Book Review – By the Hand of Mormon
For some reason I feel obliged to regularly seek out books that directly challenge my worldview. Surely in this effort I am not as quixotically brave as I sometimes like to pretend, nor am I freer than anyone else to stand above and outside my own presuppositions to discern “the truth.” Nevertheless, I persist in seeking out the paradoxical peace of inquietude. I cite this reality in order to juxtapose it with the fact that I also frequently seek out material that entirely affirms my existing convictions, presuppositions, and beliefs. Reading By the Hand of Mormon by Terryl Givens has been precisely this second sort of experience, validating at the same time as it has expanded my confidence in this special record we know as the Book of Mormon. This book of scripture is more remarkable than I had supposed, and reading By the Hand of Mormon did for the Book of Mormon what Rough Stone Rolling did for Joseph Smith, which was to demonstrate a way to grapple with spiritual subject matter academically, doing so with not only the tools of scholarship but with the access granted by faith.
How peculiar is the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon! Whatever we may say of its remarkable character, we can never escape the oddity, nigh unto unbelievability, of golden plates inscribed in an ancient, lost language, buried in the earth for almost a millennium and half, to be delivered by an angel appearing to a young farm boy in an obscure village of upstate New York. Indeed, truth is often stranger than fiction, and in a way that both humanizes Joseph Smith and endears him to us, he seemed to have recognized what an unlikely story he was telling. As the Book of Mormon was nearing publication, Joseph records that people in the neighborhood were “disposed to enquire into the truth of these strange matters which now began to be noised abroad.” More explicitly, Joseph said in a sermon less than two month before his death, “I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself.”
When we situate the strange story of Joseph Smith in a larger context of strangeness that inheres other areas of life, however, the initial shock of angels and gold plates begins to fade. Latter-day Saints as well as traditional Christians, after all, believe that the immortal God who made everything became mortal and allowed himself to be killed by common men, only to miraculously come back to life three days later – not to mention the performance of a host of other miracles like walking on water and multiplying bread and fish to feed 5,000 people. Jews believe that a massive body of water parted so that an entire group of people could cross on foot. Once we allow for these, how can we disallow the story of Joseph Smith on the basis of miraculous peculiarity alone? And the religious are not the only ones who preach mystery. One of the most scientifically learned individuals among us describes the universe as composed of “a dance of intricate patterns within a pervasive, ever-present, effervescent medium…Our substance is the hum of a strange music, a mathematical music more precise and complex than a Bach fugue.” The reality being slowly uncovered by science is highly counterintuitive – that is, peculiar. All the visible mass in the universe only comprises 5% of the total, the rest being comprised of “dark matter” and “dark energy,” two terms that do not even begin to describe what they signify, because quite frankly no one can yet give them an accurate description. Mass can arise from a mass-less medium; at near the speed of light an object’s mass increases, its length shortens, and time slows down; and, at the subatomic level, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle not only places a limit on what can be observed objectively at any given time but also causes different results to arise from identical experiments. Our universe is clearly a strange one, regularly leaving man stupefied and bewildered by its peculiarity. Therefore, when Sterling McMurrin says, in a declaration dripping with presumption, “you don’t get books from angels and translate them by miracles; it is just that simple,” the appropriately flippant response is, “Says who?”
Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the Book of Mormon, putting aside its mode of transmission through Joseph for a moment, is the pervasively Christian teachings it puts forth in the so-called “pre-Christian era.” But to Latter-day Saints at least, there is no such thing as the “pre-Christian era,” given how the doctrine of Christ was revealed to Adam in its purity, and was had in various dispensations of time and in various geographic locales, and was fully contemplated in the beginning before the world was framed. The mode of translation, on the other hand, seems to garner more negative attention, owing to the strangeness of plates, seer stones, and Joseph’s process of translating. While the strangeness may be initially startling, as any strange occurrence is, the critic is obliged to hold it in abeyance and to look for more legitimate reasons to disbelieve.
