Jesus’ American Brew: The Truth and Utility of Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon (It’s Lit #21)
After a year of reading an average of over a book a week, I decided to slow down in 2019 to focus more deeply on some more challenging canonical texts. Thus, beginning 1 January, I began reading the New International Translation of the Holy Bible. At the rate of a book per day, I completed the tome 66 days later.
As mentioned above, the Bible had been on my list for a long time primarily because of its profound canonical nature, by which I mean the amount of influence it has had over our arts and culture since it’s publication. It’s reach is such that it is deeply felt in nearly all other canonical western texts.
Some texts, of course, take this one step farther. While Milton, to take one example, uses Paradise Lost to flesh out his own interpretation of the Bible (more on that next week) it is still clearly labeled as fan fiction. Other texts, however, have not only continued the story of the Old Testament, they have claimed to be similarly divinely inspired, penned through the expressed will of God Himself. In fact, I would argue this pattern began with the New Testament. The practice was similarly taken up by Mohammad with The Qur’an, which I wrote about last week.
As a functionally obsessive completionist, I knew I needed to round out this research before I departed from theological texts entirely. Through understanding books that have been deeply influential to their adherents, I can better understand the adherents themselves. Thus, with America having the highest concentration of Mormons in the world, I knew I had to explore one final Abrahamic text this year—Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon was first published in 1830. The release strategy was notably elaborate, with the Prophet Joseph Smith spending multiple years alleging that he had been called back and forth by the Angel Moroni to a sacred hill in New York, today known as ‘Hill Cummorah’. Eventually, Joseph Smith supposedly dug up golden plates on this hill detailing a 2500 year history of a Jewish people who sailed to America thousands of years before Christ. Along with the plates, Joseph Smith dug up two Seer Stones, the Urim and the Thummim, which allowed him to decode the runes the plates were written in. Joseph Smith notoriously claimed he was told not to show these artifacts to anybody, keeping the plates ‘hidden’ as he dictated their contents for transcription by trusted adults.
Suffice to say, it has never been easy for me to believe that these plates were anything but imaginary. I attempted to read the book with a partially open mind, as if I were a Mormon myself, but I found it difficult to take the book seriously in the same way I could the Old and New Testaments. From the repetitive grammar to the derivative storylines to the gratuitous foreshadowing of Christ, believing this book was not written by a post-adolescent boy became an increasingly complicated game of double-think.
The first hint that something was amiss came through the grammar and tone used throughout The Book of Mormon. Though the book is meant to span two and a half millennia, the turn of phrase and syntax is remarkably consistent throughout. Perhaps most infamously, the phrase ‘And so it came to pass’ is used a whopping 1476 times throughout the 400 page novel, and the differences between the percentage of times this page is used per section is negligible. The going Mormon argument (or at least the one stated on the bottom of this page) is that this phrase is also frequently used in the King James Bible. I can’t help but suspect this was the Bible Mr. Smith was most familiar with 🤷♀️.
The content in this novel also did not feel very fresh to me, a problem I also had with The Qur’an. However, whereas the Qur’an felt, to me, like a more didactic book of Psalms, The Book of Mormon feels mostly like an adventure novel. There is exploration, war, and, of course, plenty of sermons. The issue in both cases, however, is that I don’t feel much has been added.
Of course, I could be wrong, and I’m sure the adherents of either faith would have plenty of interesting points about why this is so. However, the conflicts and narratives throughout the Book of Mormon, meant to be actual histories, are suspiciously mirrored by the the events in the Old Testament that were supposedly happening contemporaneously on the other side of the Atlantic. For example, the conflict between the generally righteous Nephites and the generally malicious Lamanites reads like a watered down version of the conflict between the Jews and their lesser brothers in Canaan. Judges are tasked with enforcing the law of God in the Nephite Civilization. In the Old Testament, the Jews set up a similar system of Judges in Canaan (see the Book of Judges for more 😉 ). With my critical eye, these parallels are far too glaring to ignore.
Lastly, the way the Book of Mormon reinforces its authority (it’s own brand of wokeness) is unbelievably gratuitous. The coming of Christ is foreshadowed with great accuracy and bluntness, especially by Alma, the first judge of Nephi. In the eponymous book, Alma prophecies that ‘all who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come’ (Alma 46:15). As far as I remember, Christ’s name was never evoked by any of the
prophets in the Old Testament, and certainly not anywhere near as many times as Alma speaks of him. Either these American prophets were woke to a degree far surpassing Isaiah and Ezekiel, or this prequel was penned by an author who already knew how this story ended.
I don’t think all these observations are due solely to my biased, skeptical mindset. That the book was a con job seems obvious. With that said, I have known a few Mormons in my life, and they never struck me as dumb, or even particularly ignorant. Like any other religion’s acolytes, I assume they just take something like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it comes to any plot holes. It’s an easy price to pay if your reward is a system of belief you find meaningful. It’s an undeniably useful feature of any sort of faith. So I can’t knock the hustle, but I am left to wonder: why did Mormonism catch on so well?
My best guess is that Mormonism has succeeded as a religion specifically because of its American origin. America easily fits the narrative of a promised land, especially when the book was conceived, around 50 years into my country’s experiment in self-governance. Claiming that Christ also visited this land after his resurrection makes the place even more special. With the frontier still wide open, Brigham Young was able to lead the Mormons to Utah after Joseph Smith’s death, magnifying it’s sacredness as a New Holy Corner of a New Holy World.
In addition to establishing America’s status as a viable promised land, the Book of Mormon also allowed it’s adherents to (re?)establish themselves as another group of God’s chosen people. Mormons took on a status similar to Jews, tasked with being God’s shining beacon to the world—a quite ennobling, if daunting, responsibility.
So, did the early Mormons really believe Joseph Smith? Maybe they did. On the other hand, maybe they just really wanted to. Maybe they could see the benefits of a religion that places their land and their lineage front and center. It could make them feel powerful. It could also intensify the responsibility of living the best life they possibly can. Though The Book of Mormon doesn’t appear to add drastically new lessons or ethical dimensions to its predecessors, it does add to it’s mythology to make it more relevant to Americans. I’m not convinced that it’s level of truth, or even it’s adherents’ level of belief, have an essential connection with the text’s utility. At the end of the day, Joseph Smith provided an opportunity for Americans to form a sub-community where they would agree on a mythology to inspire each other to be the best human beings they could possibly be. In many ways, this is the case with any religion. It’s a quest I believe we are all on, and if The Book of Mormon is what keeps some on that quest, I wish them, as I wish all of you, Godspeed.