Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates: A Guide for the Overwhelmed–Part II

Continued from Part I

III. Mapping the Positions

 

Thus far this article has summarized the historicity question as if it were a two-party debate: arguments for versus arguments against. But in fact, writers have adopted a wide array of positions around this issue. William Hamblin (1994) organizes views on historicity into five categories: evangelical, doctrinal traditionalist, historical traditionalist, theistic naturalist, and secular naturalist. Louis Midgley (1994) offers a different set of categories, also numbering five. While Hamblin’s and Midgley’s categories are helpfully discriminating, attitudes toward Book of Mormon historicity are even more diverse than these categories make evident.

Mapping different positions on historicity is complicated because at least three separate questions are involved: (1) Is the Book of Mormon ancient? (2) What does historicity imply for the book’s status as scripture? (3) What do a person’s beliefs about historicity imply for his or her relationship to the LDS Church? To complicate matters further, a handful of authors have recently used postmodern theories to entirely rethink the terms of the historicity debates.

In the following discussion I do not intend to corral people into rigidly demarcated categories. Rather, when I speak of “positions,” I mean simply to identify poles or signposts that can be used to locate a particular view of historicity in relation to others: closer to X than to Y, definitely not Z, certain commonalities with W, etc. The basic message is that Mormons’ thinking about Book of Mormon historicity and its implications is diverse, and individuals who question historicity have pursued a variety of paths regarding their relationship to the LDS Church.

 

Is the Book of Mormon ancient?

In response to the question “Is the Book of Mormon ancient?” writers have offered basically four answers: “Yes,” “No,” “Yes and no,” and “Undecided.” Those who answer “yes” vary in their views on how reliable the Book of Mormon is as a record of the ancient past, while those who answer “no” vary in willingness to assert that Joseph Smith was therefore a fraud.

 

Both ancient and modern. The most discussed version of “Yes and no” is Blake Ostler’s modern expansion theory (but see Rees 2002 for another version of this position). Ostler proposes (1987) that in the process of translating the plates—a process Ostler characterizes as creative, participatory revelation—Joseph Smith expanded the ancient record to include interpretations and commentary relevant to his nineteenth-century context. This approach lets Ostler account both for evidences of an ancient origin, such as Hebrew literary forms, and for anachronisms such as discussions of nineteenth-century theological questions. Ostler’s theory has been criticized on multiple fronts. Stephen Robinson (1989) and Robert Millet (1993), defenders of historicity, believe that Ostler concedes too much to skeptics. Meanwhile, revisionist Anthony Hutchinson (1993) finds it absurdly complicated to theorize that God would preserve an ancient record whose message would be rendered unrecognizable by modern expansions.

 

Undecided. One author who answers “I don’t know” is former Sunstone editor Dan Wotherspoon, who has made a deliberate choice to stay open on the question of historicity. He feels that he is “on a sacred journey” with the text and its characters—historical or not— and therefore “Nephi still lives for me” (2005, p. 9). Former Church historian Leonard Arrington stated that he was “prepared to accept [LDS claims] as historical or as metaphorical,” but “that they convey religious truth I have never had any doubt” (1985, p. 37). This kind of open-ended attitude is favorably viewed by Jeff Burton, author of For Those Who Wonder (1994) and the Sunstone column “Borderlands,” both guides for Mormons who experience doubt about conventional LDS teachings.

 

Ancient but not historical? Believing that the Book of Mormon has “historicity” in the sense that it is an ancient record is not necessarily the same as believing that it has “historicity” in the sense of reliably reporting the past. Leading twentieth-century Mormon scriptorians—Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce R. McConkie, LeGrand Richards, Mark E. Petersen—tended to read the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures as if these texts were transparent to the facts of history and the will of God: if the text says X, then X is true. However, other believers in an ancient Book of Mormon have been open to the possibility that the book reflects the limited knowledge or cultural biases of its authors. For example, John Tvetdnes (2003) cautiously proposes that Nephite authors were racist in how they wrote about Lamanites. A vivid example of this approach is Orson Scott Card’s speculation (1993) that the people of Zarahemla did not, in fact, come from Jerusalem but created that story about themselves to facilitate a peaceful coexistence with the Nephites. For Tvedtnes and Card, there is a sense in which the Book of Mormon may be ancient but not fully historical.