A Preposterous Intrusion
Givens goes to great lengths to explicate a feature that is cardinal to both the Book of Mormon and to the broader universe of Joseph’s revelations: the unblushing intrusion they represent into “the realm of the concrete, historical, and empirical.” (43) If Joseph Smith, or anyone in the early nineteenth century, fabricated the Book of Mormon, they chose to walk a tightrope of empirical hazard, putting themselves at perilous risk of falsification. The Book of Mormon refuses to be evaluated as a philosophical garden tour of wispy ideas and esoteric propositions. Instead, it presents itself as true, flesh-and-blood history. “The question that remains,” says Givens, “is why could not the revelations of Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon included, be read as creatively, metaphorically, or selectively as those of other mystics, visionaries, or prophets? (79) He cites two examples of visionaries (Swedenborg and Boehme) who have been “sanitized” and selectively read by subsequent thinkers, and then continues,
Joseph Smith and his revelations, however, simply do not cooperate in such a project…The problem, of course, is that Joseph’s prophetic writings were grounded in artifactual reality, not the world of psychic meanderings. It is hard to allegorize – and profoundly presumptuous to edit down – a sacred record that purports to be a transcription of tangible records hand-delivered by an angel. (79-80)
In terms of tangibility and concreteness, with the Book of Mormon we have none other than the ancient city of Jerusalem as the genesis of the narrative. A more-or-less particular route is traveled across the Arabian Peninsula by Lehi and his family. A transoceanic voyage is made to the American continent, and the narrative then overflows with subsequent specificity on down-to-earth subjects as diverse as currency, political government, relative geography, timeframes, and cultural elements like coronation ceremonies and methods of warfare. The record steps out onto the ledge of physicality and evidential vulnerability on point after point, which has precipitated a flood of critical polemics churned out unceasingly over the past century and a half from detractors both sectarian and secular aimed at exploiting this vulnerability. If Joseph (or whoever the critics allege wrote the book) were perpetuating a fraud, he (or they) chose extremely dangerous ground upon which to do so. Wouldn’t Harold Bloom’s “authentic religious genius” have foreseen such an obvious and impending danger, and therefore have worked to de-historicize the account? The level of presumption, to say nothing of daftness, inherent in creating a fraudulent narrative couched in pre-exilic Israel that would sooner or later be subject to harsh fact checking, is incommensurate with the portrait of Joseph we often get from critics as a stunningly clever deceiver who was somehow able to weave a complicated narrative.
That the argument on the historicity of the Book of Mormon is still being entertained – that there still exists an argument on the matter – strikes me as one of the most resounding rebuttals to the critical notion that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction, inspired or otherwise. Simply put, the scouring of the historical record and the ongoing march of scholarly investigation have not relegated the Book of Mormon to the dustbin of history, as certainty would have dictated had such a brash undertaking been done under the auspices of a fraudulent mastermind pretending to write true history. LDS scholar Hugh Nibley spent a lifetime studying the milieu of the ancient Near East and remarked that “the book of Ether, like First Nephi, rings the bell much too often to represent the marksmanship of a man shooting at random in the dark.” The study of parallels can be a slippery issue of course, ambiguous as parallels are when viewed in isolation or in scattered groupings; however, Nibley’s point is precisely that the ancient corroborations have reached a critical mass: the naturalistic explanations for the Book of Mormon have simply run out of steam. To compound the matter further, what we’re dealing with is not a situation where Joseph had all the information on ancient Near Eastern culture at his disposal, and it was simply too Herculean a task for him to incorporate it all into one narrative without supernatural aid; rather, the irreducibly compounding factor is that Joseph’s background and available resources were so utterly incongruous with the final product. In fact, even the talents and resources of the greatest minds of the day were incongruous in the same manner. To ascribe to Joseph, or to any early nineteenth century individual, the authorship of the Book of Mormon is to endow that person with knowledge of ancient customs, cultures, and linguistic elements that not even the most learned scholars of the day knew, let alone the untutored Joseph Smith who was a mere 23 years old during the book’s dictation. These realizations evoke a persistent sense of wonder at the enormity of the accomplishment.
Embarrassed, it seems, by the unwelcome claims to factual history that the Book of Mormon forces upon the reader, some people today have opted to bracket the discussion about whether Nephi, Moroni, or Zarahemla ever really existed, and instead focus on how the book imparts generally good and inspiring principles. This stance would be understandable presuming that the historical validity of the Book of Mormon had already been thoroughly thrashed by the consensus of current scholarship, but instead today we find a very real discussion being had about the historical validity of Book of Mormon prophets, places, and culture. This avoidance of the confrontation, therefore, belies either an ignorance of how the middle ground is evaporating, or a simple unwillingness to engage the known scholarship.
The book speaks about concrete times and places in history, describing settings that one can attempt to corroborate with the findings of archaeology, geography, anthropology, and more. The fact that the Book of Mormon intrudes on such dangerous ground, opening itself up to the salvos of rational scrutiny, and still stands 182 years later with a legitimate debate underway about its historicity, is a cause for wonder. If we could go back in time and ask any of the major detractors of the Book of Mormon in its first days – Alexander Campbell or E.B. Howe, for instance – if they think the Book of Mormon will grow in scholarly legitimation over the next two centuries as opposed to shrink, I am confident they would laugh at the silliness of the question. Surely it is only a matter of time before the Book of Mormon sinks into oblivion under the accumulating evidence of so obvious an imposture. But the Book of Mormon has been most intransigent in this regard; it has stubbornly refused to yield to the onslaught of rational and scientific arrows aimed at destroying it. The question of historicity is not settled by any means, but the fact is that the last 30 years have seen a surge in Book of Mormon scholarship, reinforcing the historicity of the work. The trickle of scholarly vindication of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, which began in earnest in the mid-twentieth century, spurred largely by Hugh Nibley, had by the end of the century become a veritable downpour. And while the critical arguments have advanced only marginally since Joseph Smith’s day (Grant Palmer’s recent work, for example, is essentially an embellished reprise of Alexander Campbell’s original denunciation of the Book of Mormon as a mere pastiche of contemporary influences), the scholarship tending to authenticate the Book of Mormon has only multiplied and grown manyfold during the same time period, especially so in the last 30 years.
