[A few months ago, we highlighted a recent article by Jared Hickman titled, “The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse,” published in American Literature (the premier journal of its field). This was a long-awaited article, and was worth all the excitement. I’d argue it is one of the most sophisticated treatments of the Book of Mormon, from an American literary perspective, in quite some time. We are thrilled to offer the following Q&A with Professor Hickman, who was gracious enough to give very thoughtful responses to our questions.]
This has been one of those long-awaited articles that (probably unethically) passed around in manuscript form for nearly a decade. Could you describe the provenance and development of this important article?
Around 2005 or 2006, while still in graduate school, I was graciously invited by Richard Bushman—a cherished mentor from my days as a Smith fellow—to participate in a Book of Mormon roundtable in Salt Lake City. The idea was that this roundtable would eventuate in an Oxford Introduction to The Book of Mormon. As a Ph.D. candidate soon to face the bleak academic job market, I couldn’t turn down such an opportunity to beef up a meager c.v. Fortuitously, I had been teaching The Book of Mormon in Sunday school in our local ward—full of formidably smart and thoughtful people—and was thus reading it with a new level of rigor informed by my ongoing scholarly training. I found it speaking profoundly to both my research interests in religion, race, and American literature and my evolving spiritual proclivities. Its formal curiosities were suddenly apparent to me as never before, and I fancied I could see in its intricate narrative architecture theological and ethico-political possibilities that I at the time desperately needed. I wrote a draft at the tail end of a summer spent working in a one-room yellow-brick house that had formerly housed a plural wife and her family on my in-laws’ glorious patch of earth in Sanpete County, Utah. It was a summer that had in part been spent absorbing local lore about Chief Sanpitch and the Ute groups ousted by the Mormon settlers, including an outing to the reported site of Sanpitch’s tragic death, a boulder movingly inscribed with commemorative marks. I recall the initial composition process as an exhilaration—one of those rare alignments of will and circumstance. The essay seemed to go over well enough at the roundtable, but the projected volume never materialized, so I was left holding a long and idiosyncratic essay on The Book of Mormon that didn’t have a home. At my adviser’s suggestion, I sent it to a couple of journals in my field and received rejection notices, but richly bemused rejection notices that made me think I might have something if I could figure out how to make it a less quirky artifact of my own intellectual alchemy. So I put it on the back-burner. Then, in a pinch—when I didn’t have a dissertation chapter ready for workshop—I presented it in my American literature doctoral colloquium and was cheered by my non-Mormon peers’ enthusiastic response to it. For a brief time, the essay was up and available on the colloquium website, and many people seem to have gotten hold of that very early (and, frankly, embarrassing) version of the essay. Over the ensuing years, I thought about it now and again and tinkered with it here and there, but I had other, more pressing projects to work on. After years of encouraging e-mail queries about it from readers of the online version that had circulated, I finally got my act together and got it in good enough shape to submit to American Literature. The review process was especially rigorous—for which I am most grateful—and forced me to translate the essay in important ways that I hope make it a valuable contribution not only to Mormon studies but American literary studies.
Your article argues that the Book of Mormon can be partially understood within the context of nineteenth century American Indian prophetic movements and their spiritual texts. Why do you believe that to be the case? And what does such a context tell us about Mormon’s book?
I would say that in terms of the immediate historical context of its initial publication and reception, The Book of Mormon is best understood as a contribution to a tradition as old as the entity called “America,” a tradition of apprehending the two continents of the western hemisphere as a millenarian stage, a place for civilization’s renewal and consummation. The apocalyptic event of radically unforeseen encounter in the Americas—which empowered Europe and decimated Amerindia in unprecedented ways—demanded new grand narratives all around. The Book of Mormon rushes into this vacuum and provides a grand narrative that resonates in certain respects with nineteenth-century Native prophetic movements, as Gregory Smoak has shown, and also the work of Native Christian reformers like the Pequot Methodist itinerant, William Apess, who—thanks to Connell O’Donovan—I now know had a seemingly synergistic encounter with Mormon missionaries Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde in Boston in July 1832:
These Native spiritual projects typically envisioned a glorious restoration of indigenous power and territory at the expense of Euro-American settlers. Such a vision is at the heart of The Book of Mormon—it is central to what Jesus teaches in 3 Nephi about a New Jerusalem whose primary architects are “the remnant of Jacob” and is the concluding message of both Mormon (Mormon 7) and Moroni, whose famous “promise,” it should be noted, is specifically directed to “my brethren, the Lamanites,” not to humanity at large (Moroni 10:1-2). The Book of Mormon’s primary implied reader is “Lamanite,” and the primary task it appoints itself in 1830—not only the year of its “coming forth” but also the year the U.S. Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act, which, by the lights of many early Mormons, facilitated the necessary “gathering” of “Lamanites” at the heart of the continent—is the mobilization of Native people to assume their indispensable, principal role in building the New Jerusalem, an event that early Mormons, with their millenarian worldview, understood to be imminent. The Book of Mormon’s shelf life, so to speak, was understood to be very short. All readers for historical reasons and believing readers for theological reasons should not lose sight of the text’s original bearings, even though believing readers who find themselves dwelling in the bewildering aftermath of early Mormonism’s eschatological failure will necessarily have to recast the text anew (and they have, with mixed results). In sum, The Book of Mormon presents itself and was initially received not as a distant announcement of but an immediate agent in these distinctly American winding-up scenes that, in multiple senses, give pride of place to Native peoples.
