Positivism and the Priority of Ideology in Mosiah-First Theories of Book of Mormon Production
Positivism and the Priority of Ideology in Mosiah-First Theories of Book of Mormon Production
Reviewed by Alan Goff
Every vision of history functions as a specific lens or optic that a theorist
employs to illuminate some facet of human reality. Each perspective is both
enabling, allowing a strongly focused study, and limiting, preventing consideration
of other perspectives.1
One of the things one learns from the study of history is that such study is
never innocent, ideologically or otherwise.2
Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, writes a wonderful poem about “The
History Teacher.”3 Not wanting to disturb the tender sensibilities of
his students who after school are assaulting and manhandling each other, he
softens the impact of the hard lessons of history. Among other topics, the historian
teaches his students that “the Ice Age was really just / the Chilly Age,”
a time cold enough to require sweaters. The Spanish Inquisition was a period
when people asked searching questions of each other about Spanish culture, such
as the distance to Madrid and the term attached to hats worn by matadors. For
all his students know, the Enola Gay dropped a single microscopic atom on Hiroshima,
and in the Boer War soldiers told each other digressive narratives intending
to make the other side nod off. Though I desire to tell comforting tales to
those learning Mormon history, I’ll have to tell a postmodern story instead:
the old modern ways of organizing history with the belief that the historian
can narrate the past with objectivity, free of all bias and ideology, is equivalent
to telling children that the “War of the Roses took place in a garden.”
Bryan Appleyard laments that scientists take for granted a particular epistemology
without even being aware that the epistemology filters evidence (dismissing
contrary evidence) and favors particular ideologies. When they speak to each
other, they can take for granted that the ideology and epistemology are widely
shared by other scientists. When speaking to a broader public, “they tend
to reveal a startling philosophical naÃ¯veté.”4 Historians,
since the end of the nineteenth century, have attempted to model their discipline
on the sciences; unfortunately, what they mimicked was this shortcoming in scientific
work. That attempt to make history scientific has proven a failure, and in the
last three decades historiography has instead emphasized that history is more
like literature than science. The model of science favored by these scientistic
historians (objective, value-free, free of all ideology and presuppositions)
has largely fallen into disrepute even within the disciplines and philosophy
of science. We should not be too surprised if historians lag behind these theoretical
developments in science and sophisticated historiography; little more should
we be surprised if amateur or self-appointed historians adopt the dominant-but-mistaken
ethos of the discipline. We should not be surprised if professional and amateur
historians also display a naÃ¯veté about textual analysis and understanding
Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe have collected a group of essays about the Book
of Mormon called American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon.
Published by Signature Books, this collection continues an ideological project
from earlier books in Signature Book’s Essays on Mormonism Series (see p. ii);5
this project denies the essential historical claims of Latter-day Saint foundational
events, mostly the historical nature of the Book of Mormon and first vision.
While the editors of these volumes may believe the quaint notion that they have
no ideology but are just doing impartial, unbiased, objective history, readers
ought to realize that this is a myth.
Although the other essays in this volume deserve attention to both their weaknesses
and strengths, I will narrow my focus to Edwin Firmage’s “Historical
Criticism and the Book of Mormon: A Personal Encounter” and Susan Staker’s
“Secret Things, Hidden Things: The Seer Story in the Imaginative Economy
of Joseph Smith.” These essays posit that when Joseph Smith dictated what
they consider his novel or scripture, he encountered a crisis when Martin Harris
lost the first 116 pages of the manuscript. When he resumed, Joseph Smith began
not with those parts of the book placed first in the published volume and chronologically
first in the narrative (1 and 2 Nephi), but with Mosiah through Moroni,
composing the Nephi material last. Since this theory has elsewhere been defended
by Brent Metcalfe, one of the editors of this volume, I will also address one
of his essays in an earlier publication.6
I intend my approach to be contrapuntal; I will contrast the innocence of
these writers about their own ideology with a recent book to underline how an
adequate approach might develop, even among Book of Mormon critics who deny
its historical claims. Huston Smith, in Why Religion Matters, decries
the dominance of positivism (he usually uses the term scientism) in
We have made some progress over the past decade. Book of Mormon revisionists
now rarely claim that they are merely doing objective historical research free
of all bias, preconception, and ideology. These claims were common among Mormon
revisionists just ten years ago. This positivism that claimed to free itself
of all ideology became the dominant assumption of the modern university when
it adopted the German disciplinary model. German universities “were positivistic
to the core, and (because they have retained their place as the model for the
American university) it is important to understand the militant secularism that
is built into the word positivism.”8 Positivists deliberately set out
to debunk religion, so with the collapse of the positivist project in the past
forty years, some examination of the debunking itself needs to be undertaken.
With religious studies and history still dominated by positivism at the level
of the working historian, we should expect those who aspire to be called historians
to also adopt the positivistic ethos.
Positivism commonly provides the worldview of those who deny the Book of Mormon
historical status; this does not mean that all such historians fall under the
category of revisionists, but this view is the dominant strain of history that
emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, just when positivism was being challenged in
philosophy, literary criticism, and historiography. But “worldviews tend to
pass unnoticed,”9 so before examining the textual claims of the Mosiah-first
proponents, we must bring their worldview into focus. Positivism is just one
version of modernity. Built into the modern worldview is what Huston Smith calls
scientism, with two corollaries: (1) the scientific method is
the only valid way to acquire knowledge, and (2) what science examines
(material reality) is the fundamental reality. (These are parodies of science,
so scientism as an ideology is not to be confused with science.)
