Recasting the Origins of the Book of Mormon

Few texts have proven to be as controversial as the Book of Mormon. Designated the “keystone” of the LDS faith by none other than Joseph Smith, it has proven to be the “third rail” for both apologists and critics alike. As a result, many scholars who look at the Mormon tradition have steered clear of the founding text. Recently, however, there has been a growing number of academics, especially literature scholars, who have found innovative ways to approach the Book of Mormon that simultaneously provide new cultural insights while also avoiding tricky questions of historicity. Much of that interpretive move, however, has involved sidestepping the questions of the book’s origins and instead focusing on the text itself.

But those conversations can only go so far.

Petrey

William Davis’s new book, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (UNC Press), makes the argument that those two issues, the book’s origins and its text, cannot be easily separated. Indeed, he posits that internal cues found within the Book of Mormon itself hint to a very different origins story than has typically been understood.

At the heart of Davis’s monograph is an investigation into the oral culture of early America. Joseph Smith was raised in a world of performance: lectures were a primary form of education, and sermons were a predominant form of worship. Davis performs a deep dive into the contemporary literature to show the different techniques that were being taught and used during the period, and even demonstrates how Smith’s later texts (like his 1832 history) and sermons (like the King Follett discourse) exemplified their methods, and serve as evidence of his knowing the general trends. Even if Smith did not receive extensive schooling, then, scholars have overlooked the extent to which the Mormon prophet was conversant with his surrounding performative culture.

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The Circuitous History of Mormonism’s Gender Essentialism

Few documents are as influential in the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the 1995 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” In many ways, the six hundred-word text is the clearest and most efficient distillation of current LDS teachings concerning gender and sexuality, as it declares gender to be an eternal characteristic, and heterosexual marriage the only acceptable type of union. Though the proclamation has never been officially added to the scriptural canon, despite persistent rumors that it eventually would, it remains all-but-scriptural in terms of authority.

And while the myth that the document preceded the cultural battles over gay marriage, as recent scholarship has highlighted how it was the product of legal disputes in the 1990s, another myth has remained persistent: that the proclamation reflected long-standing ideas of gender essentialism within the faith. As the common narrative goes, the LDS tradition had long believed that gender was eternal, a trajectory that culminated in the proclamation.

PetreyYet Taylor Petrey, in Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism (UNC Press, 2020), shatters that easy teleology. Instead of a long-cemented idea, gender essentialism was only one of many potential trajectories; and rather than a predetermined culmination, the proclamation was merely the result of one of those trajectories winning. Indeed, Mormon notions concerning gender and sexuality have fluctuated substantially, even in the past fifty years, and have never been truly fixed. And in telling this surprising story, Petrey adds an important chapter to broader stories of religion and gender writ large.

Much of Petrey’s work is driven by the scholarly field of queer studies which, more than merely highlighting the ideas and experience of people who identify as LGBT, attempts to destabilize notions of gender and sexuality. These disciplinary tools demonstrate how notions of heteronormativity are inherently fragile and malleable, and therefore any discussion of homosexuality require a concomitant study of gender ideas more broadly. In other words, to understand how modern Mormons have dealt with topics like gay marriage, scholars must also examine how they conceptualized marriage in general. Petrey’s study is therefore an attempt to not only integrate LGBT issues into the LDS narrative, but also to recast the wider story of Mormon sexuality since World War II. Anything less is only a fragment of the story.
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#KingdomOfNauvoo Comes to Utah

 

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Just like the saints after they left Nauvoo behind, I’ll be heading out to the Great Salt Lake for ten days, starting this Wednesday. Lots of fun lectures/workshops/signings are planned. Here is the information for the public events:

  1. Benchmark Books (Wednesday, February 26)
    • 5:30-7:30pm (speaking at 6:00)
    • 3269 S. Main Street, Salt Lake City
    • link
    • fb event
  2. Utah State University (Thursday, February 27)
    • 7:00pm
    • USU Old Main 225, Logan
    • link
  3. Brigham Young University (Friday, February 28)
  4. Dixie State University (Monday, March 2)
    • 12:00pm
    • DSU Gardner Center Conference Room B, St George
  5. The Book Bungalow (Monday, March 2)
    • 7:00pm
    • 94 W Tabernacle Street, St George
    • link
  6. Southern Utah University (Tuesday, March 3)
    • 1:00pm
    • SUU Sharwan Smith Theater, Cedar City
  7. Utah Valley University (Wednesday, March 4)
    • 12:00pm
    • UVU Clarke Building 511
    • link
  8. The King’s English Bookshop (Wednesday, March 4)
    • 7:00pm
    • 1511 South 1500 East, Salt Lake City
    • link
    • (will be recorded for CSPAN)
  9. Writ & Vision (Thursday, March 5)
    • 7:00pm
    • 274 W Center Street, Provo

I will be doing a number of private events, as well. And you can find info for all forthcoming activities here.

