Call for Papers: “The Book of Mormon: Americanist Approaches”

By July 22, 2013

Jared Hickman, The Johns Hopkins University
Elizabeth Fenton, The University of Vermont

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 14.05.46Over twenty years ago, Nathan Hatch highlighted a gap in the study of American religion, noting that, ?for all the attention given to the study of Mormonism, surprisingly little has been devoted to The Book of Mormon itself.? Though scholars of US religion and culture have produced a wide range of work on Mormonism, its history, and its peoples in the past two decades, Hatch?s assertion remains largely true. In the field of US literary studies particularly, The Book of Mormon stands as a telling absence, perhaps because questions about what it is and where it came from have overshadowed discussions of how it works and what it does. This essay collection begins with the premise that, whatever else it may be, The Book of Mormon is a significant, world-altering literary text that should be studied as such.

For this proposed collection, we are seeking essays that engage with The Book of Mormon as a work of literature and situate it within the context of Americanist literary studies. Although the book?s theology is in many respects inseparable from questions of its historicity, we seek essays that resist the urge to simply historicize the book?s importance away or address its claims to sacred status. We are, in other words, less interested in how the book came into being than in how it operates both in itself and in conjunction with other US cultural productions.

We are interested in essays addressing a range of topics from a variety of critical vantage points. Essays appropriate for this collection might consider The Book of Mormon?s construction of American indigeneity, its presentations of gender and sexuality, or its complex formulations of race relations. Work on the text?s structure, narrative forms, and intertextual moments is also welcome. Though we are not seeking pieces centered on questions of The Book of Mormon?s particular composition history, we are interested in essays that analyze its engagements with questions of history and historicity, its imaginings of both ancient Israel and early America, and its place within antebellum religious cultures.

Please submit essay proposals of not more than 500 words to or by 30 September 2013. Oxford University Press has expressed interest in this collection, and so we will be submitting the proposal to that press by the end of 2013. Complete drafts of accepted essays will be due by 30 June 2014. Finished essays should be 7,000-9,000 words in length.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. For those who don’t know, Jared Hickman is doing some of the best stuff on the Book of Mormon, and Elizabeth Fenton is a top-notch scholar; both have articles on the BoM due out this next year in prestigious journals that will make a serious dent in the field and demonstrate the future of BoM textual studies. This should really be a tremendous volume.

    Comment by Ben P — July 22, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

  2. “Essays appropriate for this collection might consider The Book of Mormon?s construction of American indigeneity, its presentations of gender and sexuality, or its complex formulations of race relations.”

    Gender and sexuality, race relations eh? All progressive boilerplate. What is the point of this? What nuggets of truth do you hope to glean from studying the Book of Mormon’s presentation of “sexuality”?

    I really think you guys have lost your way. This isn’t really study of the Book of Mormon, but studying the Book of Mormon through a rather jaundiced lens. Academic “respectability” is a compelling temptation, but good grief folks.

    Comment by Michael Towns — July 23, 2013 @ 8:57 am

  3. Michael Towns, feel free to submit something about how strongly Book of Mormon peoples felt about the importance of gun rights or not having socialized medicine.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — July 23, 2013 @ 9:12 am

  4. Or how hard it would have been for certain Book of Mormon groups/cultures to accept the legitimacy of a dark-skinned president/leader. Oops now we are back to race relations.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — July 23, 2013 @ 9:14 am

  5. Cynthia, did I strike a nerve?

    Comment by Michael Towns — July 23, 2013 @ 9:19 am

  6. ” feel free to submit something about how strongly Book of Mormon peoples felt about the importance of gun rights or not having socialized medicine.”

    If I did, it would be *just* as insipid as writing about sexuality in the Book of Mormon, or feminism, or any of the contemporary shibboleths of modern academia. And just as misguided.

    Comment by Michael Towns — July 23, 2013 @ 9:21 am

  7. Michael: this may surprise you, but topics like race and sexuality were important to more than just contemporary observers, and have in fact been crucial topics to people throughout all ages–including those in the Book of Mormon. Especially race–it doesn’t take a progressive to notice that the color of skin and dynamics of competing civilizations is a crucial theme throughout the book.

    I imagine the “academy” is a dirty word for you, Michael, but it is legitimate sphere of labor that provides tools and topics for those who practice it, just like any other profession. To project your own framework of how that work should be done when you are not trained in or familiar with that profession is akin to telling a lawyer or a plumber that they are doing their work wrong. These are not questions that are (or should) be brought up in sunday school, but they are fair game within the pages of an academic book or journal.

    I know it is tempting to condemn scholars you don’t agree with to hell in a handbasket, but good grief dude.

    Comment by Ben P — July 23, 2013 @ 9:40 am

  8. Towns, this is simply a CFP for another organization. JI posts CFP’s and other announcements regarding Mormonism in academia all the time. They would have been remiss not to post it here, as they’ve done with so many others.

