Seth Perry, “The Many Bibles of Joseph Smith: Textual, Prophetic, and Scholarly Authority in Early-National Bible Culture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 3 (September 2016): 750–75.
One of the things I appreciate about our Article Review series, episodic as it may be, is that it enables bite-size engagement with some of the most important new scholarship as it comes into being. So much work is produced these days that we may not pay enough attention toward the notable arguments that do appear and a deserve a critical appraisal. And while books may be the gold standard, the genre of the article allows for us to engage at a more granular level, giving us a chance to sample and respond to important monographs in the making. My case in point here is Seth Perry’s JAAR article from September of last year: “The Many Bibles of Joseph Smith: Textual, Prophetic, and Scholarly Authority in Early-National Bible Culture.” This important article gives us a bite of Perry’s forthcoming book on the dynamics of early-national Bible culture. We also get a taste of how his arguments bear on the history of Mormonism and Mormon scripture.
Perry’s broader project is to revitalize an area of American religious history that often gets passed over: the ubiquitous presence and influence of the Bible. Historians typically acknowledge that the Bible saturated the culture of early America, but few stop to ask about the nature and the dynamics of that saturation. This is an uncritical position, Perry reminds us, and his work seeks to heighten our awareness of how “the Bible” was mediated and how it supported the construction of various forms of religious authority. Rather than hovering over the new nation like a fine mist, what we speak of as “the Bible” was actually “many Bibles,” material objects which circulated in particular ways and differed in their material and textual characteristics. Perry’s attention to these issues complements the recent work of Paul Gutjahr and Mark Noll, whose recent book In the Beginning of the Word also reopens aspects of this discussion.
Looking at things from this angle, the issue of Joseph Smith’s scriptural authority becomes irresistible. How did Smith engage with the Bible? How did his engagement support his prophetic authority and help drive his religious movement? Perry gives us a Joseph Smith “absorbed,” even “obsessed,” with widespread questions about the relationship of authority and material texts. Such questions, Perry suggests, were especially vital in a new nation that had just vested its ultimate authority in a written document. Consequently, Smith was highly attuned to the necessity of grounding his own authority in a legitimate material form. Rather than adopting the figure of Smith presented by Richard Bushman and others (as characterized by “prophetic passivity”), Perry’s Smith is more able and assertive: his Bible usage was “conscious, skillful, and historically informed.” He had “a respect for learning that is often overlooked,” and was drawn to those who possessed textual skill. Perry offers an exceptionally close reading of Joseph Smith’s scriptural productions to support his argument about Smith’s concern with materially-anchored authority, and to show how all of Smith’s scripture (with its paratexts, allusions, and adaptations, etc.) represents a kind of powerful “signifying on” the Bible.
Here I should add the proviso that the arguments of Perry’s article are rich and numerous, and deserve to be seen in their full context. I was particularly intrigued, however, by one claim: that despite their distinctions, the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith actually exemplify larger trends in early-national Bible culture. Not only do they manifest the widespread anxiety about authority being rooted in material texts, according to Perry, but they also demonstrate the common strategy for assuaging that concern. Anxiety is “allayed by a multiplicity of authorial and editorial voices working to establish their material reliability.” If I’m reading him correctly, here Perry is suggesting that the internal narrative configuration of the Book of Mormon, with its variety of prophetic voices and multiple self-attestations, performs the same function as early-national America’s explosion of scripture scholars and interpretive help-texts. This is a fascinating and potentially powerful claim. It suggests that despite the trend of “democratization” and the Protestant ideal of interpreting the Bible for one’s self, people in nineteenth-century America actually longed for an authoritative voice—whether prophetic or scholarly—to guide them.