 

Modern but not fraudulent? Orthodox writers commonly assert that denying Book of Mormon historicity is equivalent to accusing Joseph Smith of delusion or fraud. This same dichotomous approach is typically taken by Christian countercultists (albeit with the conclusions reversed), as well as by some secular skeptics. However, skeptics writing in a scholarly mode are rarely so baldly reductive (Duffy 2006). It is true that Fawn Brodie (1971) and Dan Vogel (2004) are frank about their views that Smith practiced deception in connection with the creation of the Book of Mormon, while William Morain (1998) and Robert Anderson (1999) attempt to diagnose Smith’s psychopathologies; but these authors still paint Smith as a figure with complex motivations who was, at some level, sincerely religious. Many writers, even when showing signs of their skepticism about historicity, nevertheless prefer to write about Smith as someone who genuinely believed himself to be a prophet. Jan Shipps (1985) exemplifies this approach with her insistence on “bracketing” the question of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity while comparing Smith’s revelatory experiences to those of biblical personages such as Paul. Revisionists who see the Book of Mormon as scripture, though not historical, likewise resist implying that Smith was a fraud.

 

Is the Book of Mormon scripture?

Within the LDS Church, the most commonly voiced view—a view that has even been enforced by Church discipline—is that the Book of Mormon must be historical in order to be “true.” By contrast, a minority of LDS or former LDS writers argue that the book can be embraced as scripture even if it is not historical. Undergirding the different views are different understandings of the concepts of scripture and revelation.

 

The orthodox dilemma: Historical or false. From the nineteenth century to the present, General Authorities and other apologists have cast the historicity question as a stark dilemma: either the Book of Mormon is, as Joseph Smith claimed, a miraculous translation of an ancient record, or it should be rejected as falsehood. General Authorities who have voiced this position include Orson Pratt (1850), B. H. Roberts (1909), J. Reuben Clark (1938), Bruce R. McConkie (1983), Ezra Taft Benson (1992), Jeffrey R. Holland (1997), and Dallin H. Oaks (2001). Among LDS intellectuals outside the hierarchy, Louis Midgley (1987, 1990, 1994, 2001) is perhaps the most prolific defender of historicity as a sine qua non for LDS faith. “What is at stake in the current debate,” Midgley warns, “is nothing less than the content and even the possibility of faith as Latter-day Saints have known it” (1990, p. 503).

The orthodox dilemma sees the authority of scripture as dependent on historicity. If the narratives of God’s interventions in history—the Atonement, the Restoration, and so on—are human invention, not historical fact, then the scriptures speak with merely human, not divine, authority; and even their human authority would be crippled by the fact that they teach falsehoods. Robert Millet (1993) maintains that if the Book of Mormon were not historical, it would not have the power to save souls. Historicity is also indispensable for those who cite the Book of Mormon as a witness to the historicity of events recorded in the Bible, such as the resurrection of Jesus (Maxwell 1988; Nyman 1991; Matthews 1992).

Some revisionists (Lindgren 1990; Thomas 1999) allege that the orthodox preoccupation with asserting the Book of Mormon’s authority has led the Saints to pay inadequate attention to the book’s teachings. Anthony Hutchinson (1993) believes that insisting on historicity leads to fundamentalism, authoritarianism, legalism, and false certitude, which in turn constitute a kind of idolatry. Mark Thomas argues that the Book of Mormon’s authority as scripture is independent of historicity: “The book’s authority cannot depend on its age. If the Book of Mormon’s message is profound, that alone should be sufficient reason for serious analysis and dialogue. If the book is not worth reading, no claim to antiquity can salvage it” (1993, p. 53).

 

Fictional scripture? Revisionists Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe argue that the presence of obviously fictional material in the scriptures, such as parables, demonstrates that a text does not have to be historical to “be powerful in providing people with spiritual guidance” (2002, p. ix). Following a similar logic, Anthony Hutchinson (1993) calls the Book of Mormon a “fictional work of nineteenth-century scripture,” authored by Joseph Smith under inspiration yet deeply informed by Smith’s own beliefs. To Hutchinson’s understanding, the Book of Mormon as fictional scripture operates for believing readers in a way comparable to how fairy tales help children make sense of themselves and the world, according to psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976).

