From the Archives: James Strang on the Book of Mormon

By January 23, 2008

In 1834-35, Oliver Cowdery wrote eight letters to W.W. Phelps describing the events of the restoration.  These letters were published in the Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate and constitute the first published history of the Mormon Church.  These letters were reprinted throughout the nineteenth century by various Latter Day Saint groups.  In 1854, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite) published them in pamphlet form, complete with a preface by James J. Strang.  Strang also authored an appendix, elaborating on his views of the Book of Mormon.  A selection from that appendix is posted below. 

The Book of Mormon is not a text book among the Saints of the last days.  In all their public controversies the Bible is the universal standard; but in their domestic affairs, the Book of the Law of the Lord is the end of controversy.

The Book of Mormon is not a book of doctrine, but a book of history.-Its subject is a branch of the house of Israel, who left Judea in the times of the Kings, coasted along the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, passed through Eastern Asia, crossed the Northern Pacific to the Northwest Coast of America, migrated by slow stages though Mexico and Central America, and spread over the Continent from the Lakes to the Equator.

The last scenes of its history are in the State of New York, very remote from most of the important events mentioned in it.

The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830, and a large edition immediately put in circulation.  Its style is exceedingly simple, indicating inferior literary attainments of its authors, but the most excellent morals, and a high regard to religious duties and obligations, and considerable knowledge of theology.

The translation into English, evidently has not improved or embellished the original.  The English is exceedingly barbarous and ungrammatical, evidencing extreme want of literary qualifications in translator and editor.  The proof reading of the first edition was worse done that is usual with country newspapers, and occasionally the most gross errors were designedly committed by the printers.

The grossest of these were corrected in the subsequent editions, to some limited extent.  But the stereotyped edition, which it was intended to make an accurate standard, having been executed by men who had no interest in the faithfulness of the work, abounds with numerous and gross inaccuracies.

But, aside from literary defects and editorial and mechanical blunders, the Book of Mormon is the most extraordinary book of the productive and progressive age.  It traces, for a period of one thousand years, the history of a semi-civilized population, extending over half the American continent, with such minuteness that the student in modern geography finds no difficulty in locating their nations and cities, and all the events in their history.

Their cities, fortresses, temples and numerous public works, from the same prominent feature in their history which such works usually do in the history of a people in a low state of civilization, and in some instances are minutely described.  Such a work should have commanded the attention of antiquarians and historians in all the world.  Prejudice has shut the eyes of the learned to this vast fund of knowledge. [1]

__________________________

[1] James J. Strang, Ed. The Epistles of Oliver Cowdery, on the bringing in of a New Dispensation (Saint James: Cooper and Chidester, 1854), 54-55.


Comments

  1. This is a fascinating look at the Book of Mormon from a believer’s point of view. Unfortunately we don’t have many early assessments of the Book of Mormon with this much candor. Many historians might look at the author of this piece and discredit it as a “Strangite” view, but I would argue that this material provides a window into which we can see an even earlier LDS view of the Book of Mormon—in addition to the Strangite attitude of the Mormon scripture.

    How much of this piece contains a pre-1844 attitude towards the BoM and how much of this is coming from Strang’s own ideas? Can we assume there were some Mormons during Joseph Smith’s lifetime who felt the Book of Mormon was “exceedingly barbarous and ungrammatical”? Or is this Strang’s own interpretation? (He was, after all, a great writer, editor, and public speaker—he knew how to use the English language. In fact, we see Strang the newspaper editor when he criticizes the proof reading of the 1830 Book of Mormon.) I tend to think there were a few Mormon during Smith’s lifetime who felt the “most correct book” didn’t follow always follow the grammatical rules of the day—I’ve seen an 1830 Book of Mormon with grammatical corrections penciled in throughout.

    Perhaps an attitude felt by more Mormon’s during JS’s lifetime comes out of James Strang’s assumption that the “Book of Mormon is not a book of doctrine.” It has been my view that many early Mormons did not view the Book of Mormon as a doctrinal work—but as mainly a work of history with a few unique doctrines within. The real theology/doctrine the early saints gleaned from the Book of Mormon was it’s mere existence—the supernatural recovery of plates, divine translation, and publication. The Book of Mormon (the book) became a witness to Joseph Smith’s divine role as prophet, seer, and translator. The content of the book was peripheral to the modern history of the book itself. At least that is how I see it.