One case in point will suffice for the present time – the careful study of First Nephi with an eye on the ancient Near East. The scholarship on this wide topic borrows from at least the following disciplines: history, anthropology, geography, botany, and archaeology. The threads from each of these combine to form a quite exceptional validation of what we read in Nephi’s account. The general route out of Jerusalem described by Nephi matches in great detail the ancient Frankincense Trail. The language of “reformed Egyptian” used by Nephi ceases to seem bizarre in light of the documented connections between ancient Israel and Egypt during the time period in question. Ishmael dies and is buried in a small, ancient burial place in the bleak landscape of the Arabian Peninsula known as “Nahom” – a place name that has actually been matched to a physical burial ground known today, inscriptions of which have been deciphered corroborating the use of this name. This burial ground is located exactly where the book of First Nephi predicts, fitting exceptionally well into the overall route sketched by Nephi. As has been noted by Noel Reynolds in an impressive documentary about the First Nephi account, the place Nahom did not even exist on any known gazetteer of Joseph Smith’s day. William Hamblin observes in the same documentary that the odds of Joseph Smith hitting this bullseye by chance are “astronomical.” That Joseph could have gotten the tip from some educated person sometime in the 1820’s strikes me as almost equally astronomical. The chances are vanishingly small that even the most well-versed historian or geographer in Joseph’s day would have known about this obscure place on the other side of the world – and then would have told a random, scantily educated 23 year old in rural Palmyra about it. But it isn’t just this single striking find that lends credence to the First Nephi narrative; it’s the entire journey from Jerusalem to the seashore of southern Arabia, which reveals correspondences on numerous fronts.
The family’s route turns east at around Nahom, and continues through a bleak portion of the Arabian desert known as the Empty Quarter. As it turns out, such a turn to the east points Nephi’s family directly toward the only miniscule part of the Arabian coast that could qualify as the relatively lush “Bountiful” that Nephi describes. Had Nephi’s travelogue described a continued southward trajectory at this point in the story – or any direction except east – it would have made the subsequent description of Bountiful highly implausible given the almost complete barrenness of the land in that region. Here we see another specific example of Joseph’s uncanny marksmanship: how did he know to send Lehi’s family east? The specificity contained in the record, and its congruity with what we are now finding in this region of the Middle East, are nothing less than remarkable. Nephi describes the coastal area of Bountiful as having honey; it turns out that one of the two candidates along the Arabian coast for Nephi’s Bountiful actually features alcoves in nearby cliffs containing beehives from which the locals still harvest honey to this day. Nephi then relates the unlikely story of constructing an ocean-going ship, a feat that would require not only sizable timbers but also metal for making tools. Nephi’s clan was definitely not equipped for a heavy-duty mining operation, so how would they have gathered sufficient metals? And who in Joseph’s day would have assumed that there exists a spot in the parched Arabian Peninsula where trees grow large enough to use for ship building? Not only does the location called Wadi Sayq in present-day Oman contain suitable timbers for building a ship, but also features nearby iron ore deposits. As mentioned, Nephi and his family were not miners; how significant, then, was the discovery that the iron ore deposits in this area exist so close to the ground that a person can literally break off pieces with their bare hands? Rationally speaking, how likely does it seem that the First Nephi account is either fictional, or is based on the knowledge available in the American Northeast in the decade of 1820-1830? Once again, the odds are simply astronomical.
Yet all of these scientific and scholarly findings comprise only one facet of the diamond. They do not even begin to touch how the Book of Mormon has been the catalyst for millions of individuals in forging their own spiritual connection with the divine; nor do they begin to address the fact that the religious content of the book elegantly encapsulates the core doctrine of Christ expounded in the Bible, at the same time it weaves new threads into the fabric with the skill of an expert seamstress; in particular, I refer to the profound re-conceptualization of Adam’s fall as a fortunate one, which, similar to the way a small change in a bullet’s trajectory translates into a huge difference in the bullet’s final resting place, gives the entire plan of salvation an utterly different flavor; or, we could cite the beautiful illumination offered on the subject of Atonement and the related subject of how divine grace interacts with human moral agency and priesthood ordinances in the pursuit of personal sanctification and the establishment of a Zion community. It’s all there, and in abundance.
