February 17, 2010

Huge new database of 19th-century publications about the Book of Mormon

Matt Roper from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS) has managed to track down, compile, and scan 556 publications discussing the Book of Mormon from between 1829 and 1844. The collection, called "19th-Century Publications about the Book of Mormon (1829–1844)" (also known as the "Kirkham project" after Francis W. Kirkham), is available for digging through online at the Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections. 

The collection includes facsimile copies as well as .pdf transcriptions of each publication. It seems to be an exciting resource for researching the reception and analysis of the Book of Mormon in early American print culture. The collection is described as follows:

Since its publication in 1830, the Book of Mormon has been cast in a variety of roles by both Latter-day Saint and non–Latter-day Saint readers. Published literature relating to the book that appeared during the Prophet Joseph Smith's lifetime is one of the best historical windows for understanding how this ancient American scripture was interpreted, used, and understood by early readers. This collection represents an effort to gather together that body of literature and make it available to those interested in the origins of the Book of Mormon.
The cropped image above is an excerpt from The Wayne Sentinel, Palmyra, New York, 26 June 1829. It is the earliest known publication mentioning the Book of Mormon. Here's part of the provided transcript:


Just about in this particular region, for some time past, much speculation has existed, concerning a pretended discovery, through superhuman means, of an ancient record, of a religious and a divine nature and origin, written in ancient characters, impossible to be interpreted by any to whom the special gift has not been imparted by inspiration. It is generally known and spoken of as the “Golden Bible.” Most people entertain an idea that the whole matter is the result of a gross imposition and a grosser superstition. It is pretended that it will be published as soon as the translation is completed. Meanwhile we have been furnished with the following, which is represented to us as intended for the title page of the work--we give it as a
“The Book of Mormon, an account, written by the hand of Mormon upon plates, taken
from the plates of Nephi—


See the collection here: http://lib.byu.edu/dlib/bompublications/. Having these sources in one place is great. I hope it grows, too.

February 16, 2010

"My Faves" on the Book of Mormon- Grant Hardy

In the first edition of the "My Faves" series, Grant Hardy went above the requested five to list six "Classic Articles That Changed My Thinking on the Book of Mormon." Hardy's explanation follows each reference.

1. Richard L. Bushman, “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” BYU Studies 17, no. 1 (Autumn 1976): 3-20. 

Many Latter-day Saints welcomed Bushman’s analysis of the differences between political ideas among the Nephites and those that were common in Joseph Smith’s era as evidence that the Book of Mormon was not a modern work. I appreciated that point, but also noticed that his study offered a similar correction to Mormon assumptions that Nephite prophets supported our own Cold War political opinions about the Constitution, democracy, capitalism, and the role of government. In the end, despite the value of their firm testimony of Christ, the Nephites were not really much like modern Americans.

2. Richard Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 49-68.

Before I read this article, I had always assumed that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in much the way the process is depicted in LDS artwork, but the evidence for his use of a seer stone in a hat is so clear and compelling that I was entirely persuaded. I realized that God does not always work in ways that seem respectable or reasonable to us, and I decided that I would not be embarrassed or defensive about following the evidence, wherever it might lead.

3. John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 33–52.

I did not read this article when it was first published in BYU Studies in 1969; rather, I came to it in the 1980s where there was something of a frenzy for identifying chiasmus everywhere in the Book of Mormon, along with dozens of other ancient rhetorical devices. The enthusiasm for this new “proof” of the historicity of the Book of Mormon sometimes overwhelmed reasonable analysis, but when I returned to the article that had started it all, I found that Welch’s observations were careful, modest, and convincing. Even if chiasmus is not the single key that unlocks the Book of Mormon, Welch did show that the book is more tightly constructed than anyone had heretofore suspected (a point that I hope to further in my own forthcoming monograph).

4. John L. Sorenson, “Digging into the Book of Mormon,” part 1 and part 2, Ensign, Sept. and Oct., 1984. 

I grew up with the common belief that the events of the Book of Mormon took place across all of North and South America (divided by the narrow neck of land at Panama), and that the photographs of ancient American ruins and artifacts included in the pre-1981 missionary edition were the remains of Nephites and Lamanites. These two articles, soon supplemented by Sorenson’s An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, first introduced the Church at large to the idea that a rigorous analysis showed that the Nephites and Lamanites had to have inhabited a much smaller territory, probably in Mesoamerica.  The articles upended generations of assumptions about Book of Mormon geography and once again pointed to what could be learned by reading the text itself carefully and critically.

5. Krister Stendahl, “The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 139–154. 

When I first read this as a high school student in 1978, I thought, “That’s nice.” Only years later did I come to realize how extraordinary it is to take the scriptures of another faith tradition seriously. Stendahl’s essay shows that it is possible for non-Mormons to read the Book of Mormon astutely, in a fair and open-minded manner. In the end, I don’t agree with all of his judgments, but he notices things and asks questions that might not occur to insiders. As a result, his comments are more valuable than any number of Latter-day Saints telling each other what they already know. I only hope that I can be as generous and respectful when I study other religions.

6. Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 61-93.

In many ways, the most reasonable way to understanding the odd combination of ancient and modern elements in the Book of Mormon is to assume that Joseph Smith introduced nineteenth-century terms and concepts into the text during the translation process as he struggled to put the ideas into his own words. Skousen’s article, backed up by the 4000 pages of his six-volume analysis of textual variants, made me change my mind. I now believe that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the Book of Mormon is not in Joseph’s words, but that he read a pre-existing translation off the seer stone—a translation provided by God. Usually, closer analysis leads away from traditional, conservative, or naive ideas; history is nearly always more complicated than we first imagined. In this case, however, the most comprehensive, detailed study points toward the simpler, more miraculous alternative (even if it leaves us scratching our heads about the non-standard grammar and sometimes awkward diction).


Grant Hardy is Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He earned a B.A. in Ancient Greek from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. in Chinese Language and Literature from Yale. Hardy wrote the introduction for Royal Skousen’s recent Yale publication, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. Hardy's forthcoming book, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford, 2010), will be an interesting companion to his earlier book, The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition. He has authored several articles and chapters on the Book of Mormon for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. See also his essay from "Mormon Scholars Testify."