Joseph Smith's American Bible:
Radicalizing the Familiar

Joseph Smith’s American Bible:
Radicalizing the Familiar

Terryl L. Givens

Terryl L.
Givens, professor of literature and religion and occupant of the James Bostwick
Chair of English, University of Richmond, presented the first biennial Laura F.
Willes Center Book of Mormon Lecture on 8 October 2009 at the Gordon B.
Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center, Brigham Young University.

The nineteenth century saw repeated calls for
an authentic American Bible. Restorationist Walter Scott described the second
Great Awakening as rife with rumors of a “new Bible.”1 He probably didn’t have Walt Whitman in
mind, but Whitman considered his mission to be “The Great Construction of
the New Bible” and thought he pulled it off with Leaves of
.2 Scott did not have
Joseph Smith in mind either, but when the century’s dust had settled, the Book
of Mormon had emerged as the foremost claimant for the title. There are two
principal points to be made about the Book of Mormon’s status as an “American
Bible,” or more generally, as modern scripture. The first is this: the
Book of Mormon emphasizes its own provenance in a way that deserves closer
attention. Indeed, provenance is the book’s first, and perhaps most important,
theme. This theme goes a long way to explain the structure of the Book of
Mormon and its particular purpose as intended by its narrators. Second, the
Book of Mormon fully engages familiar nineteenth-century scriptural forms,
terms, and categories, only to subvert them and constitute them into an
utterly new American Bible; for instance, a few of these themes are revelation,
Christology, Zion, and scripture.


Read against the paradigm of Judeo-Christian scripture, the
opening of the Book of Mormon is conspicuously unusual. The Book of Mormon
opens with a series of sentences that claim and reaffirm one central point: the
original story that we are reading was personally narrated—and
recorded—by a man named Nephi: “I Nephi . . . make a record of my
proceedings in my days,” he writes. Then he adds, “I make a record in
the language of my father”; “I make” a record which I know “is
true”; “I make it with my own hand”; and “I make it
according to my knowledge” (1 Nephi 1:1–3).

Why all this redundancy? Why such emphatic insistence on the
literal origins of the record, with Nephi’s own hand? Clearly, unlike the
impersonal voice with which Genesis opens the biblical account of creation,
focusing as it does on cosmic history, epic events, and God’s primal acts of
creation, the Book of Mormon’s first named author urgently presses upon his
audience the very human, very local, and very historical nature of his
narrative. It is as far removed from mythic beginnings and anonymous narratives
as he can possibly make it. This is firsthand, eyewitness history of local
events (set in 600 BC Jerusalem,
we learn shortly). It is a beginning also strikingly unlike the gospels of the
New Testament. None of the authors of the four Gospels, as certain critics
delight to point out, identify themselves in their account of Jesus. There is
no, “I, Matthew, proceed to give an account of one Jesus of Nazareth,”
or “I, Mark, write this narrative of the Christ.” Some of these
critics, in fact, find the unstipulated authorship of the Gospels to be a blow
against their authenticity or reliability. Of course, we could read the silence
differently. The anonymity of those four books seems almost calculated to
emphasize the infinitely greater significance of the Christ who is the focus of
their narratives. The authors themselves disappear in deference to the Messiah
they proclaim. The Book of Mormon, by contrast, begins with the personal introduction
of the book’s first author: “I, Nephi.” We need to ask why. To say it
is because he is beginning a family history is, we shall see, insufficient as
an explanation.

True enough, Nephi is a self-described record keeper who
believes God has called him to maintain an account of his clan. He gradually
comes to an awakening of his record’s importance and future mission, and of his
own inability to personally steer and shepherd his work to its intended
audience that he only vaguely apprehends. This preoccupation with audience, and
with self-authentication in the face of his inability to control the fate of
his written words and the terms of their reception, weighs upon him like a
sacred burden. He cannot make any claims for the record’s future disposition.
But he can attest to its past, its origins. Hence, the motif that Nephi
deliberately decides to foreground is the record’s provenance, and his concern
is to make it indisputable.

In art history,
provenance means derivation. More fully, it refers to authenticity that is
secured in a particular way, establishing the true origins of an object by
verifying its unbroken history of transmission from original owner to the
present. In the Book of Mormon, we never lose sight of the links in the chain
of transmission. This fact is no coincidence. And it makes sense of the
otherwise peculiar series of perfunctory and yet dutiful handoffs that Nephi’s
descendents make to each successor. For after Nephi, each inheritor of the
plates of ore attests to the unbroken chain of transmission, calling the
responsibility to continue the tradition a “commandment” passed on
through the generations. The weight of solemn obligation felt by these chroniclers
is evident in their clear attestations of a responsibility both executed and
then transferred, and explains the curious feature of the Book of Mormon’s
structure in which a series of mini-books follows upon the heels of Enos’s
record. The accounts of Nephi, Jacob, and Enos are progressively shorter, and
that of Enos’s son Jarom is only two pages, making it the shortest of all books
named for their authors. (The only exception is the Words of Mormon, but that
is more of an explanatory editorial insertion than a chapter proper.) Following
Jarom’s brief account, the succeeding chronicles are too short to even
constitute books. In one case, that of Chemish, his stewardship takes the form
of a single paragraph.