We begin to gain sight, then, of three predominant pillars undergirding the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. First, the energizing spiritual witness that comes to the sincere, open, inquiring soul; second, the elegant and beautiful rendition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we find in its pages, affirming the core truth of the Bible while simultaneously bringing additional light; and third, the myriad findings of scholarship and science that reinforce both the narrative of the book itself and Joseph’s story about how it came to be. What we have with the Book of Mormon is an audacious story of provenance culminating in an audacious book of scripture. Givens summarizes how the emphasis on historical facticity – both by Joseph in regards to how the book came forth, and by the book itself in regards to its own story – forever changes the parameters of the debate over the Book of Mormon’s reception in modern culture. Speaking first about the Urim and Thummim used by Joseph during the beginning of the translation effort, he says,
Though they will disappear as certainly as did the ark and its contents, these interpreters by their palpability, divine provenance, and miraculous powers intrude themselves so conspicuously into the whole process as to violently polarize the Book of Mormon’s reception around the issue of authenticity rather than theological merit…With Joseph Smith serving as translator rather than author, a comfortable middle ground – that the record is a human product perhaps meriting some divine approbation – is well-nigh impossible. (83)
It is the amalgam of audacity and conspicuous history that make the Book of Mormon a polarizing force, perhaps directly in fulfillment of Moroni’s words to Joseph, that his name was to be had “for good and evil” among all nations.
So is the debate about historicity over? Of course not. Both sides of the historicity debate have legitimate arguments in varying degrees of persuasiveness. And this is as it should be. “The Book of Mormon,” said late apostle Elder Neal Maxwell, “will remain in the realm of faith.” Does there exist New World archaeological evidence of the smoking-gun variety, affirming the Book of Mormon’s historical validity? No, there is not; the study of the Old World, however, is currently more fruitful in this regard, as we have seen. Still, lack of confirmatory archaeology in the New World, where most of the book’s history takes place, is considered by many to be a deathblow to the Book of Mormon’s credibility. The response to this is quite elementary: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It never has been, and it never will be. The sublime irony at play here is that this indictment often comes from believing Christians, who, when they turn away from facing the Mormon, turn around to face the atheist, who says to them, “How can you believe in God when there is no shred of conclusive empirical evidence of his existence?” Attempting to negotiate a belief in God on purely empirical or rational grounds has always been fraught with intractable difficulty, so the Christian is obliged to answer, “The absence of empirical evidence for God’s existence is not evidence of his absence.” Presumably, the Christian would then proceed to cite evidence other than the purely empirical to substantiate his faith.
Residing as it does in the realm of faith, the Book of Mormon serves as a microcosm illuminating a broader reality. Just as a dynamic tension exists over the Book of Mormon’s reputed role as a reservoir of true history, a similar dynamic tension exists over all the deeper questions of life: Is there a God? Is there something immortal in the constitution of man? Does man have a purpose derived from a dimension of reality transcending this one? On none of these questions is a thoroughly satisfying rational answer forthcoming. Supports and reinforcements exist on either side of the chasm, thus evacuating any notion of mental or spiritual compulsion in the working out of an answer. And the answer is always predicated on a choice of faith. One of the great lies of our present age is that unbelief is, despite any shortcomings, at least rational; whereas belief is patently irrational, or at best extra-rational. Such a dichotomous portrait is obviously absurd. As Alma asks Korihor, “And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not?” (Alma 30:40) Disbelief, we find, is just as lacking in empirical proofs as belief, rendering faithlessness just as much a spiritual choice as faith. Against this backdrop of dynamic tension, where opposite ends push and pull against each other without conclusive resolution, man is left to make a spiritual choice; to stand from a place of precariousness and stretch into the unknown because he sees a faint glimmer of something he desires. I do not doubt that one of the primary acts of God in our world is the maintenance of exactly this kind of articulated balance.
A Cloud of Witnesses
A cult, as the term has been used colloquially, most often implies the presence of a charismatic or otherwise magnetic personality at the center of a movement that usually, with time, spins out of control or dies along with its leader. Among the many characteristics that set historical Christianity apart from such cults is the fact that there exists a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), not just a single testimony, substantiating the miraculous happenings related to Jesus of Nazareth.
