A common (but not universal) sentiment among progressive Latter-day Saints is that the Book of Mormon is valuable simply because we, as the readers, find moral value in it. It has shaped our lives and history whether or not it is truly a historical record. I think this is largely correct. Some progressives go so far as to say they don’t believe it is a historical record, and that trying to demonstrate Book of Mormon historicity is a waste of time and a losing battle. I’m writing to you. I disagree with this assessment of the trends in Book of Mormon scholarship, but more importantly, I think you are hurting progressive efforts to shape the future of the church by rejecting Book of Mormon historicity. The way to win the historicity war is to embrace it, make the biases of the ancient authors and abridgers part of the everyday discussion, and open a space for academic scholarship in mainstream interpretation of scripture.
Scholars who accept Book of Mormon historicity bring in information from many scholarly disciplines. This places limits on the Book of Mormon, turning the game of choosing the best interpretations from a superficial, mystical exercise shaped solely by our 21st (or 20th, or 19th) century views, into an endeavor potentially shaped by the best advances in the scholarship of cultural history, literary theory, etc. This changes the entire discourse around what the Book of Mormon teaches. I want to outline a few ways this favors progressive ideals.
Historicity Empowers Scholarship
Accepting that the Book of Mormon was written by historical figures–people we can potentially learn about through the study of cultural history–even if you don’t share my belief, effectively weakens the absolute interpretive control of the religious hierarchy. I believe this control is more culturally assumed than doctrinal, anyway, and that many prophets don’t feel it is their job to give absolute interpretations of scripture. Many prophets think we should all be doing it ourselves, and have said as much, although others would restrict personal interpretation to a greater degree. But if the text belongs in a particular historical and cultural context, then anyone who develops expertise in that history gains an added authority in scriptural interpretation regardless of their ecclesiastical position. Scholarly experts have more sway in how we understand scripture, and the door is opened for science to influence Mormonism a little more.
Allowing science to encroach upon a religious text will have serious consequences and will meet with a lot of resistance, but it will likely have a similar effect to Biblical scholarship. There will be fundamentalist Mormons who resist the liberalized understanding, seeing it as eroding moral values, but there are few mainstream Christian churches which don’t recognize many of the difficulties with literal interpretation of the Bible. I’m unaware of any that still believe the Sun revolves around the Earth, although some still seek to justify a global flood. The same will happen with Mormonism. It will take a generation for each significant shift, but changes will happen, and they will happen in the direction of supporting measurable truths.
Historicity Witnesses for Christ
In contrast to the effect of Biblical scholarship causing many students to doubt the divinity and resurrection of Christ, embracing the Book of Mormon as historical has the opposite effect. Whatever biases its authors may have had, the Book of Mormon is a witness of the risen Christ. Biases don’t eliminate the lived experiences of thousands, and the transmission of those experiences is much less convoluted than for the Bible. People who saw Christ wrote about it. Mormon had their writings. Joseph Smith transmitted those writings. Three steps with no gap of a generation or two between the events and their recording. In addition, although we need to take hypotheses like Blake Ostler’s expansion hypothesis seriously, it is more difficult to argue away the content of the Sermon on the Mount as not coming from Christ. Book of Mormon believers have to take it at full force with its injunctions to love your enemies and do good to them that hurt you, to be reconciled to your brother for anything he has against you, to not lay up treasures on earth, and that the fruits of prophets are what show their truthfulness, not the man’s position.
I debated keeping or removing this section, because I think there are alternative, defensible interpretations of the Book of Mormon evidence for Christ’s visit to the Americas, even after accepting the Book of Mormon as a historically real document. Being a historical book (as opposed to a completely 19th century invention) does not necessarily make the Book of Mormon historically accurate. Ultimately, though, I think the historical Book of Mormon succeeds in its mission, to convince us that Jesus is the Christ, even as it tears down many of our superficial and false expectations about what that means. It really can give us hope.
