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.


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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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

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

Seeing Early Mormonism through Newel Knight’s Eyes

KnightIf Latter-day Saints are a record-keeping people, then Mormon studies scholars are document-crazed researchers. The advent of the academic study of Mormonism’s past, known as New Mormon History, was driven by archive-hounds, largely enabled by a period of openness at the LDS Church archives. And that fascination has endured ever since, even as the field has become more theoretically rich and interpretively adventurous. Perhaps the most common expression of this obsession is the large number of documentary history volumes published nearly every year, enough so that both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association have awards dedicated to the genre.[1] Even in the age of digitization, and when most university presses shy away from documentary editing, there are often close to a dozen titles that appear each calendar year, from a variety of different presses.

The most recent addition to this growing corpus is The Rise of the Latter-day Saints: The Journals and Histories of Newel Knight, edited by Michael Hubbard MacKay and the late William G. Hartley. Knight was one of the earliest converts to the Mormon faith, and was involved in a lot of “firsts”: he was one of the first outside of Joseph Smith’s family to hear the message, one of the first baptized, recipient of the first miracle, and the first person to be married by Joseph Smith. He traveled with earliest communities from New York to Missouri, from Missouri to Ohio, from Ohio back to Missouri, and then to Nauvoo, where he was part of the first migrant companies to leave in early-1846. After being appointed over a transient Mormon community in Nebraska, he died in early 1847 at the still-young age of 46. Given his long and close relationship with Joseph Smith, he was witness to a number of important episodes, especially early on, and his accounts are an immensely important source for reconstructing the young faith. Read More

Mormonism, Gender, and the Tangled Nature of History

PrinceFew topics have dominated modern Mormon discourse as much as those related to homosexuality. The issue has certainly framed my own experience with the LDS church over the past decade. I was in my final year at BYU when Proposition 8 took place—more on this below—and the episode was formative in how I see Mormon culture; seven years later, the “November policy”—also discussed below—was another transformative moment. Yet so many events preceded 2008, and things have seemed to only escalate since then, that it can be impossible to keep track of the larger story. The world has long-needed, then, a meticulous history of all the institutional decisions that brought us to this point, especially if it contained insider information that could flesh out traditional narratives.

Fortunately, we finally have a book that fulfills that need. Gregory A. Prince’s Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (University of Utah Press) is a nearly-exhaustive collection of institutional deliberations and actions over the past few decades, often buttressed by interviews and correspondence that have been previously unaccessible to scholars. Read More