Situating the Book of Mormon in America’s Literary Tradition

Just as members of the Latter-day Saint Church are familiar with Joseph Smith’s statement that the Book of Mormon is the “keystone” of the faith, participants in the field of Mormon studies are acquainted with the oft-repeated maxim that scholars don’t take the text seriously. The sacred scripture for a global religion, the Book of Mormon has mostly been a curiosity at best, or a point of ridicule at worst, for outside observers. This is a result of both external and internal factors: externally, scholars outside the faith are often ill-equipped to take scriptural works seriously; internally, those committed to defending LDS truth claims have declared the Book of Mormon, and especially its historicity, as a third-rail issue. The result has been general avoidance, with periodic moments of begrudging investigation.

BoMThis started changing about two decades ago, but from an unexpected place: scholars of American literature. In a way, this made sense: the field allowed readers to prioritize the text over its context, seemingly setting aside the controversial questions that served as battlegrounds in the past. Another development in American literature also enabled this examination: the move away from solely studying a “canon” of classic texts, and instead focusing on marginalized or overlooked voices. Thus, the field was ripe for harvest. Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon was perhaps the most prominent early example of this new trend, but it was soon followed by others. And, in the traditional step of any growing academic trend, we now have an edited collection that charts a variety of approaches found within the scholarly movement.

Edited by Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman, two of the foremost proponents of this scholarly trend, Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon (Oxford University Press) contains seventeen essays that, while united in the purpose of incorporating the Book of Mormon into American literature, exemplify the divergences for how to accomplish that very goal. Together, I found this this most provocative collection on the topic I’ve ever read, as it introduced a number of ideas and theses with which I’ll be wrestling for quite some time.

Perhaps the first sign of how this volume’s approach is different from previous work is its choice to italicize The Book of Mormon. In general, when authors write about texts that are considered sacred, especially scripture like the Bible or the Quran, the titles are not in italics. (Note how this review [pgs 136-137] criticized Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling for failing to do this.) But Fenton and Hickman say they decided to italicize the title in order “to remain as neutral as possible” regarding the book’s truth claims, and instead approach it just as any other “long work of verse or prose.” As literature, then. Other methodological tools are similarly invoked to buttress this attempt to avoid what they call a “hermeneutical dualism,” either drawing from religious studies (“bracketing” truth questions) or literary theory (“surface reading” of texts).

But, as Fenton and Hickman quickly add, the question of historicity is never too far from the text. That’s because, they demonstrate, the Book of Mormon is “self-consciously and committedly anachronistic” in how it claims to be from the past but clearly speaks to the present. In other words, the book itself asks to be read as a nineteenth-century text, because in many instances its authors explicitly say that is their intended audience. Placing the Book of Mormon within antebellum culture, then, is taking Mormon at his word.

Not all authors agree with this approach, however. In R. John William’s chapter, he argues that it is impossible to bracket off the Book of Mormon’s authorship questions, as how one views the construction of the text shapes how one interprets the text. For example, if a scholar were to believe that Joseph Smith wrote the book himself, then it fundamentally changes how they were to view the portions that replaced the “lost 116 pages.”[1] Williams uses Melville’s Moby Dick as an example for how literary scholars have recently emphasized context can never be divested from text[2]—and it’s a compelling argument, one that sharply differs from the methodology outlined in Fenton and Hickman’s introduction. But such diversity of opinion is a strength, not a weakness, of the volume.

I don’t have space to give an overview of all the other chapters, but I’ll highlight a few that stood out to me. Jillian Sayre, drawing on the theoretical work on nationalism by Benedict Anderson, demonstrated how the Book of Mormon exemplified the early American impulse to create mythic “origins” for nationality and civilization, and compared Joseph Smith’s work to other “nation-making” texts from the period. Peter Coviello, similarly, argued that the Book of Mormon should not be read as a mere reproduction of antebellum racist beliefs concerning indigenous bodies, but rather as an example of how “whiteness” became intertwined with the “secular” in modern America; he does this by showing how LDS readings of the text evolved over the nineteenth century to match their contemporaries’ understanding of race, belonging, and even “religion.”[3] Amy Easton-Flake’s chapter, by contrast, dissected notions of “masculinity,” and in doing so demonstrated how a gendered reading of an otherwise male-centric text adds a lot of value. And Elizabeth Fenton’s chapter, finally, examined how the Book of Mormon reflected the antebellum fascination with understanding ancestry through the lens of the “Hebraic Indian Theory.” All of these chapters exemplify what I find as the most exciting trend of this volume: using the Book of Mormon to better understand early America’s literary culture, rather than the other way around.

Perhaps the volume’s greatest strength is its diversity of approaches. Some of the chapters are much more historical in nature, like Paul Gutjahr’s analysis of Orson Pratt’s editing of the modern Book of Mormon editions and Eran Shalev’s examination of pseudo-biblicist texts in the early republic; others chapters, like Terryl Givens’s and Zachary Hutchins’s, are more constructive theology. Hutchins’s chapter, on the Book of Mormon’s verse that seems to foreshadow Columbus, is especially smart and relevant, given how the topic taps into modern remnants of racial colonialism within modern Mormonism.

The downside of such a vast and diverse collection of contributions is the lack of coherency. By this I do not mean the ever-so-common critique of edited volumes that “the chapters are uneven,” but rather that the chapters have widely different audiences. Some of the more theoretically-informed authors assume a lot of background on behalf of their readers, as they use terms, phrases, and framings that are steeped in their discipline and will likely be confusing to newcomers; simultaneously, other chapters that try to do more theological work, like Givens’s and Samuel Brown’s, do not focus on questions that will interest those outside the faith. As a result, working through Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon can be a bit jarring.

This volume, though, properly understood, is more of a gateway than an end destination. If it succeeds, it will prompt, rather than end, conversations. And there are a number of exciting developments in the field that show where discussions can go next: the Book of Mormon Studies Association recently held its third annual conference; the Mormon Theology Seminar gathers scholars every year to plumb LDS texts, often from the Book of Mormon; the Maxwell Institute is about to publish a series of short books on the text; and scholars from various fields outside of literature are similarly engaging the work, including Max Mueller (religious studies), David Gore (communication), and William Davis (performance studies). All of these developments will lead to more exposure, more analysis, and even more classroom engagement. Exciting stuff.

This discussion will never be homogeneous, nor will it always be comfortable. The sign of a healthy field is vigorous disagreement. But as long as the dialogue produces more light than heat, it is worthwhile. And Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon does exactly that. It is, in my opinion, the most provocatively diverse, theoretically rich, and substantively deep compilation on the Book of Mormon yet published—a great representation of the last decade’s development, and a harbinger of the next generation of scholarship on the ever-controversial text.


[1] In short, if Joseph Smith was the author of the book, then losing the 116 pages, finishing the narrative, and then returning to the text’s beginning allowed him to, in today’s writer parlance, write the introduction at the end, as he could incorporate later themes—and Christology—from the narrative’s very beginning.

[2] Scholars have recently argued that Moby Dick was written in two phases, and a close reading can trace the two different types of stories throughout the narrative.

[3] Much of Coviello’s chapter is drawn from his new book, which I hope to review sometime soon.