Max and Amanda discuss the Book of Mormon, Historicity, and Mormon Studies

By July 30, 2012

After some discussion, Juvenile Instructor has decided to try a new type of post today.  Instead of having a single-author or making a single argument, this post is a conversation between two scholars about a topic.  It should add a different flair to JI and will hopefully spark some discussion.  In this case, Max and Amanda discuss the Book of Mormon and its place within Mormon history and scholarship as a whole.  Both Max and Amanda are non-members and thus, may (or may not) have a different perspective than historians writing from a believing perspective.

Max:  Hi Amanda. We’re trying something new today at JI: a conversational post.

Amanda: Hi Max, Glad to be a part of this.

Max:  To get started, there has been a great deal of discussion in the bloggernacle as of late about how to approach the Book of Mormon as a scholarly source. I’d argue that most scholars, especially non-members (like us), get hung up on the “historicity” of the Book of Mormon, or as many would argue, the lack thereof.  The inability of some scholars to move beyond ?historicity? is partly a result of the nature of the text itself.   From the Book of Mormon?s inception, there has been an insistence that the book is historical. Certainly, Joseph claims that the golden plates were real, an actual ancient artifact. But he also further legitimized these claims by including the testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses in the Book of Mormon’s prefatory texts. To my mind, that invites, no requires, scholars to investigate these claims.  I love John-Charles Duffy’s ?Just How ?Scandalous? Is the Golden Plates Story? on this issue.[1]

Amanda:  What an interesting topic, and one that surely needs to be investigated in greater depth by scholars. I think one of the problems that non-Mormon scholars have with dealing with the Book of Mormon is that the book’s claims to historicity make them reticent to take it seriously.  Many of the historians with whom I work on a daily basis are committed agnostics and atheists ? claims about angels, golden plates, and ancient Jews in America make them deeply uncomfortable.  I wonder if the problem is specific to the Book of Mormon or if it represents a larger reticence in dealing with the miraculous.

Max:  Terrific point. Let’s expand our discussion to include “miracles” writ large in Mormonism.  The plates are both actual artifacts that require actual examination from an ancient language. But also this translation is made possible “by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation.” So they’re both tangible, legible (at least with the right tools) and also ephemeral, like a spirit of an archive that, for a time takes actual form, but then miraculously disappears.  This is what drives historians crazy and makes the story of the plates “scandalous.”

So we’ve got a miracle that is also historical as one of the founding events of the Latter-day dispensation. What other miracles do you have in mind?

Amanda:  Well, many early Mormons saw Joseph Smith’s vision as opening the heavens, so that God’s power could rain down again upon the earth.  Although we see it as a unique event, early Mormons did not necessarily see it that way.  Like Jesus’ resurrection, it was a foretaste of what was to come.  So, by the miraculous, I mean all of the healings, raising of the dead, speaking in tongues, and prophesying that early Mormons did.  I should mention that this discomfort among historians with the miraculous is not limited to Mormons.  Although millennialist religions were an important part of working class movements in the nineteenth century, they are rarely dealt with as anything more than a “chiliasm of despair.”[2]

Max:  This is something that Richard Bushman says differentiates the Mormon worldview from the “world’s” (the replacement for “gentile” in the Mormon lexicon). God is still speaking through the prophets, and through all members. And God’s words and power can affect what many scholars (and for that matter what many people of faith and no faith) think of the world governed by the laws of physics, biology etc.  Bushman calls this a “jungle of belief” as opposed the desertification of the world, which strips it of miracles[3].

Amanda:  One of the things I struggle with is how to deal with the Book of Mormon and miracles in my scholarship.  I’ll be honest.  I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon is true, and, although I hold open the possibility of miracles, I find myself skeptical of them in most cases.   How do you deal with such things in your scholarship?

Max: Very interesting. When you say, “I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon is true,” I actually hear a testimony of faith, but in the negative. Can you explain what you mean?

