For a long time, I've been what you may call a "Mormonophile." That is, I've long been fascinated and intrigued by Mormon culture, theology, and literature. To be perfectly clear, I have many theological differences with my Mormon brethren and sistren, but unlike some Christians, I don't consider them a cult, or question their right to call themselves Christians. I have had many positive experiences with Mormons in my life, so I will always have a soft spot for them in my heart.
Quite some time ago (about seven years, I think) I began reading The Book of Mormon, the central scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As it's fairly short (roughly the length of the New Testament, I think), I figured I'd get through it pretty quickly. However, every time I picked it up, I would get bogged down after several chapters of reading. So it took me about seven years to get through the whole thing, which I finally finished just a few days ago. So...what do I think about The Book of Mormon?
Well, although it is certainly a complex and interesting work of religious literature, my overall sense is that, in the end, it comes off as a bizarre attempt at sounding like the King James Bible. It's almost "Bible fanfiction," to borrow a term from modern parlance. Mormons accept the claim of Joseph Smith that he "translated" gold plates revealed to him by the Angel Moroni. I personally do not accept that claim. I think Joseph Smith (perhaps with the help of some other people) wrote the whole thing, plagiarizing large stretches of text from the King James Bible. I'm familiar with many of the arguments made by LDS leaders and scholars, claiming that Smith could not possibly have made up the whole thing, that numerous witnesses prove that he dictated it to his scribes, that the Holy Spirit bears witness to the authenticity of the book, etc. I just don't buy it. Putting aside for a moment the simple fact that the existence of the golden plates has never been proven, despite the testimony of witnesses who all lived over a hundred years ago, The Book of Mormon's origins are completely different from the Bible, which developed organically over many hundreds of years, and has a discernible manuscript tradition.
So, no, I don't accept The Book of Mormon as scripture, but it is a really significant piece of religious writing from the nineteenth century. The status of The Book of Mormon in early Mormonism, and in the Mormonism of today, highlights some really interesting arguments of exactly what constitutes scripture, on the idea of continuing revelation, and in how religious sects come to flourish (or not to flourish, in the case of some lesser known Mormon sects). Meanwhile, if "mainstream" Christians are ever to have meaningful dialogue with this most American of religious groups, it behooves us to have some basic grasp of the scripture on which they base their movement.
Which leads me to one other thought I had upon finishing The Book of Mormon. Comparing the overall tone of the book to the tone of today's Mormonism, it is inescapable how different they are. The Book of Mormon is full of stuff about "whoredoms" and "abominations," really hellfire and brimstone kind of writing. This could not be more different from the kindly, affable speech I've heard from all the modern Mormons I've met. So when did Mormonism make this transition from this slightly bizarre, fanatical sect to the clean cut, all-American style of today's Mormons? It's hard to pinpoint, but it seems to have happened sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. But I suppose one could ask the same questions of the rest of Christendom: certainly the Christianity of the modern world bears little resemblance to the Christianity of the first few centuries. Religions change over time. A modern Catholic is not the same as a medieval Catholic, and a modern Mormon is not the same as a nineteenth century Mormon.
I feel like I've rambled a bit in this post, but I'll wrap up with this: I'm glad I read The Book of Mormon, even if I don't accept it as scripture. And I still love me some Mormons...
POSTSCRIPT: To any Mormon friends who may read this post...I truly am not trying to criticize or ridicule your faith in any way. I know Mormons take quite seriously the idea of their testimony, and the truth of The Book of Mormon, as described in Moroni 10:4. I certainly don't want to make light of the sincere beliefs of Latter-day Saints. But, as I told the missionaries once, at this point the Holy Ghost has not revealed to me the truth of The Book of Mormon. Until that happens, I'm hoping that I can treat Mormons I meet with grace, as I know they will treat me.
...the book, not the musical.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've long been fascinated by Mormon history and culture, particularly the Book of Mormon itself. In fact, in addition to my Bible collection, I have an interesting little collection of Mormon literature: several different copies of the Book of Mormon, some historical/doctrinal publications by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and even a few publications by other non-LDS Mormon sects. I've always found Mormons themselves to be friendly, genuinely nice people, and I've had a few nice little chats with Mormon missionaries.
All that being said, I still just don't get it. I've studied the Book of Mormon quite a bit over the years (and I've been on a bit of a BoM kick lately). I know this is a book that millions of faithful Mormons view as scripture, on the same level with the Holy Bible. But every time I've attempted to read various parts of the book, I'm immediately struck by how completely inauthentic it is. It tries so hard to read like the Bible; there are all kinds of "and it came to pass" and other King James-like phrases and words. The narrative is obviously inspired by biblical style. However, it overplays its hand all over the place. I mean, here we have a book that was purportedly written over hundreds of years, from several centuries before Christ to a few centuries after Christ. In much of the narrative that takes place before Christ, though, there are all kinds of references to Jesus Christ, the Messiah to come. And I'm not talking about the kinds of references Christians have found in the Hebrew Scriptures, like the Immanuel passage in Isaiah 7:14. I'm talking direct references to Jesus by name! Like this passage from the Book of Jacob:
For, for this intent have we written these things, that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us. (Jacob 4:4)
This was supposedly written about five centuries before Christ, and there are many, many more references just like it. The prophets in the Book of Mormon are always talking about Jesus, the Son of God, and encouraging their listeners (or readers) to believe in Him...long before He was born!
And should the reader begin getting too skeptical, and object to this biblical sequel, the Book of Mormon provides a preemptive argument in 2 Nephi 29 (this always makes me smile);
And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible. (2 Nephi 29:3)
So there you have it! Don't try to complain about another Bible, because the Prophet Nephi knew that you would, hundreds of years before you even knew about the Book of Mormon!
I won't even get into the fact that, despite some Mormon apologists' beliefs to the contrary, there doesn't seem to be even a single scrap of reputable archaeological evidence for any of the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Book of Mormon is completely fictional...sort of Bible "fanfiction." And yet, millions of devout Mormons read it wholeheartedly as Scripture. It's a fascinating phenomenon, but so confusing to me.
Meanwhile, why am I so interested in this book that I don't see in the same light as those who believe in it? Well, Mormon history is incredibly intriguing: Mormonism is easily the most successful American-grown religion. Mormons as a community have made innumerable contributions to American history. And Mormons whom I have known personally are absolutely delightful people. So I continue to be interested in what is, to me, one of the most interesting sects that has ever existed. Although I have absolutely zero interest in joining such a community, I do hope to understand it more fully.
Thanks for reading.
(adj.) wild and frenzied; from Greek κορυβαντες (Korybantes)