David F. Holland. Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 275pp. + index.
We spend a lot of time at this blog considering how Mormonism fits within larger frameworks in American religious history and what it uniquely reveals about the shape and contours of that past. Among the most obvious answers to the latter consideration is Mormonism’s prophetic tradition, with its adherence to a belief in continuing revelation and an expanded (and expanding) canon of scripture. In trying to tackle the complicated question of whether Mormonism can be accurately described as “Protestant” in any meaningful sense on a recent post, among the most significant reasons for those who answered “no” was Mormonism’s claims to revelation and scripture beyond the bounds of the Old and New Testaments.
But just how unique is Mormonism in this regard? What precedents are there in the American past for such beliefs and how do Mormon prophets and scriptures fit within the larger history of the debates surrounding such issues? David Holland’s Sacred Borders, an analysis of “continuing revelation and canonical restraint in early America,” goes a long way toward answering those questions. Mormonism, it is clear after reading Holland’s account, was tapping into a deeply contested and highly controversial conversation when it burst on the scene with the publication of the Book of Mormon and claims to revelatory visitations and pronouncements from Deity. Joseph Smith thus joins a varied community of religiously inspired social critics and self-made prophets who “overtly punched holes in the traditional boundaries of the biblical canon in order to make room for new truths that they considered worthy of canonization.” And (as Mormons well know from their own history), these prophets and authors of extra-biblical scripture were almost always opposed by “those who expressly viewed the rise of new moral or religious imperatives as a sinister threat to the sanctity and unity of the closed canon” (p. 9). Unsurprisingly, debates of this sort occurred not only between these two broad groups at any given time, but also within them, as prophetic visionaries offered competing claims of God’s will and those defenders of the “traditional canon” endlessly debated the meanings and authority of that canon. As Holland indicates in the book’s introduction, Sacred Borders thus incorporates a group of “wildly diverse early Americans,” including “elite theologians and slave prophets, liberalizing intellectuals and tub-thumping revivalists.” He argues that by analyzing the debates over the scriptural canon among and between this varied cast of characters, “the interplay of the clashing impulses that shaped early American life”—conservatism and innovation, primitivism and millennialism, orthodoxy and plurality—comes into sharper focus and forces us “to reconsider much of early American intellectual history” (pp. 11-12).
While those individuals and communities whom Holland analyzes may constitute a “wildly diverse” group, most will not be entirely unfamiliar to readers. Puritan divines and dissenters, Revolutionary-era deists, New England Transcendentalists, and antebellum Shakers—who all have received extensive attention from historians—find their place alongside Mormons, Swedenborgians, and African-American prophets, each occupying a distinct part in Holland’s narrative. In fact, one of the book’s signal successes is its ability to treat these well-trod historical subjects in new and refreshing ways, uncovering previously overlooked intellectual debates and connecting them to larger historical developments.
What place, then, does Mormonism actually occupy in such a wide-ranging volume? And what remains unique about its prophetic tradition and claims to ongoing revelation and an open canon when placed within these larger debates? In one sense, Joseph Smith and his followers come across as significantly less distinct than we may have previously thought. As others before Holland have showed, prophets and claims to new revelation were not altogether uncommon in early America. To this, Holland reveals additionally that other extra-biblical books of scripture—ranging from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to “the spate of biblical parodies” penned by deists throughout the eighteenth century to the Shaker’s Sacred Roll—appeared both before and after the 1830 publication of the Book of Mormon. Arguments over the meaning of specific biblical passages like Revelation 22:18-19 occupied the efforts of Protestant Reformers and Puritan theologians centuries before Mormon missionaries took up such debates with evangelicals intent on discrediting the Book of Mormon. Still others challenged the accuracy of biblical translations, accusing others of distorting the original authors’ intent and specific verses’ true meanings and using such as evidence of an apostasy. Just as Mormons today sometimes find themselves agreeing with secular scholars of biblical criticism, so these same debates brought together unlikely allies in the early American republic (Quakers and biblical skeptics of the eighteenth century, for example).
