Paul Gutjahr is professor of English at Indiana University. His book The Book of Mormon: A Biography was recently published by Princeton University Press. See an excerpt here, the table of contents and prologue here, and the first chapter here. In the hustle and bustle of the semester, I neglected getting your questions to Dr. Gutjahr until this week, but fortunately for us he provided these excellent responses quite promptly. We at the JI would like to thank Dr. Gutjahr for taking the time to participate in this series. Note: Grant Hardy provided these thoughts on the book and you can see Blair’s review here.
Q. While your research interests seemingly lend themselves to this project particularly well, I’m interested in hearing more about the genesis of this book. What motivated you to write it? What, if anything, did you find especially interesting and/or surprising? What other potential research projects dealing with the Book of Mormon do you see as promising/important?
A. I was asked to write this book because of my extensive work on Bible publishing in America. I have written a number of books and articles on the evolution of the Bible in the United States, so Princeton University Press thought I was a natural fit for this particular book in the series.
I have had a long personal interest in this book because it was such an ambitious religious and publishing endeavor in the 1830s. I also see it as a book that has had immense influence both in this country and around the world. I am personally interested in printed material that exercises great influence, and the Book of Mormon certainly fits into this category.
I think there could be a great deal more work done on aspects of global translation and the book. How the Church’s translation efforts have changed over time and how translation strategies have been implemented that fit the needs of different languages (with their widely different idioms) could be an area of rich future research.
Q. The Book of Mormon has received little press in American literary studies, notwithstanding the recent turn towards cultural studies in the last couple of decades. Any thoughts about why this is and/or what insights, if any, The Book of Mormon has to offer about 19C American literature and culture?
A. American literary studies have only recently become interested again in religious texts. In the 1930s-1950s religious writing got considerable attention, and then there was a period where such religious texts and religious themes within American literature went out of academic fashion. I do believe this has been changing since the late 1990s with the growth of cultural studies.
I think the Book of Mormon is particularly interesting in terms of antebellum notions of American exceptionalism and religious individualism. The notion that humans are capable of making great strides in terms of both their character and their social position fits the antebellum era to a tee. Also the notion that the United States is a particularly favored nation by God is an idea deeply imbedded throughout nineteenth century American culture. To have Jesus actually visit the Americas and to place Eden in Missouri fits right into the notion that the United States is a land favored above all others, an idea Jacksonian Americans hungrily embraced.
Q. The Book of Mormon is often called the “Mormon Bible.” In your reception history, in what ways is this comparison apt, and in what ways does it fall apart?
A. Calling the Book of Mormon “the Mormon Bible” is apt because it stands as the fountainhead and chief credentialing document of the religious tradition. It becomes less apt when one considers the long history of the Mormon Church not paying as much attention to its signature text as, let us say, American Protestants have paid to their Bible. There are decades of Mormon history that seem to be less interested in the book than one might expect. American Protestants have revered and used the Bible to a much higher degree since the time of the Puritans. That may be changing a bit now, but American Protestants have traditionally held a closer relationship to the Bible than Mormons have to their “Mormon Bible.”
Q. How would you rank the Book of Mormon in defining Mormon peculiarity in America compared to polygamy, deification etc.
A. My impression is that the Book of Mormon may have become in recent decades the most distinctive feature of Mormonism to non-Mormons. Such distinctives seem to go in cycles. Certainly in the late nineteenth century, Mormons were closely identified with Utah and then polygamy. In the mid-twentieth century, Mormons were identified with their doctrines on baptizing the dead and those with dark skin to outsiders. Now, because of the Broadway musical and the Mormon Church’s own increased emphasis on the book and its missionary efforts , the Book of Mormon has become the most visible distinctive of the religious tradition.
Q. How you would describe the difference between your approach and that of Terryl Givens in By the Hand of Mormon? (also: Your thoughts on By the Hand?)
A. Givens wrote an absolutely terrific book. There are two big differences between his book and mine. First, his book is not as much of an overview (or appetizer) as mine. He goes into far greater depth then I do on a number of topics. Second, his book is clearly Mormon-sympathetic in its emphasis and rhetorical strategies. At almost every turn, he gives Mormonism the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the historicity of the book and the intentions of the Mormon Church’s leadership. Not being a Mormon, I felt less pressure to be so positive on such issues.
Q. There is some debate about how the Book of Mormon functioned inside Mormonism in the first few decades after its publication, and whether its literary content was actually important to that function. To what extent do you see the content of the Book of Mormon (vis a vis its existence as a religious object) as significant in its reception, among Mormons and others?
A. I believe that its religious claims are absolutely central to the book’s early reception. For both those who believed the book and those that did not (and it did not matter in many cases whether these people actually read the book), the claim that the book was a new word from God absolutely defined how antebellum readers viewed the book. Now, that does not mean that the antebellum Mormons turned the book in the same way and with the same frequency they did the Bible or even the Doctrine and Covenants, but they did believe it to be the book that spawned their new religious tradition.
Q. Terryl Givens has been increasingly insistent on the theological novelty of the Book of Mormon (though he has been curiously silent on this point in print). Do you think it’s possible for the Book of Mormon to be given a serious theological reading in the academy?
A. I think it is possible for the book to be given a serious theological reading in the Academy. It would certainly be an interesting project. That said, I do not know if a Mormon will be the first to do it. There are pressures that Mormon scholars face that may make them often want to keep silent on theological issues. The right non-Mormon scholar could do such a study, but I wonder if it will come any time soon. Such a scholar would have to master a great deal of intellectual and theological history. Added to that challenge, such a study probably would not be popular among Mormons for a number of reasons (making it a project easily dismissed by a very vocal readership), and that might give scholars pause before they commit themselves to such a research agenda.