Lifeline Ministries to RLDS Welcome to Lifeline Ministries to RLDS...  
  Chapter 11   
 

Position Papers Chapter 11

 

 

THE BOOK OF MORMON

 

    The origin and destiny of the Red Man were among the chief topics for speculation and discussion on the early nineteenth century American frontier. The presence of many Indian burial mounds in the Great Lakes region was a constant source of curiosity to the settlers. In 1823 Ethan Smith, a Vermont pastor, published a book entitled View of the Hebrews, or the Ten Tribes of Israel in America. This popular work of fiction traced the origin of the American Indian to ancient Israel, a notion largely believed by a general public that believed that the depository of all wisdom and the source of all civilization was to be found in the Bible. The public acclaim given to Ethan Smith's treatise suggests the presence of a cultural mindset and "will to believe" that would be hospitable to any elaboration of the thesis of the Hebraic origin of the Indian. Thus it is not surprising that the appearance of the Book of Mormon generated much excitement among many communities in upper New York State and the Ohio region in the early 1830's.
    Those who received the Book of Mormon from the hands of eager missionaries were urged not only to assent to the narrative as a historical account of the Indians' ancestory, but also to accept the Book as an evidence that God had broken the silence of centuries to restore his church to the earth by means of a young prophet. Many of the early Latter Day Saint believers took an all-or-nothing approach--if the Book of Mormon were true, the religion expounded by its "author and proprietor was true also. If the Book should ever prove to be false, all validity for the Restoration movement would necessarily have to be disclaimed.
    The Book thus attained a sacrosanct status in the minds of many of its devotees that made literal acceptance of it as the revelation of God the Ancient Americans a matter of faith. Moreover for many church members the Book seemed to be impervious to any kind of critical investigation and judgment. Criticism came, of course, from "gentile" and eventually from "apostate" sources, but it made little impact on the Saints in general. The church members who read these critical analyses of the Book and understood their implications, by and large took refuge in their "spiritual testimony" concerning the divine authenticity of the Book.
    As modern and historical and textual scholarship in the realm of biblical studies became increasingly appreciated and influential at the grassroots level in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and thus known to some extent to Latter Day Saints, a defensive reaction set in among some church members, resulting in some stiff resistance to allowing the tools of this scholarship to be applied to the church's understandings of the Book of Mormon. Thus Book of Mormon studies in the past have been characterized by polemics, apologetics, and amateur archaeological surveys, whenever the concern has moved beyond merely exploring the intricate details of the very complex narrative of migrations, wars, and religious revivals among the Book of Mormon peoples.
    But the temper of our times is such that no movement nor institution nor book can forever remain impervious to the searchlight of scholarly inspection. Our times demand that all the rudiments of religious faith be subjected to the scrutiny of reason and empirical research.
    As we examine the Book of Mormon, shorn of any intention solely to amass data in support of preconceived notions about it, we must honestly admit that there arises an awareness of certain problems concerning traditional understandings of the Book. The problems include:
  1. The story of its coming forth. The actual events culminating in the publication of the book are, as of now quite irrecoverable in that it is impossible to distill a unified account from all the primary and secondary reports. What information we do possess, largely concerning angelic visitation (Moroni? Nephi?), "translation" processes (hat? peepstone? Urim and Thummin?), the nature of the plates themselves (gold? bronze? "spiritual" matter?) and the subsequent disappearance of the plates, come to us largely through the vehicle of personal remembrance committed to written form several years after the events occurred, and evidences an amazing amount of contradiction and confusion.
  2. Indentifying the Book's narrative with a particular setting in time and space. Extravagant claims about ancient American archaeology supporting the Book of Mormon have been made. Toltec, Mayan, and even Aztec ruins, all of a comparatively late period, have been unfortunately identified with Book of Mormon peoples. Indian vocabulary lists have been compiled in an attempt to show a relationship between Indian languages and Hebrew and/or Egyptian. Brigham Young University has been sponsoring archaeological exploration near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec for several years in the hopes of turning up some evidence to show that this area is the "narrow neck of land" mentioned in the Book of Mormon, all to no avail. Dr. Ross T. Christensen, a Mormon anthropologist and professor of archaeology at B.Y.U., informs us that no non-Latter Day Saint archaeologist allows the Book of Mormon any place whatsoever in his reconstruction of the early history of the New World. Meanwhile, Mormon archaeologists and anthropologists are finding it prudent to become increasingly more cautious about admitting Book of Mormon data to their own professional understandings of ancient American history and culture.
  3. Its propensity for reflecting in detail the religious concerns of the American frontier. Alexander Campbell in 1832 pointed out that every major theological question of the frontier was covered in the Book of Mormon, including infant baptism, ordination and ministerial authority, the Trinity, regeneration, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, and even the burning questions of Freemasonry, republican government and the rights of man.