Implicit in many of the arguments made against the Book of Mormon is that it is the work of a solitary individual working, as it were, in a vacuum, and then finally springing his finished book upon an unsuspecting world. Givens exhaustively demonstrates the fallaciousness of this assumption. Just as a cloud of witnesses attended the rise of Christianity, a cloud of witnesses attended the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. By Givens’ count, we have statements from roughly two dozen people who witnessed various aspects of the book’s production, from the three witnesses who beheld an angelic vision, to several individuals who simply came and went from the room in which Joseph was dictating the text to his scribes. We have numerous statements that are notable for their tangible descriptions of the size, weight, shape, and even the metallic sound that the plates made as the edges were ruffled. The testimonies of the three and eight witnesses are striking by the way they complement each other, and furthermore by the fact that not one of these witnesses later retracted his testimony, despite ample opportunity to do so. Although William McLellin was not one of the three or eight witnesses (he was one of the original Quorum of the Twelve apostles), his testimony in regards to the Book of Mormon is illustrative of the quality of the rest, and particularly meaningful given his defection from the church:
I have set to my seal that the Book of Mormon is a true, divine record and it will require more evidence than I have ever seen to ever shake me relative to its purity. I have read many ‘Exposes.’ I have seen all their arguments. But my evidences are above them all! I have no faith in Mormonism, no confidence that the church organized by J. Smith and O. Cowdery was set up or established as it ought to have been…But when a man goes at the Book of Mormon he touches the apple of my eye.
At least two simple observations arise from the sheer multitude of witness statements about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. First, if we operate under the assumption that Joseph Smith orchestrated an intricate lie involving fake plates and interpreters, then we must also assert, given the cloud of witnesses, that Joseph was successful in assembling a vast conspiracy of individuals who were exceptionally good at never breaking character, even decades after Joseph’s death. As we recall, the key witnesses to the divinity of the Book of Mormon never retracted their testimonies. How likely is it, realistically, that such an intricate conspiracy was concocted by Joseph, and then so successfully carried out? The level of complicity required is astounding. The chances of this happening, it seems, are vanishingly small.
The second observation has to do with the theories that posit Sidney Rigdon (or someone else other than Joseph) as the author of the Book of Mormon. By this theory, Sidney authors the Book of Mormon, and then surreptitiously delivers the text to Joseph Smith, who then reads the text to his scribes to make it look like an off-the-cuff dictation. Then Sidney later fakes a conversion to the Mormon Church, pretending that he never before had contact with Joseph Smith, and the two men go on to realize their duplicitous intent to be the leaders of the new movement. Believers in Joseph Smith’s story are regularly accused of having to perform “mental gymnastics” to maintain belief; here, in this particular secret-author theory, it appears we have found a level of mental gymnastics worthy of Olympian fame. And it is worth pointing out that this theory is even entertained in the first place because it is recognized that even less probability obtains in the assertion that Joseph Smith himself was the source of the Book of Mormon.
The Uncut Diamond
Givens does not so much argue, but rather observes, that the actual content of the Book of Mormon has been severely neglected throughout Mormon history, a trend that is only reversing itself within the past one or two generations. The book functioned as more of a sign that a new dispensation had been inaugurated and less as a repository of novel or noteworthy doctrine. That the principal message seemed to resonate strongly with the Bible was enough; it quickly became “signifier rather than signified,” pointing to Joseph’s prophetic authority more than to its own internal persuasiveness. Somewhat surprisingly, even Joseph Smith himself did not utilize the Book of Mormon much when sermonizing. “During the seven years of the church’s Nauvoo period,” writes Givens,
when Joseph was preaching in public on a regular basis, the hundreds of recorded pages of his sermons contain only a handful of brief allusions to the Book of Mormon – and none of them involve sustained discussion of doctrine or any other content. (85)
In a study of other early Mormon writers and preachers, Givens cites Grant Underwood’s work that shows that “in early LDS publications the Bible was quoted anywhere from 19 to 40 times as often as the Book of Mormon.” (191) Fast forward to President Ezra Taft Benson a century and a half later, and we find a clarion call to take the Book of Mormon more seriously. Pioneering work had already been done by Hugh Nibley, as well as by B.H. Roberts, but not on the scale with which it would be done following President Benson’s ministry. As Daniel Peterson wrote in 1990, when Book of Mormon scholarship was in full swing,
There is mounting up a considerable body of analysis demonstrating that at least something of the strangeness of the Book of Mormon is due to the presence in it of other ancient and complex literary forms which Joseph Smith is highly unlikely to have discovered on his own, and showing as well that its contents are rich and subtle beyond the suspicions of even the vast majority of its most devout readers.”
When Jesus visited the Nephite people, Mormon says that “he did expound all things, even from the beginning until the time that he should come in his glory.” (3 Ne. 26:3) Then Mormon says, “I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people.” (3 Ne. 26:11)
And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them. (3 Ne. 26:9)
With the members of the church finally diving into the Book of Mormon in the way it deserves, finding doctrinal beauty, spiritual power, and even scholarly vindications through the study of it, one wonders if we are beginning to qualify ourselves for the unfolding of additional scripture in our lifetime – an exciting possibility to consider.
