Please join us in welcoming this guest post from Edward Blum, a recognized scholar of race and religion in U.S. history who has contributed to JI previously. Ed is associate professor of history at San Diego State University. He is the author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005), W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007), and most recently, co-author (with Paul Harvey) of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012). He is the co-editor (with Paul Harvey) of The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History (2012), (with Jason R. Young) The Souls of W. E. B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections (2009), and (with W. Scott Poole) Vale of Tears: New Essays on Religion and Reconstruction (2005). Ed also blogs at Religion in American History and Teaching United States History, and last week attended his very first Mormon History Association conference in Layton, Utah.
Has darkness ever overwhelmed you? Have you seen cities sink and communities set ablaze? Has a voice saved you? If you know the Book of Mormon, then you are familiar with the tale I tell. After hundreds of pages chronicling the ebbs and flows of civilizations, the narrative reaches a climax. In Palestine, Jesus Christ was crucified and buried. The world felt the reverberations. “Thick darkness” fell upon the land. Nothing could bring light, “neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceeding dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all.” The sounds of howling and weeping pieced the darkness. Sadness reigned.
It is difficult to overstate the drama and the beauty of the Book of Mormon’s rendering of these days. As one who watched silvery strands cloud the corneas of my infant son and darken his vision onto blindness, as one who takes the Christ story seriously in the depth of my soul, and as one who more and more considers the place of the sun and the moon, the land and the sea, in our religious imaginations, this scripture leaves me in tears. It also leaves me spinning about why the Book of Mormon is vital for American religious historians. It is not simply an artifact. It is also a treasure trove of ideas. To me, it should be required reading for anyone in my guild, and here are a few reasons.
First, the contents and the context feed one another. Most of us teach the context of Mormonism’s emergence. We teach about the second great awakening and the burned-over district, the dramatic tale of young Joseph Smith visited by God the Father, Jesus the Son, and Moroni the angel, and the complex and conflicted translating process. The content dramatizes the context and vice versa. When Joseph Smith translated the tale of the world going dark, he was sitting in darkness. When Smith described the various plates that had different forms of history written upon them, Smith was working from plates that held sacred histories at the same time George Bancroft was writing from paper on paper alternative histories of America. I am not suggesting that the context determined the content, not one bit. Rather, the drama of Smith’s translation seems heightened when we take seriously the text which he translated.
Second, the “wrapping” of the Book of Mormon can be stunningly interesting. There was not one Book of Mormon, but several even from the beginning. As Laurie Maffly-Kipp notes in her introduction to the Penguin edition, slight changes from the 1830 to the 1840 edition were crucial. The 1830 version used the word “white” to refer to the Lamanites. The 1840 version used “pure.” It was the 1830 version that became “the” wording for more than a century. Just as the distinction between “light” and “white” is crucial when we think of how Smith’s first vision is textually rendered versus how it is visually displayed, the difference between “white” and “pure” has been crucial too. Following the 1978 declaration to end the priesthood ban on black men, the 1981 edition inserted “pure.”
There have been other meaningful modifications as well, and not all textual. We know of the new subtitle, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” but there was also the inclusion of imagery. The Book of Mormon I grabbed from a hotel in 2007, which was my first introduction to the book, has eight images after an introduction and the testimonies. Heinrich Hofmann’s “The Lord Jesus Christ” looks slightly down and to our right, perhaps directing with his eyes to turn the page. (interestingly enough, it is a Hofmann painting of Jesus that “frames” Thomas S. Monson’s online biography, an image he claims to have had since the 1950s). On the next page of this Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith looks to the left, as if back at Jesus. Then there is Lehi, Alma, Samuel the Lamanite, and finally John Scott’s “Jesus Christ visits the Americas” and Tom Lovell’s “Moroni buries the Nephite record.” Bulging biceps and earnest prayer mark these paintings. The images frame the text, providing readers a narrative before the narrative. A visual arc precedes the textual arc. What is not there is fascinating too. There is no “first vision” so God the Father is not viewed in human form. Reading these images offer another layer of reading the Book of Mormon.
Finally, the arguments against reading the Book(s) of Mormon seem weak to me. It may be the case, as Terryl Givens has argued, that few Americans read the Book of Mormon in the nineteenth century. But that is true of lots of books and other texts. How many fugitive slave narratives went unread? Emily Dickinson’s poetry was kept private. Moreover, some pretty important Americans did read the book, including Brigham Young.
It is too easy to quote Mark Twain to explain away the book. To be blunt, there is a lot of nineteenth-century writing that felt like “chloroform in print.” Most of my students dislike Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it is too long and too detailed. Moby-Dick is so full of symbol, symbols, and symbolism that it often feels like the whale itself: too massive to comprehend. Readers can just as easily get lost searching for the white whale as they are following the Nephites, Lamanites, Jaredites, and all the other “ites.”
What I love about the Book of Mormon is that Smith and the writers were willing to tarry where Moby-Dick’s “Ishmael” was not. Near the beginning of Melville’s work, the one we can call “Ishmael” stumbles into a “Negro” church. There, he hears a sermon about “the darkness of blackness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing.” Ishmael “backed out.” To him, it was a “trap.”
When we read the Book of Mormon, we willingly enter the “trap.” The darkness descends; the world weeps. But then a voice calls; a body appears; we touch it and listen to his teachings. Then, we are told to sing. Perhaps Mark Twain’s boredom (and ours) tells us a lot more about his (and our) sacred (in)sensitivities and less about Smith or the Book of Mormon.