Revisionists display different understandings—some clearer or more concrete than others—of what it means to call the Book of Mormon “scripture.” Vogel and Metcalfe (2002), as well as Grant Palmer (2002), suggest that a nineteenth-century Book of Mormon can be read as a religious “allegory,” but they do not specify of what. Mark Thomas writes that, regardless of its historicity, the Book of Mormon “is an authoritative text that serves as a vehicle for sacred power and ultimate value” (1991, p. 62). Hutchinson holds that the Book of Mormon is “a work of scripture inspired by God in the same way that the Bible is inspired,” by which he means that “God’s hand somehow was at work in bringing forth the book which gave this group of Christians [the first Mormons] their separate identity.” Central to the Book of Mormon’s message, for Hutchinson, is its proclamation “of a Christ whose redeeming work is addressed to all times and places, [and] of the need for humble obedience to God and for social justice” (1993, pp. 1–2, 5). For David Wright, the religious relevance of the Book of Mormon is that it offers a “window” to Joseph Smith’s “internal struggles and spiritual challenges,” thus helping us “understand him much more completely and . . . appreciate the foundations of the tradition he inaugurated” (1993, p. 213).

Orthodox scholars (Robinson 1989; Midgley 1990; Hamblin 1993) maintain that positions such as these reduce religion to sentimentalism—in Stephen Robinson’s words, “a sugar-coated lie” (1989, p. 403). Putting an even finer point on it, John Tvedtnes (1994) protests that imagining the Book of Mormon as fictional scripture makes God a liar. William Hamblin (1994) contends that revisionists who insist that the Book of Mormon doesn’t have to be ancient to be the word of God are missing the point, since what is most fundamentally at stake in historicity is not the book’s status as scripture but Joseph Smith’s claims to prophetic authority. As Hamblin expresses the point elsewhere: “If there were no plates, Joseph was a fraud or a lunatic. If this is the case, why follow him at all?” (1993, p. 12). Kent Jackson poses the question this way: “If [the Book of Mormon] lies repeatedly, explicitly, and deliberately regarding its own historicity . . . , what possible cause would anyone have to accept anything of the work of Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” (2001, pp. 137–38).

The debate over the Book of Mormon as nonhistorical scripture parallels, and is informed by, debates over the historicity of the Bible descended from the modernist-fundamentalist controversies sparked by the emergence of higher criticism during the nineteenth century. The idea of reading the Book of Mormon as scripture but not historical is patterned after similar approaches to the Bible that became well established among liberal Jews and Christians during the twentieth century (Russell 1982). Orthodox LDS scholars with training in biblical studies warn Latter-day Saints not to follow a path that, as they see it, has already led liberal Christians astray (Robinson 1989; Millet 1993; Welch 1994).

 

Other views. William Hamblin (1994) divides skeptics of Book of Mormon historicity into “theistic naturalists,” “secular naturalists,” and “evangelicals.” Theistic naturalists reject Book of Mormon historicity yet continue to accept the book as scriptural; Anthony Hutchinson exemplifies this position. Secular naturalists reject the Book of Mormon both as historical and as scriptural because they reject belief in God. This is the position of someone who abandons Mormonism, and religion in general, to embrace something like positivist rationalism. Evangelicals deny that the Book of Mormon is either historical or scriptural but believe that the Bible is both. This is the position of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, former Mormons turned born-again Christians. One could add to Hamblin’s categories individuals who leave Mormonism for liberal forms of Christianity, rejecting the Book of Mormon but accepting the Bible as nonhistorical scripture.

Jungian psychoanalyst C. Jess Groesbeck represents yet a different position. Groesbeck sees Joseph Smith as a shaman who “was able to access at a deep subconscious level all the fragmented traditions, problems, expectations, dreams, and needs of his time and place, and through the Book of Mormon, to weave them together in an immensely satisfying way” (2004, pp. 35–36). While Groesbeck’s view resembles the “fictional scripture” approach, rejecting historicity while preserving a sense of the Book of Mormon as sacred text, Groesbeck moves beyond the biblical theism of revisionists like Hutchinson.

No doubt other  Latter-day Saints hold other unconventional, but unpublished, views. One individual I’ve met, raised LDS but now subscribing to a New Age spiritual style, professes to regard the Book of Mormon as scripture alongside texts from various world religions and metaphysical traditions.

 

Relationship to the LDS Church?