“These two corollaries are seldom voiced, for once they are brought to attention
it is not difficult to see that they are arbitrary. Unsupported by facts, they
are at best philosophical assumptions and at worst only opinions.”10 These assumptions
are metaphysical presuppositions rather than being based on evidence (for they
must be assumed before the researcher can define what counts as evidence). So
consider the irony that the materialist claims only to deal with a material
reality, precluding all supernaturalism, while making a metaphysical declaration.
If we assume that material reality is the only reality, we have already excluded
religious claims based on divine revelation. The result is that positivists
decide by fiat that any supernatural assertions are false. This is the
circumstance that Smith lays out as a condemnation of today’s university—that
its professors too often begin with the assumption that religion is false.
This habit of assuming that religion is untrue by subscribing to materialism
is common in our universities, and we might also expect it of dilettantes who
lack the credentials that academic degrees and teaching positions bestow:
Such antireligion in American higher education was launched in full force in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries by confident apostles of secularization
who sought to popularize the doctrines of positivism, epistemological foundationalism,
and scientific objectivity. Of course, each of these perspectives has been thoroughly
dissected for decades now by all manner of philosophers, historians, theologians,
and social theorists. The corpse of logical positivism is badly decomposed,
but its ghost still haunts the halls and classrooms of the academy.11
Christian Smith explains this persistent antireligious attitude by referring
to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, which “involves persistent
and deeply internalized mental schemes that correspond to and reinforce particular
social conditions, and that operate prereflectively through human actors.”12
So why are our universities so habitually and uncritically antireligious? Because
so many of their citizens adhere to an unreflective positivism and materialism
“that is no less a matter of faith than is theism.”13
Although explicit assertions that the researcher can obtain objectivity are
seldom made now by Mormon revisionists, you might expect that positivism’s adherents
might make other claims to being ideology-free. As a matter of deeply ingrained
training, you might also expect this positivism to be coupled with an antireligious
approach by those who claim the mantle of scholarship. So when the editors of
American Apocrypha make a sharp distinction between what they do and
what believers in the Book of Mormon do because the latter are “apologists”
for an ideology but the former are not, they have made a positivist assertion;
by asserting that only people who disagree with them are defenders of an ideology,
the editors make the familiar positivist claims from the flip side of the coin.
Vogel and Metcalfe refer six times in the introduction to those who disagree
with them by variants of the words apologist or defender.
This vocabulary assumes that it is possible not to be an apologist for an ideology.
This remnant of positivism still dominates the antireligious fervor in institutions
of higher education. But, as Huston Smith has pointed out, worldviews tend to
be taken for granted.14 The kind of hermeneutical, philosophical, and methodological
analysis required to go beyond the still-dominant cultural positivism is often
too complex to be taught to undergraduates. Even graduate programs often do
not train students in postpositivistic approaches. The instructors in hermeneutical
and methodological courses tend to mirror now-outdated conceptual schemes. But
some graduate students stand a chance of being awakened from their culturally
induced positivist slumbers because they can detour around their positivistic
professors by reading broadly. Those without graduate training in the philosophy
of their disciplines stand little chance of moving beyond positivism.
Vogel and Metcalfe also assert that Book of Mormon “apologists” have advanced
ad hoc arguments. They are referring specifically to discussions of
Book of Mormon geography. “Rather than accept negative evidence,” these critics
claim, “apologists often invent ad hoc hypotheses to protect and maintain a
crumbling central hypothesis. This tactic violates what is called the principle
of parsimony, or Occam’s Razor, which posits that the best hypothesis is the
simplest or the one that makes the fewest assumptions” (p. ix; all internal
references are to American Apocrypha). Vogel and Metcalfe are still
caught in a positivistic historiographical theory, for they do not seem to understand
the role of worldviews and how these generalizations authorize or invalidate
evidence and theories. If I adhere to a worldview that permits supernatural
intervention and you are an apologist for one that denies such actions, my arguments
are always going to feel ad hoc to you. But then, your arguments are going to
sound ad hoc to me also. Vogel and Metcalfe have not considered the possibility
that what we have here is a clash of worldviews rather than a clash of evidence;
the Mosiah-first theories seem ad hoc to me because they deal with the Book
of Mormon without accepting its complexity. Only one Book of Mormon revisionist
has even recognized that Book of Mormon complexity is a problem revisionists
must engage.15 His book is actually a rebuke to the writers of this volume,
who lack the literary critical skills to analyze the Book of Mormon with the
level of subtlety it deserves. The problem is that worldviews are metaphysical
constructs that define what counts as valid support for a position.
Positivism is also manifest by one of the editors of American Apocrypha
when he consistently refers to those “Mormon apologists” who disagree with his
position16 as if they are the only ones involved in the controversy who are
apologists. One of Vogel’s contributions in this book begins with the
word apologists17 and consistently accuses opponents of being defenders. It
does not occur to Vogel that he is himself an apologist for an ideology that
rests on positivism, that being an apologist for an ideology is an inescapable
condition. A similar positivistic claim made by Vogel is that people who disagree
with him use rhetoric, while he just presents the facts. For those who believe
that there were gold plates, physical plates, for the Book of Mormon witnesses
to see and touch, Vogel says “this argument is designed more to persuade than
to enlighten.”18 But Vogel’s argument seems designed the same way. He believes
he can separate the persuasive part of an argument from its evidentiary value.
