Religion, that Joseph Smith, in producing the Book of Mormon, "takes his place with the great figures of our fiction" to a degree that he even "transcends Emerson and Whitman." But Bloom's interest in the Book is an expression of what Gutjahr describes as "the growing scholarly consensus" (and here he cites the assessment of historian Daniel Walker Howe) "that 'the Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature.' " What began, then, as a text intimately connected to a movement that was much despised in the beginning by North America's religious and cultural establishment, is now "owned," as Gutjahr puts it, "to an ever greater extent not just by the [LDS] Church, but by American culture more generally."
For readers of this journal, the "ownership" phenomenon poses an important challenge. Can we—those of us who do care deeply about truth claims regarding God's revelation to humankind—also join in with this broader community that claims a partial "ownership" of the Book of Mormon? In what sense, if any at all, can we see this as "our" Book as well? Or should we simply reject the challenge, refusing to follow a multitude to do evil?
At the very least, the Book's broadening appeal ought to raise in our minds the issue of whether we have been complicit in some evil-doing by refusing a more charitable engagement with the Book. Are there good things to say about the Book of Mormon on the part of those of us in the evangelical world who make it our business to think a lot about "books and culture"? A case can be made, for example, that if we simply bracket questions about the historical accuracy of the Book's narrative, much of the theological content is basically evangelical: in its pages we can find all of the traditional "omni"- attributes of God, as well as the depiction of Jesus Christ as the only Savior, the centrality of the substitutionary atoning work at Calvary, and so on. Many of the more idiosyncratic Mormon teachings are not found in the Book but were developed as Joseph Smith's career proceeded, reaching heterodoxical heights (or depths) in his 1844 King Follett Discourse, delivered three months before his assassination.
To take an interest in the "ownership" of the Book is also to pay closer attention to the spiritual-theological dynamics at work in its continuing acceptance by so many as an important spiritual text. Why the yearning for new revelations, for an ongoing prophetic office? Why the fascination with the possibility that North America is also one of the places where we can literally "walk today where Jesus walked"? Why the desire to serve a deity who is more like us (physical body, immersed in a process of self-actualization) than like the ontologically distant God of, say, New England Calvinism? What is it about the very possession of this particular Book that motivated people to stay with the cause, even when threatened by severe physical hardship and persecution? Good questions to explore on the part of those of us who care deeply about addressing "the hopes and fears of all the years" with the truth of the gospel.
And then there is the even more basic issue raised by Gutjahr in his concluding paragraphs. He expresses admiration for how the Mormon community has diligently worked "to preserve the integrity of their signature text." These efforts, he says, testify—and these are his final words in the book—"not only to the power of divinely inspired writings, but to the measures religious bodies will take to guard uncommon, sacred words when they appear in common, earthly forms."
It is a stretch, to be sure, for evangelicals to use phrases like "divinely inspired writings" and "sacred words … in common, earthly forms" with reference the Book of Mormon. But Gutjahr, who is himself an evangelical, is willing to take, if not a full stretch, at least a small move in a more positive direction—something that could serve to inspire others of us to attempt some small stretching of our own. Bernard Lewis, who devoted his career to the study of Islam, once wrote a nice reflection on the considerable effort required in the careful writing of "other people's history." It requires no less of an effort to think carefully—including with much theological care—about "other people's sacred texts." For those of us who are willing to make that effort, Paul Gutjahr provides a marvelous example of how to do it in this excellent study of a Book whose community of "owners" continues to expand.
Richard J. Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author most recently of Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Eerdmans).
1. Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), pp. 33, 90.
2. Paul Owen and Carl Mosser, "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" Trinity Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Fall 1998), p. 181.
3. Charles Hodge: Guardian of Orthodoxy (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
4. An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford Univ. Press, 1999).
5. lluminating Letters: Essays on Typography and Literary Interpretation, co-edited with Megan Benton (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2001).
6. Terryl L. Givens, "The Book of Mormon," in Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, eds., A New Literary History of America (Belknap Press/Harvard Univ. Press, 2009), p. 196.
7. Harold Bloom, The American Religion (Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 127.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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