Janiece Johnson on the Book of Mormon

By October 11, 2018

There’s been a recent turn in book history. Early historians and scholars of the book looked to the way printed textual media was accomplished. But then scholars began to analyze the life-cycle of the book. Books are, after all, written by authors, printed by printers, sold by colporteurs, and read by readers. This approach to the book as artifact illustrates how each group interacts with books and the book trade. More recently, scholars have looked to the ways each individual involved in the book trade reflects and shapes the culture that produced it. Book history thus has become a study of culture.[1]

Unfortunately, Mormon history rarely attracts historians of the Book. Peter Crawley, David Whittaker, and Paul C. Gutjahr are the major exceptions to a relative anemic output of scholarship relating to the study of Latter-day Saint culture and the printed word it produced. Janiece Johnson’s recent article, “Becoming a People of the Books: Toward an Understanding of Early Mormon Converts and the New Word of the Lord,” published in the latest Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, is a breath of fresh air. Johnson’s article adds a corrective of the Book of Mormon’s place within the church. For those who want to argue that the Book of Mormon was rarely read, cited, or that it was simply a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, Johnson shows just how quickly and effectively the Book of Mormon seeped into the growing culture of the church.

In many ways, Johnson removes Joseph Smith out of the reception history of the Book. “A relationship with God was not just the prerogative of prophets: Smith’s egalitarian impulse offered each Mormon convert the possibility of experiencing the divine.” (3) When readers faced the question of the book’s authenticity, the answers were in the text itself—and not with the prophet, its provenance, or the reception of others. If the Book of Mormon helped shape a church, community, and society, Johnson argues, one must look to the actions or practice of individual people to find that historical change. Converts were made through the physical object. “The strength seen in these relationships with the Book itself, while initiated through an actual physical encounter, laid the groundwork for an ongoing, sustained belief.” (6-7) To foreground the spiritual or miraculous narrative of the work of scripture ignores the complete narrative. Viewing the Book of Mormon as simply a sign of JS’s prophetic mission dilutes the full power of the book. “It is insufficient in its ability to communicate and explain the full range of the relationships between early converts and the Book of Mormon.” (10)

But Johnson looks to more than simple relationships between the Book of Mormon and the individual. The Bible offered an authoritative voice to serve as evidence of either Joseph Smith’s prophetic claim or the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The story of the reception of the Book of Mormon is a story of the relationship between the physical book, missionaries sharing it, narratives of its origin, the content of the stories captured on the pages, and how it compares to the Bible. The Book of Mormon, with its intertextual calls to the Bible, influenced action within the church. Johnson rightly points out that understanding these textual relationships offers clues to the lived religion. Reading the Book of Mormon and seeing its overtones with the Bible provided similar cultural signals to biblical reading, thereby showing the close similarities of church beliefs with those of other Christian religions. The study of the Book of Mormon gained authenticity from the biblical text, but this was not the only intertextuality in play. There were social evidences (including Joseph Smith and the three and eight witnesses) and personal evidences or revelations that proved to early church members the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Johnson reminds book historians that the network of book production—particularly religious books—must contain supernatural components. “Accepting the Book as scripture gave the text power to narrate their lives.” (42)

Johnson’s article is a welcome approach to the Book of Mormon which has too often been forced into hiding behind its origin story or the translator who brought it forth. If anything, Johnson shows the level of work needing to be done by scholars. Each of her article’s sections could be articles unto themselves. She is pointing the way for future scholarship, showing that the Book of Mormon’s place in church history still has much to reveal.


[1] See Leslie Howsam, Old Books and New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Awesome review Robin and great points. This article looks fascinating!

    Comment by Daniel Stone — October 11, 2018 @ 7:22 am

  2. Thanks for the overview, Robin. Agreed, it’s a great article that lays out important questions and possibilities.

    Comment by David G. — October 11, 2018 @ 8:10 am

  3. Thanks, Robin. I love how Janiece mixes reception history and lived religion methodologies.

    Comment by J Stuart — October 11, 2018 @ 8:31 am


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