Yet Vogel’s assertion itself is rhetorical: in his own words, it is “designed
more to persuade than to enlighten.” Only a positivist could believe in the
false binary opposition that separates rhetoric from logic in this way. “Whereas
positivist forms of philosophy and science adhere to the ‘objectivist’ belief
in pure knowledge untainted by theoretical presuppositions or external motivations
and interests, . . . the construction of knowledge is indissociable from various
human interests that serve as motives for action.”19 Vogel seems unaware of
his argument’s rhetorical grounding, particularly of the rhetoric of positivism
to which he appeals. “‘Historical vacuums’ are frequently used for sweeping
condemnations of certain forms of inquiry; I have never seen any historians
attacked for working in a ‘rhetorical vacuum.'”20 To be critical in historiography
today, one must be aware of one’s own ideological and rhetorical commitments.
Jörn Rüsen notes in an interview that historians usually attempt to
avoid any discussion of their own rhetoric because they adhere to a lingering
When traditional historians hear the word “rhetoric” they become
upset. Why? Because they think rhetoric is the contrary of academic rationality;
accepting rhetoric means the contrary of being a good scholar. A good scholar
means: to follow methodological rules of research, to go to the archives, and
to make a good, empirically based interpretation of what happened in the past.
Rhetoric is something different. It is against reason, it is against rationality;
it is just playing around with words. This common opinion of professional historians
is completely wrong.21
The literature on historiography now emphasizes that the ideology and rhetoric
of the historian are probably the most important influences in historical interpretations,
often being more influential than any archival or secondary source evidence.
If this is true, then those who publish with a press such as Signature Books
must recognize that they have an ideology, that their ideology is a dominant
influence in their writing, and that they select through their ideology which
evidence they will see as important or unimportant.
Vogel’s goal in his essay about Book of Mormon witnesses is to deny any
material or naturalistic witness of plates or angels. Following positivists
who believe an event is valid only if it can be demonstrated empirically, he
Despite the use of naturalistic language in the Testimony of Three Witnesses—particularly
the emphasis on seeing the plates with their “eyes” as well as the
failure to mention the angel’s glory—subsequent statements by Harris
and Whitmer point to the visionary aspects of their experience. In other words,
the event was internal and subjective and in the fullest sense a vision.22
While in the very act of accusing Joseph Smith of charlatanry, Vogel conflates
visions with hallucinations to make the straightforward assertion that visionary
experiences do not amount to historical evidence: “The real question is
not the trustworthiness of the witnesses but whether testimony resulting from
visions or hallucinations is reliable.”23 Vogel begins by implying that
rhetoric designed to persuade does not have the same force of knowledge as his
more valid logic. He ends his essay by asserting that only naturalistic, materialistic
experience makes for valid historical evidence. He uses what Best calls a “positivistic
rhetoric,”24 while claiming that only his opponents engage in rhetoric.
“Good historiography requires hermeneutical sensitivity, empathetic and
imaginative reconstruction, and reflexive methodological sophistication,”25
none of which this collection of essays demonstrates.
I have elsewhere pointed out the positivistic assumptions in Brent Metcalfe’s
work.26 Vogel, similar to Metcalfe, is not self-critical and consequently ends
up an uncritical apologist for positivism. Again, positivism is that worldview
that claims it has no worldview, that adheres to a naÃ¯ve realism which
assumes that it reveals the world exactly as it is, free of ideology and rhetoric.
The deeper fact, however, is that to have or not have a worldview is not an
option, for peripheral vision always conditions what we are attending to focally,
and in conceptual “seeing” the periphery has no cutoff. The only
choice we have is to be consciously aware of our worldviews and criticize them
where they need criticizing, or let them work on us unnoticed and acquiesce
to living unexamined lives.27
Because positivism is that ideology prohibiting self-criticism, Vogel and Metcalfe
are not aware that they constitute the evidence from within a positivistic worldview
while denying the validity of competing worldviews.
The positivist worldview denies the supernatural. That denial is not based on
evidence but on presuppositions. Modernity presupposes that material reality
is all there is. Religious belief requires that reality not be exhausted by
a naÃ¯ve materialism. But to claim that materialism is adequate to explain
all of reality is to invoke a metaphysics.28 We must recognize that modernity
is being contradictory here, for to claim that materialism is all there is goes
beyond material claims; it is not itself empirically verifiable.
What is and is not seen to be scientism is itself metaphysically controlled,
for if one believes that the scientific worldview is true, the two appendages
to it that turn it into scientism are not seen to be opinions. (I remind the
reader that the appendages are, first, that science is our best window onto
the world and, second, that matter is the foundation of everything that exists.)
They present themselves as facts. That they are not provable does not count
against them, because they are taken to be self-evident—as plainly so
as the proverbial hand before one’s face.29
Because worldviews are large-scale conceptual structures that shape and misshape
what we permit as evidence for particular theories, “what is taken to
be self-evident depends on one’s worldview, and disputes among worldviews
are . . . unresolvable.”30
This modern worldview, of which positivism is just one subset, is imperialistic;
it insists it is the only valid approach to truth.31 Science, social science,
religious studies, biblical criticism, history—all disciplines have accepted
the modern assertion that religious claims are only metaphorical, out of the
realm of true knowledge which they themselves deliver. In other words, “the
modern university is not agnostic toward religion; it is actively hostile to
it.”32 Since the contributors to American Apocrypha are uncritical
apologists for that version of modernity called positivism, its readers must
be aware of that larger historical background even if its editors are not.
