The Sacred Literature Conundrum: Situating the Book of Mormon in the Academy

By October 28, 2007




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.[1] 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.”[2] 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?”[3]

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.)

[1] 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).[2] Mother Goose’s Melodies (Boston: Munroe & Francis, ca. 1833-1837), title page.

[3] Givens recounted this incident on Times and Seasons, January 31, 2005, “12 Questions for Terryl Givens, by Jim F.” <> accessed October 12, 2006.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is a topic I often ponder as well, Stan. I would think that secular universities would embrace the chance to study the Book of Mormon as literature, and am always surprised when they balk at the idea. If a person does not accept its divine origins, then they must accept an alternate conclusion: human innovation. If this is their outlook on it, then what makes this different than John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill”? Or Emmerson’s “Divinity School Address”? Or how about Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? If the Book of Mormon is not a translation of an ancient record, then it is one of the most valuable pieces of 19th century intellectual history that we have! If Joseph is just spreading every truth, error, problem, etc, that is around during his time, as Alexander Campbell accused, then shouldnt universities use it to learn more about those conditions?
    But, alas, most shy away from it because of the reasons you mention. To me, it is odd that the group that holds it in such high esteem and acknowledges its complexities (the LDS Church) don’t want to be critical of it, while those who are free to be critical of it brush it off as simple and shallow.

    Comment by Ben — October 28, 2007 @ 11:54 pm

  2. In that vein, Ben, Nathan Hatch does a pretty good job with it in his Democritization of American Christianity.

    Comment by stan — October 29, 2007 @ 12:22 am

  3. Stan’s right; there are a handful of scholars who have done a pretty good job using the Book of Mormon as a component of a larger historical endeavor.

    One problem with a Book of Mormon-as-literature course in the non-Mormon academic world is the chloroform-in-print dilemma. The book’s language is not excessively inviting, overly polished, or terribly free of unnecessary stylistic tics (and it came to pass). This roughness does make the book a bit less accessible. I’m not sure how many people want to make the effort to surmount these obstacles for a book that doesn’t have clear, major influence on other literature.

    For Mormons, one obvious issue is that a central concern in a study of the Book of Mormon as literature would typically be to identify the sources of allusions and literary borrowings. This needn’t be a faith-impairing endeavor, but it might nonetheless have the flavor of one. And we often avoid the appearance of evil, as it were.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — October 29, 2007 @ 6:29 am

  4. In my limited experience with sacred texts as literature I’ve seen that in Mormon circles, Biblical criticism or the Bible as Literature study seems to generally leave a bad taste in the mouths of the faithful as RT pointed out.

    As far as BoM as Lit in a Church-owned university, certain circles have put a different twist on this. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism’s entry for Book of Mormon Literature bases literary analysis on a presupposition of an inspired text, identifying literary forms, not so much literary criticism in the more traditional sense. This approach, of course, would unnerve the non-believing academic. Ben, you’re the English major, doesn’t the department have some sort of scripture as literature class? What types of approaches are used?

    Along with what RT mentioned about the BoM’s lack of appeal, the Encyc. article cites DeVoto as saying that the text of the Book of Mormon is “formless” and recognizes a “working vocabulary of about 2,225 root words in English”.

    Comment by Jared — October 29, 2007 @ 8:27 am

  5. Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry:

    Comment by Jared — October 29, 2007 @ 8:36 am

  6. what do academics do with the Koran? If they don’t do anything with it, even in Arabic studies, perhaps there is a problem with any sacred literature. I say this because the two are always getting compared, even though they are stylistically different.

    Comment by Jettboy — October 29, 2007 @ 8:46 am

  7. One interesting approach, although I can’t see this outside of BYU or one of the Mormon studies centers (Claremont, UVSC, USU, Wyoming), would be to study the influence of the Book of Mormon on later Mormon literature, especially splinter group sacred texts such as the Book of the Law of the Lord (Strangite) or the Book of Jeraneck (Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ).