Mormonism As the Hinge Upon Which Secularism Pivots

CovielloOne of the harbingers of the Mormon studies field’s development has been the increasing number of scholars who have turned their attention to the faith in order to explain broader academic issues. The most recent contribution to this growing trend is Peter Coviello, literature scholar and author of a handful of well-received books, whose Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism was published in the University of Chicago Press’s prestigious “Class 200” series. This series, edited by Kathryn Lofton and John Modern, prides itself on being interdisciplinary, innovative, and provocative; Make Yourselves Gods is no different.

Though early Mormons make up the subject of Coviello’s study, the true object of his focus is “secularism,” a potent word pregnant with many interpretations. Read More

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. Read More

Mormonism as a Religion for the Railroad Age

The famed British author Charles Dickens was not a fan of Mormonism. Joseph Smith, he wrote in 1851, was an “ignorant rustic” who “sees visions, lays claim to inspiration, and pretends to communion with angels.” And most damning, according to Dickens, was that Smith dared to claim his fantasies not in the superstitious era of bygone antiquity, but rather “in the age of railways.” Railroads were just then sweeping over both America and Britain, and were represented the new modern stage into which humanity had entered. What made Mormonism so laughable, therefore, was that it sought converts in a period supposedly so advanced that everyone should see through the fraudulent sham.

WalkerIn 2019, another author, UC-Santa Barbara scholar David Walker, similarly used the railroad to discuss modernity and Mormonism. But in Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West (UNC Press), Walker makes a different argument: rather than wilting in the face of modernity, Mormonism’s history challenges the very concept of modernity itself.

When Dickens juxtaposed the rationality of railroads to the irrationality of Mormonism, he was far from alone. Further, many in America believed the advent of the railroad spelled the doom for the controversial faith nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Walker’s first chapter outlines what he refers to as the “death knell thesis”: that once Utah was connected to the rest of society, enabling the constant flow of both ideas and products between Deseret and American culture, the tyrannical cohesion that held Mormon converts hostage would crumble. Indeed, even as some politicians famously argued for the federal government to take a more aggressive stance rooting out the troublesome sect, others urged them to be patient, finish the transcontinental railroad, and wait for nature to take its course. Read More

Situating Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in Modern Mormonism

I remember walking through Nauvoo shortly after returning from my LDS mission and passing by an Evangelical bookstore that was dedicated to challenging Mormon truth claims. Though closed, I couldn’t help but glance in the window to see their merchandise. Prominently displayed on the back wall was a large quilt devoted to the First Vision. This wasn’t the type of faith-promoting souvenir you’d find at the LDS-owned Deseret Book, however; rather, the quilt featured nine squares, each depicting what are arguably the conflicting details from the nine different accounts of the First Vision.[1] That was the first time I had heard of the controversy, so when I returned to my laptop I did as much reading as I could.

HarperGiven I was researching the topic in 2006, I fortunately had a lot of resources at my disposal. A quick search on google revealed partisan essays by Wesley Walters, Hugh Nibley, and a host of other critics and apologists. Most helpful for this recently-returned-missionary, however, was James Allen’s 1980 article on how the idea of the First Vision evolved over 150 years, and Richard Bushman’s just-released biography of Joseph Smith. These debates were my first entrance into the academic study of Mormon history.

I was pleased, then, to read Steven C. Harper’s new book, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (Oxford University Press), which not only delves into the vision’s narratives more closely, but also places the work of Walters, Nibley, Allen, and Bushman into the long trajectory of the theophany’s tale. Theoretically placing the vision’s historicity aside—though, it must be stated, the book’s tone and framing mostly takes its veracity for granted—the brunt of Harper’s work draws from the literature of memory studies to understand how Latter-day Saints and their critics have addressed the founding episode over the years. Read More