This perfunctory brevity and the self-confessed wickedness
of authors like Omni make the whole section seem, somehow, too
mechanical—almost pointless. Why do they so dutifully fill their roles
when their hearts seem so little invested in record keeping, and why do editors
Nephi and Mormon alike leave their portions intact? A terribly important point
hinges on those questions. For it is precisely this very brevity, it is the
dutiful but soulless nature of some of these entries, that points all the more
powerfully to the intimidating magnitude of the obligation the authors have
inherited to maintain intact the line of transmission, the authentication
of the provenance
, of the sacred records. This is the message
conveyed loudly and clearly by the economical Chemish: “Now I, Chemish,
write what few things I write in the same book with my brother; for behold, I
saw the last which he wrote, that he wrote it with his own hand; and he wrote
it in the day that he delivered them unto me. And after this manner we keep the
records, for it is according to the commandments of our fathers. And I make an
end” (Omni 9).

So, that is the first detail of the Book of Mormon that
draws attention: the authorial preoccupation—almost obsessive
concern—with authenticating the record’s provenance. We are never
permitted to lose sight of a documented genealogy that extends back in
time—not to an anonymous author, or an implied Moses or even
pseudepigraphal writer—but through a meticulously documented lineage to a
historical personage of flesh and blood, who fashioned with his own hands the
very materials on which the record was engraven. And from those hands, going
forward, through a thousand years to Moroni. And one can now see the bridge
from Moroni to Joseph Smith, attested to by the sworn affidavits of eleven men,
as following in this same path, of confirming with legalistic documentation the
still unbroken history of the record’s provenance. That is why, even though the
final form those plates take is a printed volume and is now mass produced, each
copy nonetheless inherits the same pedigree, and each volume can therefore
function as a sacred artifact, a holy icon, from the moment the first copy came
off the Palmyra press. This is the final meaning of the book’s ironclad
guarantee of provenance. Aaron’s budding rod was not a horticultural treasure,
the pot of manna was not a culinary relic, and the Book of Mormon’s primary
function has never been textual. It is oracular.

A very accomplished scholar of Mormonism has continued to
insist, at least in private conversations, that no one will take Mormonism’s
theology seriously until Mormons learn to mythologize their scriptures. That
remark fails to appreciate the very dimension to the Book of Mormon I have just
indicated. For this aspect of the Book of Mormon, so self-consciously and pointedly
constructed by its narrators, is stubbornly resistant to such acts of
dislocation from history—and from authorial rootedness. Why is this
unbroken chain of transmission so important? Because that is how the narrator
of this record enacts, rather than describes, an uninterrupted connection to
the divine that transcends centuries and continents. The Book of Mormon, precisely
because of the testimony of its own provenance,
functions in a way
best captured by the imagery of George Herbert’s magnificent poem, “The
Pearl.” “Through the labyrinths of this world,” the poet writes,
addressing his God,

not my grovelling wit,
But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me,
[Does] both conduct and teach me, how by it
To climb to thee.3

In its own self-portrayal, the Book of Mormon functions
as that silk twist let down from heaven.


Moving on to the content rather than the structure of this
work, something is thematically at work that reinterprets, and does not just
reenact, this meaning of scripture as sacred contact with the divine. This new
scriptural identity is based upon, even as it creatively restructures, biblical
elements. This is what I mean by the radicalizing of the familiar. As
illustration, I will draw attention to four examples—four motifs in
particular in the Book of Mormon: revelation, Christology, Zion, and scripture.
It is no coincidence that each of these topics is introduced by successive
visionary experiences of Lehi.

We know virtually nothing for certain of Lehi or his
background except that he is a person of wealth and, as his wife laments and
Lehi agrees, is a “visionary man” (1 Nephi 5:2, 4). His first
recorded vision occurs as Lehi is praying “with all his heart”
(1 Nephi 1:5) on behalf of his people. Strangely, this is the only one of
Lehi’s visions about whose content we are told nothing at all. Nephi simply reveals
that as Lehi prays, “there came a pillar of fire . . . and he saw and
heard much” (1 Nephi 1:6). No details of the message, no particulars
of any message, are available to distract from the fact of the visitation
itself, given to a man who shares neither the public prestige nor, so far as we
can tell, the national stewardship of his contemporary Jeremiah. What we do
have is the sheer fact of a personal revelation, apparently containing images
and words (“he saw and heard much”), that comes as a result of
petitionary prayer and profoundly affects the recipient. This definition of
revelation as propositional, or content-bearing, will become one of the
dominant themes of the Book of Mormon, even as it is manifested in the lives of
a broadening range of recipients.

