One of the many things I wondered about while tracting door to door as a missionary was how I would respond if someone were to ask me if the stone box in Cumorah’s hillside, from which Joseph Smith had extracted the plates, had been located. As far as I knew, it never had. While the absence of the plates was easy to explain—it was no more difficult to assert that Moroni had taken them back than it was to assert that he had given them—the box was a different matter. If it had held the plates securely for over a thousand years, surely it was only logical to expect that some trace of it was extant. As I considered how I would answer the question, I reasoned that, being left uncovered, the box had probably either filled in with dirt and was overgrown by vegetation or it had simply eroded away. Or maybe it had been destroyed, either by natural or supernatural means. (If God wants this matter to be taken on faith, after all, surely He’s capable of covering His tracks.)
But to those who do not believe the Joseph Smith story, such speculation is an absurdly moot point—a point that is made derisively clear on the title page of a nineteenth-century edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies, which tauntingly quipped that many of the included rhymes were “recently found in the same stone box which hold the golden plates of the Book of Mormon. The whole compared, revised, and sanctioned, by one of the annotators of the Goose family.” The intended jibe is not hard to discern: golden plates, like nursery rhymes, are products of imagination, not hillsides.
The dilemma created by this disjuncture between the worlds of belief and disbelief in the Book of Mormon’s claim to ancient provenance, as illustrated above, is precisely the quandary one faces when trying to situate the Book of Mormon in the wider academy as an object of literary study. It is a dilemma that was made all too clear recently to Mormon scholar and Professor of English Terryl Givens when he requested that a course on the Book of Mormon as literature be taught in his department at the University of Richmond, Virginia. “He can’t teach a course like that here!” his department chair told his secretary. Anticipating such a reaction, Givens was able to treat the situation humorously, but it nonetheless has significant implications. “In my department,” states Professor Givens, “we have had courses on the Mary Tyler Moore show. But the Book of Mormon is unthinkable?”
Considering the tremendous impact the Book of Mormon has had on global society—giving rise to an international church that has been described as a new religious tradition—the academic world’s failure to take the Book of Mormon seriously can be somewhat perplexing to Latter-day Saints. But the hesitancy to situate the Book of Mormon in academic discourse as an object of literary criticism has not been unique to non-Mormon institutions. Attempts by Eugene England to create such a course in the English department at Brigham Young University also met with resistance, though presumably for very different reasons.
Eventually a course on the Book of Mormon as Sacred Literature was created at BYU, but not as a part of the English Department. It was created as a part of the Honors Program, which draws professors and subjects from a number of fields and departments. In this case, Charles Swift, a professor from the Religious Education Department with a degree in English Literature teaches the class (a great class by the way). He makes it clear, however, that the course is not associated with the Religious Education department.
So what is the Book of Mormon’s place in the wider acadamy? And how do we situate the literary study of the Book of Mormon in Church-owned universities? Is the Book of Mormon as literature an appropriate approach to the subject? And if so, why has it been so difficult to find a place for it? (I have my own theories–outside the academy: pc sensitivities, Church/State issues, general disregard, etc; Church schools: skepticism of lit crit, non-trad approach, etc.–but I would like to throw this open and see what y’all think.)
 Terryl Givens points out that in 1875 David Whitmer told a Chicago Times reporter that he had seen the stone “casket” at Cumorah three times before it was “washed down to the foot of the hill,”(People of Paradox [New York: Oxford, 2007], 60). Mother Goose’s Melodies (Boston: Munroe & Francis, ca. 1833-1837), title page.
 Givens recounted this incident on Times and Seasons, January 31, 2005, “12 Questions for Terryl Givens, by Jim F.” <http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=1914#more-1914> accessed October 12, 2006.