After President Hinckley’s brief remarks in General Conference this morning, we heard a great sermon again affirming the divinity of the Book of Mormon as something real and tangible that people can test. We were also reminded that the First Presidency has asked us to again read the Book of Mormon before the end of the year. We were further told that the Book of Mormon is unique in containing a test to allow the reader to determine through the power of God if it is real or not.
After all these years, the Church has not backed off from the Book of Mormon. It is not slowly become a piece of inspiring fiction that we are a little ashamed of or try to ignore – precisely the trend one would obviously expect if it were all a fraud that was increasingly being exposed. The most educated people in the Church are not dismissing it and excusing it as a misguided effort, but boldly reaffirming that it is true, divine, and worthy of being investigated vigorously.
An intellectually honest approach to the Book of Mormon requires evaluating the baggage we bring to it and sometimes discarding our old assumptions and childhood images as we learn more about it, its context, and the ancient environment it came from. Yes, modern science has challenged old assumptions about an empty continent in 600 B.C. and purely Jewish ancestry of all Native Americans, but these assumptions are definitely NOT derived from a careful reading of the text. In fact, these assumptions were being challenged by key voices in the Church for decades before DNA data became available, and the possibility of other migrations and a geography linked to Mesoamerica was even raised by Joseph Smith himself.
While some critics get upset that an improved understanding of the ancient context of the Book of Mormon does not jive with misunderstanding they picked up in their youth, they overlook that modern scholarship and discovery has led to a “marvelous work and a wonder” in our understanding of the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient document. If it was a fable from Joseph Smith based on random writings in his environment, how on earth can we account for the breathtaking modern confirmations of the accuracy of First Nephi in describing the Arabian Peninsula, giving us detailed directions that really could be traveled – accurately passing between the two divisions of the empty quarter in an entirely plausible course? How can we account for the accurate descriptions of places that were unknown to the Western world in Joseph’s day? Some of these places, such as the ancient burial place Nahom (with surprising confirmation of that ancient tribal name from ancient inscriptions on altars taken from the region), plausible candidates for Bountiful, the place Shazer, the Valley of Lemuel and the River Laman, were unknown and seemingly implausible until the recent discovery or verification in light of the text. In the Arabian Peninsula, the Book of Mormon has proved remarkably valuable as a guide for those willing to get out and follow what it says. These things were unknown to many scholars until recently, and apparently are still unknown and will forever remain unknown to many of the leading anti-Mormon critics. In discussions with some of them, when I have pressed for a plausible explanation as to how anyone in the nineteenth century could have made up the accurate details in First Nephi, I have been met with either silence, a vague “I am not impressed,” or most commonly, something like, “Oh yeah? Well what about polygamy? Or DNA? Or blood atonement? Or Mark Hoffman? Or the Jupiter talisman. Yeah, what about that?”
Ancient Jewish poetical forms like chiasmus and paired tricola, ancient Jewish names in the Book of Mormon now verified as authentic, the structure of Mesoamerican civilization that provides so many parallels to what is in the Book of Mormon far beyond what Joseph could have known in his day, and numerous other details provide new and recent appreciation of the plausibility of the Book of Mormon, and add increasingly overwhelming burdens to those who wish to explain the Book of Mormon by plagiarism based on Joseph’s rich imagination coupled with osmosis from, say, the writings of Ethan Smith, von Humboldt, E.T.A. Hoffman, or, most impressive of all (yet clearly impossible), Walt Whitman.
Some have said that the Book of Mormon is less defensible than ever in light of modern science. Absolutely not! It has become increasingly impossible to explain its actual content by plagiarism, even if Joseph had a large library and team of top-notch scholars working for him. For starters, just for starters, please explain to me how such a team could come up with something that would not be appreciated and verified until over 150 years later, namely, the surprising accuracy of Nephi’s account of his travels in the Arabian Peninsula? Could he or a team of scholars have known of the Valley of Lemuel and the River Laman, for example, which are in a location that accurately fits the description in the text (in fact, they were found by following the text)? And then what about Shazer, Nahom as an ancient burial place, and Bountiful almost exactly due east of Nahom, as Nephi indicates? Doesn’t this deserve some kind of answer? I mean, other than, “What about polygamy?”