Immediately following Lehi’s first vision, he returns to his
home and experiences a second vision. This one takes the form initially of a
theophany, or vision of God, and calls to mind the divine assembly described in
Old Testament passages like Psalm 82 or 2 Chronicles 18. Lehi sees “God
sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the
attitude of singing and praising their God.” Then follows a sight that is
decidedly without Old Testament precedent: “And it came to pass that he
saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster
was above that of the sun at noon-day. And he saw also twelve others following
him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament”
(1 Nephi 1: 8–10). Christians have not shrunk from reading messianic
prophecies into the psalms or passages from Isaiah and Zechariah. But nothing
biblical approaches the degree of specificity with which Book of Mormon
prophets and writers detail their anticipation of a Christ, six centuries
before his birth. Christocentrism pervades the text from its first pages to its

Following this vision, which includes foreshadowings of the
destruction of Jerusalem, Lehi preaches repentance to an unreceptive populace.
Like Jeremiah’s exhortations, which led to his persecution and imprisonment,
Lehi’s public warnings prompt threats against his life (1 Nephi
1:19–20). Consequently, Lehi receives a third vision, wherein God
commands him to take his family and flee into the wilderness (1 Nephi
2:1–2). Lehi promptly complies, setting in motion the principal action of
the early Book of Mormon, the family’s journey to and settlement of a new
world. This exodus also establishes a structural motif, as the first of many
hegiras the Book of Mormon records. Flight from the old Jerusalem and building
new ones, scattering and gathering, covenantal integrity in the midst of
apostasy and dispersion and a “land of promise”—all these constitute
variants of the Book of Mormon’s recurring theme of building Zion in the

After traveling three days in the wilderness by the Red Sea,
Lehi and his family make camp. There south of Jerusalem, Lehi has a fourth
dream-vision, in which he is commanded to send his four sons back to Jerusalem
to secure a record of the Jews, together with a family genealogy, inscribed on
plates of brass (1 Nephi 3). This is a formidable challenge because the
plates are in the possession of one Laban, apparently a Jewish official of some
standing. Twice the brothers fail, almost losing their lives in the process.
Nephi himself returns a third time and succeeds unaided, but only through the
extreme measure of killing a drunken and helpless Laban at the persistent
urging of “the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4). The cost in expense, effort,
and human life demonstrates and justifies a profound valuation of
scripture—a concept that comes to be developed in the Book of Mormon in
ways very unlike Catholic and Protestant notions.4


Emil Brunner has written, “God’s revelation of Himself
always occurs in such a way as to manifest more deeply his inaccessibility to
our thought and imagination. All that we can know is the world. God is not the
world. . . . He is Mystery.”5 Another contemporary religious scholar agrees and finds this a dominant motif
in Christian thought:

The history of theology is replete with this truth:
recall Augustine’s insight that if we have understood, then what we have
understood is not God; Anselm’s argument that God is that than which nothing
greater can be conceived; Hildegaard’s vision of God’s glory as Living Light
that blinded her sight; Aquinas’s working rule that we can know that God is and
what God is not but not what God is; Luther’s stress on the hiddenness of God’s
glory in the shame of the cross; Simone Weil’s conviction that there is nothing
that resembles what she can conceive of when she says the word God; Sallie
McFague’s insistence on imaginative leaps into metaphor since no language about
God is adequate and all of it is improper.6

This is not the God of the Book of Mormon.

In the Book of Mormon, God is not mystery. He is fully
knowable, accessible, and susceptible to petitionary prayer. The Book of Mormon
opens upon a scene of prophets and prophecy set in a time of extreme national
peril. This is the world of Jeremiah, vintage Old Testament drama, epic in
scope and sense of looming threat. Then, quite suddenly, everything abruptly
changes. Within pages, the focus shifts from the city of Jerusalem and her
inhabitants to the destiny of one man named Lehi and his family. From national
destinies hanging in the balance, we go to a family in crisis. But ironically,
in the process of this narrowing of focus, the manifestations of divine
communication with which the record opened are not diminished, but multiplied.
This shift of direction, from a public prophet advocating national repentance
for the sake of collective survival in the face of geopolitical crisis, to a
father contending for the preservation of his sons and daughters in the
wilderness, perfectly exemplifies the Book of Mormon’s tendency to invoke
familiar categories and settings, only to abruptly shift the ground under our
feet. Yes, the Old Testament also has its family sagas with warring
siblings—but with a crucial difference. Because in the Old Testament, the
Cains and Abels, the Isaacs and Esaus, are largely etiologies, explanatory
types who represent or explain larger human destinies. And the revelation that
guides them guides the enormous currents of human history and cosmic understanding.
Writes one scholar of the subject: “[Prophecy] was preeminently the
privilege of the prophets.”7 Prophecy is “exegesis of existence from a divine perspective,
writes Abraham Heschel.8 In the Book of Mormon, this is most emphatically
not the case. Prophecy and revelation contract into the sphere of the
quotidian, the personal, and the immediate, where they proliferate and