A Variation on the Familiar
In a fantastic address given by Elder Russell Nelson entitled “A Treasured Testament” from a 1992 seminar of new mission presidents, we find the doctrinal content of the Book of Mormon described and appreciated:
First, let us examine a few myths the book refutes or denies. The Book of Mormon refutes the doctrine of predestination. It refutes the ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) idea of creation. It refutes the false but pervasive notion of original sin. It refutes the fable of faith without works. It refutes the adequacy of goodness alone without exalting ordinances. It refutes the practice of infant baptism. It refutes methods of baptism other than that of immersion by one bearing proper authority. It refutes the arbitrary restriction that revelation from God ended with the Bible…
While doubts about Jesus exist among today’s ministers and scholars, the Book of Mormon stands as an international beacon of divine truth…
It affirms the reality of premortal life…
It reveals the state of the soul between death and resurrection…
It reveals the endless nature of the priesthood of God and the foreordination of choice spirits called and prepared from the foundation of the world…
The Book of Mormon reveals the important interrelationships between the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement.
One of these interrelationships made luminous by the Book of Mormon is that Adam’s fall was downward, but also forward. Writes Givens,
The Book of Mormon is emphatic in its insistence that the detritus of the fall – sin and death especially – is a dark middle passage, not a point of origin, in humanity’s spiritual odyssey. That is why, as regards Adam’s transgression, the Book of Mormon weighs in with an unqualified endorsement of the “fortunate fall.” (201)
The implications of this doctrine are profound. Like the ironing out of a wrinkle in a linen fabric, this doctrine enables us to see the iridescent sheen of the plan of salvation, showing us that man’s original state is not one of complete moral depravity, thus insinuating what would later become a sublime fixture of Mormon thought – that human beings belong to the family of God by lineage, not merely by creation, thereby infusing them with the embryonic potential to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). For if man were quintessentially depraved, as well as ontologically alien to God, then such a doctrine of deification would be absurd; but, in the Book of Mormon we see that while man’s fallen nature is “carnal, sensual, and devilish,” (Alma 42:10) this is only half his nature – he also has the capacity to become “a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord.” (Mosiah 3:19) So, which is man’s deeper nature? Which defines him more essentially? The Book of Mormon is clear that this life is a “state of probation,” or in Givens’ words, “a dark middle passage.” If this life is a testing ground for souls, there must have first existed souls to be tested. And if our souls existed before coming to this fallen state, and came here with the potential to rise or fall, we can rightly say that this potentiality came before, or goes deeper than, our fallen, mortal condition. Far from being a damning inadequacy, this potentiality was more akin to innocence or naiveté – and the key point is that this potentiality was good. Before our mortal advent, our familiarity with those forces that tend to edify a human soul (“good”) and those forces that tend to dilute a human soul (“evil”) was simply limited; we were, and still are, incomplete souls. The capacity to grow into the image and likeness of our divine parentage is one of the most essential – perhaps the most essential – attribute of humankind. And so when the Book of Mormon repackages the Fall of mankind as a positive step forward into a testing ground of opposites, putting into play man’s moral agency in a dynamic environment entirely overshadowed by atoning grace, the book is anticipating, without saying it, precisely the sort of exaltation that Joseph’s later revelations and teachings embody.
Elder Nelson, quoted above, mentions how the Book of Mormon refutes the “arbitrary” end of revelation with the Bible. Surely the much-touted sufficiency of the Bible in modern Christendom is arbitrary, seeing how the Bible teaches no such thing. By its mere existence the Book of Mormon refutes this, of course, but so do its contents. “Because that ye have a Bible,” says Nephi, “ye need not suppose that it contains all of my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written.” (2 Ne. 29:10) The brother of Jared wrote words that were sealed for some future day, and Christ visited other groups after he saw the Nephites, presumably engendering even more scripture. In these ways, the Book of Mormon emphatically teaches how arbitrary and presumptuous it is for man to declare a closed, fixed canon of scripture. This teaching causes the ultimate focus for spiritual authority to shift away from revelatory texts themselves, which are always imperfect and incomplete reflections of a grander reality, and toward the revelatory source that gave them birth. Givens quotes Orson Whitney, who said, “No book presides over this church and no books lie at its foundation. You cannot pile up books enough to take the place of God’s priesthood inspired by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
But it isn’t just toward prophets and priesthood authority that the Book of Mormon points; a major theme of Givens’ work is that the Book of Mormon both illustrates and invites personal “dialogic revelation,” a paradigm for communicating with heaven where the divine distance collapses not just between God and his prophet, but between God and any of his children. This is not to say that prophethood is devoid of any special uniqueness; it is to say, however, that personal revelation receives a boost in importance. “In the world of the Book of Mormon,” says Givens,
concepts like revelation, prayer, inspiration, mystery find powerful and substantive redefinition. That may well be the Book of Mormon’s most significant and revolutionary – as well as controversial – contribution to religious thinking…The “knowability” of all truth, the openness of mystery, the reality of personal revelation find vivid illustration within the record and invite reenactment outside it. (221)
Moroni makes exactly this kind of invitation in the closing chapter of the book, invoking this idea of dialogic revelation. Moroni’s promise has become such a staple in our thinking that we do not see how unique it is. The Bible does not, at least explicitly, have such an intense focus on personal revelation. Givens writes that “for millions of believers, the Book of Mormon has been the vehicle through which they could find their own sacred grove and reenact on a personal scale the epiphany that ushered in a new dispensation.” (239)
Tight or Loose?