    Comment by David Grua — October 29, 2007 @ 8:49 am

  8. Stan: Hatch’s book is on my very short list of books I need to read ASAP, so forgive me for not knowing his critique of it.

    RT: I think you bring up a great point about the language of the BOM being non-inviting. It is sad when people can’t look past that and see the rich literary forms employed throughout the book.

    Jared: The English Department currently offers a Bible as Literature class, but that is the only class of the sort. And, as you guessed, it is taught from a believing point of view, so it is mostly in the “praise” form of the text, nothing too critical.

    I would love to take a BOM literature class that envelops all the techniques. Somthing that includes Richard Rust’s Feasting Upon the Word (a former professor of mine’s book who praises the literary qualities), Dan Vogel’s Making of a Prophet (just to become familiar with his approach), any of the Signature books series along these lines (Word of God, American Apocryphpa, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon), Blake Ostler’s Expansion Theory, etc. I think the more well-read we are on the theories floating about, the more we will come to appreciate it.

    Comment by Ben — October 29, 2007 @ 8:52 am

  9. Jettboy, thanks for raising that point.

    Again, my experience with this type of thing is limited, but I’d imagine that though making affirmations of divine inspiration, the Koran has an identifiable place in known space, time, and culture. The same with the Bible, the Veda texts, etc. This might make an academic study of these books more appealing.

    The Book of Mormon’s place in known space, time, and culture is less certain, springing from the ground as it does.

    So, I don’t know if it’s an issue with sacred literature in general. Even though the academy would likely say the space, time, and culture is 19th century American, given the items mentioned in previous comments, maybe the academy finds it boring, or doesn’t know what to do with it just yet.

    Comment by Jared — October 29, 2007 @ 9:14 am

  10. The have been various attempts to study the Book of Mormon as literature. Eugene England’s essay on Why Nephi Killed Laban, Jorgenson’s excellent, “The Dark Way to the Tree,” Welch and Parry, and a few others on Hebraic forms, an essay called “Nephi’s Psalm: A Lyric Reading,” general studies from Richard Rust and Mark Thomas (whose book I did not like) coming from rather different directions. And there have been some interesting studies from Rees, on irony and in comparison to other American authors. Rees has another book of studies coming soon from Signature. Back at San Jose State, I did a long comparison of Joseph Smith and Emerson for an American Literature class. Thus far, however, I think the most impressive treatment of the literary qualities of the Book of Mormon as literature has been Alan Goff’s essays, which have taken Robert Alter’s approach to the allusion and type scene in Bible, and has shown how it works in the Book of Mormon.

    The biggest problem is that the Book of Mormon just doesn’t sit on a shelf quietly, but that it comes like a newlywed’s car, gaudily painted, dragging clanking, clattering scandals involving angels, visions, money digging, polygamy. Those who are reluctant to become somehow contaminated by appearing to take the scandals as seriously as the Book demands, have a vested interested in dismissing the book as quickly and as decisively as possible. (Bloom, for example, who clearly didn’t bother to read it, even when writing at length for a national market on The American Religion.) Those who take the book seriously do not get invitations to the party in the Great and Spacious halls of popular acceptance.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — October 29, 2007 @ 9:49 am

  11. Kevin: Thank you for that well-picked bibliography on Book of Mormon as literature approaches. I would have LOVED to sit in on the class comparing Joseph to Emmerson, because that is a strong interest of mine.