    For example, the anti-masonry stand of the Book is particularly interesting in light of the famous Morgan case, a sensational murder trial that spawned a hysterical anti-Masonic crusade that swept the United States beginning from backwoods New York in the late 1820's. Some scholars have suggested the possibility that the many references to the Gadianton robbers and secret combinations in the second half of the Book of Mormon be linked to the public fear of the Masons in Joseph's day.
    Walter Franklin Prince's thesis in "Psychological Tests for the Authorship of the Book of Mormon" (American Journal of Psychology, 1967, p. 373??) goes even further in suggesting that many of the proper names and other vocabulary items in the Book of Mormon represent what in Freudian jargon is called "master word associations." "Mormon," for example, is a subconsciously disguised "Morgan." Such a theory is most certainly not to be taken as established fact, but its possible usefulness must certainly at least be considered by anyone who is concerned about bringing all the known resources of scholarship to bear on the Book of Mormon.
4.  The Christological perspective of the Book. To some students of theology, it would appear that there is a marked incongruity between the Christ Event of the New Testament and the Christ Event of the Book of Mormon. The good news of the biblical narrative is that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world Himself." The divine Incarnation focused in One who struggled incessantly to be understood by those whom he called


to share the demands of his ministry. More often than not, they seem unable to grasp the significance and intent of their Master and his mission. He continued to work with them spending much time with them, living out the demands of his mission before their eyes. Even as they watched him go to the cross they were not fully cognizant of the great drama of redemption unfolding before them. And even when the Easter message that Jesus could never really be taken from them had dawned upon their consciousness, they still had not as yet come to the point of reflecting analytically upon their experience, that is, of theologizing about the meaning of Jesus Christ for their personal and corporate existence. Only after many years did a developed Christology emerge within the context of the primitive church.
    Yet contrary to this long agonizing struggle to comprehend the meaning of the incarnation on the part of those who walked and talked with Jesus, another group (so the Book of Mormon would have us believe) enjoyed a remarkably developed Christology and were informed of intimate details of Jesus' life and ministry centuries before Jesus was even born. If taken literally at face value, this might suggest that the lived-out pain, sorrow, and struggles of the Master in Palestine were largely wasteful, since the results of his sacrifice and a theological understanding of its meaning could be had by some revelational means apart from and independent of the actual occurrence.
    But even the type of Christology that the Book of Mormon displays raises questions for the modern man since it seems to reflect a nineteenth-century Messianic view of Jesus as a supernatural being. This Jesus, who seemingly knows no bounds of natural law, descends from heaven on several occasions to deliver sermons fashioned initially in a totally different cultural setting. How does God work out his purposes among men? To affirm that a supernatural manifestation of deity through extra-historical means can convert an entire nation, establish a church, and imbue it with authority to teach and to administer sacramentally is perhaps to question the reason for Incarnation in some other locale.
5.  Its ethical implications, when viewed as universally binding upon all men. Some Latter Day Saints, in talking of the Book of Mormon as the "fullness of the gospel," (D. & C. 17:2) believe that the Book reveals the will of God more perfectly than any other resource we possess. Moreover they would assert that the transmission process involved in preserving and bringing forth the Book would by-pass many of the scribal errors to which the Bible was admittedly vulnerable. Thus these persons have a particularly uncritical view of the Book's moral and doctrinal teachings, which they would hold to be the pure essence of the revelation of God. For such persons the slaying of Laban by divine decree, the notion of dark skin as a divine curse, and the waging of holy wars in the name of God may cause profound problems if such occurrences are accepted as holding up before us inflexible moral axioms that are operative in our life situation now. Such a view would imply that murder, racial segregation and prejudice, and the inhumanity of war may be expressions of the Divine Will. To find similar moral implications in, say, portions of the Old Testament would not necessarily be disturbing to us because of our understanding of the evolutionary development of ethics in the biblical narrative. But such affirmations in a book judged by some church members to be the most correct of any book on earth raise serious questions, particularly at those points where the Book of Mormon position seems in contradiction to the radical love ethic taught and embodied by Jesus Christ according to the New Testament.
6.  The use of Biblical scripture and ideas as sources. Several sizable sections of the King James Version of the Bible are found in the Book of Mormon, including twenty-one chapters of Isaiah (including parts of Deutero-Isaiah), the Sermon on the Mount, the Ten Commandments, Malachi 3 and 4, I Corinthians 12:1-11 and Acts 3:22-26. In addition to such full-fledged quotations, the Book of Mormon is replete with short biblical expressions. John Hyde counted 298 biblical snatches from the New Testament alone in the 426 pages of the first edition of the Book of Mormon.
An odd mixture of styles is apparent where the Book of Mormon text switches back and forth from biblical to non-biblical readings. For example, the sayings of Jesus are concise where quoted from the King James Version, but in contrast one statement attributed to Jesus but not adapted from the King James Version is 392 words long. (III Nephi 9:87-93)