    Let me rephrase your comment in order to ask the same questions without coming off as rude and disrespectful, and even worse not productive of genuine conversation:

    “I’d like to discuss the value of exploring the Book of Mormon through contemporary academic categories and concerns. Since the book is considered a sacred text and not an academic volume, I question how academia can really help us mine the book for truths that would be non-spiritual/religious in nature, if these can be considered truths at all. In fact, such studies might even distract the faithful from more religious engagements with the book. How would these studies benefit faithful Mormons, scholars or not?”

    The worst part about the Bloggernacle isn’t that blog lean politically one way or the other but that people behave like petulant children, unable to speak like respectful adults.

    Comment by Jacob — July 23, 2013 @ 9:46 am

  9. Ben P, perhaps this might surprise you, but I’ve actually been to the academy. I just don’t take it as seriously. And while I was pointing out how certain approaches to the Book of Mormon are misguided, that hardly counts as “condemnation”.

    This is obviously your bread and butter; more power to you. If treating the Book of Mormon the same as you would treat Proust or Joyce is what you think is appropriate, you’re right, I’m not one to judge. (I still think it’s appropriate to share an alternative viewpoint; one that is shared, by the way, by a lot of Mormons with PhDs.)


    Comment by Michael Towns — July 23, 2013 @ 9:48 am

  10. Sorry, I thought “I think you guys have lost your way” = some form of condemnation. If I over-read that, I apologize. Cheers.

    Comment by Ben P — July 23, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  11. Micheal, if there was a serious point underlying my comment it was that some topics and treatments can be anachronistically political (e.g. BoM people didn’t have a 2nd amendment since they predated the Constituion), but others are very clearly suggested by the text itself (e.g. pervasive talk of race and race relations). Calling the act of paying attention to race and gender “politicizing” *is itself a political act* because it effectively tells people who aren’t considered the default race and gender (now, or in BoM times) that their issues are somehow one-off or sideshow rather than just as valid as the lives of white men.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — July 23, 2013 @ 10:06 am

  12. Michael, you’ve stated your case that you dislike this CFP and your belief that we’re all a bunch of poor, misguided dupes enchanted by the idea of academic respectability. Although several of your comments violate the blog’s stated comment policy, we’ve allowed them to remain. But don’t expect any other personal attacks and self-righteous trolling to be tolerated moving forward. This is your one and only warning.

    Comment by Administrator — July 23, 2013 @ 10:47 am

  13. “been to the academy”? As the academy, in this sense, is an abstraction, your comment makes no sense. Congrats on being consistent.

    Comment by Trapped in Bob Dylan's Basement — July 23, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  14. I do not understand the disdain that Michael Towns has for “the academy.” I wonder if we could go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries and find comments like this in journals or letters back and forth from individuals discussing where Biblical studies was heading at the time. It could have been argued then that the approaches and studies were ‘political,’ or that the scholars “ha[d] lost [their] way,” but guess what? Those new approaches to the Bible provided means of seeing the Bible in a much better light than before. Without those studies Jacob Milgrom’s incredible 3 volume commentary on Leviticus would not have been possible; Moshe Weinfeld’s amazing studies on the Deuteronmistic History (and later David Wright’s) would have been unthinkable; and Hugh Nibley would not have had the tools to have been Hugh Nibley (whether you like him or not, either way). I am excited to see where these new studies lead us, especially when we are paying more close attention to the actual text of the Book of Mormon and how it works within itself. I can only be excited to see what comes out of these studies, and therefore have to disagree with Michael on his position.

    Comment by Colby T. — July 23, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

  15. The so-called racism in the Book of Mormon is not racial based at all. Social divisions in the Book of Mormon were the result of faithful adherence to or vehement opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the Nephites and Lamanites had common ancestors. How could they be of different races? By the time of Jesus’ visit, there were no light or dark skinned groups. The final division of the people was political and religious.

    Joseph Smith’s contemporaries described Native Americans with had ruddy, copper, dusky, or red skin. Why did he not describe them the same way?

    Comment by Mark Jasinski — July 23, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

  16. Mark: the Book of Mormon, of course, is a lot more complex than that. Sure, they all descended from the same family, but the book explicitly introduces race when the Lamanites, um, change skin color. Even if that’s a malleable racial distinction, it is a racial distinction nonetheless. And the Lamanites, who the book argues is the surviving race on the American continent, are described as dark-skinned, idol, mostly naked, and lack civilization as compared to their light-skinned relatives; those are all similar descriptions of Native Americans. There are certainly a lot to distinguish the Book of Mormon from other 19th century depictions of the indigenous populations, and that is what makes it a fascinating document, but to paint such sharp distinctions might not have much grounding.

    Comment by Ben P — July 23, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

  17. In the Academy looking at the Bible as literature has typically meant looking at the Bible as a work of fiction. You say you “are seeking essays that engage with The Book of Mormon as a work of literature and situate it within the context of Americanist literary studies.” Does literature and Am. Lit. also mean you want to engage the Book of Mormon as a work of fiction?

    Comment by Ken H. — July 23, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

  18. “In the Academy looking at the Bible as literature has typically meant looking at the Bible as a work of fiction.”

    Please provide proof of that statement.

