FARMS Review Answers Critics, Sizes Up Scholarship
At 500 pages, the new FARMS Review (vol. 17, no. 2) nearly bursts its binding with items of interest for anyone desiring to be well-informed on Mormon studies. The coverage ranges from Lehi's encampments in Arabia and the resurgence of the all-but-dead Spalding theory to Jewish-Mormon relations, creation ex nihilo, and the Egyptian Hor Book of Breathings.
Reported below are four comprehensive essays bearing on the "countercult" movement. As is customary in the Review, they render trenchant appraisals as well as offer much in the way of historical insight and original research that interested readers will want to plumb in their entirety.
The Spalding Theory Redux
In a lengthy review of the 2005 book Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? The Spalding Enigma, Matthew Roper critiques this latest attempt to explain the Book of Mormon as a fabrication deriving from "Manuscript Found," an unpublished novel by Pennsylvania minister Solomon Spalding. Promoted in 1834 with the publication of E. D. Howe's book Mormonism Unvailed, this theory claims that in writing the Book of Mormon, former Campbellite preacher Sidney Rigdon based the historical portions of the book on Spalding's story and then added the religious content himself—all as part of a conspiracy with Joseph Smith to make money by selling a purported divinely revealed scriptural record from ancient America. The theory lost steam in 1884 when an original Spalding manuscript (known today as "Manuscript Story") surfaced but proved to bear no direct relation to the Book of Mormon.
Die-hard advocates of the Spalding theory have clung to the ad hoc idea of a hypothetical second Spalding manuscript. The authors of The Spalding Enigma give new life to this theory, Roper notes, "contending . . . that other critics such as [Fawn] Brodie have wrongly dismissed the Spalding theory as a viable naturalistic explanation." These same authors argue that a large body of evidence for the theory has accumulated over the years and must be reckoned with. Roper obliges, performing the requested reckoning to an exhaustive degree. After outlining the historical background in instructive detail and probing crucial issues with keen insight, he pronounces the latest incarnation of the two-manuscript theory microscopic thin and unconvincing. Roper's extensive analysis is well worth reading, as it methodically examines the evidence for and against the theory and provides illuminating correctives while pinpointing the faulty reasoning and credibility-destroying errors that populate The Spalding Enigma.
Bible versus Book of Mormon?
Brant A. Gardner reviews The Bible vs. the Book of Mormon, a recent film by Living Hope Ministries, a small evangelical group based in Brigham City, Utah, whose stated goal is "educating and equipping Christians for ministry to Mormons." Gardner, who draws on his extensive experience in Mesoamerican studies to evaluate the film's claims, ably demonstrates how the producers use "classic techniques of misdirection, unexamined assumptions, and hidden information" to make their recklessly one-sided case. In unmasking these illusions, Gardner sheds light on topics of interest, including geography, priesthood, temples, and New World flora and fauna.
The film claims it is based on sound scholarship, and it features interviews with archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scholars. Gardner is quick to show that their statements are biased and uninformed—or are accurate to a degree but quoted out of context in order to give false impressions. Relevant LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon is stifled whereas the Bible is treated as though it were immune to archaeological difficulties. Throughout his review, Gardner pauses to point out significant similarities between Bible and Book of Mormon archaeology that are conveniently left out by Living Hope Ministries in its attempt to discredit the Book of Mormon. He concludes that, "unmasked, the film is far from scholarly—it is empty propaganda." Gardner's review is replete with thoughtful analysis and instructive insights on the Book of Mormon's plausible connection to ancient America.
'Psychobiography' of the Prophet
Alan Goff casts a critical eye on Dan Vogel's Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, which surveys the life of Joseph Smith while revealing supposed parallels between Smith's life and the Book of Mormon text. The author's goal is "to show that the Prophet transmuted the material of his own life and psyche into the Book of Mormon by writing a thinly veiled fiction," writes Goff, who declares the book "broadly inadequate" because of its ideological saturation, philosophical naiveté, deficient textual analysis of the Book of Mormon, and undertheorized concept of historiographical writing.
Because Vogel has already decided to refuse the Prophet Joseph Smith a fair hearing and to deny God's active role in human history, he ignores evidence that would contradict his preconceptions and speculates negative evidence into existence. So intent is he on drumming up obscure parallels between the Book of Mormon and Joseph's life that he relates the Lamanite daughters' abduction by the wicked priests to Joseph's elopement with Emma (other supposed parallels are more outrageous). Yet Goff notes that "stories from the ancient Mediterranean world about the abduction of girls are so common that a critical mass of studies has now been published on the motif." Goff's discussion of the pitfalls of psychobiography—such as its practitioners' lack of expertise in the relevant fields and their penchant for writing fiction to fill gaps in the historical record—is very instructive and serves as a touchstone to evaluate The Making of a Prophet, which, in Goff's final analysis, turns "the plenitude that is the Book of Mormon into a dearth, the scriptural copiousness into scarcity."
The Specter of Secular Anti-Mormonism
In "Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism," FARMS Review editor Daniel C. Peterson looks at a strain of anti-Mormonism that, unlike the easily dismissed evangelical variety with its blatant distortions, cynicism, and ax grinding, "will constitute the real locus of action in coming years." As a de facto defender of the faith and "first responder" who monitors the currents of criticism with a view to marshaling a resounding scholarly response when needed, Peterson sees beyond the ignorable seething rants on Web message boards and the irritating pseudo-scholarship of dissident publications to the rising tide of elite secularism spilling over from Europe. This ingrained intellectual bias against all things religious, along with a disdain for American culture and tradition, makes Mormonism a target.
"Secular anti-Mormonism is doing real damage to many fragile testimonies [in Europe]," Peterson writes, "and an adequate response has still not materialized. This is a challenge that apologists in Europe itself but also in the church's American home base urgently need to address." One repercussion is seen in the media, where liberal journalists tend to be antipathetic toward mainstream Christianity and the politically conservative Mormon church—an adversarial stance that Peterson sees echoed daily in anti-Mormon blogs and publications. He argues in philosophical terms that critics of the Church have no coherent, objective basis for criticism since, for example, they presume to be arbiters of truth and right while rejecting the notion of a moral standard for judgment, a position that is logically self-refuting. Peterson remarks on the bleakness of the secular, naturalistic viewpoint and concludes that the Church fares quite well on the real crux of the debate: the reality of First Vision and the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
This number of the Review contains several other contributions that round out its sweeping coverage. Ray L. Huntington appraises S. Kent Brown's Voices from the Dust: Book of Mormon Insights, Richard Dilworth Rust looks at James T. Duke's The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon, Jeffrey R. Chadwick brings his archaeological training to bear on George Potter and Richard Wellington's Lehi in the Wilderness, Boyd Jay Petersen draws on his own close association with the Hugh Nibley family to question the accuracy of Martha Beck's Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Blake T. Ostler casts a critical eye on Paul Copan and William Craig's studies on creation ex nihilo, Israeli scholar Raphael Jospe encourages Jewish-Mormon dialogue while noting similarities and differences in belief, Royal Skousen applies his experience in linguistics and textual criticism to recent work on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, and Kerry Muhlestein sizes up the content and scholarly value of Michael D. Rhodes's translation and commentary on the Hor Book of Breathings.
To view this issue of the FARMS Review online or to purchase a copy, please visit the Maxwell Institute Web site (maxwellinstitute.byu.edu).