The question, “Does the Book of Mormon need to be historical in order for it to be scripture?” overlaps with, but is not the same as, the question, “Does the Book of Mormon need to be historical in order for the Church to be true?” The relationship between one’s beliefs about Book of Mormon historicity and one’s commitment to the LDS Church has been understood in different ways. The dominant view makes Book of Mormon historicity a prerequisite for Church membership. Others have urged tolerance of multiple views on historicity, while some embrace the Church for reasons that have nothing to do with the Book of Mormon.

 

Prerequisite for Church membership. From the perspective of the orthodox dilemma, it would be senseless to belong to the Church if the Book of Mormon is not historical. If the book is not historical, then Joseph Smith was not an authentic prophet, which means The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the restoration of Christ’s true church and is therefore powerless to open the way to salvation. This is the logic not only of the orthodox but also of skeptics who upon rejecting historicity conclude that the Church is a sham as well.

Furthermore, if one concludes, from this logic, that to challenge Book of Mormon historicity is to attack the Church’s authenticity and thus to undermine saving faith, it follows that members who raise such challenges are apostates who threaten to lead others astray with them (see Hamblin 1994 for one expression of this concern). Writing against Book of Mormon historicity has led to church discipline, or the threat of discipline, for Brent Metcalfe, Thomas Murphy, Grant Palmer, and David Wright, the last of whom also lost his job at BYU. Blake Ostler and other advocates of an expansion theory have thus far not faced such sanctions, suggesting that, despite the criticisms of some orthodox intellectuals, Church leaders perceive expansion theories to fall within the unmarked boundaries of LDS orthodoxy.

 

Tolerance for multiple views. Some revisionists assert that, fundamentally, it does not matter whether one believes the Book of Mormon is historical or not since it can be read as scripture in either case (A. Hutchinson 1993; Thomas 1999). Eugene England (1994, 1996), a believer in historicity, nevertheless advocated tolerance within the Church for a diversity of positions on that question. If belief in historicity mattered, England argued, God would have made the evidence clearer; what is crucial, in any event, is to heed the Book of Mormon’s teachings about Christlike living.

 

Mormonism without the Book of Mormon. Some members who neither accept the Book of Mormon as historical nor defend its status as scripture nevertheless value participation in the LDS Church for other reasons. When New World archaeology enthusiast Thomas Ferguson lost his faith in historicity, he continued to believe that Mormonism was superior to other religions, and he remained active out of a commitment to the Church’s social values (Larson 1996). Leonard Arrington (1985) cited Mormon ideals of community and family, free agency, and the search for knowledge as the grounds for his committing to the Church despite his indecision about the historicity of LDS faith claims. Grant Palmer (2002), having rejected Book of Mormon historicity, shows little interest in the book’s teachings; but he expresses continuing love for Joseph Smith’s teachings about the plan of salvation and eternal marriage, and he argues for treating the New Testament teachings of Jesus as the heart of LDS faith.

 

Other Latter Day Saint churches. Official LDS discourse promotes the view that the authenticity of the Book of Mormon leads logically to the truth of the Church’s exclusive claim to divine authority: “If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith was a true prophet. If Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s Church and is guided by God” (Missionary Guide 1988, p. 135; see also Benson 1988; Preach My Gospel 2004, p. 38). Of course, this logic would be disputed by members of other Latter Day Saint denominations, such as the Community of Christ or the FLDS Church. Thus, deciding that the Book of Mormon is historical is not necessarily the same as deciding that the LDS Church is the Lord’s one true church. The fact that some of the Three and Eight Witnesses later came to regard Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet without rejecting belief in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon further demonstrates that one’s beliefs about Book of Mormon historicity can be separated from one’s beliefs about the authority of Joseph Smith or that of subsequent church leaders.

Rethinking the historicity question

Beginning in the late 1990s, a few authors, influenced by postmodern scholarship, have argued that the historicity debates are a peculiarly modern phenomenon, meaning that all historicity debaters share assumptions that reflect the impact of the Enlightenment. By questioning those assumptions, these authors open up new ways of thinking about the historicity question.

Dennis Potter advocates what he calls a post-liberal approach to the Book of Mormon. This approach would reject the notion that “science [should] adjudicate everything about the way we see the world, including our religious beliefs” (2005, p. 73). Instead of marshalling scientific arguments for and against historicity, as apologists and skeptics alike do, Potter recommends that Latter-day Saints separate scientific discourse from the questions they ask about the Book of Mormon. One question Potter is especially keen to ask is whether the book helps Latter-day Saints liberate Native Americans.