Amanda:  Well… you may be hearing a remnant of where I grew up.  As you know, I grew up in Idaho where I was often invited to the famous “three-hour block” on Sundays.  I guess, I do say that as sort-of an anti-testimony, as a way of differentiating myself from believing Mormon scholars.  Because I grew up in the Mormon culture region, have Mormon ancestry, and am often mistaken as Mormon, I feel a need to differentiate myself from people who actually belong to the church.  What I specifically mean by it, though, is I don’t believe in its historicity.  I don’t believe that the Nephites, Jaredites, and Lamanites existed or that people like Moroni are historical characters.  I don’t make a claim to how Joseph created the text.  He may have had a vision.  He may have made it up.  He may have engaged in what is called automatic writing, but I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon is part of the historical record for the ancient world.  For me, it’s a nineteenth-century text.

I also don?t use it as a spiritual guide.  Although I recognize that many Mormons hear the voice of God in the Book of Mormon, for me, the pages are silent.

Max:  That’s fascinating. And this goes to the heart of this lively discussion about the Book of Mormon and historicity that I first saw at the Millennial Star and thought was very compelling. To quickly summarize, Jettboy thinks that “bracketing” questions of the historical reality of the Book of Mormon makes it impossible to take Joseph Smith seriously, and take seriously the text he shepherded into the nineteenth century, be it from an ancient text, from a revelation (he claims both as its source), or his own fertile mind. Jettboy writes: “There was no equivocation of the reality of Jesus as Savior and there shouldn?t be for the historical truth of the Book of Mormon if you take Joseph Smith seriously.”  It is important to note that Jettboy is arguing against a point he believes Steve Smith made earlier in the discussion.

I disagree with Jettboy. I think that I don’t need to concern myself with the “historicity” of the Book of Mormon, its production, or its claims as a record of an ancient civilization, to take Joseph and the Book of Mormon seriously. I think we take our eyes of the target when we concern ourselves with these questions. What matters to me, as a scholar studying how early Saints read the Book of Mormon, and used it to see the world, is the Book of Mormon itself.

Amanda:  So, I don’t really use the Book of Mormon in my own scholarship.  Instead, I spend most of my time reading women’s diaries and their letters to their husbands.  The Book of Mormon seems quite peripheral to their lives.  Because I don’t have a lot of experience using the Book of Mormon in my own scholarship, I wonder if you could help me out by providing an example of what you do.  How do you use it in particular to understand the early Saints better?

Max:  I study race.  In my work, I argue Book of Mormon has a very complex understanding of race.  Sometimes it seems to parallel what we would see as fairly progressive, even “modern” views of race as a social/cultural construction.  Other times, it seems to parallel the (stereo)typical nineteenth century views of Amerindians and other non-white people. I see these Book of Mormon ideas popping up all over in discussions of early Saints’ relationships with modern “Lamanites” as well as African Americans. So to  understand how the early Saints attempted to create their latter-day Jerusalem, which on their best days they hoped would be made up of, as Nephi (I) declared, “every nation, kindred, tongue and people,” one needs to look at the text itself.

So that’s my way of “getting around” the foundational miracle question in Mormon history. What about the “miracles” that occur in the lives of the women you study?

Amanda:  The miracles in the lives of the women that I study tend to be much more based around the home.  Because so many men left on missions to spread the gospel “unto the nations of the earth and the islands of the sea,” Mormon women were forced to shoulder much of the responsibility for homesteading, running family businesses, and engaging in trade as well as the more traditional feminine tasks of caring for children.  As a result, they saw the miraculous in the healing of sick children and in God’s provision of food in times of want.  For me, it?s less about whether or not the actual miracles occurred and more about what the miracles tell me about what was important to these women?s lives.  The number of miracles that they record surrounding childbirth, children, and food allow me an insight into the struggles they met with on a daily basis.  Life, for many early Mormon women, was a constant struggle against hunger and loneliness, only made worse by their husbands? frequent absences.

All of that’s not to say that the Book of Mormon wasn’t entirely important for them.  After all, it was because of their belief in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph Smith’s prophetic power that they were willing to sacrifice so much but they don’t engage in deep theological discussion of the Book of Mormon and what it means.