Having said all that, I hasten to underscore that a profound limitation of The Book of Mormon (and, some would say, also of a project like that of the Pequot Apess) is that it places any resurgence of Amerindian peoples in a Judeo-Christian narrative (their prophesied ascendancy arises from their supposed status as a covenant people, that is, Israelites) and predicates it on subscription to Judeo-Christian tenets. I don’t want to be taken as suggesting that something like the Ghost Dance and The Book of Mormon are entirely of a piece, even though they both to varying extents appropriate a common fund of Judeo-Christian millenarianism to imagine an Amerindian future at odds with the one scripted by the U.S. state. The Native critique of The Book of Mormon and attendant Mormon evangelization practices and assimilationist policies toward Native peoples is absolutely warranted and politically and spiritually vital. But one thing that interests and moves me is the way that The Book of Mormon itself has goaded some of its Native interpreters toward this very critique and even authorized them to embrace a cultural and spiritual traditionalism that, strictly speaking, might be seen as at odds with the text itself and certainly with the institutional imperatives of the LDS Church. That a Mayan Mormon somewhere in Guatemala might feel enjoined by The Book of Mormon to engage with and valorize her traditions—rich traditions deeply endangered by homogenizing colonialisms, old and new—is both a fascinating hermeneutical process to consider and an invigorating spiritual possibility that, for me, suggests the bracingly unpredictable and challengingly soul-stretching movements one might expect to perform under the aegis of something as grand and ground-clearing as what Joseph Smith called “the dispensation of the fulness of times.”
One of the most provocative arguments in your article is that the Book of Mormon not only challenges how readers are to view America’s “manifest destiny”—i.e., that white Protestants are destined to overpower American Indians in taking control of the American continent—but also how we are to read scripture itself—including the Bible. How does it accomplish such a bold challenge?
Besides the question of Indian origins and destiny, the other major debate into which The Book of Mormon plopped in 1830—for orthodox literalist readers, by providential design and with prophetic foresight but in this context nonetheless—was the question of biblical authority. These two debates were fundamentally linked, as the unclear provenance of Amerindian peoples within conventional and supposedly comprehensive biblical frameworks sparked heterodox inquiries like Isaac la Peyrere’s into the particulars of the divine creation that implied the biblical account might not be complete. This line of inquiry eventually led to the Higher Criticism and the unveiling of the Bible as—whatever else it was—a historicizable human document that inevitably reflected the particular notions and values of its ancient writers and compilers and thereby was subject to interrogation from a later temporal vantage point that seemed to have access to crucial knowledge, temporal and spiritual (whether the existence of the Americas or the proper conduct of a Christian civilization), that was not available to those writers and compilers.
