Book of Mormon has long been a controversial book to the world, but
we must also recognize that it is increasingly controversial within
the Church. The
debate over its origins — is it an authentic ancient document
or modern fiction concocted by Joseph Smith? — occurs not just
between Mormons and non-Mormons, or between the faithful and those
losing their faith, but has also extended among the ranks of those
who consider themselves faithful Mormons.
are some who respect the Book of Mormon yet feel it is not derived
from an ancient text but somehow stems from Joseph Smith’s mind and
his environment. That may seem bizarre to many faithful Mormons, but
especially among academics, there are strong pressures to humanize
the roots of our religion and the “keystone” thereof,
seeing such things from a purely naturalistic perspective.
However inspiring and “truthy” the Book of Mormon may be, from that
perspective it must ultimately be fiction. It is a perspective I
reject and find inconsistent with my personal experience and with
abundant evidence, beginning with the witnesses of the gold plates
and the extensive evidences from the text itself and beyond.
But I feel it is vital to understand the debate if only to avoid being
blind-sided and caught off guard when one finds occasional fellow
Mormons teaching something quite surprising.
recent publications give insights into the ongoing debate over the
origins of the Book of Mormon. One of these comes from the Mormon Interpreter,
the publication edited by Daniel Peterson that is a leading source
for scholarly investigation into LDS issues pertaining to our
In apparent contrast comes an article from BYU’s Maxwell Institute,
once the banner carrier for LDS apologetics, which has gone through
significant shape-shifting since casting out Dr. Peterson and
distancing itself from apologetics. (However, the controversy over this article may be unnecessary, as I observe in an update below.)
The first article is “What
Command Syntax Tells Us About Book of Mormon Authorship”
by Stanford Carmack in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture
13 (2015): 175-217. This is a highly technical and challenging
article, but one that adds important new evidence to previous recent
scholarly observations showing that the English language dictated by
Joseph Smith during the translation of the Book of Mormon was not
simply derived from the language of the King James Bible nor the
English of Joseph’s day.
there is a compelling case that the translation was somehow given in
language predating the KJV by roughly a century or more. I mentioned
this in my previous Nauvoo Times
Debate Over Book of Mormon Translation: Loose or Tight?” Brother
Carmack’s latest contribution looks at the complex ways in which the
verb “command” is used in the Book of Mormon, and multiple
issues point to usage patterns that are surprisingly close to English
around 1500, and significantly different from the statistical
patterns of the KJV.
However this was done and why, it severely undercuts any theory that relies
on Joseph Smith as the source of the translation. Carmack offers
plausible reasons why these long-unnoticed characteristics of the
original English point to a process outside of Joseph’s abilities —
in other words, evidence for detailed divine intervention in at least
some aspects of the translation.
controversial Maxwell Institute article comes from an LDS scholar who
appears to be has been viewed as casting at least some doubt on the
historicity of the Book of Mormon. The
article is “The
Book of Mormon and Early America’s Political and Intellectual Tradition”
by Benjamin E. Park, Journal
of Book of Mormon Studies,
23 (2014): 167–75. Dr.
Park, an associate editor of the Maxwell Institute’s Mormon Studies Review
(the successor of the FARMS Review that Dr. Peterson edited from 1988 through June 2012) reviews
David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America
(2011), and Eran Shalev, American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to
the Civil War (2013).
his essay, Dr. Park appears [at first glance, anyway] to endorse the notion that the Book of
Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith’s environment and not a truly
unique and miraculous book, as would seem to be required for any
ancient New World text translated by divine power. He
approvingly observes that the academic works he reviews help to “chop
away at Mormonism’s distinctive message” and shed the
“shackles” of “Mormon historiography’s
Update, Jan. 10: Dr. Park has made a statement at Times and Seasons that I just saw which seeks to address the controversy that has ensued. Here is part of his statement:
When I spoke of the methodological limitations of past discourse, I did
not mean that viewing the Book of Mormon as an ancient text is a
mistake. I simply meant that the important scholarly work on questions
of central importance to an internal, predominantly Mormon
audience has paved the way for a broader scholarly conversation about
ways that Joseph Smith and his religion connected with other streams of
nineteenth-century thought. I in no way expect or want scholarship that
explores an ancient setting for the Book of Mormon and other questions
of vital importance to Mormons to cease—indeed, the very first page of
my review notes that these past discussions are both important and
should continue. There is nothing about this new work that precludes
continued attention to questions surrounding the text’s ancient origins.
I was pleased to see that the very issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies
in which my review appeared featured several articles that explored the
Book of Mormon’s ancient setting, a form of scholarship that the
Maxwell Institute continues to support. I regret that the talk
surrounding my emphasis on the nineteenth-century context has
overshadowed the primary point of the last few pages of my review: that
even the contextual frameworks ably provided by Holland and Shalev don’t
fully capture the breadth and depth of the Book of Mormon, as the book
continues to elude narrow categories of contemporary analysis.
This is a helpful statement, but I don’t think this removes the controversy or eliminates the grounds for debate. I am glad to see that Park does not reject the ancient roots of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps Dr. Park in his role as a scholar addressing a broad audience did not realize how his words would be taken as undermining the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient book. And perhaps some readers like myself fail to fully appreciate the value of contextualizing the Book of Mormon and the roots of Mormon religion in light of related nineteenth century trends using modern scholarly tools and paradigms.