When I first read Brent Metcalfe’s essay positing the Mosiah-first theory,
I was a bit puzzled by its lack of focus. I did not recognize its ideological
implication. Several textual relationships are relevant in the Book of Mormon;
I have elsewhere argued that allusions from the Book of Mormon to the Pentateuch
and the work of the Deuteronomist (Joshua through 2 Kings) are particularly
important.33 Other allusions from one or another Book of Mormon passage to earlier
passages deserve careful attention. These three attempts to support a Mosiah-first
theory bring ideological presuppositions. Firmage notes that “questions
about the Book of Mormon’s origins” cannot yet be answered, but
the uncertainty does not “diminish the certainty of [the] conclusion that
the Book of Mormon is a modern text” (p. 15). If you sneak in a hidden
ideological assumption that Joseph Smith authored a thinly veiled autobiographical
novel, it is hardly surprising that your conclusion will be that the scripture
is a modern novel. Literary critics have long used tools of textual analysis
such as allusion, transumption, intertextuality, and the like to analyze textual
relationships. Rather than employ any of these sophisticated tools, Metcalfe,
Firmage, and Staker use an ad hoc Mosiah-first theory as a shortcut to avoid
the complex textual analysis the text requires.
But, as Metcalfe notes, belief in the Book of Mormon as an ancient text can
survive the Mosiah-first hypothesis. Some believers who have considered the
question of translation sequence do believe in Mosiah-first (John Welch, Royal
Skousen, and Dan Peterson included, according to Metcalfe).34 If you believe
in the Book of Mormon, then you believe there were plates from which Joseph
Smith translated. Therefore, it does not matter if the dictation started from
Mosiah or Nephi, because the book is grounded in those physical records. But
Metcalfe assumes that “intrinsically woven into the Book of Mormon’s
fabric are not only remnants of the peculiar dictation sequence but threads
of authorship. The composite of those elements explored in this essay point
to Smith as the narrative’s chief designer.”35 If you take for granted
that the plates did not exist but that Joseph Smith fabricated a novel out of
his own mind and experiences, then the Mosiah-first theory means that you can
no longer believe in the book as an authentic ancient record. The Mosiah-first
presupposition is not, in itself, doing the ideological work for these three
writers; it is the assumption that Joseph Smith is the work’s novelist.
This argument is obviously circular. Does this fact undercut it? Metcalfe, Firmage,
and Staker never confess that they have not argued for their most crucial assumption:
there were no gold plates. Perhaps, like Sterling McMurrin, these writers would
best state more explicitly their ideological assumption that angels do not deliver
books to boys.36
Metcalfe, Firmage, and Staker have different emphases, but they share a common
ideological framework. Metcalfe, taking for granted an unargued evolutionary
assumption that more complex forms must be chronologically later than what he
considers “primitive” forms, grants the following:
Occasionally the middle section of the book (Mosiah and Alma) displays concepts
which are less well developed than in the initial section (1 Nephi-Omni).
These earlier portions are more congruent with later sections. It is difficult
to explain the more primitive elements in Mosiah and Alma unless one assumes
that Mosiah was the first installment in the Book of Mormon narrative.37
This chronology is crucial for all three of these writers. They use versions
of this theory to establish parallel chronologies between Book of Mormon events
and episodes in Joseph Smith’s life. Besides making assumptions about
textual relationships, these authors assume primitive ideas about the relationship
between literature and reality. These same assumptions appear when journalists
interview novelists and persistently ask how much of the narrative is autobiographical.
If Smith wrote the Book of Mormon as a novel, they cannot conceive of the possibility
that he just made the material up using his own imagination. They fall into
what Mark Thomas sees as a trap: “almost all serious Mormon scholarship
on the book attempts to reconstruct its historical origins, making little or
no effort at interpretation.”38 While Thomas agrees with these revisionists
that the scripture is a modern work of fiction, he still condemns this fixation
on proving origins as hindering a sophisticated literary understanding of the
text. The ideological assumption that Joseph Smith wrote the book as a novel
is almost always coupled with superficial textual analysis. Such an assumption
depends on a dubious theory of fiction while at the same time insisting on the
fictional status of the book: Joseph Smith made the narrative up but couldn’t
actually do so except as he expressed and transformed his own autobiography.
Because Susan Staker articulates more specifically than the other two writers
the parallels between Book of Mormon narrative and Joseph Smith’s life,
her essay most precisely lays out the ideological assumption built into this
project. “Thus the threshold story of Mormonism, the entrance to surviving
portions of the Book of Mormon, is about a man whose plot line mirrors in crucial
ways that of the nineteenth-century man with the seer stone who dictated the
story” (pp. 235-36).
The Mosiah-first theory in the hands of these revisionists depends on a particular
historical development of the Book of Mormon text. After the loss of the 116
pages, Joseph Smith started over at Mosiah. Mosiah, then, has the most primitive
and least developed ideas and knowledge about Christ’s mission and about
doctrine. First and 2 Nephi, being last, are the most complex and developed.
This theory also requires that Joseph Smith not know how the end of the story
(1 and 2 Nephi) is going to develop when he dictated Mosiah, Alma, Mormon,
and similar material:
It is not difficult to explain why prophecies of Jesus in Mosiah and Alma 1-16
evidence no awareness of Nephi’s prophecies of Jesus’ American ministry.
The explanation is simply that during the initial stages of the new 1829 translation
(Mosiah to Alma 16), Joseph Smith himself had not yet conceived the notion of
Christ’s visit to America. The ignorance of Nephi’s prophecies manifested
by the characters in Mosiah and Alma 1-16 reflects the fact that Smith,
the creator-translator, did not yet himself know the turn his narrative was
to take. Nephi’s unambiguous prophecies reflect the fact that they were
translated, or as I would now prefer to say, composed, after the events they
claimed to foretell. (Firmage, pp. 6-7)
I will examine the question of whether the individuals in Alma, Mosiah, Helaman,
and 3 Nephi are not familiar with the material in 1 and 2 Nephi because
“1 Nephi-Words of Mormon proves to be an epilogue to the Book
of Mormon proper not only in terms of order of composition but also in terms
of subject matter” (p. 9).