I also wonder if the difference in the relative weight of the Book of Mormon in our scholarship has to do with the questions we are asking.  Although I work on race as well, I am much more grounded in women’s history.  Although the Book of Mormon undoubtedly has much to say about gender, most early Mormons based their ideas about the family not on Mosiah or 1 Nephi but on the descriptions of the Old Testament patriarchs and in Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Max: Yes, and then there’s the fact that barely no women show up in the Book of Mormon! So it’s a male text as well as a (white) “Nephite” text.  The narrators have “narrative prerogative,” as Grant Hardy has explained, to decide what gets in, and what gets left out. This, more than how it came to be, is more interesting. And I’d argue this is more important for the historical development of Mormonism than the existence or non-existence of the plates.

Amanda:  I guess should read Grant Hardy’s book, then. Well, this is starting to get a bit long, so maybe we should wrap it up and throw it out to the larger JI community as a whole.  (Even though, I must confess, I feel like it?s just starting to get interesting.) How important is the historicity of the Book of Mormon to Mormon history and Mormon studies?  What questions does looking at the Book of Mormon allow us to ask?  What would focusing too much on the book occlude?  How should scholars use the Book of Mormon in their scholarship?

Max:  Thanks, Amanda! This has been fun!

Amanda: Thanks Max!  I’ve had a great time, too!

[1] John-Charles Duffy’s great piece, ?Just How ?Scandalous? Is the Golden Plates Story? Academic Discourse on the Origin of the Book of Mormon.? John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 26 (2006): 142-165

[2] This phrase comes from E.P. Thompson?s famous work The Making of the English Working Class.

[3] Bushman is borrowing here from Charles Taylor.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I dig this new format. I wanted to take up Amanda’s point that the *content of* the Book of Mormon seems peripheral to the female Saints she is studying. I think that’s an absence that’s present, if you will, in a lot of the 19th-century LDS experience. It was more the appearance of the book, its provenance, that was important then, although its purported connection to modern-day Native Americans was certainly highlighted too. But it hasn’t been until the late 20th century that even Mormons themselves, much less scholars, began to seriously engage with what the text itself says and to begin to interrogate its complexity.

    I think it’s both fascinating and useful that such an interrogation can happen ASIDE from the question of the text’s historicity. To me that seems like tremendous progress because it allows scholarly investigation to proceed on many fronts without needing to settle the “ancient or not” question at the outset of each inquiry.

    Comment by Tona H — July 30, 2012 @ 7:19 am

  2. The BoM true of fake, black or white? It is such a childish way for a believer to look at the question. There is so much nuance in between allowing for a broad range of belief ranging from literal to non-literal. All should be accepted and embraced by the faithful and by the church for isn’t the least of this belief exercising a particle of faith in a good seed? Perhaps scholarly inquiry should be focused on why the orthodox are so exclusionary

    Comment by Howard — July 30, 2012 @ 9:19 am

  3. Thanks, Max and Amanda, for kicking off this series of conversational posts and for each of your thoughtful insights into how you, as non-believers in Mormonism’s message, approach the Book of Mormon and the miraculous more generally.

    It is perhaps a bit ironic that I’m put in a similar position as each of you re: the miraculous with the 18th and 19th century Methodists I study. What am I to make of the visions, spiritual gifts, etc. they and other evangelicals and revivalists experienced? On the one hand, my upbringing in Mormonism makes such supernatural events seem entirely normal and acceptable; on the other hand, the content of those visions often contradict and challenge the uniqueness of the Mormon position. I’ve defaulted to approaching things as Amanda lays out above: “it?s less about whether or not the actual miracles occurred and more about what the miracles tell me about what was important to these [individual’s] lives.” This is not just a concession I make for non-Mormon visionaries I study, though. It is also how I approach Mormon subjects. The main thing for me is that for the historical subjects I study, the visions, miracles, Book of Mormon, etc. were very real and very important to them, and in order to intelligently and accurately write about them, I need to understand the significance of those things to them.

    Comment by Christopher — July 30, 2012 @ 9:25 am

  4. This is a really great, important discussion. I wish there were an easy way to get the word out on it as widely as possible. Thanks to all!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 30, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  5. It’s no secreat that almost universally non-LDS scholars are going to see the BoM as a 19th century pseudepigraphon. There is no shame in that, and personally I wouldn’t expect anything else.