There are indications that the writers of the Book of Mormon
intended the prevailing moral of the book to be, in fact, an openness to
radically individualistic and literalistic conceptions of divine communication
to mortals—that is, dialogic revelation. The kind of revelation we are
referring to is seen in the Old Testament most memorably in Moses’s encounter
with God on Mount Sinai, when it is recorded that “the Lord spake unto
Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Exodus 33:11), or
in Abraham’s prolonged exchange with God over the fate of Sodom, when they
haggle over numbers like a housewife and a bazaar merchant (Genesis
18:20–32). These exchanges, figurative or mythical as they may be to
today’s readers, are certainly portrayed in anthropomorphic terms understood
literally by the writer. At the conclusion of the latter episode, he writes, “And
the Lord went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham
returned unto his place” (Genesis 18:33), as if human language and human
paradigms of interaction were perfectly adequate to describe prophetic
negotiations with the divine.

The major thrust of the Book of Mormon is an elaboration of this model of revelation, expanding and extending it to lesser mortals, and
more intimate concerns. It is most dramatically revealed as a radical departure
from Old Testament norms in the story of Lehi’s dream. Nephi’s father Lehi has
a magnificent vision of a tree of life, resplendent with allegorical details,
extensive symbolism, and several elements of eschatology. In the aftermath of
this father’s vision, Nephi goes to the Lord in prayer, desiring that he may
also “behold the things which [his] father saw” (1 Nephi 11:3).

The Spirit of the Lord appears to him and, at first, leaves
him in possible doubt as to the propriety of his request. Does he not believe
his father’s account? Why then ask for his own version? Assured by Nephi that
he does indeed trust the words of his father, the prophet and patriarch Lehi,
the Spirit breaks into a song of rejoicing and blesses Nephi for seeking his
personal revelatory experience. Nephi then records his version of the vision,
which exceeds his father’s in points of detail, at least in the written version
(1 Nephi 11:24–14:30). Anyone reading this text, in the nineteenth
century or our own, would have encountered a paradigm shift of dramatic
proportions. This is why Alexander Campbell’s first protest against the Book of
Mormon and an evangelical’s recent book on Mormonism both point to Moroni 10,
with its promise of personal, dialogic revelation, as a nonnegotiable point of
theological difference.9


Second, I will say a few things about Christology in the
Book of Mormon. According to Joseph Smith, when the angel Moroni first appeared
to him with the commission to retrieve and translate the Book of Mormon, the
angel reported that the “fulness of the everlasting Gospel” was
contained in the plates, but added the enigmatic clause “as delivered by
the Savior to the ancient [American] inhabitants” (Joseph
Smith—History 1:34). Such a formulation seems almost calculated to
combine shocking novelty with a kind of wry nonchalance. He might as well have
said, the record affirmed the Ten Commandments—you know, the ones that
God delivered to Atlantis. The angel’s perplexing description foreshadows the
pattern I am trying to unpack: that the Book of Mormon flirts with both the
clichéd and heretical, the pedestrian and preposterous.

Many claims surrounding the Book of Mormon—its
inscription on plates of gold, its delivery to Joseph Smith by an angel, its
miraculous translation involving seer stones and Urim and Thummim—are
remarkable to say the least. The most striking claim within the Book of
Mormon is undoubtedly its insistence that Jesus Christ was worshipped in the
Western hemisphere, by way of anticipation, as long ago as six centuries BC. The subtitle printed on the Book of
Mormon cover since 1982 is a recent development that reflects both the centrality
of Jesus Christ in Latter-day Saint belief and the Church’s concern to
emphasize that belief in the face of public skepticism and uncertainty about
its designation as Christian. But the gesture is no mere act of modern
revisionism. On the title page itself, the final record keeper Moroni, upon
concluding his ancient record, explains the second major purpose of the Book of
Mormon to be “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the
Christ, the eternal God.”

The two questions such an assertion immediately invites are,
first, how detailed was the Nephite knowledge of the Christ and, more to the
point, how did a group of ancient Israelites exhibit such an emphatic and detailed
knowledge of Jesus when their Jewish contemporaries had, at best, vaguely
defined beliefs in some kind of Messiah to come? The Book of Mormon seems in
this regard a pseudepigraphal response to the tantalizing possibilities
intimated by Peter, when that apostle wrote that “the prophets pondered
and . . . tried to find out what was the time, and what the
circumstances, to which the spirit of Christ in them pointed, foretelling the
sufferings in store for Christ and the splendours to follow” (1 Peter
1:10–11 NEB). The Church historian Eusebius argued that “Moses
. . . was enabled by the Holy Spirit to foresee quite plainly the title Jesus (evident, he believes, in his naming his successor Joshua—which
transliterates as Jesus).10 Most
Christians, however, see such biblical typology as inspired foreshadowings
apparent in detail only through hindsight. In the case of the Book of Mormon,
by contrast, the references are clear and unobscured by allegory, symbolism, or
cryptic allusion.

