Friday, 18 January 2013

The Book of Mormon as literature: unexamined implications of its authorship


Excerpted from Joseph Smith: Rough stone rolling, by Richard Lyman Bushman (Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus, Columbia University) - 2005: pages 84-88


The Book of Mormon is a thousand-year history of the rise and fall of a religious civilization in the Western Hemisphere beginning about 600 BC... A briefer history of a second civilization, beginning at the time of the Tower of Babel and extending till a few hundred years before Christ, is summarized in thirty-five pages near the end...

Contemporaries thought of the book as a "bible," and that may be the best one-word description...

The table of contents has a biblical feel. It lists fifteen books with titles like "The Book of Jacob," "The Book of Mosiah," "The Book of Helaman," and so on through Nephi, Enos, Jarom, Alma, Mormon, Ether, and Moroni, just as the Bible names its divisions after Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Micah. But unlike the Bible, these books are not divided into histories and prophetic books. History and prophecy are interwoven, sermons and visions mingling with narrative.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of a family founding a civilization. The main story opens in Jerusalem on the eve of the Babylonian captivity. 4 Lehi, one of many prophets foretelling the city's doom, is told to flee the city with his wife and children and one other family. Drawn by the lure of a promised land, they are led into the wilderness of the Arabian peninsula. Like Abraham leaving Ur and Moses departing Egypt, Lehi is told God has a place for them. Lehi's band wanders in the wilderness for eight years (not forty like the children of Israel), until somewhere along the seacoast (seemingly the Arabian Sea) they are told to construct a ship. After a protracted voyage, they reach their promised land. The name America is never used, but readers universally thought Lehi's company had arrived in the Western Hemisphere...

The book explains itself as largely the work of Mormon, a military figure who leads the Nephites, from about 327 to 385 CE, in the twilight of their existence as a nation. Mormon is one of more than a score of powerful personalities to emerge in history. Precociously eminent, he is appointed at fifteen to lead the Nephite armies. (He gives no reason for his elevation except that "notwithstanding I being young was large in stature.") In the same year, "being somewhat of a sober mind," he is "visited of the Lord," making him both prophet and general. From then until the Lamanites cut him down, still fighting in his seventies, Mormon and his people are swept this way and that by the tides of battle...

Mormon undertakes to compile a history... One gets a picture of Mormon surrounded by piles of [inscribed historical] plates, extracting a narrative from the collection, and not completely aware of all there is. At various points while hurrying through the records, he interjects a comment about how much he is leaving out, as if overwhelmed by his abundant sources. Mormon makes no effort to hide his part in constructing the book. The entire Book of Mormon is an elaborate framed tale of Mormon telling about a succession of prophets telling about their encounters with God. Read in the twenty-first century, the book seems almost postmodern in its self-conscious attention to the production of the text.

Mormon introduces a large number of characters and places into his saga. Nearly 350 names are listed in the pronunciation guide at the back of modern editions -- Paanchi, Pachus, Pacumeni, Pagag, Pahoran, Palestina, Pathros. Quite out of nowhere, Mormon describes a system of weights and measures in senines, seons, shums, and limnahs, following a numerical system based on eight rather than the conventional ten. He moves the armies, the prophets, and the people about on a landscape, taking time to sketch in the geography of the Nephite nation. Naturally, Mormon the general gives special attention to armaments, military tactics, and battles. Architecture, animals, and trade are dealt with. Although the book is above all a religious history of prophesying, preaching, faithfulness, and apostasy, Mormon evokes an entire world...

A writer in 1841 commented that "it is difficult to imagine a more difficult literary task than to write what may be termed a continuation of the Scriptures." Yet Joseph Smith dictated the bulk of the Book of Mormon from early April to late June 1829. When forays for food, travel from Harmony to Fayette, and applications to printers are deducted, the amount of time available for translating most of the book's 584 pages was less than three months.


I have been interested in Mormonism for about six years, since before I converted to Christianity and rejoined my baptismal Church (of England). I have (co-) completed three small research projects on Mormon fertility with another ongoing and further planned.

Naturally, just about the first thing I did when I got interested in Mormonism was to try and read The Book of Mormon. It was not at all what I expected, and left me completely bewildered.

Since I knew that missionaries gave out this book to prospective converts, I expected that it would set out the Mormon religion, but it does not. It was mostly (so far as I could tell) what purported to be historical annals - and it was hard to see what this had to do with Mormonism as I understood it.

I put the book aside and looked instead at Doctrine and Covenants - which was much more the kind of thing I expected: a setting-out of the religion in terms of a series of revelations.


But I have returned to the Book of Mormon from time to time, and now feel a bit clearer about it; or rather, I am now clear that it is qualitatively unlike any other book.

In terms of its literary quality, it is good. Not, of course, in the same league as the Authorized Version of The Bible - but then what is? Nothing approaches anywhere near the AV in terms of non-fiction English prose - but The Book of Mormon is vastly superior to most modern translations of the Bible.

Of course, it is hard to read, and I have not read it all - but then again the Old Testament is hard to read and I have not read it all.


But The Book of Mormon is a remarkable book, qua book.

What it most resembles in my experience is JRR/ Christopher Tolkien's 1977 The Silmarillion. The BoM presents an extremely intricate and self-consistent world across a large historical timescale presented as Annalistic history in an uncompromizing and unmediated fashion.

Another superficially plausible comparison would be Ossian (1760 onwards) compiled by James Macpherson (probably) from numerous oral sources of song and stories in the Scottish Highlands. This became a foundational text of romanticism and nationalism - with an influence stretching across Europe and the Atlantic, and lasting a couple of generations.

So, considered as a work of subcreative invention, as the depiction of 'a world' - and from an agnostic perspective as to its provenance - The Book of Mormon is of world historical stature - or, at least, it should be thus considered.


Adding to this fascination is the circumstances of its production - given in great detail by Bushman. It seems clear that The Book of Mormon was produced by Joseph Smith, dictated by him, in a single and seemingly unrevised draft, in the space of just a few months and with no apparent sources.

Joseph Smith dictated the bulk of the Book of Mormon from early April to late June 1829... the amount of time available for translating most of the book's 584 pages was less than three months.

When it is taken into account that Joseph Smith was no Tolkien, nor even a Macpherson - being uneducated and uncultured, having a rather chaotic personality, and with no access to educated and cultured people, or to literary and scholarly resources - this was, to say the least of it, an absolutely amazing, unprecedented, and unrepeated feat.


The usual ways of dismissing the significance of The Book of Mormon do not remotely hold water; or, at least, if the kind of explanations used to explain-away the Book of Mormon were accepted in mainstream literary history, then nothing would be left standing!

I personally am quite happy to accept that - in some way and at some level - Joseph Smith was genuinely divinely inspired (an inspiration not necessarily complete, and not necessarily without error) - and that of course explains the whole thing.

(I believe that the idea of the Book of Mormon as having been demonically-inspired, is decisively refuted by the subsequent history of the CJCLDS Church.)

But for those who do not acknowledge the reality of divine inspiration as a possibility; the 'case' of The Book of Mormon is, or ought to be, a matter of extreme interest - rather as if The Silmarillion had been serially dictated, off the top of his head, by a semi-literate rustic gardener such as Sam Gamgee.


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