Mormonism’s Expanded Canon

Expanded CanonOne of the most famous elements concerning the Mormon faith is its belief in an expanded scriptural canon. Besides the Bible, members of the church believe that the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are holy texts that contain the word and commands of God; more liberally, and abstractly, Mormons also believe that the words uttered by leaders today are, at least in some form, scripture, even if the official canon has been functionally closed for some time.

A new collection of essays, titled The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism & Sacred Texts (Kofford Books, 2018), explores many of the tensions related to Mormonism’s scriptural corpus. Most of these chapters are drawn from a conference hosted by Utah Valley University’s Mormon Studies program a few years ago. Indeed, this volume is the first in a collaboration between Kofford Books and UVU, which will serve an important service for the field by reproducing some of the more provocative and smart proceedings in Mormon studies today. 

The best essays in this volume are those that directly address the question of “canons” and their role within the Mormon faith, especially within a comparative context. For example, Grant Hardy explores how the Book of Mormon relates to other world scripture in terms of shaping scriptural understandings. In doing so, he points out five ways in which the text is somewhat unique: it’s narrative format, its immediate acceptance as scripture, the limited nature of revisions following first publication, the fact it predated the organized church, and the absence of later expansions. Further, Hardy posits that the volume is post-canonical in that it is very self-conscience concerning its canonical status–that is, it frames itself as scripture, reflecting its composition within a modern period. Hardy always finds a way to reveal something new concerning the Book of Mormon—and all of us should be excited about the Maxwell Institute Study Book of Mormon he’s edited—and this chapter is another example.

Another thoughtful chapter is that by David Holland. Although it’s a bit more in a theorizing vein, Holland’s chapter explores what he calls Mormonism’s triangulation of faith between scripture, authorities, and personal revelations. How do these different powers check the other, and what does the LDS faith have to say about the perennial question of undivided sovereignty? In the end, Holland concludes that Mormonism would do well to follow the example of America’s democratic tradition and turn more power to the people, as scriptural authority is to be ratified by common consent.

Perhaps the most provocative chapter is that of Ann Taves, a distinguished scholar of religious experience. Drawing from her recent book—as well as a previously-published article—Taves attempts to answer a question frequently asked by Mormon scholars like Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens: is there a way for non-Mormon scholars to take seriously the materiality of the gold plates without dismissing Joseph Smith as a fraud? Taves argues that Smith had eyes for what was possible, rather than what was mere static, and he used material objects to create supernatural space. For existence, what if he saw the creation of “gold” plates as a collaboration with God, similar to a Catholic priest transforming sacrament emblems into the flesh and blood of Christ? Or, to use a Book of Mormon example, akin to how the brother of Jared provided the stones for God to turn into lights for the Jaredite barges? Not all readers will be convinced by this theory, but it raises interesting questions and opens new interpretive avenues.

Other chapters that are more history-based are less experimental, but still fascinating. Brian Hauglid’s overview of how the Pearl of Great Price became accepted as scripture was enlightening, even if he came up short of asking the complex canon-related questions, and Paul Gutjahr’s chapter on the three major publishing moments of the Book of Mormon (the 1830s, 1870s, and 1980s) places LDS print history in a much broader context.

Any edited collection will have an awkward mix of chapters, both in tone and quality, especially when they are based on conferences. The Expanded Canon is especially so. Some of the chapters, like Holland’s and Taves’s, are substantial and sustained arguments; others, like the chapter by Richard Bushman, is more like a brief yet thoughtful essay. While of a very different tone and interpretive vein, I couldn’t help but enjoy Claudia Bushman’s musings on what could count as a “canon” of LDS women’s history. She posited a few examples, like Lucy Mack Smith’s history and Emma Smith’s later interviews, and her usual enthusiasm is infectious.

Beyond being more consistent with its rigor, I wish the volume could have been more diverse with regard to gender and race, both in terms of content and its authors. Only two of the sixteen authors were women, and none were people of color. Beyond being “political correct,” this narrow structure limits the very question of “canonicity” and—in an ironic twist—replicates some of the very systematic issues of Mormonism’s canonical tradition. Especially after reading Decolonizing Mormonism last week, the contrast was jarring. I’m sure future volumes in the UVU Comparative Mormon Studies series will do much better.

In summary, there are some very thoughtful and important chapters in this volume. Mormonism’s “canon” will long vex outside observers, but hopefully these authors can help supply some answers.