The Canonization of the Book of Mormon?

Penguin Books has just published a “Penguin Classics” edition of the Book of Mormon edited by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp. Penguin Classics, of course, are the paperback editions of literary staples like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. They are printed and marketed largely as texts for college classes. The assumption is that a text included in the Penguin series has become a stable part of the high-brow diet of books, or at least ought to be. It is worth reflecting a little bit about what this edition of the Book of Mormon might or might not mean.

The Penguin book itself is based on the 1840 edition of the text rather than our current edition of the scriptures. The text was chosen because this was the last version that Joseph Smith was personally involved in editing. Also strictly speaking there is no standard 1830 version of the text for the simple reason that Grandin edited the book as he was printing it, with the result that different copies of the 1830 edition contain different versions of the text. Our current edition, in contrast, contains an elaborate set of interpretive aids that were added long after Joseph was murdered. Hence, the Penguin edition is printed without versification or the current chapter breaks, both of which were added in Utah by Orson Pratt. Rather, it is printed as regular prose – much like a novel – with the original chapter breaks, which were much longer than our current chapters. The Penguin edition retains the colophons that were in the 1840 edition of the text, but does not contain any of the chapter headings that are part of current LDS editions. I actually think that reading the text in its original format is a useful way of escaping the framing that the textual apparatus of current church editions imposes, as well as providing a better guide to the underlying structure of the narratives, as broken up by the original chapters. Previously the only way of doing this was by either getting a facsimile copy of the 1830 edition or else by using Grant Hardy’s expensive reader’s edition. The Penguin Classics version will provide a convenient and low price way of reading the Book of Mormon in its original textual format.

Maffly-Kip’s introduction is one of the more interesting things about this edition. For those unfamiliar with her, Maffly-Kip is a non-Mormon religious studies professor at UNC, who for the last several years has been teaching a course of Mormonism. Her introduction is fascinating for how it tries to situate the Book of Mormon. Most of it is taken up with telling the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as given by Joseph Smith and his associates. She then provides a brief summary of how the text is used today by Latter-day Saints and members of the Community of Christ. It is a compact and elegant survey, but nothing that she has to say here will be much of a surprise to Mormons. The more interesting part of the introduction comes at the end. She writes:

Like all books that spur the imagination, the Book of Mormon presents new ways of viewing the world. Believers from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries continue to take it as divine truth. But whether one accepts this judgment or prefers to read the text as an inventive exercise in time travel that allows one to reflect differently on the present era (as in reading Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, for instance), the Book of Mormon gestures to a remarkably complex layering of human civilizations, historical records, and editorial tasks.

She offers two suggestions in terms of interpretative approaches. The first is to focus on the intertextuality of the Book of Mormon and the Bible. The Book of Mormon obviously quotes extensively from the Bible, as well as employing a host of biblical tropes and story forms. “This intertextuality,” she writes, “offers the motivated reader a way to read between the two books and in doing so, provides an excellent example of the ways books come to be understood as ‘scripture.’” Her second suggestion is for “[t]hose who read the text as a work emerging from the imagination of Joseph Smith himself.” For these readers, she suggests that the Book of Mormon might be seen as an ingenious exercise in making new meaning in a new landscape, in reshaping the world by placing oneself, and one’s family and friends, in a world charged with sacred meaning and divine inspiration.”

Maffly-Kipp’s introduction is part of a larger struggle by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars to understand the place of the Book of Mormon in intellectual discussions. Paradoxically, the Book of Mormon suffers from both a super abundance of canonicity and a dearth of it. Among believers, of course, it occupies a hallowed place beside the Bible as a repository of Holy Writ. To Latter-day Saints, however, the Book of Mormon is also canonical in the sense that we have quasi-ritualized readings. In short, we proof text or read particular stories – say Alma 32 or the missionary stories of the Sons of Mosiah – in isolation and according to very conventional patterns. In contrast, the complex totality the book’s narratives are seldom given a rigorous exegesis. Among non-believers, of course, the Book of Mormon is not scripture, but it is (as of yet?) also non-canonical in the broader sense of the term. The Qua’ran and the New Testament are not considered scripture by the non-Muslim or the non-Christian, but they are recognized as texts having a heft worthy of the interest of an intelligent mind. They are thus canonical in the sense that War and Peace, Emerson, Whitman, or The Federalist are canonical. The Book of Mormon in contrast remains a book that few non-Mormons would consider reading. In part this is no doubt linked to the fantastic claims made about its origins, and in part it stems from the marginal status of Latter-day Saints. Even Harold Bloom, an immensely sympathetic interpreter of Joseph Smith, concludes that there is no call for even a student of American religion to actually read the Book of Mormon. The result is that the non-Mormon is likely to accept Mark Twain’s quip that the book is “chloroform in print” and turn her attention elsewhere. There is thus an important sense in which the paradoxical status of the Book of Mormon’s canonicity tends to foreclose a careful reading of it.