Historicity Empowers Moral Responsibility
If the Book of Mormon is historical, ancient prophets are as human as modern ones, with all of their biases and limitations of knowledge and experience. This gives greater justification for the serious care progressive Mormons give to listening to modern prophets and then carefully examining what they teach. It makes us realize that everyone is a “cafeteria Mormon”. It strengthens the claim that we are responsible for our own moral choices, and not anyone else–even a prophet. Instead of having to convince Latter-day Saints that the Book of Mormon shouldn’t be read historically, you only need to convince them to read it more literally. To read the subtext illuminated by faithful, church sponsored, Book of Mormon scholars. Nephi got the history right–from his own perspective. When we insist he got it right from all perspectives, we become vulnerable to outside (and inside, for that matter) critics who would show that the Book of Mormon is a hoax perpetrated by Joseph Smith. Mormon compiled the Book of Mormon from the perspective of a lifelong soldier fighting an overwhelmingly losing battle. Thank goodness he and Moroni had visions of the future, or this could be an irredeemably morbid text. When we limit the Book of Mormon to this more human (not exclusively human) dimension, as the scholars of the Maxwell Institute (and Sunstone and Dialogue) regularly do, then our claims are more defensible–and lots of faithful members like defensible claims (See some examples of what we like, even if they don’t all bear close scrutiny). Show these members how making more modest, careful, historical claims about the Book of Mormon strengthens it against attack and props it up in its most important role–testifying of Christ–and they will begin to think and talk in more modest, careful ways. They will begin to give up a degree of scriptural inerrancy and prophetic hero worship because they will see how caution and modesty in these beliefs strengthens their evidence of the risen Christ.
(Since writing this post, I came across an article discussing the effect of framing on shifting political attitudes. If you want to shift the attitudes of conservatives in a liberal direction, you may have success doing it through framing your views in light of ingroup (i.e. believers in the Book of Mormon), authority (scripture provides authority), or purity (it is holy to follow liberal Book of Mormon teachings). So even if I weren’t such a strong believer that Ammon was a real Nephite prince, I would be on the right track toward influencing conservative attitudes.)
Those are some of my reasons. For progressive or cultural Mormons who want to stay in the LDS church, I think you are shooting yourselves in the foot to fight against Book of Mormon historicity. You should be embracing it to give you greater hope for the future of the LDS church, greater power to shape that future, and greater hope in the resurrection.
Your right. The solution for one you has temporarily lost their testimony of the historicity of the B. of M. (or never had one) is to regain or gain it. To paraphrase Fred Hoyle; one can imagine a universe where someone had published a experimental protocol for validating the truth claims of the B. of M. (oh, that’s right, Moroni did). On can imagine a universe where someone else published an even more rudimentary protocol in spiritual experimentation to enable everyone to successfully replicate Maroni’s experiment. (oh, that’s right, Alma did, I keep forgetting.)
The problem though is the science to say it’s historic just isn’t there-a fact even BH Roberts pointed out. The plants and animals are wrong-no bones, no pollen, no pictures, no evidence whats in the story was here. What we know was hete, and important to daily life is not mentioned. The technology is wrong-no steel, no byproducts, no mines, not even the wheel! Same with governments, legal systems, coins. We have invited scholars to look, and our scholars have looked, and we’re told by them it is a 19th century piece of work. We can’t say it’s historical and expect scholars to agree anymore than we can about the book of abraham.
Bill, I think you missed this post. http://rationalfaiths.com/testimony-spiritual-experiences-and-truth-a-careful-examination/
I like this idea a lot, Jonathan. This is essentially the approach Grant Hardy took with his “Understanding the Book of Mormon,” isn’t it?
I would really like to see more of this.
This isn’t a viable approach for one who believes there is little to no ambiguity regarding the evidence. I’m aware of the things you cite and interpret them differently.
It has similarities to Grant Hardy’s approach, but probably goes a step farther in believing the historical setting, if I understand Grant’s approach. I think Grant’s approach works even without conceding any historical merit to the Book of Mormon, and in that sense is a stronger academic position than mine. While mine has leanings toward rigorous scholarship, there is still a strong element of trust in the historical reality (not factual perfection) of the Book of Mormon than Grant’s approach doesn’t require.
I guess my question stemming from that statement is how do you propose as scholars and members we get around those and other issues to take this approach? Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of being able to hold some historical narrative to the BOM, but I don’t know how to navigate the pile of evidence saying it is a modern story. I need it to be historical but the apologetics I’ve seen to do just don’t make sense.
I find that whether particular apologetics make sense or not depends strongly on frequently undiscussed (and sometimes unidentified) foundational beliefs that are untestable. For example, what does one believe about God? Do you believe there is some kind of God who can and does interact with humans for reasons independent of the Book of Mormon, or is that a question you want the Book of Mormon to help answer, or do you believe there is no God? Another question is what one expects of the “translation” process? The range of answers can go from word for word literality to complete, free-form channeling. I think evidence favors a narrower set of possibilities, but even within this narrower set the differences lead to different expectations of what evidence means regarding the degree of historical accuracy one expects from the Book of Mormon.
From my perspective on God, revelation, and translation, the mountains of evidence against the Book of Mormon are weak, irrelevant, or expected consequences of very typical translation processes found in other examples of translation. From my wife’s position on God, she weights the evidence differently, and from some of my friends’ positions on translation they weight the evidence in yet another way. I disagree with their conclusions, but can’t fault their reasoning based on the foundations they believe. It took me a long time to understand those differences, though. My wife saw them quicker.