    Comment by Ben — October 29, 2007 @ 10:16 am

  12. Kevin, I also like your bibliography. But I have to say that in my opinion you’ve badly undervalued Mark Thomas’s book — which I think is probably the best thing yet written on the Book of Mormon as literature. His approach, which just treats the text without presuppositions one way or the other regarding historicity, shows almost the only available way to the future for Book of Mormon studies. It’s nearly the only road map that doesn’t rapidly devolve into finding academic ways of bearing one’s testimony or anti-testimony. Furthermore, Thomas’s love of the book is evident to me throughout in a way that few other authors other than Hugh Nibley seem to achieve. In my opinion, the relative neglect of Thomas’s book to date is one of the great tragedies of Book of Mormon studies.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — October 29, 2007 @ 4:24 pm

  13. Regarding the stone box, I think the most likely explanation is that Joseph Smith’s treasure digging buddies dug it up after Joseph obtained the plates. Not finding any other thing worth keeping the cement box would have been cast aside and left to natural forces to erode down the hill.

    I also think it possible that the plates may have been moved to New York and buried closer to the 19th century. Anything is possible under the stewardship of translated or angelic beings. But these conjectures have little to do with the point of this thread, so carry on.

    Comment by Keller — October 29, 2007 @ 4:32 pm

  14. Kevin: I concur on several accounts with your bibliography list: England, Jorgenson, and Goff’s articles especially stood out to me in my reading. I’m aware of Thomas’s book but haven’t read it yet. Roasted Tomatoes’s appraisal piques my interest.

    Jettboy: Terryl Givens mentioned that he has taught courses on the Quran and hears that it is taught quite a bit in university courses. He further commented that many professors typically seem to have less difficulty bracketing questions of divinity and authenticity with the Quran than with the Bible when taught as lit.

    Comment by stan — October 29, 2007 @ 6:52 pm

  15. “But I have to say that in my opinion you?ve badly undervalued Mark Thomas?s book ? which I think is probably the best thing yet written on the Book of Mormon as literature. His approach, which just treats the text without presuppositions one way or the other regarding historicity, shows almost the only available way to the future for Book of Mormon studies.”

    I have to disagree. While I do find that his is among the better treatments of the Book of Mormon literary study, it is not without a heavy dose of bias. What he uses as comparative literature screams his 19th Century forgery position. Not that I think you can really get past that considering the book, “comes like a newlywed?s car, gaudily painted, dragging clanking, clattering scandals involving angels, visions, money digging, polygamy.”

    So far the best approaches I have seen are Terryl Given’s “Hand of Mormon” look into what it is trying to accomplish as religious literature, Bushman’s section on the Book of Mormon in his “Rough Stone Rolling” showing how the surface reading “hides” its real messages, and Margaret Barker’s presentation at the “Worlds of Joseph Smith” comparing Nephi’s tree of life vision to her 1st Temple theories. I am not sure what they did exactly to make them above the rest, but it would be nice if any one of the three (I don’t think Barker would, although I like where she was going) could expand on what they started.

    Comment by Jettboy — October 30, 2007 @ 8:24 am

  16. Regarding, Mark Thomas’ Digging in Cumorah, at one point I had a long review in preparation, which I called “Undermining Cumorah.” I had a disk crash, and the next FARMS Review arrived wiht Alan Goff’s excellent review. I decided that Alan Goff’s FRB Review was sufficient, despite Daniel Peterson asking me to go ahead with my own take.

    There are a few things in his book that I liked, some of which I mentioned at the Sunstone Panel discussion on his book, where I sat in with Blake Ostler and Mark Thomas, and Brent Metcalfe. However, before reading his book, I had been introduced to Robert Alter by Goff, and had learned to read scripture with more sensitivity to type scene and allusion. For instance, I had quoted a passage from Alter in my RBBM 10:2 essay that I noticed that Thomas had also used. Here is the passage as I quoted it:

    “Robert Alter writes:

    ‘Since biblical narrative characteristically catches its protagonists only at the critical and revealing points in their lives, the biblical type-scene occurs not in the rituals of daily existence but at the crucial junctures in the lives of the heroes. . . . Some of the most commonly repeated biblical type-scenes I have been able to identify are the following: the annunciation . . . of the birth of the hero to his barren mother; the encounter with the future betrothed at a well; the epiphany in the field; the initiatory trial; danger in the desert and the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance; the testament of the dying hero.'”