    One approach is what biblical scholars call “canonical criticism.” (I was just discussing this with Mark Thomas over dinner the other night at the conclusion of Sunstone.) This is a response that arose in the face of the Documentary Hypothesis of the origins of the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars are going to want to get out their scalpels and parse the text with the DH in mind, but for some purposes what is more important is the text as it was received and used by the historic Israelite peoples, or by early Christians, or by various Bible readers today. I guess this is another way of expressing the bracketing approach.

    I would suggest that in some circumstances, rather than bracketing historicity claims, one do a both-and approach in lieu of an either-or approach. Since Mormons generally experience the text as historical ancient scripture, what does the text say to them and how do they use it given that premise (which the historian does not personally have to accept)? But then also, what does the text say if we assume Joseph is its author? Mormons almost never read the text that way, but fascinating insights can arise from such a reading, and I don’t think historians should shy away from it. Giving place for both historicist and non-historicist readings is a way to allow for rigorous engagement with the text that should be less offensive to believing Mormons than a simple 19th century pseudepigraphon reading would.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 30, 2012 @ 10:12 am

  6. Thanks, Max and Amanda. I think the tools of reception history are key here. What matters most, at least for scholars of American history/religions, are how the people they study understood, interpreted, and used the BoM in their devotional lives and interactions with others–whether they be non-Mormons who attacked the book’s production or Native Americans/Pacific Islanders who early Mormons identified with Lamanites. Also receiving increasing interest are ways that believing indigenes have accepted, adapted, and utilized BoM identities. None of these questions require scholars to determine whether Nephi or Laman actually existed, but rather to understand how Brigham Young’s or Sagwitch‘s conceptions of the destiny of modern Lamanites shaped ideas about the place of Native Americans in the Latter-day Zion.

    Comment by David G. — July 30, 2012 @ 10:35 am

  7. Interesting discussion, interesting format. Did you just send emails back and forth, then cut and paste, or did you set up a draft in WP and alternate posting new paragraphs for a couple of days?

    Comment by Dave — July 30, 2012 @ 11:25 am

  8. Thanks for this, a very useful discussion.

    There is a lot about the Book of Mormon that can be very difficult for scholars to deal with (I think it’s important to differentiate between how one deals with the topic as a scholar as opposed to doing so as a believer). While it’s not to tough to deal with it in terms of how early Mormons understood the BoM, it’s gets tougher when you get closer to the gold plates and the translation. I remember Bushman saying in an essay that when it came to the gold plates you kind of have to pick sides, there wasn’t really neutral ground (I think Max spelled out all the reasons why it’s tricky). That is in the context of doing a biography of Joseph Smith.

    I’m in an interesting position on this. Not only do I need to figure out how to deal with this in my own scholarship, but my adviser is simultaneously writing her own chapter on the Joseph Smith and the golden plates for a book she is writing. We have rather different takes on the issue, but are both committed to attempting good academic discourse.

    For me, the story of the gold plates is less tricky than the text itself. For the gold plates, I’m simply contextualizing the story in the context of folk beliefs and special books throughout the history of Christianity. The text is tricky for me because my dissertation looks at the development of Joseph’s theology (just that sentence is walking into a minefield) and I place in the BoM in that context. I’m treating it as a part of Joseph’s theology (another minefield) and thus it gets tricky in terms of choosing the right words to describe things. When I cite a passage from the Book of Mormon, who do I cite as the author? How do I describe that author? How do I talk about the continuum of ideas between the BoM and the D&C? I don’t fell overly vexed over these issues, but I do see them as presenting technical problems. I want to choose neutral language, but that may not always be possible.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 30, 2012 @ 11:52 am

  9. Really interesting discussion here. Thanks Amanda and Max. Reception history in general is important for my work and I appreciate Christopher’s comment as well as David G.’s.

    Comment by WVS — July 30, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

  10. Fantastic. I really enjoyed this, Amanda and Max; More, more!

    A few thoughts. The big issue to me is audience: by bracketing these miraculous claims and dealing more with the reception history of the ideas, as David mentions, we broaden the base of discussion and can engage people from many different perspectives. I’ve also seen some scholars use a work-around like, “the BoM text, even if historical, is very consciously written for modern audiences (think Mormon and Moroni’s prophesies), and is thus meant to address 19th century Mormon issues.”

    I also think the religious studies field in the last couple decades have provided several tools that help create a more sophisticated and, in some ways, empathetic forum for discussing these types of things. Robert Orsi’s “abundant events” comes immediately to mind, although there are others.

