“A 21st Century Reading of the Book of Mormon”

Richard L. Bushman

Thursday, March 10

According to Richard L. Bushman, The Book of Mormon can be conceived as a work of folk culture coming out of a grassroots American rural society in the 19th century. Because it is so widely distributed (150 million copies printed and distributed internationally), translated (in its entirety it is translated into 82 languages), and read (an estimated 600,000 people read its online version monthly), he is surprised that the Book of Mormon is not considered an American literary classic.  Although studied to explore such issues and problems as anti-masonry, republican, and racist sentiments of 19th century Americans, the Book of Mormon is nonetheless rarely used for instruction in American colleges and universities.  Bushman gives two reasons why he believes this is so:

  1. Difficulty in categorizing the Book of Mormon. Since it is out of sequence of the narrative of American literature, it is difficult to situate the Book of Mormon in a larger category within the study of the history of American literature. 
  2. Mormon apologists.  To Mormons, The Book of Mormon is more than a mere literary work.  It is sacred text, the primary apologetic piece for the entire Mormon movement, a historical document that authenticates the Mormon Church.  Further, it strengthens the sign of Joseph Smith’s calling.  Because of its importance to the faith community, Mormon scholars spend their intellectual energies defending it against literary critics with little time spent engaging scholars on other terms.   

Despite the complexities and challenges, Bushman offers two considerations for engagement of the Book of Mormon in the 21st century:

  1. Book of Mormon as an apocryphal or pseudepigraphical text.  The Book of Mormon is similar to the Bible in composition and contains similar themes, plots, and prose style.  It is arranged into chapters named for prophets, contains named characters such as Paul, and is the extended story of Israel ’s history and relationship with God but enacted in another land.  Although the two books are similar to some extent, Bushman argues that the Book of Mormon subverts the Bible. In fact he called the Book of Mormon a daughter of the Bible that undermines its own parent.  Its prophetic visions cast doubt on the accuracy of the claims of biblical prophets with regard to the Christian/Gentile church deflating the Gospel of the Lamb, thus, demonstrating that the Bible has been corrupted and cannot be fully trusted.  As an apocryphal or pseudepigraphical text, the Book of Mormon breaks the monopoly on God’s Word.  It challenges the Bible’s exclusive claim as the Word of God and makes the Bible one example of revelation to humanity and not the sum total of revelations.  Further, the Book of Mormon challenges American Christians to view the Bible as the product of the Jewish people and dares them to consider producing their own sacred text. 
  2. Book of Mormon as an account of the origins and history of Native Americans.  Mormons read the Book of Mormon as the story of two families in Israel that split after arriving in the western hemisphere.  After the split, one family eventually becomes the bearer of the Israelite prophetic tradition and the other falls into savagery.   The savage nation sustains a curse of dark skin after it overtakes and obliterates the prophetic group.  However, the skin of the savage group can be lightened after the group repents.  The prophetic group keeps a record, buries it and it is later discovered and translated by Joseph Smith, the 23 year old son of poor farmers in upstate New York .  Although Bushman admits that this plotline lends itself to an expression of American racism with regard to native people, he claims that one of the purposes of the Book of Mormon is to revive the native people and restore them as Israel .  Thus, the Book of Mormon establishes that America is a land belonging to the natives and admonishes non-natives to partner with the native Israelites in establishing Zion in this new land. 

Bushman concludes by stating the twists and turns about the Bible and Book of Mormon—that is, issues concerning authority, use of biblical characters and scenarios to tell the history of America—may indeed complicate a 21st century reading the Book of Mormon but these complexities are the reasons why the Book of Mormon should be taken more seriously.  

Questions for further consideration:
To what extend is the Book of Mormon actually an account of Native American history and to what extent is it a European invention of Native History?

What might be at stake if a 21st Century reading of the Book of Mormon is placed in a wider discourse of comparative religions?  How might the Book of Mormon be used to help readers rethink the category History of Religions? 

Considering how the other is envisioned in and the racialist language in the Book of Mormon, in what ways does scripturalizing or scripture-making help 19th century readers of the Book of Mormon come to terms with racism in society?   

How might a 21st century reading of the Book of Mormon fit into a human quest for fulfillment or power?

Submitted by Wendell C. Miller
Research Assistant

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