Several years ago–perhaps 2009 or 2010–I first heard about a paper slated to be published in a major literary journal that radically reinterpreted the Book of Mormon as an Amerindian apocalypse. Whispers of both its imminent publication and its brilliance continued, and at some point, I was forwarded a prepublication draft of the paper. This isn’t altogether unusual in Mormon Studies–unpublished papers and theses, typescripts of difficult-to-access manuscript sources, and PDFs of out-of-print books passed from person to person have a long, storied, and sometime litigious history in the often insular world of Mormon scholarship. But unlike other instances I’m aware of, the importance of this paper was not in its access to otherwise unavailable primary source material or its controversial content, but rather in its interpretive significance.
The paper has popped up in conversation here and there in conversations at JI over the years, and I’m happy to report that, at long last, it’s now published in the latest issue of American Literature. The paper’s author, Jared Hickman, is assistant professor of English at Johns Hopkins University currently at work on several projects, including a book manuscript entitled Black Prometheus: Race and Radicalism in the Age of Atlantic Slavery and a volume co-edited with Elizabeth Fenton on The Book of Mormon: Americanist Approaches. The entire article largely lives up to its hype and deserves a close reading by anyone interested in the issues. Hickman offers a close reading of The Book of Mormon‘s text and situates it within the context of “contemporaneous Amerindian spiritualities.” It engages the voluminous historiography on the subject and represents an important contribution to a growing body of work reconsidering the context and content of the Book of Mormon‘s representation of race and portrayal of American Indians (see also the work of Elizabeth Fenton, Gregory Smoak, and Mark Ashurst-McGee). Here is the paper’s abstract (subscription required for access to full-text):
The Book of Mormon is perhaps best known in Americanist circles as a version of the Indians-as-Israelites theory. It features the racialized division of the progeny of the text’s founding diasporic Jewish figure, Lehi, into wicked “Lamanites,” who are cursed with “a skin of blackness” and were understood by the earliest readers to be the ancestors of Amerindian peoples, and the righteous “Nephites,” the fair-skinned narrators of The Book of Mormon. This essay shows how The Book of Mormon’s foundational raci(al)ist orthodoxy autodeconstructs, and in so doing not only offers a vision of racial apocalypse diametrically opposed to what would come to be known as Manifest Destiny—one resonant with contemporaneous Amerindian prophetic movements—but also challenges the literalist hermeneutics that found warrant for Euro-Christian colonization in the transcendental authority of “the Bible alone.”
We’ve reached out to Jared, and will hopefully have a short interview with him about the article in the not-too-distant future.