Staker’s commitment to this theory depends a good deal on the work of
Firmage and Metcalfe. Her essay contains comments on typology or type-scenes
and also some discussion of narrative voice. Her treatment would benefit from
a reading in narrative and literary theory of what critics call focalization.
Staker shows no awareness of the literary tools and concepts that could deepen
her reading of the text. Nor does she show awareness that quite a few readers
have discussed such notions as exodus and Moses typology in the Book of Mormon
and its similarity to biblical typology.
Staker’s position, like that of Firmage and Metcalfe, depends more on
the presupposition that Joseph Smith was the author of a work of autobiographical
fiction than it does on the Mosiah-first thesis. Having smuggled in that assumption,
Staker constructs timelines for both Book of Mormon development and Joseph Smith’s
biography that are mutually dependent. Her chronology is based more on ideology
than on anything else.
Already, the March and April revelations demonstrate the complicated ways the
Book of Mormon narrative and Smith’s own world would mirror and interact
over the course of the spring and summer. Ultimately, the complicated logic
of the seer stories can be traced only when the dictation plot for the spring
and summer of 1829 is expanded to include the chronology of Smith’s work
on both the Book of Mormon and its environing revelations. Indeed, the energy
that drives and structures the complex seer narratives in both the ancient and
modern texts seems derived as much from the problems facing Smith in 1829 as
by problems within the Book of Mormon world. (p. 248)
These are grand claims. She stakes everything on a chronology that places Book
of Mormon events alongside events in upstate New York and Harmony, Pennsylvania.
For example, in April 1829 Staker claims that a revelation about Oliver Cowdery’s
possible translation of records included remarks about “other hidden records
awaiting translation. Arguably, this glimpse into Smith’s future mimes
Mosiah’s story, which includes the discovery of several new records. . . .
Strikingly, Smith enacts this same sub-plot within the frame of his own story
during the time he is dictating Mosiah” (p. 250). Mosiah’s
recovery of actual records is not placed next to Joseph Smith’s recovery
of actual records, for Joseph Smith had possessed the gold plates for many months
before this episode. The parallel does not seem striking to me. (Staker often
refers to her parallels as “striking.”) Any deviation in the Mosiah-first
theory of composition or in the Joseph Smith chronology is going to spell trouble,
for it will throw off her temporal parallels.
If readers were to ask these critics to make their ideological presuppositions
explicit, they would find not only the positivistic and similar modern assumptions
(such as unstated evolutionary models) at work but also the idea that Joseph
Smith had no knowledge of the material later to emerge in 1 and 2 Nephi
when he invented Mosiah-Moroni. At least some novelists must have the
ending in mind from the very start of the writing process, but these three writers
posit the other type of novelist, the kind who goes wherever the narrative leads
with no master plan. I think we can examine this thesis, crucial to all three
writers, to see if applies to the Mosiah-first theory of writing the Book of
Is it plausible to believe that 1 and 2 Nephi were composed last and not believe
in those plates? Looking at passages that refer back to those first two books
might illuminate this question.
The Promise of Prosperity in the Land
A promise first turns up in the Book of Mormon in 1 Nephi 2:20-21: “Inasmuch
as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper and shall be led to a land
of promise. . . . And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they
shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.” This promise was, apparently,
also recorded in the earlier record of Lehi, for the patriarch notes that he
obtained the promise for his descendents (2 Nephi 1:9; in Alma 9:13-14,
Alma also refers to the promise as originating with Lehi). This promise is alluded
to or quoted more than forty times in the Book of Mormon. In a Mosiah-first
Book of Mormon, it would first make its appearance in Mosiah 1:7, 17. Here Benjamin
repeats the covenant by specifically telling his sons that they are “promises
which the Lord made to our fathers” (Mosiah 1:7). The Mosiah-first revisionist
might speculate that these promises really point back to the lost book of Lehi
rather than to 1 and 2 Nephi. But this entire chapter shows fairly detailed
knowledge of the initial rift between the Nephites and the Lamanites (a separation,
by the way, that opened after Lehi’s death and presumably after Lehi’s
record ended), the records and other symbols acquired from Laban, and the Liahona.
If Joseph Smith is just winging it when he later composes the Nephi books, he
will have to incorporate a lot of specific references. The real violence this
theory does to the text is that it requires Smith to remember hundreds of prior
compositions to “allude” back to a story that has not yet been written. If there
really had been gold plates, this Mosiah-first theory would pose no difficulty,
because those plates provide a way to overcome this problem. But since Staker,
Metcalfe, and Firmage presume a priori that the plates did not exist, they must
have some unnecessarily complicated theory to account for such “allusions” and
“quotations.” I would call that an ad hoc theory.
This covenant promise is alluded to or cited ten times in the book of Mosiah.
It comes up prominently again when Alma advises his son Helaman in Alma 36-38.