    Comment by Ben P — July 30, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

  11. I appreciate your thoughts, Max and Amanda. I guess that I feel like whether you believe the Book of Mormon was an ancient record or not really does matter in how you do Mormon history. For example, how do you use the Book of Mormon as a historical source? If you think Joseph Smith wrote it, you can use it as representative of his thinking at the time. If you think it is ancient then you can’t assume that. This would matter, for example, when dealing with Joseph Smith’s ideas about race. If the Book of Mormon is ancient then it doesn’t necessarily say anything about how he thought about Indians at the time.
    Also, depending on whether you believe that Joseph Smith actually had plates fundamentally changes how you view the episodes with people trying to steal them and people saying that they saw them.

    Comment by mapman — July 30, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

  12. Max and Amanda, thank you for this. I had the great privilege of meeting Amanda at last year’s European Mormon Studies Association conference. I think we found some solidarity in being non-Mormon presenters. I would personally love to hear more about the place of the BoM in social-scientific studies of Mormonism. My own work falls within the sociology of religion and looks at the early years of LDS history as a time of experiencing persecution and subsequently adapting and integrating such agonistic experiences into the belief system. My only use of the Book of Mormon certainly presupposes that it is a 19-century text but also that it is less revealing of collective sentiments than D&C. Any thoughts from anyone on how sociologists should consider the BoM in particular or sacred texts in general?

    Comment by Adamjpowell — July 30, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

  13. Thanks for the support and comments, everyone! I am going to try to answer everyone, even if I group a few together.

    Tona H. – I think the point you make is an important one. We have little evidence from the nineteenth century showing how early Mormons engaged with the Book of Mormon. Most historians and scholars have used this evidence to argue that the Book of Mormon functioned as a “sign” rather than a book of study. It was the book’s appearance rather than its content that made it important. In general, I agree with that. My conversation with Max, however, has made me question that, and as a result, I am now reading Grant Hardy’s book thoroughly and the Book of Mormon more deeply as a way of testing my early suppositions.

    Howard and Kevin, interesting points. One thing I wonder is how reading the Book of Mormon in different ways — as an ancient text, as a nonliteral document – changes the histories we write? How do each of you see the positions you advocate changing the actual history that’s written?

    I ask partially because I’m not sure that the history I write would be much different if I assumed that the Book of Mormon was a historical or non-literal text. Julina Lambson Smith would have felt just as bound to accompany her husband as a polygamous wife to Hawai’i in the 1880s and Louisa Barnes Pratt would have been just as disappointed in the decision of her husband to apostatize regardless of whether or not Alma and Hagoth were actual historical characters. I can see how the method Max outlines might change the way I interpret their actions, but I am not sure how the historicity, or not, of the Book of Mormon changes things. After all, I reference the Bible in my scholarship all the time without worrying about the historicity of the Biblical flood or Exodus in Genesis. David G. also provides some excellent examples of how to use the Book of Mormon that don’t rely on its historicity.

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 30, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

  14. Word is that Jared Hickman’s essay is inching closer to publication in a major lit journal. That will be a case study in careful reading that doesnt take sides on insoluble issues. He and I are talking more and more about the best ways to describe the BoM for our translation book. I think it’s fairly straightforward for non-Mormons because epoche allows one to let the BoM be what it was the the early Mormons and their critics. Mormon writers, I think, will have to deal with greater scrutiny from their coreligionists.

    Comment by Smb — July 30, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

  15. Christopher, at some point, I want to have a long lunch/dinner with you. I think our projects and personal commitments mirror each other in a lot of interesting ways, and that I as a Methodist writing about Mormons might have a lot of things to learn from you.

    Dave, We actually did it over g-chat with some meta discussion in person. Everything you see was said within the space of an hour.

    Steve, Interesting. Would you mind sharing what language you tend to use. I try to say things like… “Joseph claimed to have a revelation.” Sometimes I use “Joseph revealed.” I’ve had a few conversations about Max about this. I don’t mind the former construction, as I see it as just being part of disciplinary norms, while Max at the time had some difficulty with it, but I’ll let him explain why.