A perennial enigma for students of the Book of Mormon has been to determine the specifics of Joseph’s translation of the book. Was it a word-for-word translation, as if reading from a teleprompter? Or do we find the imprint of Joseph’s mind throughout the text, making the Book of Mormon a revelation more akin to what we find in the Doctrine & Covenants? Puzzlingly, we find indications of both. Joseph himself was notoriously silent about the mechanics of his translation, even saying in response to a question from his brother Hyrum in an 1831 conference of the church, that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon,” and that “it was not expedient to relate these things.” Critics will find in these statements evidence of duplicity, while believers take them in stride, holding out the possibility that divine wisdom was at play in Joseph’s reluctance to discuss the matter. Almost the extent of what we have from Joseph was that the translation was accomplished “by the gift and power of God.” Yet despite this numinous comment we have several circumstantial details, as well as the analysis of the text, to shed further light on the translation process.
First, what do we have to support a tight translation of the text? The very existence of the plates, and the need to have them in close proximity during the dictation would seem to argue against the book being a purely untethered revelation. The fact that the Nephite interpreters were used, to be followed by a seer stone for the bulk of the translation, also seem to suggest that specific words were being given to Joseph not of his own deciding. We also have this interesting comment from Joseph himself regarding the title page:
I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general; and that said title page is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation.
The specificity here is inescapable, as is the insistence that the title page is a “literal translation.” It is interesting that Joseph would emphasize the literalness of this portion, as well as emphasize that it is not the product of any modern composition. Could he be subtly drawing a distinction between this portion and other portions of the Book of Mormon? Royal Skousen’s work with the critical text project of the Book of Mormon has uncovered further support for a tight translation. A close reading of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon reveals various ‘Hebraisms’ – grammatical structures that match Hebrew better than English. Moroni’s famous promise, for instance, reads a little differently in the original manuscript: “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, and he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Many more examples exist, including Helaman chapter 12, which contained at least a half dozen ‘if…and’ constructions in the original in the place of ‘if..then’ (or ‘if’ with an implied ‘then’). This structure is awkward English, but it turns out to be good Hebrew. Skousen’s project confirms that the original manuscript was a dictation, and also shows where scribal cross-outs occurred on some proper names with the correct spellings written above, which corroborates Emma Smith’s statement that Joseph would occasionally slow down his dictation and spell out proper names that he could not pronounce. In Elder Nelson’s talk cited above, he mentions a scholar from Egypt by the name of Sami Hanna, who translated the Book of Mormon into Arabic. Hanna was so impressed and moved by the way the Book of Mormon was able to “flow smoothly back to a Semitic language” that he was led toward conversion and eventually joined the church. It would seem that a text purely in Joseph Smith’s own idiom would not exhibit such characteristics. We also have the curious story related by Martin Harris, in which Martin, hoping to test Joseph while he served as scribe, switched the seer stone for a similar looking stone, to see what would happen. By Martin’s account, “the Prophet remained silent, unusually and intently gazing in darkness, no traces of the usual sentences appearing. Much surprised, Joseph exclaimed, ‘Martin! What is the matter? All is dark as Egypt!’” If this story is to be believed, then we have further support for something akin to a word-for-word translation. Finally, the existence of chiastic structures in the text (inverted parallelisms), some of them elaborate, also suggests that Joseph was more a conduit, not the originator, of the specific words used. Add to the foregoing the results of wordprint analyses, which show many authorial ‘signatures’ throughout the Book of Mormon that can be ferreted out via statistical methods, and we have another argument against Book of Mormon diction and grammar being completely subject to the discretion of Joseph Smith, its translator.
But is it possible that Joseph’s discretion played at least some role in the translation of the Book of Mormon? Now we consider support for a loose translation theory, where Joseph is not so much a passive conduit, but an active participant. Among the strongest supports for this theory comes straight from the Doctrine & Covenants in the story of Oliver Cowdery attempting to translate.
Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
But if it be not right, you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me. (D&C 9:7-9)
The almost inscrutable element here is what it means to “study it out in your mind” in the context of translating a tangible, ancient record. Neither Joseph nor Oliver had working knowledge of the Reformed Egyptian on the plates, therefore we cannot be talking about “study” in the academic sense. The takeaway from this episode with Oliver seems to be that Joseph’s translation involved some sort of personal exertion, though precisely what kind of exertion is not clear. Additionally, could the above passage from the D&C refer to the overall effort of translating, and not to the exact wording of translated passages? Another area of support often cited for a loose translation comes in the obvious incorporation of King James Bible phraseology throughout the Book of Mormon, borrowing from both Old and New Testaments. The argument is that Joseph either copied the KJV portions, or had the passages come to his mind as the result of a spiritual enhancement of his memory during translation. Also of note is the fact that Joseph felt at liberty to change various words and phrases in the Book of Mormon following its original dictation. They are decidedly superficial changes, on the whole, but represent a casualness on the part of Joseph with the specific wording, as if he were well aware that the text was mediated through a fallible human being and thus could be adjusted to better approximate the intended meaning. As a final brief support for a loose translation, we have a recent summary by Christopher Smith of work done on the “priority of Mosiah,” which is a word frequency analysis of the Book of Mormon showing a gradual shift in Joseph’s preference for certain words (from “therefore” to “wherefore”), a trend that is also reflected in the Doctrine & Covenants, indicative of Joseph’s own word choice being active to some degree throughout the book.
The above summaries are nowhere near a thorough treatment of the question, and further research would continue to tip the scales back and forth. As it stands now, it at least seems abundantly clear that the translation was not a matter of God giving Joseph impressions or mental pictures and then leaving him to find the words to express them. The literary and Semitic complexities are too great for this, not to mention the whole host of geographical, cultural, and anthropological details pervading the text that have real-world correspondences – correspondences that are astronomically unlikely that Joseph or anyone in his generation would have been able to engineer. But neither is the book a perfect facsimile of some heavenly prototype. Would it be a fair assessment to say that there exists a legitimate middle ground where Joseph could bring to light a truly ancient text while at the same time exercise revelatory gifts that make certain portions or themes of the book more the developments of Joseph himself than of the ancient authors? This sort of middle ground was persuasively laid out by Blake Ostler in a 1987 article entitled, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source.”
My own persistent fascination with the Book of Mormon derives chiefly not from the ever-shifting winds of scholarly analysis of the book’s historicity or content, but instead from the spiritual invitation it poignantly and consistently makes to follow Christ, and from the way it is situated as the keystone of a wider revelatory epiphany known as the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have sometimes wondered why Moroni’s invitation to seek a personal confirmation of the book’s truthfulness seems to fall on deaf ears in the wider Christian world, but at least one reason seems more obvious now: we are operating from different paradigms on the matter of revelation. The classical Christian notion of revelation does not heavily involve the kind of “dialogic revelation” so articulately laid out by Terryl Givens in his book. We approach the question from different starting points; our presuppositions being different, we end up in different places. And for the thoroughly secular mindset, I’m sure the Book of Mormon will remain a black box, incomprehensible and foreign. But for those of us who have heard the call and have experienced the Book of Mormon, the richness and power of what it contains and of what it signifies compels us to confess that the fingerprints of God are on that volume.
 Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor, eds., The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by his Mother (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 111-112.
 Joseph Smith, King Follett Sermon, April 7, 1844.
 Frank Wilczek, The Lightness of Being (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 199.
 Blake Ostler gives another viable reason why we find explicitly Christian content in a pre-Christian era: Joseph utilized his prophetic license to overlay Christian expansions onto an ancient source text.
 Harold Bloom refers to Joseph Smith as an “authentic religious genius” in his book, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. While the comment shows appreciation for Joseph’s remarkable life, it is also faint praise seeing that Bloom ultimately cannot grant that Joseph had authentic discourse with God. We are left with the conundrum, then, of an authentic religious genius with an inauthentic religious message.
 Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 263.
 The DNA argument is one of the few, if not the only, notable exception.
 William E. McLellin to James T. Cobb, 14 August 1880, in Larry C. Porter, “William E. McLellin’s Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10.4 (Summer 1970): 486.
 Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s Introduction: By What Measure Shall We Mete?” in FARMS Review of Books 2 (1990): xxiii.
 Conference Reports of the General Conferences of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (October 1916), 55.
 Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B.H. Roberts, 1:220.
 Joseph Smith, Jr., History, 1:71.
 Edward Stevenson, “Incidents in the Life of Martin Harris,” Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 44 (February 6, 1882): 87. It is worth noting that this recollection is recorded approximately 50 years after the fact.