Interesting take. I appreciate the work you are doing here and elsewhere to get even us liberal types to revisit the possibility of the Book of Mormon as an ancient document.
While that is a nice faith position, I don’t see how it can be supported by a scholastic approach as you propose as many of those believes are not testable. Scholars aren’t going to quibble over the position they personally believe, but what the record shows. For example, scholars will look at what Joseph and his scribes said–the words appeared on the stone and didn’t leave until recorded as they appeared. The aren’t going to redefine words to fit their believes, such as “translate” means “inspired”–such a redefinition can even abandon the historic point of view. You’ve defined a great way for an individual to find room for a belief in a historic view, but I still don’t see how it can be taken by a scholar or non member as a literal history of Native American Lamanities which is what your position requires.
For me either its historical or it isn’t. So belief in historicity despite evidence to the contrary doesnt seem to work. It isnt healthy.
Mental health is a good reason to ignore my opinions. Stay healthy.
Don’t you rely on objectively real, proven rules when you teach chemistry? Or do you base it on imaginary principles because the imaginary keeps you in the faith of your chemistry fathers?
Anyway, I appreciate your apologetic attempt to save bofm historicity. Just believe, man, just believe. However, it simply isn’t historical and the sooner we deal with the implications of this and what it means for the church, the better it will be for everyone.
You are welcome to read these series of posts and decide for yourself if I understand rigorous academic reasoning when applied to religion:
If I didn’t mess up, they are conveniently linked so you can follow them through in order.
My experience with scientists is that as a group we are only marginally better informed about the philosophical foundations and implications of our fields than many philosophy of religion amateurs. You certainly can’t assume that because a person teaches chemistry he is well informed about the philosophy of science or religion. Your comment showed you are well aware of this fact.
Thanks for your blog post, I agree with you that seeing the Book of Mormon as a historically based document can in some ways empower more liberal and progressive readings of scripture: seeing Nephi and Mormon as real people can help us appreciate both their prophetic inspiration and human fallibility – which helps in building a similarly nuanced picture of modern prophets (as opposed to the just listen and obey paradigm). We can more directly apply the lessons of Nephite racism and war to our time for example. On the other hand, I think that one can argue that fiction often moves as much as non-fiction does – these readings can be sustained both in a Book of Mormon as inspired fiction and Book of Mormon as historically based paradigm.
The one area where I see historicity/non-historicity as making a big difference though, as you note, is in how we view it as a testimony of Jesus Christ: if it is intended as an inspired parable rather than an actual testimony of the Savior’s visit to ancient America, this brings into question its ability to actually testify of Jesus as Christ. If the Book of Mormon reflects Joseph Smith as an inspired author, then its teachings about Jesus are called into question as being culturally conditioned and not actually reflecting truly who Christ is. If, on the other hand, Jesus visited the Americas and the Nephites recorded what he told them, then we have a firmer testimony of Jesus, both that he IS and what kind of a being he is (i.e., Son of God and Savior of mankind instead of just inspired Jew).
In my reading, BM historicity is not a simple matter – there is arguably evidence on both sides. Perhaps the challenge is to recognize the evidence on both sides, synthesize it into some Blake Ostler-like expansion theory and loose translation model of the book, while respectfully both including and countering critical observations. I think apologetics has produced some very worthwhile observations, while also producing less worthwhile and too polemical pieces. Liberal Mormons are rightfully put off by the orthodox siege mentality exhibited by some more conservative members, but ought to keep an open mind and study both sides. Sometimes the shattering of unexamined assumptions about the Book of Mormon (continental setting, inerrancy) leads people to conclude against historicity when it would be better to reexamine those assumptions and gain a richer appreciation of the text.
That is my problem. There is nothing to collaborate the information. The time period is very specific so there should be at some evidence. And as more information becomes available DNA analysis, it appears that the land bridge theory is true. Native Americans are from Asia, not Israel. That is a problem for me.
While I think this article doesn’t capture how well thought out and informed Perego’s position is, I like how Schurr sums it up at the end of this article:
Acclaimed molecular anthropologist Theodore Schurr of the University of Pennsylvania disagrees in part with Perego’s conclusions about the remaining 4 percent of Native American DNA. “Given all of the linguistic, ethnographic, archeological, osteological, and genetic information that we have for Native American populations at this time,” Schurr said, “I would be extremely skeptical of any claim of pre-Columbian genetic contributions to indigenous communities of the Americas by Near Eastern populations of any kind.”
However, Schurr is quick to add that surprises may be in store for researchers investigating Native American origins, just like those exploring Etruscan origins which were veiled in mystery until recently.
Expect surprises. Just don’t expect them to prove a hypothesis that can’t even be formulated.