Two of these citations in chapter 36 envelop a reference to the Lehite exodus
from 1 Nephi. Eleven citations of this promise appear in the book of Alma
and four in Helaman. One would expect this promise to be more primitive in the
earlier parts of the Mosiah-first Book of Mormon. Eleven passages with the promise
are in 1 and 2 Nephi, though I do not find more complex development in
those passages. The bridge books (Jacob-Words of Mormon) contain the promise
twice (Jarom 1:9 and Omni 1:6). The more intuitive, simpler solution to textual
relationships among these citations would cite a promise first made in the text
to Lehi or Nephi. To have the promise come first to Mosiah requires some additional
The Language of the Fathers
When King Benjamin is ready to pass his kingship and records to the next generation,
he calls his sons together. He says of the plates of brass, “Were it not
possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have
taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates . . .”
(Mosiah 1:4), yet this is precisely what these Mosiah-first revisionists insist
Joseph Smith did. He must remember all these hundreds (or perhaps even thousands)
of allusions and then finally include them in 1 and 2 Nephi; the notion
of intertextuality challenges the older notion of allusion in that it does not
care about lines of filiation, that is, which passage came first. These revisionists
are postmodern without knowing it, for they turn the notion of allusion on its
head, having allusions come chronologically before the original passage, the
antitype before the prototype, the reference before the initial iteration.
In this passage from the Book of Mormon, Benjamin specifically names the source—Lehi:
“for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore
he could read these engravings” (Mosiah 1:4). This takes us back to Mosiah
1:2, for Benjamin had taught his sons “in all the language of his fathers,
that thereby they might become men of understanding; and that they might know
concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers.”
It is true that these revisionists might say that these passages allude back
not to a nonexistent 1 Nephi, but to the recently lost book of Lehi. Nevertheless,
Joseph Smith would have to refer back to a text he does not have and would still
have to be relying for these manifold allusions on his own memory; having a
set of plates alleviates this problem because it would then not place the burden
of allusive memory on Joseph Smith but on Mormon or some other writer/editor.
Some adequate explanation will have to be proffered about how Smith was able
to keep all these allusions straight when it came to composing the Nephi books.
Benjamin is here alluding to 1 Nephi 1:2. Mormon is going to allude to
this passage when his turn comes: “we have written this record according
to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian”
(Mormon 9:32). This is not Mormon’s only allusion to this passage from
Nephi. “I began,” he also claims, “to be learned somewhat
after the manner of the learning of my people” (Mormon 1:2). And Mormon
is not the only author to allude to this passage from Nephi. Enos states that
he also was taught by his father, “knowing my father that he was a just
man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition
of the Lord” (Enos 1:1). There from the very end of the Mosiah-first Book
of Mormon, we go to the first of the same volume. Zeniff alludes to the same
passage when he says, “I, Zeniff, having been taught in all the language
of the Nephites” (Mosiah 9:1).
The revisionist could claim that these passages do not really allude to 1 Nephi
1 but to Mosiah 1. But in Mosiah 1 the text already refers back to “the
prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers” (Mosiah
1:2); the very first two verses in the Mosiah-first Book of Mormon (dictated,
according to this theory, on 7 April 1829) already refer to the passage from
1 Nephi (dictated about June 1829). These allusions become a difficult
problem if you assume there were no plates to translate from.
Tree of Life Allusions
The earlier writers in the Mosiah-first Book of Mormon seem to know quite a
bit about the two visions of the tree of life from 1 Nephi. There are many
allusions to the tree of life material later in the scripture. For example,
Alma’s extended metaphor of planting the seed of faith ends by comparing
the fully grown seed to the tree of life (Alma 32:40; see also 32:41 and 33:23).
Alma refers to the fruit as “most precious, which is sweet above all that
is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all
that is pure” (Alma 32:42). This alludes to either Lehi’s description
of the fruit (1 Nephi 8:11) or Nephi’s (1 Nephi 11:8). For these
tree of life allusions, no comparable passage exists in the early part of the
Mosiah-first text to be the original. The only original text must be from 1 Nephi
(or the lost book of Lehi).
Lamoni’s conversion under Ammon’s guidance is framed with vocabulary
from the tree of life visions (Alma 19:6). Similarly, the book of Helaman refers
to “laying hold upon the word of God” (Helaman 3:29), which is wording
from 1 Nephi 8:24 or 1 Nephi 15:24. Such specific knowledge of passages
not yet written poses a problem for the idea that Joseph Smith composed the
Book of Mormon as Firmage, Staker, and Metcalfe want us to believe.
Tree of life allusions are so common throughout the Book of Mormon that to posit
an extensive array of allusions written before the allegory itself complicates
this theory beyond what its ideological foundation will bear. Let me provide
just one more example. When Alma the Younger preaches to the Nephites, he calls
them to repentance by asking a whole series of questions about their spiritual
state. He then frames their return to God in a trope from Nephi and Lehi’s
records: “Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit
of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters
of life freely” (Alma 5:34). He closes his speech to the people at Zarahemla
with a similar figure of speech: “Come and be baptized unto repentance,
that ye also may be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life” (Alma
5:62). It seems overly complicated to posit that a whole web of allusions to
these tree of life images is created first and then later the coherent story
that ties them all together (the word of God is a double-edged blade as it cuts
Miscellaneous Allusions to 1 and 2 Nephi
After breaking with his brothers, Nephi organizes his people and achieves a
level of righteousness they were not able to attain before there were Lamanites
and Nephites. He states that “it came to pass that we lived after the
manner of happiness” (2 Nephi 5:27). This passage is alluded to at
least three times. A later prophet named Nephi engages in nostalgia for that
earlier time: “Oh, that I could have had my days in the days when my father
first came out of the land of Jerusalem, that I could have joyed with him in
the promised land; then were his people easy to be entreated, firm to keep the
commandments of God, and slow to be led to iniquity” (Helaman 7:7). That
level is surpassed later in the Book of Mormon during a time when there was
no contention, lying, murder, adultery, nor revisionists: “and surely
there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created
by the hand of God. There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there
Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites” (4 Nephi 1:16-17). Similarly,
during Moroni’s day, the passage explicitly quotes the promises made to
the fathers: “they shall be blessed, inasmuch as they shall keep my commandments
they shall prosper in the land. But remember, inasmuch as they will not keep
my commandments they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord” (Alma
50:20). Intervening verses note that the promise has been verified. Then the
narrator notes, “behold there never was a happier time among the people
of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni” (Alma 50:23).
