EPISODE 35: The Book of Mormon: A Brilliant Mess
Greetings listeners! Welcome to ForeverLDS.
The complexities of Nephite culture are easily overlooked when someone reads the Book of Mormon for the first time. The volume purports to have been compiled by many authors who write by their own hand, intermixed with those who abridge the histories and spiritual commentaries of others, frequently interjecting their private, inspired perspective into another author's narrative. It presents a detailed history of at least four separate tribes or peoples—the Nephites, Lamanites, Mulekites (i.e., people of Zarahemla), and the Jaredites. The Book of Mormon freely admits that to divide them into just four tribes is a gross oversimplification (see Jacob 1:13-14 and Morm. 1:8-9), even among the Jaredites or descendants of Mulek. These tribes sometimes intermingle, but also have histories independent of one another. The Book of Mormon’s compilers sometimes mention that they have access to “other” records—then announce that such material won't be repeated "here" because it's available elsewhere. Or they lament that there isn't enough space on their particular set of plates. Or that such material is, at present, too sacred for public consumption, and will be revealed at a more appropriate, future date. From the perspective of pure literary cohesion, the volume is a mess.
But what a brilliant mess! In fact, it's in the very nature of its disorganization that we discover the vitality of its truthfulness, its reality, its authenticity. How could any human being, especially a 19th century farm boy—or even an alliance of 19th century New Englanders (as suggested by the long-since debunked Solomon Spalding theory)—have fabricated such a complex amalgamation of culture, religion, and history while simultaneously preserving any unity of thought? Yet its cohesion of thought and purpose is breathtaking.
Only if the Book of Mormon was defined as a human endeavor would it be sufficient or appropriate to apply a term like “a work of genius”. Fact is, the book is not merely a work of genius. It's a volume of scripture. Of holy writ.
It's been asked before, but I'll ask again: How could any author pen a work of this kind of ambition and magnitude that did not, over time—if not immediately!—reveal countless inconsistencies, contradictions, and anachronisms? And then, after achieving such literary success, manage to keep this complicated hoax a secret, with none of its original accomplices or colluders spilling the beans. Such an achievement would rival the greatest conspiracies ever hatched in human history. Non-believers ought to appreciate the volume for just that!
It's the religious nature of the volume that allows so many to dismiss it. The only other option is to ponder its accuracy, and in this humanist, secularist age there is no chance of that. I speak generally, not individually. Many millions of individuals have come to same conclusions as those I put forth here, many relying wholly upon its spiritual promises and having no need for intellectual confirmation. On some level the spiritual and the intellectual intersect. So let's focus upon the volume from these many levels or perspectives.
For nearly two centuries keen eyes have found a boundless wealth of knowledge in its pages. Such gems are often mentioned only incidentally, buried in a single verse, or within a single phrase of that verse. These nuggets reinforce the complexity of book's internal cultures and offer rich opportunities for scholarly examination—some of the richest ever provided by a single document.
A fascinating evolution regarding perceptions of the Book of Mormon has taken place within the LDS community itself. Don't misunderstand this statement. Since its publication, the book has never ceased to be a source of spiritual solace and insight. But perceptions about its scientific significance—its geography, archeology, and anthropology—have remained fluid.
There was a time in Church History when the narrow neck of land described in at least six verses of the Book of Mormon referred irrefutably to the Isthmus of Panama, and any disagreement to this tenet bordered on heretical. A closer look at these verses, and surrounding verses, reveals nothing that fits the observable geography of Panama. There was a time when a short statement written in 1836 by one of Joseph Smith's scribes, Frederick G. Williams, was considered the preeminent starting place for anyone who wished to pursue Book of Mormon geography. Brother Williams placed the landing site of Lehi's expedition as "the continent of South America in Chile thirty degrees south latitude (LDS Archive, Ms d 3408 fd 4)." Frederick G. Williams defined this as his own private inspiration, independent of Joseph Smith Jr., which, for those who understand how revelation works in the Restored Gospel, is not how it works (see D&C 28:2). Nevertheless, this statement dominated geographical thinking about the Book of Mormon for over a century before it was effectively challenged somewhere in and around the 1950s.
The volume is rife with geographical designations and descriptions. Its authors had a concise and consistent geography in their minds. Those who doubt this should re-read, for starters, Alma Chapter 50. Some have wondered why such descriptions couldn't have provided a tad more detail. Why couldn’t authors and transcribers and translators foresee a time when every verse on every subject would be so rigorously scrutinized? We can assume they never thought anyone would ever be confused. The information they omitted was, to them, so obvious, and insignificant, it apparently didn't cross their minds.
John Sorenson, PhD, described this human tendency when he wrote: For example, [the Book of Mormon prophets] nowhere tell us that the Nephites made and used pottery. Any ancient historian would be considered eccentric if he had written, 'And some of our women also made pottery.' To anyone of his time it would seem absurd to say so because 'everybody knows that.' The obvious is rarely recorded in historical documents because it seems pointless to do so" ("When Lehi's Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?", John L. Sorenson, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 1, Iss. 1, Pages: 1–34).