For me, The Book of Mormon’s intervention in these linked conversations is perhaps best glimpsed in 2 Nephi 5, a chapter that Grant Hardy has pointed out is a significant narrative seam in The Book of Mormon. Most significant in my mind because this chapter collates the origin story of the small plates—Nephi’s first-person and frankly limited account of events—and the origin story of the Indians—the curse of Laman, Lemuel, and co. with a dark skin. Here’s the sequence: (1) Nephi trumpets the blessings of what he calls “my people” (vv. 11-18); (2) he pointedly narrates the contrasting curse of his brethren (vv. 19-28), making them a perfect reverse image of himself and his followers; (3) he repeats the account—previously given at the end of the narrative portion of 1 Nephi, before the extended quotations of Isaiah and Lehi (1 Nephi 19:1-7)—of his making of the small plates on which, he has earlier told us, he writes only the things that “I think . . . sacred” (1 Nephi 19:6), and which, he now reminds us, are the plates from which we have just read his candidly chauvinistic account of his “brethren” (vv. 29-33). In other words, the moment at which the text’s content is literally most divisive—partitioning righteous white Nephites from wicked black Lamanites—is also the moment at which the text underscores the partiality of its form—that the text we are reading is Nephi’s text, engraved by him alone on plates made by his hands according to what he deems “pleasing” to God and those he now emphatically distinguishes as his “people.” This formal arrangement, I argue, begs attentive readers, whether critical or devotional, to connect the dots and confront the partiality of scripture itself. Just as the mystery of Amerindian derivation had provoked a crisis of biblical authority among many Euro-American intellectuals, so Nephi’s disparaging origin story of the Indians highlights the small plates as—whatever else they may be—a bluntly biased chronicle whose claims have to be sifted by the reader. The Book of Mormon thus shines a spotlight on the problem of what David Holland calls “revelatory particularity.” It forces us to confront the unreliability of prophetic narrators and spiritual truth’s fugitive nature, its resistance to settling down more than momentarily and obliquely in words, its refuge-taking in silences, in what is not said, what cannot (yet) be said, which (one hopes) acts as a sanctifying goad.
By virtue of such conspicuous metaliterary machinations, The Book of Mormon invites readers into a different, more strenuous and creative, relationship to texts that purport to be sacred. It challenges American Mormons in particular to transcend the unfortunate binary, erected by the dominant evangelical biblicism all around us, that tends to equate devotional reading with literalist reading, i.e., a “religious” reading of scripture is by definition one that takes the text at face value and reveres it as more or less the unmediated word of God. On the evidence of the sacred text from which they take their name, Mormons shouldn’t feel they have to think that way. Instead, The Book of Mormon asks us to consider that forms of reading coded as “secular” under the evangelical-literalist paradigm, such as the deconstructive reading I’ve just outlined, may be the most devotional kind of reading. The text’s deepest, most spiritually significant meanings may not be sitting there, plain and precious, on the surface; they may demand more energetic and disorienting acts of interpretation. In my mind, this is how The Book of Mormon instructs us to read it and other sacred texts.
The Book of Mormon has often been identified as having problematic and complex rac(ial)ist ideas, most especially that the wicked civilization (the Lamanites) were “cursed” with a black skin. Yet you argue that those teachings are “undone by the very text in which [they are] articulated”; that the Book of Mormon actually provides “a meta-critique of theological racism, that is, a critique of theological racism by way of a critique of available critiques of theological racism” (436). That is a tough task! In short, why do you think this is the case?
Many readers of The Book of Mormon have rightly charged it with racism—in my mind, there’s no denying that a passage like 2 Nephi 5 is abjectly racist. The question is whether the text opens up a space between the articulations of particular narrator-characters like Nephi and the message of the text as a whole. I hold out that The Book of Mormon’s narrative form in various ways creates a distance between the racist claims of its Nephite narrators and welcomes attentive readers of all stripes into that gap. Whether the flagrant first-personness of the small plates (such a marked departure from the narrative style of most of the Hebrew Bible), the incessant intimation of the existence of other records and of events unrecorded, or the subversive inclusion of Lamanite voices (above all, the privileged prophet of the text’s central event—Christ’s coming—Samuel the Lamanite), The Book of Mormon, formally speaking, authorizes the reader to view the Nephite narrative’s undeniable racism with a hermeneutics of suspicion. For nonbelieving scholars this might make The Book of Mormon a fascinating object of study and valuable political resource that might inspire some reshuffling of the canon; for believing readers this might mean recalibrating one’s worldview as it pertains to both race and scripture in ways that run against contemporary LDS commonsense (especially as regards the latter).
I accept that both nonbelieving scholars and believing readers, for very different reasons, may see the reading I offer as too radical in its claims and implications to be “true,” as it were. Both may see the racism voiced by the narrators as the text’s last word, which may prompt the nonbelieving scholar to read the text as merely, albeit richly, symptomatic of nineteenth-century American racism and may convince a certain sort of believing reader that—however much she may not like it—she has to accept the terms of the Nephite narrators’ discourse on “Lamanites” and their descendants because they are prophets writing in a canonized book of scripture. The Book of Mormon would thus remain, in its bones, a racist book—perhaps not a surprise to the nineteenth-century Americanist but certainly a challenge to many twenty-first-century Mormons. Unfortunately, the manner in which The Book of Mormon has been taken up by many Euro-American Mormons only vindicates such a view: the LDS Church has a shameful history of theological and practical racism, which lingers into the present, not least because this history has not been sufficiently addressed and redressed. I especially sympathize with and support Native readers who may find the book and the programs it has inspired too compromised to be redeemed.