Christology in the Book of Mormon is not an occasional
intrusion, but the narrative backbone of the story and the dramatic point of
orientation. All of Book of Mormon history, in other words, pivots on the
moment of Christ’s coming. Its narrative centrality is emphasized by describing
the steadfastness and travails of those who anticipate the messianic moment,
the subsequent Utopian era of those who keep the coming and its significance in
memory, and the rapid decline and degradation of those who don’t. Book of
Mormon prophets even establish their chronology around his coming: Logic would
dictate that dating “Before Christ” can only occur from the
perspective of a people living in the “Anni Domini.” But Nephi states
and twice reaffirms that their departure from the Old World to the New occurs “six
hundred years” before his birth (1 Nephi 10:4; 19:8; 2 Nephi
25:19). To Enos it is reaffirmed that he is living “many years . . .
before he shall manifest himself in the flesh” (Enos 1:8). And to the
prophetic Alma, even the demise of their civilization is dated in reference to
that coming event: “Behold, I perceive that this very people, the
Nephites, according to the spirit of revelation which is in me, in four hundred
years from the time that Jesus Christ shall manifest himself unto them, shall
dwindle in unbelief” (Alma 45:10).

One principal critique the Enlightenment made of
Christianity was the historical particularity of the incarnation and ministry
of Christ. Why would a God of the entire human race confine his earthly
manifestation to only a fortunate few living in proximity to a Jewish village.
Such criticism had been anticipated centuries earlier, when Christians
developed a doctrine of prisca theologia, holding that versions of the gospel
were transmitted imperfectly to other peoples and cultures, affording even
pagans a partial glimpse of gospel truth. The Book of Mormon suggests a more
radical corrective, when Christ presents his own ministry to the Nephites as
but one in a series of proliferating manifestations of his gospel and even his

ye are they of whom I said: Other sheep I have which
are not of this fold; them also must I bring, and they shall hear my voice; and
there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. . . . And verily,
verily, I say unto you that I have other sheep, which are not of this land,
neither of the land of Jerusalem, neither in any parts of that land round about
whither I have been to minister. . . . But I have received a
commandment of the Father that I shall go unto them, and that they shall hear
my voice. (3 Nephi 15:21; 16:1, 3)

Instead of a single unparalleled eruption of the divine into
the human, we have in the Book of Mormon a proliferation of historical
iterations, which collectively become the ongoing substance rather than the
shadow of God’s past dealings in the universe. For the third time, we see a
familiar topic, central to Christian culture, introduced only to be fashioned
into a version that moves in directions opposite to readerly expectations.


The central fact in the history of Israel is the exodus from
Egypt and the settling of the promised land. Millennia later, the Puritans who
settled America would see themselves as exiles from the Old World, figurative
Israelites who were guided to this promised land to establish a spiritual Zion.
The early Christian saga involves movement from the covenant of blood extended
to a chosen tribe, to the covenant of adoption that creates a community of
believers; it changes from a gathering in real space, centered in a literal
Zion, to a spiritual gathering that constitutes a figurative body in Christ.
The Book of Mormon reenacts the former, Jewish model, even as it anticipates
the latter, Christian version. For the Book of Mormon is the record of a people’s
repeated quests for a land of promise and their anxiety about their covenantal
status before God, even as it insistently repeats the theme that “as many
of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord”
(2 Nephi 30:2).

Gods who hold dominion and sway by the power of love evoke a
particular kind of anxiety in their people. We are never so vulnerable as when
we love, writes Freud, and that holds true in relations with the divine as much
as in relations with humans.11 The fear
of alienation, anxiety about rejection, and the terror of being
forgotten—these sentiments seem to be fully acknowledged and mercifully
addressed in God’s institution of the covenant as a compensating mechanism.
There is no more pervasive and unifying theme to the Jewish scriptures than the
covenant made with Abraham. It is the basis of both collective and individual
identity. It is the foundation not just of a particular status vis-á-vis other
peoples, but it is principally and primarily the guarantee of God’s constant
love. A woman may forget her nursing child, the Lord assures them through
Isaiah, “yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the
palms of my hands” (49:15–16).

Only in this context does the dominant emotional tone of the
Book of Mormon have a recognizable resonance. The Book of Mormon begins with an
event that must have been traumatic to the principal actors in the drama:
exodus. Not an exodus from bondage and wilderness exile to the land of promise,
but exodus away from the land of promise, away from Jerusalem, the people of the
covenant, from the temple, and into the wilderness. This is why the form of so
much of Nephi’s preaching in the early days of exile is reassurance and
consolation. He invokes Isaiah repeatedly, precisely in order to convince his
people that they are “a remnant of the house of Israel,” and that,
though broken off, they “may have hope as well as [their] brethren”
(1 Nephi 19:24). A thousand years later, at the conclusion of the record,
Moroni reaffirms this message by giving it pride of place on his title page.
The sacred record, he writes, is “to show unto the remnant of the House of
Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they
may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.”