Only in hindsight is it apparent that what may have seemed obvious and insignificant to the volume's authors and compliers might have been enormously helpful to researchers studying the thing thousands of years later. Who's to blame for these omissions? They seem natural, probably inevitable.
Imagine yourself in a position like President Russell M. Nelson or, really, any other Church leader, or just an every day American. If you were going to write a short history of America during your lifetime on plates similar in size to what Mormon had at his disposal, many would likely feel compelled to discuss modern technology, atomic weapons, or our progress in outer space. But unless we presented a step-by-step progress report of how these subjects evolved—for example, how we came to have something like the iPhone or Facebook or VR—future readers might be utterly lost.
Beyond these "monumental" subjects, who among us would mention the more elemental aspects of society? Things like electricity, trains, interstates, light bulbs, hospitals, postmen, culinary water, vaccinations, snowplows, pesticides, peanut butter, Christmas lights, assembly lines, Valentine's Day, plastic, or pizza? Depending upon the event, failing to describe even one of these topics might cause tremendous confusion for historians a thousand years from now. And if other mundane subjects came to the listener’s mind as I went through my short list, the point is emphasized.
The reality is that most historians would only mention such things as they became applicable to the specific history they were retelling or the particular event they were describing.
At the risk of exhausting this idea, consider if a modern historian wrote this statement: "It was Dr. Jonas Salk who in 1957 introduced the vaccine that cured the disease of polio." Readers in a few hundred years might have no idea what a "vaccine" is, how such a thing was "introduced" or what it means to "cure a disease." Today we don't need an explanation. We take every word in the sentence for granted because we understand the norms of medical research, getting a “shot”, and what it means to say that a disease is "cured" (although it might be more accurate to say the disease is put into remission).
How many High School students of the 21st century even know what polio is, its causes, symptoms, or effects? In some ways, this sentence already assumes too much from modern readers. The polio epidemic of the first half of the 20th century was—to our great-grandparents—a terrifying thing. Now it’s nearly forgotten. Ask your closest friend: Who was Dr. Jonas Salk? Add a thousand years and this sentence might become meaningless without a multiplicity of footnotes.
This does not mean that cultural and historical information throughout the Book of Mormon should be ignored. I don’t accept that verses discussing culture and history are unimportant. None of it—no part of the Book of Mormon—is unimportant. History and culture are teeming and abundant. The people and places of the Book of Mormon are real people and real places. As I often say, the Book of Mormon took place somewhere.
We are, by the gift of God, naturally curious beings; we don’t have to apologize for that curiosity. Scholarly explorations into the Book of Mormon do not cause the vast majority of scholars to miss the forest for the trees. On the contrary, such questions make the forest infinitely more illuminated. Such questions—just as they do with the Bible—magnify the volume’s impact and the depth of its inspiration.
I’m always wary when I hear someone dismiss such matters, saying, “Not necessary for one’s salvation.” Who’s to say what’s necessary for one’s salvation? The Atonement is necessary for one’s salvation. What brings us to that testimony and conviction can be as diverse as the number of personalities on the planet.
Moreover, enemies of the Church have consistently used scholarship to try to undermine the Book of Mormon. Latter-day Saints must be free to adopt the same approach and disciplines when called upon to defend the Book of Mormon. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, quoting English theologian Austin Farrar, said, "'Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish'" ("The Historicity of the Book of Mormon," Elder Dallin H. Oaks, FARMS Annual Dinner, Provo, UT, October 29, 1993).
But there’s a caveat, at least for me: “Everything in moderation.” Any unbalanced focus on some limited aspect of the gospel, including Book of Mormon scholarship, if it eclipses other aspects of the gospel, such as Church attendance, obedience to commandments, or family obligations, can leave us vulnerable to the wiles of the adversary. Myopia somehow permits our common enemy to afflict our minds with interference. What began as a sincere, dedicated pursuit of knowledge can become an unbalanced obsession.
Even today, as professional scholars and dedicated researchers of the Book of Mormon have proposed a plausible geographical setting in Mesoamerica, schisms within the LDS community are easy to find. Since its publication in 1830, there are three, perhaps four, principal parties who must bear the brunt of responsibility as far as the present climate of Book of Mormon scholarship that impedes our progress in nailing down its geography. I've already named one: Frederick G. Williams. However, as I name each of these persons, I doubt Church member will feel any lasting resentment, not when the positive contributions that these persons are considered side-by-side. I'll also briefly discuss in this podcast—more in the next podcast—if, and why, such omissions or ambiguities on Book of Mormon scholarship and research that these individuals helped establish might have been "baked in"—whether our current quandaries should’ve been expected as a natural consequence of our weaknesses and foibles as human beings, and whether the individuals who perpetuated these misconceptions were even conscious that their choices or actions would leave us in our present state of mystery and dilemma.