    Ben, excellent point about the broadening of audiences. I will say, I can see the point of importance claiming that the text is historical when writing for Latter-day Saints. It is an issue of ultimate concern for believers — the Book of Mormon’s historicity is an issue of faith and, for some people, the foundation of their faith. As a non-believer, though, I find discussions of the ancient context of the Book of Mormon extremely alienating.

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 30, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  16. Mapman, I think the Book of Mormon’s historicity could change how you write about Joseph Smith, but that’s not the only question that should or can be asked about Mormonism. Joseph Smith doesn’t really figure into my dissertation at all. I am not concerned with how Joseph Smith thought about the Book of Mormon as much as I am concerned with how people like Mary Fielding Smith, Louisa Barnes Pratt, Susa Young Gates, Joseph F. Smith, Addison Pratt, Benjamin F. Grouard, etc. were shaped by their experiences within the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith is a minor character, if he appears at all in my dissertation. In fact, I would argue that if I focused too much on Joseph Smith in my dissertation, I wouldn’t be able to answer the questions that interested me. I would also argue that the field needs to shift away from its focus on great men and is harmed by its obsession with Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and a few other key white, male figures.

    Adam – I don’t really know much about sociology and don’t feel qualified to answer. Perhaps Max can venture a few words.

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 30, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

  17. AdamJPowell, good to hear from you again.

    Rather than looking for those collective sentiments primarily in the D&C, it seems to me that the BoM reception history provides insight into how these texts have been read in light of such ‘agonistic’ or other similar experiences. In fact, I think Givens offers some useful thoughts on how scripture functions in a community. The sacral nature of the text does not have to be presumed to be inherent for it to function as scripture in a community.

    One way that I see this working itself out is through a practice of care, which Bushman also discusses in a slightly different context – by drawing on the work Jonathan Z. Smith. This praxis of care in relation to scripture is one way of thinking about sacred texts in a community but also provides scope to think about how this care is manifest through hermeneutical norms or religious practice.

    Comment by Aaron R. — July 30, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

  18. Smb–

    Jared’s piece is amazing and helped open my eyes to the possibility of the BoM in my own research.

    Comment by Max — July 30, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

  19. Wow, I just wanted to say how accessible I felt this format is. As a non-religious scholar I sometimes get bogged down by technical jargon, but this post was digestible. Thanks!

    Comment by Ryan Mullen — July 30, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

  20. Aaron, it is good to hear from you as well! If you are ever near Durham, do look me up. Your point on reception history is duly noted. I should have mentioned that my own work specifically focuses on ‘early Mormonism’ as the 14 years from the founding of the church to Smith’s death. In that period, I see the BoM as a ‘gateway drug’ of sorts. It was a conversion tool that served a litmus test for one’s faith. Due to the tight temporal limits, there wasn’t much reception history to observe. Instead, I have tended to treat the BoM, D&C, and Pearl as Smith’s compositions; thus, I look at all of it for clues into how his thoughts change over time as he experiences resistance and religio-political conflict. I had not thought much about reception.

    As for ‘praxis of care’, you will have to pardon my ignorance. I love and have devoured all of Givens’ work, but I am much less familiar with Bushman (other than RSR) and Jonathan Smith.

    Comment by Adamjpowell — July 30, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

  21. Amanda, I agree with your point that historicity really isn’t something that matters in the discussion of these people. What seems to matter is what they thought of it. And from that perspective it seems to me that not only was the production of the book a dissent from cessationism, but also the words of the book. Does the book’s injunction that when there are no healings or miracles there is insufficient faith for salvation color how these women saw their own experiences?

    And as a believer who looks at moments where people often sought miracles in his scholarship, I think it is fairly easy to demonstrate, for example, that modern medicine is substantially more efficacious at healing physical maladies than pioneer faith (at least from a statistical perspective). Such a statement completely obviates and obfuscates the experiences and ultimately, the lives of these people, though. If one’s project is to study the relative success of various medical therapies, then perhaps that doesn’t matter. If, however, one’s object is to empathize with, describe and analyze these people and their world, then it does, I think.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 30, 2012 @ 9:50 pm

  22. First the “Responses” series and now a ‘Conversations’ or ‘Discussions’ segment. These are really great additions to the site. Thank you for the innovations that continue to excite my desire to learn more about Mormon history.