There are developments, such as the nascent flowering of serious interpretative — as opposed to purely apologetic — LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon, that suggest that this state of affairs might change. The Penguin Classic’s edition of the Book of Mormon may be part of this, but in order for the book to make its way firmly into the canon we are first going to need to come up with a much richer set of interpretations for the text than we have hitherto offered. I wonder what other avenues we might take other than the two offered by Maffly-Kipp. One possibility is comparative. For example, Jared Hickman, who was recently hired at Johns Hopkins University is a master of seeing how the Book of Mormon and other LDS texts — most notably the sermons of Joseph Smith — can be brought into dialogue with other texts, such as the canonical works of American pragmatism. Any other suggestions?

29 comments for “The Canonization of the Book of Mormon?

  1. Nate,

    Excellent post. Thanks.

    Did you once link to a paper by Jared Hickman on race and ethnicity in the Book of Mormon? I have a recollection of such a paper, but cannot find it on the internet.

  2. I truly wish the Church would come out with scriptures in paragraph form rather than verse form. Many Bible now do this with ticks or superscripted numbers to identify verses. This makes reading them so much better. I’d love this to be done with the BoM and D&C.

  3. I truly wish the Church would come out with scriptures in paragraph form rather than verse form. Many Bible now do this with ticks or superscripted numbers to identify verses. This makes reading them so much better. I’d love this to be done with the BoM and D&C.

  4. In regards to this post, check out this course description of a class being offered next year at the University of Texas – Austin:

    “E 395M – American Lives of the Word”

    relevant portions of the description:

    In particular, we will focus on the words and works, and on the unlikely careers and constituencies, of three controversial and consequential representatives–perhaps even patriarchs–of American intellectual, religious, and radical political vocation: poet, philosopher, and lecture circuit professional Ralph Waldo Emerson; Joseph Smith, founder and prophet of the Church of the Latter Day Saints; and “race traitor” and militant abolitionist John Brown . . .Primary readings will include letters, essays, sermons, and personal narratives by Emerson, Smith, and Brown, as well as writings by some of their associates and disciples, and sections of The Book of Mormon.

    I’d take this class if I could, but I’m going to (most likely) be defending the dissertation that semester.

    Maybe I’ll sit in on the classes that discuss Joseph Smith at report over at M*. If I have the time.

  5. Re #8:

    It doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence in the instructor’s ability to fairly and accurately present the life of Joseph Smith when the name of the church is wrong in the description . . .

  6. This reader’s version of the Book of Mormon from Signature, consists of seven small volumes, each with its own introduction (contributors include Claudia Bushman and Linda Hoffman Kimball). I picked up a set at the MHA conference. I was surprised by the difference it made not to have the text broken up into numbererd verses. Also these small volumes are easy to carry and great for reading on the bus or subway.

    The Reader’s Book of Mormon
    boxed set of seven paperback volumes
    1,048 pages / 978-1-56085-175-2 / $40.00

    There are many ways to approach scripture. At times we search the sacred narratives for doctrinal understanding or theological insights. Other times we might be interested in historical, cultural, and linguistic issues. Another, more common, approach is to see ourselves in the narrative stories and interpret them based on our own personal journeys and intellectual and spiritual background—to draw lessons for our own lives.

    With this in mind, literature and Mormon Studies scholars Robert A. Rees (UCLA) and the late Eugene England (BYU) asked prominent LDS writers to offer their own personal views on the Book of Mormon, followed by the scriptural text itself. Their insights should enhance the enjoyment and understanding of all readers. The text reprinted in this series comes from the first edition (1830) and retains its nineteenth-century usage; although a few glaring typesetting flaws have been corrected, no attempt has been made to regularize grammar and spelling. This should make reading the Book of Mormon a new adventure, hopefully full of possibilities for deeper insights into the layers of meaning and messages contained therein.

    The contributors are Claudia L. Bushman, Susan Elizabeth Howe, Linda Hoffman Kimball, Douglas Thayer, Steven Walker, and William A. Wilson.

  7. mpj: I’d forgotten about the Signature edition, which I remember seeing awhille back. It is very cool, and I remember thinking that the introduction that I read — by Claudia Bushman — was very good.