    I also find it fascinating Strang’s use of scripture depending on the need. The Bible—accepted by all Christians of the day—would be used to settle their “public controversies” and it was the Book of the Law of the Lord which was used in “their domestic affairs”. I wonder where the Doctrine and Covenants fit. Perhaps in their ecclesiastical affairs and certainly in their public controversies with other Mormons (Brighamites, Rigdonites, etc.).

    Thanks for this great view into the Mormon view of the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by Rob — January 23, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

  2. Rob, thanks for the lengthy and informative response. I imagine you’re right on in your suggestion that “an attitude felt by more Mormon’s during JS’s lifetime comes out of James Strang’s assumption that the ‘Book of Mormon is not a book of doctrine.'”

    I too was curious about the omission of the D&C from the discussion on scripture. I’m not very familiar with Strang’s take on the D&C. What role did it play in the Strangite church?

    Comment by Christopher — January 23, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  3. Strang used the Doctrine and Covenants throughout his debates and articles against the Brighamites. For instance, in the first number of the Voree Herald an article entitle “Authorities refered to in the Book of Doctrines and Covenants” supply 12 scriptural reference out of the Doctrine and Covenants which claim authority for Strang’s position. A congregation of Strangites voted on the Doctrine and Covenants at a conference in 1846 (“receive[d] the revelations given by him [Joseph Smith], as contained in the book of Doctrines and covenants as the word of God.” Chronicles of Voree, 78.) When the Strangites excommunicated the apostles of the Brighamite Church, one of the charges laid against them was that they [the twelve] taught “that the Bible, Book of Mormon and the Book of Doctrines and Covenants are of no binding force in the church” (Chronicles of Voree, 75). And at a conference in Kirtland in August 1846, the group resolved “That we will uphold and sustain by our faith and prayers all the authorities, Priesthoods, Presidencies, Councils and Quorums of this Church according to the Laws of the Church, and the commands of God, as laid down in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants.” (Voree Herald, September 1846). I see an article published as late as May 1850 in which Strang is arguing for succession by using the Doctrine and Covenants. The Strangites did not reject that set of scriptures by any means, but like the church during Joseph Smith’s day, they were willing to add to it, which they did with revelations given to Strang and to the translation of the Book of the Law of the Lord.

    Comment by Rob — January 23, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

  4. Great post. I’m a little skeptical of Strang’s claims on a few grounds. First, church organs actually do use the Book of Mormon for doctrine more commonly than I would have thought (we are many of us prone to project back our notion of the Book of Mormon as artifact onto earliest Mormonism). Such uses are, in my back-of-napkin calculation, only a bit less frequent than Bible extracts.
    Second, Strang was competing with several other post-martyrdom LDS movements, essentially all of which acclaimed the Book of Mormon (even the mercurial McLellin affirmed the BoM until his death). His BoLL (modeled, incidentally, on Joseph Smith’s sacred book of remembrance which I believe was meant to be an earthly instance of the Book of Life) was to replace it, and he needed to distinguish his revelation from its exemplar. Third, criticisms about the grammatical flaws of the BoM irritated faithful Mormons. Learned critics and newspapermen often mocked this lack of grammatical sophistication, and Smith felt acutely those complaints. To have lodged them in any kind of public way would have aligned them with “Calvinist” divines and priestcraft-crippled ministers. In fact, in the 1850s, I think many would have seen this claim as slandering the dead. Remember that the book itself (and several newspaper editorials) defused that complaint by confronting it, making anyone who complained of its flaws subject to eternal judgment.

    Comment by smb — January 23, 2008 @ 9:12 pm

  5. The Book of Mormon is not a book of doctrine, but a book of history.

    It is interesting that this was Strang’s view on the Book of Mormon. The modern Church views this the other way around, and more accurately, in my opinion. That is, we view the Book of Mormon primarily as a repository of sound doctrine. Most Mormons also believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon but not necessarily that its primary value is as a history per se, except of course to the extent that it is seen as a history of Christ’s dealings with those whom he led to the Western Hemisphere.

    Comment by john f. — January 24, 2008 @ 8:41 am


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