John Williams likewise urges readers to lay aside the “question of scientific ‘truth’” to examine instead the social consequences that different views on historicity have for Native Americans (2005, p. 46). Williams argues that the hemispheric model of Book of Mormon historicity seized possession of Native Americans and their identity in a way characteristic of European colonization, whereas the new preference for a limited geography constitutes a partial relinquishing of authority over Native identity. This fact leads Williams to view the limited geography as a positive development, entirely apart from the question of whether that geography is historically true.

The most elaborate—and dense—postmodern critique of the historicity debates comes from BYU philosophy professor James Faulconer (1995, 2001). Faulconer maintains that modern readers, whether apologists or skeptics, assume that the scriptures are historical, or literally true, if they refer to objectively real events, the truth of which can be assessed by evidence outside the scriptures themselves: archaeology, DNA studies, or other documents of the period. However, premodern (pre-Renaissance) readers did not make this separation between historical events and the scriptural account of those events. From a premodern point of view, Faulconer argues, the only access to literal, historical truth was the scriptures themselves because they reveal the truth of events as God understands them.  By treating scriptures as texts whose truth, like that of any other text, consists in referring to objective reality, apologists for historicity actually surrender the divinity of scripture, namely its power to order the world in contrast to merely depicting the world. Faulconer urges Latter-day Saints to recover a “sacramental” vocabulary for talking about the historicity of scripture. A sacramental outlook would recognize that the scriptures, like poetry, “mean without being fully able to refer” (2001, p. 42). This means, among other things, that we must expect the scriptures to surprise us with new, unexpected meanings: “We must assume that scripture means exactly what it says, and, even more important, we must assume that we do not already know what it says” (1995, p. 83).

Faulconer assures orthodox Latter-day Saints that he understands the scriptures to be “about real people and real events” (2001, p. 44). He takes issue with readings of the Book of Mormon as nonhistorical scripture because he feels that these don’t avoid implying that Joseph Smith was a fraud and don’t offer a clear rationale for embracing Mormonism rather than another religion. Nevertheless, could Faulconer’s sacramental approach open up common ground for readers who regard the Book of Mormon as ancient scripture and readers who regard it as nineteenth-century scripture? Further discussion of Faulconer’s work is needed to tease out its implications.

 

Conclusion

The Book of Mormon historicity debates resemble debates about Bible historicity that divided twentieth-century Protestant liberals and fundamentalists. A crucial difference is that where fundamentalists lost control of the mainline Protestant denominations, orthodox LDS leaders and scholars have succeeded at stigmatizing liberal views of Book of Mormon historicity. Tolerance for positions that embrace the Book of Mormon as nonhistorical scripture, or that downplay the importance of historicity as grounds for committing to the Church, sharply declined by the end of the twentieth century. Liberal or revisionist views have been forced to the margins of the LDS community by an assertive and expanding apologetic movement, supported by General Authorities and periodically reinforced by church discipline against prominent revisionists.

However, this historical development should not entirely eclipse the fact that LDS thinking about Book of Mormon historicity has been, and continues to be, diverse. Granted that revisionists constitute a stigmatized and evidently very small minority, who differ among themselves in their understanding of the book’s status as scripture. But even Latter-day Saints who accept historicity hold differing views regarding how accurately or transparently the Book of Mormon reports the ancient past or to what extent the translation process may have allowed Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century ideas to be incorporated into the text.

Because the literature on Book of Mormon historicity is so extensive—especially the literature orthodox scholars have produced in support of historicity—it is hard to believe that someone could actually decide what to think about the historicity question by impartially weighing all arguments and evidence. There is simply too much to weigh; and new arguments, and counterarguments, and rebuttals to counter- arguments, are continually being produced. The presuppositions one brings to this question, prior to examining specific arguments for or against, are a critical factor in influencing how open one is to the arguments made on behalf of a certain position.

Part Two of this article will analyze these presuppositions. There I will “map” the Book of Mormon historicity question using social constructionist theories about how people form beliefs and interpret texts. This sociological mapping will highlight the role that relationships with other people play in forming an individual’s beliefs about Book of Mormon historicity. Part Two will also underscore the consequences that those beliefs have for a person’s relationships. I will propose that grappling with the arguments mapped in Part One is not, actually, the most important task for someone trying to decide whether or not the Book of Mormon is historically true.

 

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