This lesson—the portability of Zion—is reenacted
so many times in the Book of Mormon story that it becomes a leitmotif. Lehi
erects an altar in the wilderness and makes of his exile a sacred refuge. After
a terrifying sea voyage, the clan becomes established in the promised land. But
there, dissension immediately breaks out, and Nephi is directed to again flee
into the wilderness and reestablish a remnant of the original remnant
(2 Nephi 5). A few hundred years later, the Lord directs a subsequent
king, Mosiah, to depart from there “into the wilderness” with “as
many as would hearken” (Omni 1:13). Having arrived in Zarahemla, Mosiah
and his people encounter another remnant from Jerusalem who “journeyed in
the wilderness” to this New World Zion. Other iterations of this theme
will include the newly converted Alma the Elder’s flight from the court of King
Noah and his founding of a church in the wilderness (Mosiah 23), and yet
another people descended from Old World exiles, who cross the sea in barges
after being commanded to “go forth into the wilderness” at the time
of the Tower of Babel (Ether 2:5). Most poignantly of all, the record will
close with the spectacle of a lonely Moroni, sole survivor of his race, finding
in his wilderness exile that he has neither family, friends, “nor whither
to go” (Mormon 8:5). The successive chain of Zion-building finds its
definitive end, and the record closes thereafter.

The Book of Mormon may be seen in this light as the story of
the unending transmission of the gospel into new contexts, a chronicle of the
volatility and fragility of lands of refuge, a testament of the portability and
ceaseless transmutations of Zion, with the only constant being the eternally
present promise of a special relationship to God and direct access to his power
and truth. The original dislocation signified by Lehi’s exodus becomes a
prelude not to a new geographical gathering, but to a shadow of the permanent
reconstitution of Zion into spiritual refuge. The resonance of this theme for
early American descendents of those who had embarked on their own errand into
the wilderness would have been unmistakable. And the theme would undoubtedly
have held special poignancy for the first readers of the Book of Mormon,
nineteenth-century religious refugees who persisted doggedly and tragically in
attempts to realize their own earthly Zions on a trail from Ohio through
Missouri to Illinois and the Great Basin of Utah.


A fourth major leitmotif in the Book of Mormon is scripture
itself. After explaining the origins of this record that will eventually
comprise the Book of Mormon and establishing his intent to write nothing “save
it be . . . sacred” (1 Nephi 19:6), Nephi goes about constituting his
record in a way that is markedly different from simple prophetic utterance or inspired
dictate. He constitutes his record as a kind of bricolage, or assemblage of
already existing pieces into a new mosaic. In doing so, he reinforces a
conception of scripture as something fluid, diffuse, and infinitely
generable—the very opposite of scripture as something that is unilinear,
concretized, fixed in a canon.

Nephi characterizes the
first eight chapters of his record as a summation of a record his father kept.
His own record commences with the details leading up to his vision of the tree
of life. He then assimilates into his account a number of other prophetic
voices unknown to us; he writes, “[Christ shall yield himself to] be
lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to
the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulcher, according to the words of
Zenos” (1 Nephi 19:10). Nephi then progresses to the prophecies of
Isaiah, which he has obtained from another set of plates taken from Jerusalem.
Not content to merely cite him, Nephi incorporates into his narrative entire
swaths of Isaiah, largely unchanged from the form known to Jewish and Christian
readers of the Bible.

The dynamic, vibrant life of scripture, as something that is
generated, assimilated, transformed, and transmitted in endless ways and in
ever new contexts, is clearly indicated in these scenes where Nephi centers in
on his commission to produce a sacred record. But the theme achieves its most
pronounced instance well into the subsequent narrative at a time when a
repentant sinner, Alma, living among a heathen people far removed from the
God-fearing Nephites, begins, surprisingly enough, to preach Christ to his
peers: “And now it came to pass that Alma, who had fled from the servants
of king Noah, repented of his sins and iniquities, and . . . began to teach
. . . concerning that which was to come, and also concerning the
resurrection of the dead, and the redemption of the people, which was to be
brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ”
(Mosiah 18:1–2).

How did Alma obtain a knowledge of Christ? He heard the
preaching of Abinadi, an itinerant prophet martyred by a wicked king called
Noah. And Alma “did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken”
(Mosiah 17:4). Where did Abinadi, who appears suddenly in the narrative with no
background or introduction, get that knowledge? In chapters 13–14 of
Mosiah, we find him reading, from some unnamed text, the words of Moses
and of Isaiah to Noah’s court, and finding in them clear foreshadowing of a “God
[who should] himself . . . come down among the children of men, and
. . . redeem his people” (Mosiah 15:1). From where did Abinadi
obtain those scriptures? He was a member of a colony founded by one Zeniff, an
offshoot of the major Nephite settlement, whose founders took copies of the
Nephite records with them when they departed Zarahemla and resettled a land
called Lehi-Nephi. And those Nephite records? Before even leaving Jerusalem at
the record’s beginning, Nephi and his brothers abscond with the brass plates of
a Jewish ruler named Laban, which plates contain the writings of Moses, Isaiah,
and several other Hebrew prophets. So we have a clear line of transmission from
prophetic utterance, to brass plates, to Nephi’s small plates, to Zeniff’s
copy, to Abinadi’s gloss, to Alma’s transcription. And that is only half the
story. From Alma we learn that those teachings become a part of his written
record. When he and his band of exiles arrive back in the major colony of
Zarahemla, the Nephite king there, Mosiah, reads to the assembled people “the
account of Alma and his brethren” (Mosiah 25:6). King Mosiah, as guardian
of the large plates, presumably incorporates the record into his own record.
Those plates are subsequently abridged by Mormon, acquiring finally the form
they have today.

