After some discussion, Juvenile Instructor has decided to try a new type of post today. Instead of having a single-author or making a single argument, this post is a conversation between two scholars about a topic. It should add a different flair to JI and will hopefully spark some discussion. In this case, Max and Amanda discuss the Book of Mormon and its place within Mormon history and scholarship as a whole. Both Max and Amanda are non-members and thus, may (or may not) have a different perspective than historians writing from a believing perspective.
Max: Hi Amanda. We’re trying something new today at JI: a conversational post.
Amanda: Hi Max, Glad to be a part of this.
Max: To get started, there has been a great deal of discussion in the bloggernacle as of late about how to approach the Book of Mormon as a scholarly source. I’d argue that most scholars, especially non-members (like us), get hung up on the “historicity” of the Book of Mormon, or as many would argue, the lack thereof. The inability of some scholars to move beyond “historicity” is partly a result of the nature of the text itself. From the Book of Mormon’s inception, there has been an insistence that the book is historical. Certainly, Joseph claims that the golden plates were real, an actual ancient artifact. But he also further legitimized these claims by including the testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses in the Book of Mormon’s prefatory texts. To my mind, that invites, no requires, scholars to investigate these claims. I love John-Charles Duffy’s “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story” on this issue.
Amanda: What an interesting topic, and one that surely needs to be investigated in greater depth by scholars. I think one of the problems that non-Mormon scholars have with dealing with the Book of Mormon is that the book’s claims to historicity make them reticent to take it seriously. Many of the historians with whom I work on a daily basis are committed agnostics and atheists – claims about angels, golden plates, and ancient Jews in America make them deeply uncomfortable. I wonder if the problem is specific to the Book of Mormon or if it represents a larger reticence in dealing with the miraculous.
Max: Terrific point. Let’s expand our discussion to include “miracles” writ large in Mormonism. The plates are both actual artifacts that require actual examination from an ancient language. But also this translation is made possible “by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation.” So they’re both tangible, legible (at least with the right tools) and also ephemeral, like a spirit of an archive that, for a time takes actual form, but then miraculously disappears. This is what drives historians crazy and makes the story of the plates “scandalous.”
So we’ve got a miracle that is also historical as one of the founding events of the Latter-day dispensation. What other miracles do you have in mind?
Amanda: Well, many early Mormons saw Joseph Smith’s vision as opening the heavens, so that God’s power could rain down again upon the earth. Although we see it as a unique event, early Mormons did not necessarily see it that way. Like Jesus’ resurrection, it was a foretaste of what was to come. So, by the miraculous, I mean all of the healings, raising of the dead, speaking in tongues, and prophesying that early Mormons did. I should mention that this discomfort among historians with the miraculous is not limited to Mormons. Although millennialist religions were an important part of working class movements in the nineteenth century, they are rarely dealt with as anything more than a “chiliasm of despair.”
Max: This is something that Richard Bushman says differentiates the Mormon worldview from the “world’s” (the replacement for “gentile” in the Mormon lexicon). God is still speaking through the prophets, and through all members. And God’s words and power can affect what many scholars (and for that matter what many people of faith and no faith) think of the world governed by the laws of physics, biology etc. Bushman calls this a “jungle of belief” as opposed the desertification of the world, which strips it of miracles.
Amanda: One of the things I struggle with is how to deal with the Book of Mormon and miracles in my scholarship. I’ll be honest. I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon is true, and, although I hold open the possibility of miracles, I find myself skeptical of them in most cases. How do you deal with such things in your scholarship?
Max: Very interesting. When you say, “I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon is true,” I actually hear a testimony of faith, but in the negative. Can you explain what you mean?
Amanda: Well… you may be hearing a remnant of where I grew up. As you know, I grew up in Idaho where I was often invited to the famous “three-hour block” on Sundays. I guess, I do say that as sort-of an anti-testimony, as a way of differentiating myself from believing Mormon scholars. Because I grew up in the Mormon culture region, have Mormon ancestry, and am often mistaken as Mormon, I feel a need to differentiate myself from people who actually belong to the church. What I specifically mean by it, though, is I don’t believe in its historicity. I don’t believe that the Nephites, Jaredites, and Lamanites existed or that people like Moroni are historical characters. I don’t make a claim to how Joseph created the text. He may have had a vision. He may have made it up. He may have engaged in what is called automatic writing, but I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon is part of the historical record for the ancient world. For me, it’s a nineteenth-century text.
I also don’t use it as a spiritual guide. Although I recognize that many Mormons hear the voice of God in the Book of Mormon, for me, the pages are silent.