  8. A very sensitive, sensible review . . . Thank you.

    The “Penguin Classics” Book of Mormon is a significant moment in the history of publioushing for the “Mormon” Church, and for two reasons:

    The first and foremost (and most obvious) reason is that this edition raises the status of the book to a certain literary standard and intellectual respectability. Harold Bloom, for instance, writes in Jesus and Yahweh:

    “As for the relevance of the aesthetic to the issue of the conflict between sacred texts, I doubt finally that much else is relevant to a strong reader who is not dominated by extraliterary persuasions and convictions. Reading The Book of Mormon, for instance, is a difficult aesthetic experience, and I would grant that not much in the New Testament subjects me to rigors of quite that range” (87).

    Which inevitably leads into the second reason why this publication is so significant: it structurally aligns (maligns?) the Book of Mormon with the wider world of literature. You’ve all heard of the “Bible as literature”—now how do you feel about the “Book of Mormon as literature”? Are not Latter-day Saints, as Harold Bloom puts it, “dominated by extraliterary persuasions and convictions”?

    I personally see this Penguin Classic as a double-edged sword: yes, another advance; and yet another historic defeat for the “Mormon” Church.

  9. MJP, the problem with 7 (!) volumes for the Book of Mormon is that they aren’t too good for reading in Church.

    Actually truth be told I no longer even own a pair of scriptures. I’m completely internet bound and use my iPhone for reading my scriptures, reading my lesson, and following along in SS or PH. I’m much happier now. Plus when there is a surprise lesson on some conference talk I’m one of the few people who can actually follow along!

    What I wish for is a paragraph based BoM, D&C and PoGP that is easy to read on my iPhone.

  10. Mika, I think that’s a pretty interesting point. One thing that I think we as Mormons ought do more of is focus on the Book of Mormon as literature. There’s very little written on this beyond Richard Rust’s Feasting Upon the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon largely compiled from the series he did for AML back in its heyday. We need a lot more like that.

    It’s hard for folks to take the Book of Mormon seriously as literature if there isn’t some guide for them to see. Personally as literature I’d take it over most of the NT.

  11. I’m happy with whatever gets people to read my favorite book (the Book of Mormon), but I suspect that the intended target is Latter-Day Saints. It is interesting comparing the offerings at Barnes & Noble bookstores in areas with relatively large LDS populations (Mesa, Arizona) and areas with small populations (Tucson, Arizona). I love reading the Book of Mormon as it is, but a new format without verses is interesting. Maybe I have found a new Christmas present for myself.

    We had an all day Book of Mormon read-a-thon once on my mission with the goal of reading the entire book in under 10 hours. It was great! We met as zones of missionaries in a centrally located church house and shared meals. The mission president, who had done one of these before, suggested that we use an ATM card to help us focus on the text so that we could read or skim about 1 page a minute. I can read pretty fast naturally, but this helped a lot as it is more natural to stop and ponder as you go. By the time I got halfway through Alma I was very impressed with the structure of the Book of Mormon. The current chapter divisions, while convenient for reading, are not the natural ones. It is very carefully composed of thematic sections, most of which are several chapters long (Alma 30 is clearly an independent section in itself). I suppose that this should be obvious, but Mormon (or the Lord Himself) carefully uses the spiritual history of the Book of Mormon peoples to teach and spiritually strengthen us. Recounting history is not his central purpose, it is teaching the gospel in a (relatively) easily digested form.

  12. Nate, I am a fan of yours. Great post.

    I think that there is some value in considering the book of Mormon in light of how it presents and then overturns ideas. This is a consistent theme used throughout the book. Each of the Anti-Christ presents a doctrine which the text subsequently overturns. Racism is another example. The book puts forth a negative racial message, which it then overturns later. What we commonly refer to as the “pride cycle” may be another overarching example of this, as we find in Christ’s visit to the land Bountiful a temporary subversion of the otherwise frequently-presented idea of wealth being a consistently corrupting influence. This is just one simplistic approach, perhaps there is room for us to consider the Book of Mormon text from the perspective of literary analysis. Maybe there could be comparative analysis of ancient epic texts (or books based off of them, or written) in which the BOM could be included with value.

    There are certainly countless unexplored frontiers.

  13. Re #9 If I vaguely remember right, wasn’t it true that before its compound name was formalized, the early LDS Church called either the Church of Latter Day Saints — with there being no hyphenation yet — or Church of Jesus Christ?

  14. Anything that increases the number of people who actually read the Book of Mormon is good. Some of them will recognize a “familiar spirit”.

  15. I like to sometimes read the small plates: 1st Nephi through Omni as the creation of a founding myth for a new nation. It certainly causes 2nd Nephi to become much more understandable.

    I then like to read the large plates: Mosiah through Mormon as a classical history, and draw comparisons with Levy, Tacitus, and Thucydides.