    Thomas made a partial quote of the same passage, and, surprisingly to me, did almost nothing with it. Here are my next paragraph in which I merely pointed to the obvious:

    “In comparing this passage to the Book of Mormon, we think of Nephi’s vision of the virgin; Nephi’s journey to find Ishmael, whose daughters marry Lehi’s sons, thereby fulfilling a commandment from God (see 1 Nephi 7:1; 16:7?8); Nephi’s vision; Nephi’s initiatory adventures in securing the plates of Laban; much danger in the desert; the discovery of the Liahona; Lehi’s blessings to his sons; and other closing testimonies by his successors. Clearly, the selectivity of the Book of Mormon narrative has a cultural background and a literary context. With an eye alert to the notion of type-scenes, when we look back at the other fairly detailed accounts of specific women (or groups of women) in the Book of Mormon, we notice that many have significant archetypal or ritual backgrounds. Pearson discusses none of these stories in any detail. These include the story of Sariah’s complaint and testimony, the vision associating the tree of life with the virgin in Nazareth in 1 Nephi 11:13?23, the story of Adam and Eve in 2 Nephi 2:18?27, the story of the kidnapping of the twenty-four daughters of the Lamanites (which Alan Goff has examined as a type-scene), the story involving Isabel in Alma 39, and finally, the archetypal “Salome” story of the daughter of Jared in Ether 8 and 9.

    “The prominence of these and other type-scenes in the overall narrative suggests that we might gain insights into what was included in the Book of Mormon and the significance of those selections by reading them against larger contexts.

    “Alter also suggests that variations in type-scenes are significant. That is, if a similar story is included, we should pay close attention to differences.”

    One of Thomas’ chapters involved what he calls the “dying heretic form.” His conclusion is that the stories of Nehor, Korihor, and Sherem, are boring, the shallowest type scene in the Book of Mormon. In my view, he misused Alter in overlooking the significance of variations in type scenes. He smooths over the significant differences between the three figures he discusses (consider Welch on the legal differences, or my case that Sherem was a Deuteronomist), and he too narrowly defines the type scene by neglecting variant situations. Were I to propose a literary type scene, I would add the encounter of Laman and Lemuel with the angel, in which they decide they’ve been tricked, and Zeezrom and Alma who are converted, and the Lamanites at the prison with Nephi and Lehi, Alma the Elder listening to Abinadi, and others. Rather than too narrowly label a type scene, “dying heretics,” I’d have a type scene called “liminal encounter”, and look at the wide variety of reactions to supernatural encounters and prophetic witness. In this way, the variations become an important factor in comparing the scenes, and we don’t succumb to the temptation to oversimplify and homogenize the different outcomes. What he sees as dull and unimaginative, I see as rich, remarkable, and highly realistic.

    My reasons for not liking Digging in Cumorah are not just that nearly every page insinuates that Joseph faked it, and left anachronisms everywhere as incriminating evidence (despite Thomas’ protestations that he intended no such thing). In attempting to read the book how the original 19th century audience would have read the book, he neglects Grant Underwood’s informative studies that showed that that is not how the LDS read the Book, and not how the anti-LDS contingent read the book (such as Campbell). No one used Alter’s approach because Alter was the one who recovered it in the 1980s. And, I think compared to Goff, and even to my own readings, I don’t think he uses Alter very well. Of course, Robert Rees greatly admires Thomas’ book, so my opinion is just mine.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — October 30, 2007 @ 9:14 am

  17. Thanks Kevin; now I’ve got to read Thomas and Alter.

    Comment by stan — October 30, 2007 @ 6:04 pm

  18. Alter’s excellent, though I do like some things about Thomas. I’m hoping to present this sort of analysis of the Book of Jeraneck (which Dave linked to above) at MHA next year.

    Comment by Matt B — October 30, 2007 @ 6:22 pm

  19. I’ll attend your session Matt!

    Comment by stan — October 30, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

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