Similarly, when a group of Nephites severs their connection to the Nephite tradition
by marking their foreheads (Alma 3:4), this reminds the narrator (Mormon) of
how the Lamanites were first marked off from the Nephites (Alma 3:6-9). For
Mormon, this marking is not a matter of race or descent but of adherence to
different traditions (Alma 3:11). Mormon then explicitly refers to 2 Nephi
Thus the word of God is fulfilled, for these are the words which he said to
Nephi: Behold, the Lamanites have I cursed, and I will set a mark on them that
they and their seed may be separated from thee and thy seed, from this time
henceforth and forever, except they repent of their wickedness and turn to me
that I may have mercy upon them. And again: I will set a mark upon him that
mingleth his seed with thy brethren, that they may be cursed also. And again:
I will set a mark upon him that fighteth against thee and thy seed. And again,
I say he that departeth from thee shall no more be called thy seed; and I will
bless thee, and whomsoever shall be called thy seed, henceforth and forever;
and these were the promises of the Lord unto Nephi and to his seed. (Alma 3:14-17)
The passage Mormon cites is 2 Nephi 5:21-24, but notice that the wording
in that passage differs considerably from Mormon’s though the source text
And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because
of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that
they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly
fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord
did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. And thus saith the Lord God:
I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent
of their iniquities. And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their
seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake
it, and it was done. (2 Nephi 5:21-23)
This is very specific information that Mormon knows about Nephi’s narrative
and writings. If the Alma passage were written prior to the 2 Nephi passage,
then Joseph Smith not only would have had to remember to pen the Nephi text
without being able to refer back to the other passage but would also have had
to build the specific reference to Nephi as the original source long before
Nephi became the original source. All of this Joseph Smith would have to do
without being able to refer to notes39 while composing at a rate of thirty-five
hundred words a day.40
Richard Rust has pointed out that we have yet much work ahead of us before we
begin to appreciate how often the Book of Mormon alludes to itself. None of
this work has been done by revisionists because they have no ideological interest
in doing so; they, in fact, have an ideological interest in making the textual
elements in the scripture as simple as their own reading of it. Rust points
to one passage from 3 Nephi that refers to one of the first chapters in
the Book of Mormon: the church was eclipsed by the wickedness of the people
“in all the land save it were among a few of the Lamanites who were converted
unto the true faith; and they would not depart from it, for they were firm,
and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments
of the Lord” (3 Nephi 6:14). This passage fulfills Lehi’s oldest
yearning for his son Lemuel, who is promised in the valley named after him that
if he would be “like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable
in keeping the commandments of the Lord,” he would be blessed (1 Nephi
2:10).41 Rust doesn’t note another passage that alludes to this same material.
Like the passage from 3 Nephi, Helaman 15 comments on the Lamanites who
were more righteous than their contemporary Nephite brethren (it is, after all,
Samuel the Lamanite speaking). The prophet then cites the Lamanites as an example
to the Nephites for “as many as have come to this, ye know of yourselves
are firm and steadfast in the faith, and the thing wherewith they have been
made free” (Helaman 15:8). The textual elements that include allusion
are too complex for revisionist readers to even mention or notice. The possibility
of complex intertextual relationships is opened up (made possible) by the believer’s
ideological commitment to finding a rich and rewarding text; the same possibility
is foreclosed by the revisionist’s commitment to any old ad hoc explanation
that will do the ideological work of dismissing the Book of Mormon as an ancient
I have mentioned only a few allusions to show the difficulties faced by Mosiah-first
revisionists. The examples given are sufficient to raise an issue: if you propose
a theory of textual development that has such counterintuitive results as to
require a writer to allude to a passage before he has even composed that passage,
more convincing evidence is called for than has been produced so far. The evidence
ought to rely less on the ideological assumptions that there were no gold plates
and that Joseph Smith composed a modern novel.
Firmage notes in a brief autobiographical section of his essay how he came
to believe no longer in the Book of Mormon and the church (see p. 13).
This narrative form is common enough among Mormon intellectuals who have left
orthodox belief that we ought to call it the conversion-to-modernity type-scene.
“I have often thought that what happened to me in Berkeley was fundamentally
a conversion or, if you like, an anti-conversion” (p. 2). Conversion
is the right word, for not only did Firmage shift from believing the restored
gospel, he adopted another form of religious belief—in modernity. For the sake
of convenience, I call this religion the Church of Humanity, named after the
positivistic church founded by Auguste Comte as a substitute for Christianity.
Modernity is like a religion; it is an encompassing worldview that restructures
the believer’s frame of reference; it has its own ordinances and community (symposia
instead of church attendance, sacramental publications rather than bread and
water, testimonial panels at MHA meetings instead of church meetings, doctrines
such as materialism rather than the atonement, and heretics who are college-educated
yet still believers in Mormon claims). It also has a built-in logic of exclusion
that from the outset declares competing faiths deficient; it claims to be the
one-and-only true way to truth. Most importantly, it also requires a leap of
faith, too often a leap that its adherents take uncritically. The version of
modernity that has dominated intellectual culture over the past century is positivism.