    Comment by Kurt — July 30, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

  23. J. – One of the difficulties with determining how much the women are relying upon the text of the Book of Mormon itself for their understanding of miracles is that they rarely cite passages from the Book of Mormon. Instead, they usually draw examples from the New Testament if they are going to talk about cessationism. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that they are making arguments to an outside world that doesn’t believe in the Book of Mormon. Even in their diaries, discussions of scripture seem to be directed to an outside world. From the diaries themselves, it would appear that the content Book of Mormon is quite peripheral to their lives. Mormon women also weren’t the only people seeking miracles. A wide variety of people sought cunning folk and used folk magic without the scriptural injunctions of the Book of Mormon.

    All that said, I’ve been rethinking this since the discussion that Max and I had. I am beginning to wonder if a thorough reading of the marginalia in 19th C Books of Mormon might reveal something different than a reading of their diaries. Exploring how and whether Mormon women marked their Bibles and Books of America would also us to compare how they treated the texts and which passages seemed most pertinent to their lives. As far as I know that sort of work hasn’t been done.

    Comment by Amanda — July 31, 2012 @ 8:39 am

  24. One other thing that came to mind: by shifting the focus away from whether the BoM is historical or not, we are able to look at many more members of the church (especially lay members and women). As long as historicity is the central topic, all we are doing is running circles around Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Ben P — July 31, 2012 @ 9:37 am

  25. Good point, Amanda, and fascinating idea for research. I don’t know if you are specifically looking at folks practice (as you mention, cunning folk, and magic), but that is an area that interests me very much–especially comparisons between Mormons and others.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 31, 2012 @ 10:34 am

  26. Amanda re 15. I’m not sure that I’ve totally figure that out yet, I’m still brainstorming (I’m working on later chapters right now and will get to the BoM later).

    “Joseph revealed” sounds like a good generic phrase. I agree with those who say that the phrases “Joseph claimed to reveal” or “Joseph said he revealed” get rather clunky. On the other hand, simply using the the early Mormons point of view (“Alma said” or “God said”) without qualification could come across as a little presumptive. Perhaps “Joseph revealed” is more neutral because one way or another JS brought this stuff forth.

    I had thought of just saying “the Book of Mormon says” or “Smith’s revelation says” but this could get a little trickier when I need to do closer analysis of the BoM and need to distinguish different speakers (whoever they are). Anyway, good thoughts everyone.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 31, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

  27. Also, I very much agree with Ben that bracketing allows a broader conversation which I’m very much interesting in having. I understand that not everyone is interested in these conversations, but calling bracketing “equivocation” is a misunderstanding.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 31, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

  28. Amanda no. 13, let me try to clarify what I was thinking of in my no. 5:

    1. Often the issue simply will not come up, such as in most of your research. If that’s the case, there is no problem.

    2. Other times the issue may be potentially relevant, but it isn’t worth going there, and so you intentionally take it off the table. This is the bracketing approach.

    3. For many purposes, a canonical criticism (to use the biblical studies term) or reception history (to use the historian’s term) approach will work well. You simply take the text as it purports to stand because that is the way it was understood by its (believing) readers, and one is trying to enter their thought world. In effect, this is reading the text as though it were historically authentic.

    4. What I am suggesting is that there may be times where it is necessary to drill down more into the meaning of a given passage. And that, in such times, rather than taking a position oneself, one could offer in the alternative both a canonical/reception reading (assuming authenticity), and a 19th century pseudepigraphon reading (assuming Joseph’s authorship). That would be a way to accomplish the goals of bracketing (by not personally taking a position), but to also bring into the mix possible important insights that might come from a reading of the text as a work authored by Joseph.

    This is just an off the cuff thought I had in reaction to your very interesting dialogue in the OP.

    My thought is that this might be a way to present both perspectives (historically ancient, historically modern) with a little bit of finesse that may be less offensive to believers’ sensibilities than an aggressive and open rejection of historicity.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 1, 2012 @ 11:17 am

  29. […] A fascinating conversation between two non-Mormon historians about how they approach the Book of Mormon. (H/T Christopher […]

    Pingback by Weekend Reading « AC 2nd — August 4, 2012 @ 8:10 am


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