One might object that the Book of Mormon itself cannot
embody such an organic, constantly evolving and morphing canon without
self-contradiction (it was, after all, given its final and definitive form in
1830). But the Book of Mormon undermines its own pretensions to simply reenact
or supplement the Bible by situating itself, along with that Bible, as one in
an endless series of scriptural productions. As the Book of Mormon’s God says, “I
shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto
the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other
tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it;
and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it”
(2 Nephi 29:12). As with revelation, we find parallels to these
conceptions in the Hebrew scriptures. The point is that a Christian audience of
Joseph’s day would have considered scriptural history to move inevitably toward
completion and closure. In the Book of Mormon, scripture always moves toward
proliferation and dissemination in both directions.

Historicity and the Book of Mormon

The themes and strategies I have surveyed convey something
of the ways in which the Book of Mormon exploited the materials of the biblical
text and biblical culture to fashion a work that was, as the designation Golden
Bible implied, alien and recognizable, sacred and profane, at the same time. In
this regard, the Book of Mormon mirrors Mormonism’s own peculiar synthesis of
opposites. For Mormonism provides a very interesting case study of how a modern
church tries to successfully negotiate a synthesis of modern science and
biblical literalism, intellectual credibility and folk magic beginnings; how it
has been managing, the critics notwithstanding, to persist in basing its
theology on its history—an intractably and conspicuously vulnerable
history at that.

I hope to have shown in this regard that the Book of Mormon’s
place as canonical scripture cannot be separated from the particular ways it
has portrayed itself as a literal historical creation, and from the unexpected
ways it has both engaged and rewritten important strands of Christian
historical understanding. All this strikes me as a remarkably novel way to
think about scripture. Unlike the Bible or the Qurʾan, both of
which constitute the basis of their respective faiths’ doctrine, the Book of
Mormon grounds virtually none of those principles or practices unique to the
LDS faith. The premortal existence of human souls, the eternity of the family,
a multi-tiered heaven, vicarious ordinances performed for the dead, the Mormon
code of health (the Word of Wisdom), the law of tithing, a modern church
organized under a prophet and 12 apostles—none of these distinctives
appear in the Book of Mormon. No, it is the way the Book of Mormon challenges
its audience to rethink their relationship to the divine, their place in
Christian history, and God’s relationship to history—that is the point.
In this capacity as a sign or pointer to meaning outside itself, the Book of
Mormon was one of a panoply of heavenly portents that signaled the commencement
of a new dispensation. During that first generation in which the Book of Mormon
appeared, theophanies, angels, gold plates, Nephite interpreters, magic compasses—the
whole entourage of otherworldly visitants and priestly articles—were like
the vibrant, extravagant uncials in an illuminated manuscript, drawing
attention to the inauguration of a new chapter in God’s conversation with man,
conspicuous heralds of another revelation, of a fresh deluge of heavenly light.

Had Joseph Smith—or God—intended the Book of
Mormon to be read and evaluated on its own merits, then Joseph could have
presented it as an ancient text he had simply discovered and translated, as
James McPherson had done with Ossian so successfully just a few years removed.
Or he could have produced a volume of inspired writings and left his audience
to gauge the extent of that inspiration, as would Mary Baker Eddy. He could
even have claimed the second sight, and described civilizations ancient,
exotic, or, like Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual. In any of these cases, the text
itself would have been dissociable from its author and his claims to himself be the
portal to a new gospel dispensation.

But a wealth of data—Smith’s sermons and editorials,
contemporary accounts, early missionary journals—confirm that Joseph was
relentless and adamant in presenting the story of the Book of Mormon’s reception
and translation as the paramount sign of his prophethood, even as he distanced
himself—and potential readers—from what lay between its covers. He
never sermonized from it. He virtually never quoted from it. After its
publication, he never demonstrated intimate knowledge of its content or story
line or themes. It is as if, like a court stenographer, he felt the text flow
through him without ever taking cognizance of it. There is no evidence that he
studied the Book of Mormon, or even read it after its publication (except to
make the most minor of grammatical changes for subsequent editions). Similarly,
early missionaries like William McLellin and John F. Boynton would read to
potential converts the testimonies of the three witnesses, affirming the
reality of the gold plates and Joseph’s prophetic powers of translation, but
they do not indicate they ever employed the text of the Book of Mormon itself
as a basis for discussion, catechism, or conversion.12 During the seven years of the Church’s
Nauvoo period, when Joseph was preaching in public on a regular basis, the hundreds
of recorded pages of his sermons contain only a handful of brief allusions to
the Book of Mormon—and none of them involve sustained discussion of
doctrine or any other content.13