Positivism by its very definition denies validity to religious belief, restricting
religion to the infancy of human development. Positivism privileges its positions
over religion in ways that we now recognize as illegitimate. Positivism is not
what it claims for itself, though its acolytes do not consider the possibility
that postmodern thought has undermined its central claims.
So while the editors of American Apocrypha, most of its contributors,
and the editorial leadership at Signature Books are positivists who misunderstand
the nature of historical writing, it does little good for people like me to
sit at the last-stop gas station as the Signature stable of writers drive on
up the road. I have been saying for more than a decade as they fuel up, “You
know, that road you are on is a dead end that leads directly into the base of
a cliff in a blind canyon; if you won’t try another road, at least buckle up
and drive slowly around that last bend.” They then gun their engines and peel
out of the gas station. Positivist historiography has exhausted itself and the
New Mormon History will have to be reconfigured without positivism as its foundation.
The shift will bring with it wrenching adjustments, but it cannot be avoided
for the difficulty it requires.
The movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail is set in medieval England,
ad 932. Part of the humor is supplied by the bevy of anachronisms. One of my
favorites occurs at the beginning of the film when King Arthur rides up to a
castle and asks two peasants to whom the castle belongs. The peasants take umbrage
at the claim that he is their king or that they must have a lord, for they assert
they live in a state of anarchy with a rotating executive selected weekly. The
exchange rings with abundant Marxist language of domination, oppression, and
a “self-perpetuating aristocracy” that takes advantage of the working class.
Asked for the source of his own claim to be king, Arthur tells the tale of the
Lady of the Lake and Excalibur. One peasant responds to this narrative with
derision because for him “supreme executive power derives from a mandate from
the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” To hear the peasant asserting
these ideas that weren’t minted until the modern period is to see the timeframe
get jumbled. Brent Metcalfe, Susan Staker, and Edwin Firmage have a similar
problem to overcome in their assertion that Joseph Smith wrote a novel that
started with King Benjamin’s speech; just as the peasant cites Marxists long
before there were any, these revisionists have the Book of Mormon presenting
complex and multiple passages long before they were written. If only their ideologically
inspired narrative were as humorous, the new crop of Mormon film directors would
soon be taking a movie into production about the pursuit of the positivist grail.
- Steven Best, The Politics of Historical Vision: Marx, Foucault, Habermas
(New York: Guilford, 1995), 255.
- Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical
Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 82.
- Billy Collins, “The History Teacher,” in Sailing Alone around the Room:
New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2001), 38.
- Bryan Appleyard, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of
Modern Man (New York: Doubleday, 1992), xv.
- The Essays on Mormonism Series includes Gary J. Bergera, ed., Line
upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine (1989); Dan Vogel, ed., The
Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (1990); D. Michael Quinn, ed.,
The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (1992); and
Bryan Waterman, ed., The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph
Smith (1999). Another book in that series, George D. Smith, ed., Faithful
History: Essays on Writing Mormon History (1992), collects essays from
a couple of different ideological perspectives.
- Brent Lee Metcalfe, “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon
Exegesis,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical
Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books,
- Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in
an Age of Disbelief (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
- Ibid., 97.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 60.
- Christian Smith, “Force of Habit: Hostility and Condescension toward Religion
in the University,” Books and Culture 8/5 (2002): 20.
- Ibid., 21.
- H. Smith, Why Religion Matters, 48.
- Mark Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), admits that the Book of Mormon is
sophisticated but makes only halting steps to examine that erudite and elusive
- Dan Vogel, “Echoes of Anti-Masonry: A Rejoinder to Critics of the Anti-Masonic
Thesis,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed.
Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002),
275-320; see especially his introduction and conclusion. All of Brent Metcalfe’s
writing uses the same terminology.
- Dan Vogel, “The Validity of the Witnesses’ Testimonies,” in American
- Best, Politics of Historical Vision, 153.
- Hans Kellner, Historical Language and Historical Representation: Getting
the Story Crooked (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 122.
- Ewa Domanska, Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism
(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 151.
Vogel, “Validity of the Witnesses’ Testimonies,” 86. See
page 97 for a similar statement regarding the Testimony of Eight Witnesses.
- Ibid., 108.
- Best, Politics of Historical Vision, 237.
- See Alan Goff, “Historical Narrative, Literary Narrative,” Journal
of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996): 50-102; and Alan Goff, “Uncritical
Theory and Thin Description: The Resistance to History,” Review of Books
on the Book of Mormon 7/1 (1995): 170-207.
- H. Smith, Why Religion Matters, 21.
- Ibid., 42.
- Ibid., 64.
- Ibid., 69.
- Ibid., 96.
- Alan Goff, “Scratching the Surface of Book of Mormon Narrative,” FARMS
Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 51-82.
- Metcalfe, “Priority of Mosiah,” 396-99. John Welch and Tim Rathbone endorse
the Mosiah-first theory in the FARMS Update collected in Reexploring
the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo,
UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 3.
- Metcalfe, “Priority of Mosiah,” 433.
- Blake Ostler, “An Interview with Sterling M. McMurrin,” Dialogue
17/1 (1984): 25.
- Metcalfe, “Priority of Mosiah,” 415-16.
- Thomas, Digging in Cumorah, viii.
- Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That
Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002),
- Ibid., 37.
- Richard Dilworth Rust, “Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon,”
FARMS Review of Books 14/1-2 (2002): 89.