  16. I’m poor at literary analysis – I tend to let the story take me with it and participate in the emotions of the people that a book tells about. I have for some time tried to read the BofM without taking notion of the chapters and verses, trying to find out the original narrative. (Citing chapter and verse is, of course, a handy way of referring to a certain part.)

    I think I have found Mormon’s editing more meaningful that way.

    OTOH, we have a Bible monopoly in the local language that publishes a paragraph version of the Bible (with verse numbers in superscript notated within the text). The paragraphs are based on a certain Protestant interpretation of the text, and it breaks some significant ideas into separate stories that are intact in the original chapters. Thankfully in English you have a bunch of different Bible texts available, and I think the BofM could benefit from being published and read in different forms that are widely available.

  17. I can’t understand why anyone would think this might be a serious detraction of any sort. I think it’s a wonderful thing, and hope for a day when the Book of Mormon floods the earth in all its incarnations: literature, music, film, television, radio, comic book, you name it.

  18. Nate,

    As Latter-day Saints, we have not always been very good at reading the Book of Mormon in an integrated, comprehensive fashion. As a result it has been difficult to communicate to outsiders the aesthetic and intellectual qualities of a text with a convoluted narrative, a large number of strangely-named characters, and a repetitive, sometimes awkward style. I have long argued that what is needed is not simply more articles in LDS publications that focus on particular verses or themes, but rather a general introduction that is well-written enough to be published by a university press, in much the way that academic introductions exist for the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, or various Buddhist scriptures. Actually, I have done more than just suggest such an approach; I have written a manuscript of about 400 pages that is currently under review at a major press. The business of publishing is complicated and I’m not sure exactly where this project will end up, but I did want to give it a try.

    The manuscript is a literary study of the Book of Mormon that is focused on the three major narrators–Nephi, Mormon, and Moronic. When I edited the Reader’s Edition, I was surprised at how highlighting the structure of the book brought its narrators to the forefront. These men obviously share a similar prophetic perspective, but they are also individuals with distinct editorial methods, inclinations, and agendas. Watching them shape their source material is an engaging way to analyze and interpret the Book of Mormon, regardless of whether one views these men as ancient prophets or as literary creations of Joseph Smith. I am a bit wary of “Book of Mormon as literature” label though, because in biblical usage that approach can sometimes mean “reading the text but disregarding its religious message.” The Book of Mormon is a much more integrated, controlled text than the Bible, and any analysis of how the book operates will naturally center on its spiritual meaning. At the same time, an introduction aimed at a non-Mormon audience will need to explain rather than proselytize. Within the next couple of years, you should have a chance to read and critique my efforts. I’m hoping this monograph will make it possible to speak more accurately and insightfully about the Book of Mormon as a whole, in a way that crosses religious divides.

  19. A friend of mine published his own take on a \”Reader\’s Book of Mormon\” that still uses the current text. He\’s taken all verses and chapter breaks out and attempted to break the text into more modern paragraphs.

    There\’s a free pdf there if you\’re curious about his take on the text.

    It is such a different book when read without stumbling blocks of verses, chapters, etc. Usually when I would sit down to read the BoM, I\’d be lucky to last through a chapter. When I first sat down with this reader\’s edition I just read for enjoyment and was well into 1 Nephi without even realizing it.

  20. Ivan (8):

    You didn’t mention it, so I looked it up and learned that the course you mentioned is taught by Evan B. Carton, who has been on the faculty at UT Austin since 1978. The recent publications list here doesn’t indicate anything that would betray an interest in Mormonism.

    Perhaps he simply thinks that Joseph Smith’s writings fit the course and are an important enough example of the period he is covering to justify inclusion.

    (Boy, I’m an optimist – GRIN)

  21. I would like to obtain a copy of the BoM in gold-plate format–or possibly even mixed brass- and gold-plate. Can anyone here help me?

  22. I’m a student of world religions & scriptures and for years found the BOM unworthy of the smallest consideration. I tried several times to read it & was convinced even more that it was just plain nonsense.

    But around 2 years ago, I decided to take on the Zen mind and try it again, erasing my mind of all prejudices. I decided to soften my high-minded hard heart, see with eyes of a child, as the BOM would say. Finally, it dawned on me. The BOM’s “silliness” is its literary and spiritual genius – the genius of “the stone the builders rejected”. It is the genius of the Tao, which presents itself as insignicant, behind, foolish. I know now, when I read it, that it is destined to not only be a Penguin Classic, but to be recognized world-wide among the highest of literature.

    However, like the Bible & other world scriptures, it is guarded & published by a religious institution that is blind to its truths, making it even more difficult to consider. But that’s also part of its genius. Perhaps Penguin is breaking the BOM from an institutional church so the world can finally hear it.

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