More specifically, Holland argues that two prevailing challenges to the biblical canon shaped Joseph Smith and other early Mormons’ response to these questions: the first, evangelical enthusiasm (particularly that of the Methodist variety), with its emphasis on personal experience with the divine “ran the risk of blowing holes in the canonical threshold” (p. 129); the second, “deistical criticisms” of popular writers like Thomas Paine. “Early Mormons” were thus “clearly touched by the revelatory factors of their time,” he notes. “They recognized for instance, that all around them raged a battle over biblical translation. The possibilities of textual corruption played a very important role in Mormons’ sense of their own movement and Smith’s status as inspired translator formed and early and prominent part of his prophetic identity. … It was not,” Holland concludes, “as if these early Mormon converts somehow existed outside their canonical culture” (pp. 147-48).
Yet even while Mormonism borrowed and benefitted from predecessors who challenged the canonical boundaries in similar ways, it responded to these longstanding debates in sometimes unique fashion. Mormons’ addition to the biblical canon came not as the culmination of developments within the movement (as it did with the Shakers Sacred Roll), but rather before the formal organization of Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ. “The Book of Mormon,” Holland explains, “predates the existence of a Mormon church. Where Shakerism climaxed in new scripture, Mormonism was born with it” (p. 146). Furthermore, “if the charge of revelatory particularity was indeed the one argument of deism which … could ‘be consistently supported,’ the Book of Mormon aimed to knock the legs out from under it” (p. 147).
Mormonism, though, did not simply present a radical challenge to the biblical canon, offering “an other revelation” in place of the biblical canon. Rather, the Book of Mormon and the revelations received by Joseph Smith and his prophetic successors claimed to simultaneously prove the Bible’s truth and clarify its controversial particulars. New revelation was not simply the pathway to creating a new church; it was the blueprint for restoring the ancient church. Yet even while the Book of Mormon purportedly backed the Bible, subsequent revelations given through Mormon prophets ran the risk of contradicting former revelations. Such were the dangers of an open canon, and as Holland points out, those dangers have borne tension and division throughout Mormon history; “on issues from polygamy to racial equality,” he explains, “such commands and revocations drove a wedge between an evolving church and those who held a fast and fundamentalist commitment to the earlier revelations. … Neither rigidity nor irresolution could survive a God who spoke both authoritatively and frequently” (p. 157).
Mormonism, then, stands both as part of and apart from much longer traditions of prophetic claims and biblical criticism. Yet in spite of what it may or may not share in common with others—or perhaps because of it—Mormonism remains in many respects a quintessentially American religion. Not (only) because it was born here and because it sacralized the American landscape, but (also) because it seems to encapsulate in miniature the very competing claims and contradictions that shaped America—conservatism and innovation, primitivism and millennialism, authority and freedom.
My critiques of the book are few, and most have nothing to do with Holland’s treatment of Mormonism. While he includes a brief analysis of the African-American prophetic tradition, it seems much too brief. Native Americans receive even less attention (and virtually none beyond colonial New England). I mention this not simply because academic histories are expected to be more inclusive, but rather because the experience of both African American and Native American religious traditions speak so poignantly to the discussion of prophetic figures and biblical translations in American history. Additionally, and in spite of his thoughtful justification for doing so in the book’s introduction, there are obvious shortcomings to the national framework Holland employs. This critique does, I think, affect his treatment of Mormonism. While Mormonism is indeed uniquely American in many respects, we are left wondering how the experience and influence of the movements’ many early converts from Canada, Britain, and continental Europe speak to the complex questions of canonical borderlands and continuing revelation.
In spite of these critiques, I strongly recommend Sacred Borders. It is complex but readable, provocative but well-grounded and argued, and ultimately succeeds in its aim to “reconsider much of early American intellectual history.” For students of early American religious history, it should be required reading. For students of Mormon history, it offers an exemplary model of how to both situate Mormonism in larger narratives and use Mormonism to speak to to broader themes in particular ways.
 Readers, however, should not let the familiar cast of characters fool them. As Sam Brown rightly pointed out, the depth and complexity of the issues and debates discussed in Sacred Borders may necessitate that those less familiar with the particulars of theological and ecclesiastical debates in early America consult a more general treatment of the subject.