If the first culprit mentioned herein is Frederick G. Williams, the second must certainly be—da, da, da, DAH!--Joseph Smith, Jr. How careless, some might think, that the great prophet of the Restoration never penned a definitive revelation on Book of Mormon geography. The subject was certainly on his mind at various times. He freely offered his own opinions and allowed others to speculate as well. He published thoughtful, passionate statements in Church's periodicals (See Times and Seasons 15, September 1842 and Times and Seasons 3-1, Oct. 1842: 922) and in other writings.
As the editor of the Times and Seasons in 1842, Joseph Smith, Jr. was fascinated by the works of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who documented their adventures in the untamed jungles of Honduras, Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula. Commenting on the book, Incidents of Travel in Central America to a friend named John Bernhisel—an active and serving Bishop in New York, the prophet writes, "I received your kind present by the hand of Er Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it unfolds & developes many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon; I have read the volumes with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprihensive." ("Letter to John Bernhisel," Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee, 16 November 1841, p. 533).
Many who scour every word of these editorials, have sought to prove or disprove the authorship of Joseph Smith, passing at least some responsibility for these editorials onto John Taylor or Wilford Woodruff, seeming to forget or ignore that all three of these men served as Presidents of the Church! Yes, scholarly wordprint analysis concludes that the principal author of these editorials is Joseph Smith, but who cares! Does the aid and editorial cooperation of Apostles Taylor and Woodruff diminish the sentiments in these articles? The idea is ludicrous. Joseph and John and Wilford had definitively turned their attention on Book of Mormon geography southward. It just is. Yet even in these various editorials, most statements are speculative. ("American Antiquities", Times and Seasons Volume 3, number 18, July 15, 1842, p. 859-60)
Modern readers forget how seminal, how unprecedented, these volumes by Stephens and Catherwood were to the world of Joseph Smith. How they changed our core perceptions of Ancient America. Suddenly the Native Americans were not the uncultivated savages that they were once thought to have been by the vast majority of 19th Century Americans. They’d built civilizations that rivaled the most sophisticated and complex civilizations of Europe, Africa, and Asia! The artwork and travelogues of Stephens and Catherwood were cutting-edge stuff! Joseph Smith and other luminaries of the LDS faith enthusiastically imagined how it all fit together. This is undisputed!
Yet, it must also be conceded, in the decade prior to the publication of Stephens and Catherwood’s travelogues, and prior to the publication of the aforementioned articles in the Times and Seasons, Joseph’s view on Book of Mormon geography was much more broad, and arguably different. In 1834 he penned to his wife, Emma, an enthusiastic letter about his experiences marching with Zion’s Camp. He wrote that he and his men found themselves "wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity " ("Joseph Smith letter to Emma Smith, 4 June, 1834," Dean C. Jesse, Joseph Smith Papers, 345-46)."
That’s what Joseph Smith wrote. Even here you can qualify his words as speculative. He was the first to proclaim that a prophet was also a human being and entitled to his opinions. You can even argue that these words might be perfectly accurate and that the Book of Mormon still primarily took place within a limited geography in Central America. Or, my own preference, is that Joseph Smith’s views were enhanced by discoveries in science and exploration. The prophet 's interest in this subject was really no different than any of the rest of us who have pondered the reality of Nephites and Lamanites. Joseph was no less tantalized.
And yet, in the midst of restoring the Church of Jesus Christ, translating the Book of Mormon, receiving earthshaking and life-altering revelations, constructing two temples, founding at least three communities, languishing in prison, serving as mayor of Nauvoo and Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo legion, running for the United States Presidency, suffering terrible grief for the spiritual and physical loss of friends and children, as well as perpetually fleeing for his life, he never felt the inclination (or need?) to write down a definitive geographical revelation on the Book of Mormon with the indelible stamp: "Thus saith the Lord."
Is this to the detriment of the Church and Book of Mormon enthusiasts and researchers forever?? I honestly don’t think so. Is it possible that it was all part of the plan? That’s how I’ve come to view it. If Joseph had given it all to us on a silver platter—a perfect and unambiguous map of Book of Mormon geography—I feel quite certain that I, personally, would not today know as much about, or have studied as many verses as closely, as I have. I know many others who feel the same. Nope, Joseph Smith, or we may as well just say Heavenly Father, wasn’t going to make it that easy. This is where faith and scholarship comingle. And it’s a glorious thing!
I’ve hardly begun to name the contributors or elaborate upon the reasons for our current state of ignorance and controversy regarding many of the scholarly questions associated with the Book of Mormon. Frederick G. Williams, and Joseph Smith. I got more. But I got no more time. Or at least I think it’s an appropriate time to draw this particular episode to a close.
Next time we’ll dive right back in, and if some listeners found this information illuminating, I hope insights in the next episode are more so.
Now, always remember, I’m just one dude, standing on his own. I hope a thinker, something of a philosopher, but I’m responsible for the opinions I express. My views are not authorized by my beloved Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and any perceived criticism of that institution or its leaders is wholly unintentional
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