Indeed, it is fair to recognize that at least some aspects of the Book of Mormon, especially the language and the work of preparing a text, obviously had to be influenced in various ways by the linguistic and cultural environment of Joseph Smith. But as noted below, there may still be some serious surprises in that area that challenge all of our prior assumptions about the translation of the text. The purpose of this post is not to criticize Park but to point to some of those new but still very tentative surprises that might need to be considered in future debate, and which can be interesting areas for ongoing research.
a publication coming from BYU’s Maxwell Institute, this can easily be viewed as
controversial material worthy of debate and response. Daniel
Peterson briefly summarizes the controversy and challenges Park in
his LDS blog at Patheos in the post, “Recovering, at long last, from the plague of Mormon exceptionalism.”
The comments there help reflect the depth of the controversy and the
divide that can occur among LDS thinkers on both sides of the debate.
I’d like to call attention to is the issue of the language of the
Book of Mormon translation, which is an issue raised in Shalev’s book
and in Park’s review. Here is an excerpt from Park, making reference
The book’s third chapter attempts to, as announced in its title, chart the “cultural origins of the Book of Mormon.” More particularly, the chapter examines the growth of what Shalev calls “pseudobiblical literature,” which used Elizabethan English and a biblical message in order to add a divine grounding to the nation’s message. During the early republic, Shalev explains, a preponderance of texts sought to imitate the Bible’s language and message while validating America’s destiny and purpose. “By imposing the Bible and its intellectual and cultural landscapes on America,” American Zion explains, “those texts placed the United States in a biblical time and frame, describing the new nation and its history as occurring in a distant, revered, and mythic dimension” (p. 100). These texts sought to collapse the distance between past and present—making both the Israelite story relevant as well as the ancient language accessible. This republicanization of the Bible possessed significant implications for American political culture. Beyond merely expanding their historical consciousness and placing America within an epic narrative of divine progress, the Old Testament added a pretext for such actions as those supposedly provoked by manifest destiny.
Ironically, the Book of Mormon appeared after the apex of this literary tradition. By the time Joseph Smith’s scriptural record was published, texts written in the Elizabethan style were on the decline, and most works were presented in a more modern, democratic style. On the one hand, this made the Book of Mormon the climax of the pseudobiblical tradition; on the other hand, the book acts as something of a puzzle. Shalev writes that the text “has been able to survive and flourish for almost two centuries not because, but in spite of, the literary ecology of the mid-nineteenth century and after” (p. 104). While this may be true—and Shalev is persuasive in showing how the Book of Mormon appeared at the most opportune time to take advantage of its linguistic flair—his framework overlooks the continued potential for creating a sacred time and message through the use of archaic language. Not only did other religious texts replicate King James verbiage throughout the nineteenth century, but so did varied authors like the antislavery writer James Branagan, who used antiquated language in order to provoke careful readings of his political pamphlets. Yet despite this potential oversight, Shalev’s use of the linguistic environment in order to contextualize the Book of Mormon is an underexplored angle that adds much to our understanding of the text.
Shalev is at his best when comparing the Book of Mormon to other pseudobiblical texts from the period, such as “The First Book of Chronicles, Chapter the 5th,” which was published in South Carolina’s Investigator only a few years before the Book of Mormon, as well as “A Fragment of the Prophecy of Tobias,” published serially in the American Mercury. The latter text is especially fascinating for Book of Mormon scholars, as the editor claims to have found this work that was hidden away in past centuries and that required a designated translator to reveal its important meaning for an American audience. These contemporary accounts are not meant to serve as potential sources for the Book of Mormon’s narrative—indeed, Shalev admits such an endeavor would be impossible—but they reaffirm the important lesson that the Book of Mormon is best seen as one of many examples that embody the same cultural strains and that its importance for American intellectual historians is best seen as part of a tapestry of scriptural voices that speak to a culture’s anxieties, hopes, and fears….
Shalev’s book offers a new context and asks new questions concerning the Book of Mormon’s linguistic and political context—issues that will certainly be taken up by future scholars
Elizabethan language of the Book of Mormon is widely assumed by
critics, non-LDS scholars, and some LDS people as evidence of Joseph
Smith’s authorship of the text, while those believing in the
authenticity of the book have often defended that language as a
reasonable stylistic choice for the divinely aided translation.
is interesting now is that this entire debate may have been based on
a faulty assumption, the assumption that the language Joseph dictated
is KJV Elizabethan.
recent work of Carmack, building on Royal Skousen’s detailed analysis
of the original text of the Book of Mormon, reveals a surprise that
may turn the tables on the critics and some scholars: it isn’t
Elizabethan dating to the 1600s, but Early Modern English from a
century or so before.
would the translation of the Book of Mormon somehow be dialed into an
earlier version of English than that which Joseph knew from the KJV?
I asked this question of Brother Carmack in the comments section at
the Mormon Interpreter, and obtained this interesting response:
Book of Mormon contains old, distinctive syntax that is nevertheless
plain to the understanding. In view of Moses 1:39, the Lord wants us
to take the Book of Mormon seriously. Many have begun to doubt the
historicity of the book in part because they have decided that Joseph
Smith is the author of the English-language text.
syntactic evidence tells us that he could not have been the author. I
am confident that the Lord knew that we would eventually find this
out, and that we would learn about it at a time when we had a strong
need for solid empirical evidence that the book was divinely
translated, which points ineluctably to historicity.
BasedThis new evidence about the non-KJV origins of Book of Mormon
on the distressing turn of events I see at the Maxwell Institute, I’d
English may be coming just in time. The timing, in fact, may be
rather providential. But more research is needed on the linguistic relation of the original Book of Mormon text to Early Modern English and texts of Joseph’s day. This could be quite interesting to see where this pursuit leads.
thing I especially agree with in Park’s essay and in Carmack’s
comments is the need for further scholarship in this area. It is a
puzzling but intriguing vein that needs to be mined much more deeply
using the tools and knowledge we now have that simply was not
available a few years ago.