Max: That’s fascinating. And this goes to the heart of this lively discussion about the Book of Mormon and historicity that I first saw at the Millennial Star and thought was very compelling. To quickly summarize, Jettboy thinks that “bracketing” questions of the historical reality of the Book of Mormon makes it impossible to take Joseph Smith seriously, and take seriously the text he shepherded into the nineteenth century, be it from an ancient text, from a revelation (he claims both as its source), or his own fertile mind. Jettboy writes: “There was no equivocation of the reality of Jesus as Savior and there shouldn’t be for the historical truth of the Book of Mormon if you take Joseph Smith seriously.” It is important to note that Jettboy is arguing against a point he believes Steve Smith made earlier in the discussion.
I disagree with Jettboy. I think that I don’t need to concern myself with the “historicity” of the Book of Mormon, its production, or its claims as a record of an ancient civilization, to take Joseph and the Book of Mormon seriously. I think we take our eyes of the target when we concern ourselves with these questions. What matters to me, as a scholar studying how early Saints read the Book of Mormon, and used it to see the world, is the Book of Mormon itself.
Amanda: So, I don’t really use the Book of Mormon in my own scholarship. Instead, I spend most of my time reading women’s diaries and their letters to their husbands. The Book of Mormon seems quite peripheral to their lives. Because I don’t have a lot of experience using the Book of Mormon in my own scholarship, I wonder if you could help me out by providing an example of what you do. How do you use it in particular to understand the early Saints better?
Max: I study race. In my work, I argue Book of Mormon has a very complex understanding of race. Sometimes it seems to parallel what we would see as fairly progressive, even “modern” views of race as a social/cultural construction. Other times, it seems to parallel the (stereo)typical nineteenth century views of Amerindians and other non-white people. I see these Book of Mormon ideas popping up all over in discussions of early Saints’ relationships with modern “Lamanites” as well as African Americans. So to understand how the early Saints attempted to create their latter-day Jerusalem, which on their best days they hoped would be made up of, as Nephi (I) declared, “every nation, kindred, tongue and people,” one needs to look at the text itself.
So that’s my way of “getting around” the foundational miracle question in Mormon history. What about the “miracles” that occur in the lives of the women you study?
Amanda: The miracles in the lives of the women that I study tend to be much more based around the home. Because so many men left on missions to spread the gospel “unto the nations of the earth and the islands of the sea,” Mormon women were forced to shoulder much of the responsibility for homesteading, running family businesses, and engaging in trade as well as the more traditional feminine tasks of caring for children. As a result, they saw the miraculous in the healing of sick children and in God’s provision of food in times of want. For me, it’s less about whether or not the actual miracles occurred and more about what the miracles tell me about what was important to these women’s lives. The number of miracles that they record surrounding childbirth, children, and food allow me an insight into the struggles they met with on a daily basis. Life, for many early Mormon women, was a constant struggle against hunger and loneliness, only made worse by their husbands’ frequent absences.
All of that’s not to say that the Book of Mormon wasn’t entirely important for them. After all, it was because of their belief in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph Smith’s prophetic power that they were willing to sacrifice so much but they don’t engage in deep theological discussion of the Book of Mormon and what it means.
I also wonder if the difference in the relative weight of the Book of Mormon in our scholarship has to do with the questions we are asking. Although I work on race as well, I am much more grounded in women’s history. Although the Book of Mormon undoubtedly has much to say about gender, most early Mormons based their ideas about the family not on Mosiah or 1 Nephi but on the descriptions of the Old Testament patriarchs and in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Max: Yes, and then there’s the fact that barely no women show up in the Book of Mormon! So it’s a male text as well as a (white) “Nephite” text. The narrators have “narrative prerogative,” as Grant Hardy has explained, to decide what gets in, and what gets left out. This, more than how it came to be, is more interesting. And I’d argue this is more important for the historical development of Mormonism than the existence or non-existence of the plates.
Amanda: I guess should read Grant Hardy’s book, then. Well, this is starting to get a bit long, so maybe we should wrap it up and throw it out to the larger JI community as a whole. (Even though, I must confess, I feel like it’s just starting to get interesting.) How important is the historicity of the Book of Mormon to Mormon history and Mormon studies? What questions does looking at the Book of Mormon allow us to ask? What would focusing too much on the book occlude? How should scholars use the Book of Mormon in their scholarship?
Max: Thanks, Amanda! This has been fun!
Amanda: Thanks Max! I’ve had a great time, too!
 John-Charles Duffy’s great piece, “Just How ‘Scandalous’ Is the Golden Plates Story? Academic Discourse on the Origin of the Book of Mormon.” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 26 (2006): 142-165
 This phrase comes from E.P. Thompson’s famous work The Making of the English Working Class.
 Bushman is borrowing here from Charles Taylor.