However, it is possible for me to envision a way in which the sort of reading of The Book of Mormon I propose might be the very means of counteracting and undoing the institutional and doctrinal history of racism that has followed from lazily literalist and naturally narcissistic readings of it. In the end, I guess I maintain that the problem is with a history of “bad”—or, more generously, weak—interpretations rather than a “bad” text. Could the very text that has underpinned racist teachings and initiatives be made the foundation of a vanguard antiracist theology of history and hermeneutics that enjoins its devotees to a critical but constructive reading of the scriptures of various peoples, as a bold interpretation of 2 Nephi 29 might suggest? At the least, this has the virtue of being a poetic conceit (which no doubt counts for more than it should for a literary critic like me) that variously resonates with the first liberation theologian, Jesus’s, neat reversals of last and first. But the answer (to my own rhetorical question, mind you) is I don’t know, but I’d sure like to see what might happen if folks ventured in that direction. Could The Book of Mormon ever become a linchpin in an ecumenical public theology, even transcending its origins in the denomination to which it gave name? What if The Book of Mormon “saved the world,” so to speak, not by converting the world to Mormonism but by inaugurating a metahistorical reflection on the globe’s diverse sacred histories, opening the way to a potentially unifying (sacred) history of sacred histories that discerned some larger movement within and behind them all? Just spitballin’ here.
Where do you see Book of Mormon studies as being at the moment? What contribution do you see the collection of essays on The Book of Mormon you’re currently compiling and editing for Oxford UP as making to the field?
Exciting things are happening in Book of Mormon studies at the moment. Within the Mormon bubble, there seems now to be increasing support for popping that bubble by moving away from a siege mentality focused on defending the historicity of The Book of Mormon. The emergence of new interlocutors laboring under broad intellectual shifts in academia over the last several years (especially the post-secular turn) has made it so that Mormons—if they are willing and make themselves able—can now engage in scholarly conversation about their sacred book in different ways with different people, most of whom don’t have a polemical axe to grind. Books like Grant Hardy’s—who may be our closest and best reader of The Book of Mormon to date—lay bare the fascinating form of the text in ways that potentially make it a consequential object of interest to many different types of readers. There seems to be the will among presses like Greg Kofford Books and the Maxwell Institute at BYU to try to open up the conversation about The Book of Mormon in new ways. I am cheered by these developments.
Most exciting to me personally, however, is the prospect of getting The Book of Mormon on the map enough in my field—early American literary studies—to get my very smart non-Mormon colleagues to reckon with it. I am eager to hear their fresh takes: What will they see that readers inured to the conventional give-and-take of the historicity debate that has long hemmed The Book of Mormon in simply can’t see? My only agenda is to facilitate and maximize the reaping of the intellectual rewards that I expect will come from getting more and different eyes on an inarguably significant book that I think has consistently proven cleverer than its critics. A shining example of the Book of Mormon criticism just starting to brew outside the Mormon bubble is the essay by my friend and colleague, Elizabeth Fenton, “Open Canons: Sacred History and American History in The Book of Mormon,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1:2 (Fall 2013): 339-61. When Liz asked if I’d be interested in co-editing a collection of essays on The Book of Mormon, I jumped at the chance. The volume, the working (sub?) title of which is Americanist Approaches to The Book of Mormon, is under contract with Oxford University Press, and is currently under construction. We’ve been fortunate to attract an impressive slate of scholars from various backgrounds, and the essay drafts we’ve seen thus far have been very encouraging. The work we’ve solicited and are hoping to cultivate is work that credits The Book of Mormon with being a text worthy of the highest level of intellectual seriousness and strenuousness, a text that was not merely a catch-all compendium of garden-variety nineteenth-century Americana but that purported to—and did indeed—audaciously intervene in nineteenth-century American life (and beyond) in an intellectually robust and undeniably consequential way. In addition to the introduction I will co-write with Liz, I look forward to taking another crack at Book of Mormon criticism by writing an essay that attempts to reframe the historicity question in terms of the Book of Mormon’s unabashed anachronism and to mobilize that reading to limn the possibilities of a post-secular reading practice that is neither conventionally “religious” nor necessarily subject to the secularist imperatives of a particular tradition of critique that originated in the Enlightenment and continues in some force in the academy.