[Today’s book review comes from JI’s good friend Seth Perry, who recently completed his PhD at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he wrote a dissertation on the Bible in early America, and will be a Visiting Professor of American Religion at Indiana University this fall.]
Since it was Philip Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (1991, 2013) that taught me to read paratexts, it seems fitting to approach Oxford University Press’s new and expanded edition of the book through the materials that frame it.
The back-cover blurbs attached to the new edition include these lines from a 1995 Dialogue review written by Scott Kenney, co-founder of Signature Books:
There can be no question that as a work of Mormon intellectual history this is a seminal – and eminently readable – work….Mormons and the Bible has all the markings of a Mormon classic.
OUP likes the quote – it also appears on my 1997 paperback. Characteristic of the genre, though, the blurb misses all of the subtlety of what Kenney was actually saying about the book. The ellipsis stands in for virtually the entire review (those are lines from the beginning and the end on either side of it). That “Mormon classic” line, the last sentence of the review, is preceded by quotes from two reviews that had appeared prior to Kenney’s, which he cites without comment. After quoting several other effusively positive reviews from a variety of journals, Kenney ended his review with this:
I note two exceptions to the high marks, both from ultra-conservative journals. According to the Southwestern Journal of Theology, the book “gives the Mormon church a sense of legitimacy and credibility it does not deserve. It is written with a pro-Mormon bias and is anything but objective.”
Interestingly, Brigham Young University Studies faults the book for its non-Mormon bias: “Because [Barlow], with his chosen tools, cannot or does not access continuing revelation, prophets and an active Holy Spirit… he seeks to find Mormon interpretive principles in places different from where Mormon leaders have always claimed them to be found. … It was the prophet of God, in this case Harold B. Lee, who made the decision to use the King James text … Since Latter-day Saints believe the prophet to be inspired, they need not question that institutional decision.”
Mormons and the Bible has all the markings of a Mormon classic.
What would raise Barlow’s book to the status of a Mormon classic, Kenney was saying, was that it was provocative, challenging to orthodoxy, and destined to be misunderstood by pretty much everyone.
“Whether or not one is a believer, the good-faith attempt to critically examine human tendencies ought not induce defensiveness,” Barlow wrote in his original preface (xvii, 1997 ed.). It did anyway. What the likes of Roger Keller, the author of that BYU Studies review, objected to was Barlow’s historicization of the Church’s timeless authority. Barlow’s chapter titles track the Bible’s place across various periods of Mormon history – “Before Mormonism: Joseph Smith and the Bible, 1820-1830”; “Diversity and Development: The Bible Moves West”; and, the one that really got people riled up, “Mormons and the Bible in the Late Twentieth Century.” In suggesting that the status, use, content, and very concept of scripture itself has an historical character, subject to changing ideological commitments, outside pressures, and organizational politics, Barlow really cut to the bone for people like Keller. He also provided a model for what historical approaches to religion should look like.
Twenty-two years after it first appeared, Mormons and the Bible is as much a classic of American religious history broadly as of Mormonism narrowly. Since Barlow outlined the use of the Bible in Mormonism as a field of inquiry, other scholars have homed in on the way that the King James is used in the LDS scriptures (getting past, finally, the simple observation that it is present); on the way that nineteenth-century biblicism defines the Mormon conception of scripture as a category; on the way that biblical genres have influenced LDS thought. All studies of this sort bring “human tendencies” into the analysis of what Keller sees as divine prerogative. They also make meaningful contributions to the academic understanding of Mormonism, the sort of contributions that have defined the growth of Mormon studies in the years since Mormons and the Bible first appeared. In the new preface, Barlow notes that in 1991 Mormons and the Bible was OUP’s only Mormon-studies title. A search of the press’s web site now turns up something like twenty books narrowly about Mormonism, and many more studies of general themes and trends in American religion that feature Mormonism prominently.
The new edition is packaged for this wider readership. The austerity of the iconic blue-green cover has been replaced with a James C. Christensen painting – “Gethsemane” is evocative, but its precise relevance to the subject at hand is unclear to me. New content in this edition consists of an updated preface and a selected bibliography of relevant works published since 1991.
In the new preface, Barlow does two things that are interesting. First, he brings some of his current thinking (see “To Mend a Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project,” Journal of Mormon History 38 (Summer 2012)) to bear on the earlier project, doubling down on his original focus on Smith’s personal creativity. “[Smith] constructs new art, expresses new revelation, in part by appropriating broken, scattered biblical phrases of his own culling – like an artist who crafts something from bits of shrapnel from a long-past war or from debris from the beach” (xxxii). This focus on Smith’s compositional role in revelation, I think, pushes back on the current norm in LDS scholarship on Smith, which seems to want to assign him a passive role in his own prophetic career.
The second part of the new preface brings the book up to date with developments in Church publications and scholarship. Barlow does not, however, address the most common criticism of Mormons and the Bible. Barlow’s sympathies with the liberal strain in LDS thought are on full display in his last few chapters, and virtually all reviewers felt that he had over-emphasized the importance of liberal thinkers in the face of what Kenney flatly called “the conservative victory” in LDS thought. “Only the McConkie school of biblical usage persists in the LDS church,” Kenney wrote. “There are no other ‘developing lines’ in the institution.” In the new preface, Barlow continues to lament the lingering effects of Correlation and allows himself a fleeting moment of glee in observing that McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine “has been allowed…to go discreetly out of print,” but offers no further thoughts on the fate of liberal thought within the Church (xxxix).
As doctrinal conservatism relates to the scholarship, objections like Keller’s have not really gone away (nor have those of the anti-Mormon reviewer from the Southwestern Journal of Theology, of course, but that’s a different conversation), but the tide of Mormon historiography seems pretty well set to favor Barlow’s approach. In “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America” (UNC, 2012), J. Spencer Fluhman comments on the fact that “Mormons steadfastly resist historicizing their faith”; he then proceeds with some pretty great historicizing. How such historiographical efforts will relate to overwhelmingly and increasingly conservative theological efforts remains to be seen.
 See, in no particular order and among many others, David P. Wright, “Joseph Smith’s Interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 31/4 (1998): 181–206; Samuel Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,” Church History 78:1 (March 2009), 26-65; Mark D. Thomas, “A Mosaic for a Religious Counterculture: The Bible in the Book of Mormon” Dialogue 29 (Winter 1996), 47-68; Kathleen Flake, “Translating Time: The Nature and Function of Joseph Smith’s Narrative Canon,” Journal of Religion (2007); Ronald V. Huggins, “‘Without a Cause’ and ‘Ships of Tarshish’: A Possible Contemporary Source for Two Unexplained Readings from Joseph Smith,” Dialogue 36/1 (2003): 157–79.