There would also appear to be some parallel accounts in the biblical literature and the Book of Mormon narrative. For example, Daniel's finger of God writing on the wall appears in Alma 8:2; Jacob's blessings of Genesis 49 are suggested in Lehi's ministrations of II Nephi 2 and 3; the raising of Lazarus echoes in Alma 12; the trial of Alma and Amulek would appear to be adapted directly from the trial of Jesus; their escape from prison seems to combine the Philippian jail story, Peter's escape, and Samson's destruction of the temple; the prayers of the Pharisee and Publican seem to provide the basis for Alma 18:15, 16. Several other notable examples could be furnished if space would permit.
All of this may raise the same kind of a question as might appear in a teacher's mind when one student's project shows a marked resemblance to a project submitted previously by another student. To what extent was the author (or editor, or compiler) of the Book of Mormon dependent upon the King James Version, and why? No satisfactory explanation has yet come forth.
7.  The matter of Book of Mormon anachronisms. Those who approach the Book of Mormon with the view of proving it to be essentially what it seems to claim to be - a record of the history of ancient Americans who lived between 2200 BC and AD 400 - immediately find themselves having to deal with the problem of anachronisms. For example, verbal anachronisms occur in the use of such modern (i.e. post-Lehi) and non-Hebraic terms as Bible, Jew, Gentile, church, synagogue, baptize, priestcraft, adieu, and even the names of Sam and Timothy. The problem lies not alone in the linguistic label but more often in the fact that the institution to which the label points (e.g. synagogue, church) is a post-Lehi development.
Other possible anachronisms include the mention of steel, silks, Copernican astronomy, and medical knowledge of blood circulation and pores before their known discovery. The findings of early American archaeology do not substantiate the claim that such items were known among the ancient Americans before their discovery in the Old World. In addition, the Book mentions crops and animals introduced to America by later European settlers, notably wheat, barley, cows, hogs, asses, sheep, and horses. Sidney B. Sperry, eminent Mormon bibliophile, has attempted to answer these and other criticisms in his book Answers to Book of Mormon Questions, but admittedly his logic and data selection would appeal only to those who already have a faith commitment to the historical validity of the Book of Mormon narrative.
8. The changes in the Book of Mormon. While the Book itself confesses the possibility of errors, many claims concerning the verbal accuracy of the Book have long been made by Book of Mormon adherents. Joseph Smith himself at one time stated that "the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth.” Modern Microfilm Company has recently published a work documenting 3,913 changes in the Book of Mormon since its first printing. A few of the changes, made by Joseph Smith himself in the second edition, would seem to reflect a shift of theological orientation; for example, "the son of" added in I Nephi 3:86 to avoid a definite identification of Jesus as the Ever-lasting God. Admittedly most of the thousands of changes are corrections of obvious grammatical errors, although not all faulty grammar was eliminated as any reader with a knowledge of the English language will confess.
    This evidence naturally raises questions concerning the revelational process involved in bringing forth the Book. Some of the changes suggest a maturing of judgment and theological sensitivities and would suggest a conceptual view of revelation. But how can a conceptual process of revelation possibly produce a historical account of some phase of history hitherto unknown? In any event, the fact of change belies some widespread and currently held notions of the impeccability of the Book, and again places the need for a more honest and open critical examination of the Book clearly before us.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CURRICULUM
    Now that we are involved in the task of producing a new church school curriculum and other religious education materials, it is urgent that we face honestly the question of what role the Book of Mormon should rightfully fulfill in such a project. Since our proposed approach in the curriculum is not subject-oriented, we shall in all likelihood be saved from having to tackle some of the extremely thorny issues of the Book's historicity in our curriculum materials themselves. Nevertheless, when the Book as a phenomenon is treated, we propose that it shall be done in the context of that segment of Restoration history out of which it emerged, without a dogmatic emphasis on it as a depository of facts about Ancient American history or culture. It would thus appear to be prudent to avoid any specific dogmatic pronouncements as to the ultimate nature and origin of the Book, in light of the present scantiness of data by which our opinions may be inferred. Dogmatically affirming its actual historicity, or asserting that it is definitely to be understood in other than historical categories--either of these alternatives would deny our stance of "strategic caution" which now seems to be most wise in the face of our insight into the complexities of the issues involved. In many instances this stance will manifest itself in terms of a discreet silence in areas where hitherto Book of Mormon teachings have been invoked. However, since in the Book there can be found various passages that may serve to illustrate or illuminate a persistent life need of the students, such passages may very well be utilized in the development of a lesson for any age level. Thus each instance of potential use of Book of Mormon material must be judged in light of all the various factors surrounding the individual set of circumstances in which its use might appear to be helpful and appropriate.
 
Lifeline Ministries to RLDS