This, then, is the role the Book of Mormon played, and
continues to play, predominantly in the life of the Church it launched. It had
other lives and functions I have not had time to explore. It compelled interest
on the part of nineteenth-century audiences initially because it claimed to
solve the mystery of the ancestry of the American Indians. To restorationists,
it translated the primitive Christianity of the New Testament into language
that was plain and simple and resonated with the newness of American contexts.
For other future converts, it served to distinguish the claims of Mormonism
from a host of kindred newcomers, all crowding the religious landscape.
Ultimately, however, the Book of Mormon was invoked, in logic and language that
persist to the present day, as a sign that pointed outside itself with manifest
authority and convincing materiality to larger events and processes underway.
In summary, the Book of Mormon affirmed the Bible’s status as scripture, even
as it undermined it. For while it testifies to “the gospel of Jesus Christ”
and even prophecies and facilitates its restoration in purity, the Book of
Mormon demolishes the Bible’s monopoly on its articulation.

It opens with a scene steeped in the trappings of biblical
prophets and prophecy, then moves decisively in the direction of a divine
discourse, a dialogic revelation, that is literal, egalitarian, and suggestive,
if not indicative, of a God more passible, accessible, and anthropomorphic than
most contemporary constructs. The Book of Mormon documents Christ’s Palestinian
incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, but it then explodes their sublime
historical uniqueness by reenacting Christ’s ministry and ascension in a New
World setting, suggesting there were others besides (3 Nephi 16:1). It
makes other gestures of radical revisionism I have not had time to explore,
such as affirming Jehovah’s covenants with Israel, even as it specifies the
American continent as a separate “land of promise” and then
chronicles a whole series of portable Zions founded and abandoned in successive

But in its own position as
a third testament, its real burden was to provide a new and compelling genealogy,
not of Christ back to Abraham, or of the human family back to Adam. It attested
to its own provenance, in a chain of authenticity traceable from God’s first
command to Nephi, through a thousand years of providential history, to a
hillside in upstate New York, when a young Joseph Smith resurrected the record
from its stone tomb. Like Herbert’s silken twist let down from heaven, or like
Jacob’s ladder along which angels ascended and descended, the Book of Mormon
serves believers as a concrete conduit that connects them to a divine source,
along which sacred energies flow in both directions. As such, it functions not
just as witness, but as tangible embodiment, of God’s living word, manifest in
the continuing production of scripture through prophets who still walk the


1. A.
S. Hayden, Early
History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve, Ohio
Chase and Hall, 1876), 121.

2. Walt
Whitman, Notebooks
and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts
, ed. Edward F. Grier, 6 vols. (New
York: New York University Press, 1984), 6:2046, 1:353.

3. George
Herbert, “The Pearl,” in The Poems of George Herbert (London:
Oxford, 1961), 79–80.

4. With
these four themes—revelation, Christology, Zion, and
scripture—briefly introduced, each will be examined in more detail to
show how they take the familiar and turn it into a new creation.

5. Emil
Brunner, Our
(New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1954), 11–12.

6. Elizabeth
A. Johnson, She
Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
York: Crossroad, 1992), 7.

7. “Prophecy,”
in The
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A.
Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1336.

8. Abraham
Heschel, The
(New York: Harper and Row, 1962), xviii; emphasis in

9. Campbell
writes, “I would ask [Book of Mormon witnesses Oliver Cowdery, David
Whitmer, and Martin Harris] how they knew that it was God’s voice which they
heard—but they would tell me to ask God in faith. That is, I
must believe it first, and then ask God if it be true!
 . . .
If there was any thing plausible about Smith, I would say to those who believe
him to be a prophet, hear the question which Moses put into the mouth of the
Jews, and his answer to it—’And if thou say in thy heart, How shall we
know the word which the Lord hath not spoken?
‘—Does he answer,
the Lord and he will tell you’?
. . . Nay, indeed.” Alexander
Campbell, “Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon,” Millennial
2 (7 February 1831): 95–96; emphasis in
original. And Craig Blomberg worries that “without some external checks
and balances, it is simply too easy to misinterpret God’s answer when we try to
apply a test like that of Moroni 10:4–5 and ask him to reveal through his
Spirit the truth or falsity of the Book of Mormon.” Craig L. Blomberg and
Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 40.

10. Eusebius, The
History of the Church from Christ to Constantine
, trans. G. A.
Williamson (Middlesex: Dorset, 1983), 3.3, page 41.

11. Sigmund
Freud, Civilization
and Its Discontents
(New York: Norton, 1989), 33.

12. Jan
Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William McLellin,
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 37.

13. Andrew
F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary
Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph
(Orem, UT:
Grandin, 1993).