    Comment by Amy T — July 23, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

  19. Yeah, Ken: in my experience, that assumption (that Bible as lit usually treats it as fiction) is not true.

    Comment by Ben P — July 23, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

  20. Although some of your comments, Ben (on “race” for example) suggest that you have not read the Book of Mormon carefully or critically, I think that your project shows promise.

    Be advised, however, that reading & publishing on the Book of Mormon as literature is something that Jack Welch, Richard Rust, Terryl Givens, Grant Hardy, and others, have been doing for many years.

    As for text-critical studies, they would not even be possible without the long-term FARMS Critical Text Project, of which I was editor from 1979 through 1987, and which has been continued with distinction by Royal Skousen for the past 25 years.

    Robert Alter and Northrop Frye have each shown us the big dividends which studying the Bible as literature can pay, and I think the same can be done for the Book of Mormon. In that endeavor, however, I am not sure that pointedly ignoring the ancient world will always be the best strategy. Indeed, it may even become somewhat atavistic.

    Comment by Robert F. Smith — July 23, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

  21. Robert: being that you think this is my project, rather than just me merely hosting a CFP written and sponsored by others, suggests that you have not read the post critically or carefully. And if you don’t think race (both narrowly and broadly conceived) is a major tension in the BoM, I’d suggest you’ve missed a major point of that text, as well.

    I do agree with the point that great and important work has been done on the BoM as literature already, most of which you mention I have greatly benefitted from. Future projects, like this one conceived of and led by Jared and Elizabeth, will stand on the shoulders of giants, indeed.

    Comment by Ben P — July 23, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

  22. Amy and Ben,

    The Lit. courses I took, and saw at the University, were typically about the art of poetry, fiction, and drama. I don’t remember seeing any lit courses covering journalism, history, politics, or biographies. Of course there were classes on those topics but not “Lit” classes.

    So my simple question remains unanswered. Does studying the Book of Mormon as Literature here, and purposely avoiding the urge to “historicize the book” or claim “sacred status,” Does this mean viewing the Book as an artful imaginative work of the human mind (fiction)? If Literature is our only lens, and if historical and truth claims are off topic, where does that leave the discussion?

    BTW, My father taught “The Bible as Literature” about every third year in his State University’s English Department. So I may get some of this from him.

    I don’t for a minute suppose there are no literary qualities in the Bible or the Book of Mormon. I don’t for a minute suggest a literary study of these books is inappropriate. I just wonder if disallowing historical and truth claims means we have agreed at the outset to look at these books as works of fiction?

    Comment by Ken H. — July 23, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

  23. If Literature is our only lens, and if historical and truth claims are off topic, where does that leave the discussion? … I just wonder if disallowing historical and truth claims means we have agreed at the outset to look at these books as works of fiction?

    Ken, can you clarify who the “we” and “our” you refer to in your comment includes (and excludes)? I wonder if there is a disconnect between the editors’ intended audience and various readers’ anticipated audience(s), and if that might explain some readers’ frustration at the editors’ stated approach to their proposed collection.

    And perhaps it would be appropriate for us here at the JI to alert Dr. Hickman and Dr. Fenton to this conversation and see if they’d be willing to weigh in with clarifying remarks.

    Comment by Christopher — July 23, 2013 @ 11:41 pm

  24. I am no expert in literary studies nor of the study of ancient American texts nor of ancient texts in the Middle East. I do belong to the Society of Biblical Literature, which includes scholars from those who believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God to those who believe it is largely or entirely fiction. Why? Because the same tools of literature may be used to study nonfiction as well as fiction. Determining whether a work accurately reflect actual events is a very different issue.

    Those who believe that studying the Book of Mormon as literature undermines faith in its historicity and status as scripture might want to read Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon for an example of a believer’s use of literary tools to discern what the writings mean, while bracketing the question of how closely that meaning corresponds to actual events. Joe Spencer’s work is another example of using tools of the academy (in his case, continental philosophical tools) in understanding the Book of Mormon in what I think is a largely faith building way while bracketing truth claims.

    Comment by DavidH — July 23, 2013 @ 11:59 pm

  25. Christopher,

    By “We” and “our” I was meaning primarily the editors and those who submit papers. I also used the terms to include you and me, because I wonder if we (you and me) are on board with the editors viewpoint.


    I agree. I am aware that literary tools can be a great benefit in studying the Bible and Book of Mormon. (I too would heartily recommend Hardy) Although, I am also aware that for many looking at the Bible as literature means looking at it as fiction (look at the usual textbooks for “Bible as Literature” courses). Perhaps I have misunderstood the intent of the editors call for papers, but their comments about historicizing and sacred status suggests to me they are in the “fiction” camp. Perhaps not, but then that is why I asked.

    Comment by Ken H. — July 25, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

  26. Ken: I am not aware of any books used in “Bible as Literature” courses that flat-out look at the book as scripture. Most use someone like Robert Alter or James Kugel. I fear you are creating your own bogeyman, and that you are projecting an assumption on the editors of this collection.

    Comment by Ben P — July 25, 2013 @ 3:25 pm


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