Book of Mormon historical revisionism

As we study the Book of Mormon next year, there will be suggestions to read between the lines, to resist the surface or official or dominant reading, to see through the authoritative narrative to the unvarnished reality behind it – like the standard works, these suggestions too come around every four years. The instinct is understandable, as that’s how scholars are trained to read, and a lot of us have different varieties of scholarly training – but attempts at historical revisionism are misguided.

There is, first of all, the dubious chain of logic that holds that

  • God lives, and
  • he speaks today to living prophets
  • to translate the records of ancient prophets who knew Jesus and saw our day –
  • so that people with graduate degrees can, on the basis of scant historical evidence, overturn the teachings of those ancient prophets as the ideology of the oppressors.

As a way for God to reveal his will to his children, that seems counterintuitive, and the importance of the first three points would seem to far outstrip that of the last in any case. If God lives and talks to living prophets to reveal the writings of ancient prophets who knew Jesus, that seems like something that should be brought to people’s attention with great urgency, rather than scouring the text for reasons to resist the ancient prophets’ message. (If you prefer an “inspired fiction” account of the Book of Mormon, the whole exercise seems impossible, as there would be no historical reality for the skillful reader to uncover, and the importance of the first two points would still be overwhelming in any case.)

I think the Book of Mormon does emerge from an actual historical environment with all the complexity and contradictions of real life, and sometimes we catch glimpses of them in the text (why are the Zoramites’ prayer towers bad while Nephi’s prayer tower is good, and what’s everyone doing with a prayer tower anyway?) – but the  number of possible histories that might create the text and explain its contradictions is limitless, and the one correct version is beyond our ability to reconstruct. We may as well speculate about a painting’s use of line and color based on the shadow the canvas casts on the wall behind it. (To be fair, I also think that efforts to precisely situate the Book of Mormon in pre-Columbian geography and history are similarly doomed to remain interesting speculation at best; on the other hand, those efforts generally don’t attempt to overturn the teachings of the Nephite prophets.)

One might protest that the Nephites were flawed and we need to uncover these flaws, but the Book of Mormon openly states as much and is quite clear about the mistakes we should avoid repeating: lying, deceit, whoredoms, secret abominations, idolatry, murder, priestcraft, envying, strife, etc.

The methods available in the toolkit of scholarly inquiry are numerous and powerful, and it’s certainly possible to construct a revisionist account of Nephite history. And a sweeping reinterpretation of Nephite history based on limited evidence has its attractions – I quite like the idea that “Mulekite” is a category that allowed indigenous people to be brought within the Nephite-Lamanite narrative. But we can’t use unverifiable speculation to undermine the emphatic and repeated teachings of numerous prophets.

Laman and Lemuel undoubtedly had good reasons for their grievances, and every perspective is legitimate to those who share it, and isn’t it possible that Laman and Lemuel were more fun to hang out with than a dour stick-in-the-mud like Nephi? The problem with counter-normative readings of scripture is that at the end of the process, one may no longer a Latter-day Saint in any meaningful sense.

13 comments for “Book of Mormon historical revisionism

  1. A thousand times, yes.

    There’s one particular “revisionist” reading, for example, that really pisses me off, and I will die on this hill if I have to.

    Sure, Laman and Lemuel probably weren’t 100% evil. But one particular scholar not only tried to justify their grievances, but even went so far as to claim they weren’t that bad because they never killed anyone.

    Only someone unacquainted with violence and living in a comfortable ivory tower could make that claim.

    If you have ever been on the end of a severe, violent beatdown “well, at least they didn’t kill me” is not exactly comforting or excusing.

    Try telling that to battered wives: “Well, he likely had real grievances and – hey – he never actually killed you!”

    I’m guessing Nephi would find that line of reasoning quite evil. As do I.

  2. Scholars will always give their opinion, one is free to consider their comment or not, but clearly in terms of doctrine and interpretation of the scriptures they will never have the validity of the prophets and in particular the president of the Church. A pro-church scholar understands this and although from their interpretation one can see that they recognize that their statements are speculative.
    I find your opinion interesting. The thing is that in the context of 600BC, some disagreements were settled through quite violent means.

  3. The problem with normative readings of scripture is that the normative reading is typically an original or early reading of that scripture. In the case of the Book of Mormon, the normative reading is merely the first impressions of those who really had very little perspective, very little education, very little understanding of the place of the BOM within an emerging religion, and very little appreciation for how certain stories would be applied over coming decades. If we are to take seriously the BOM as history (in whatever way we want to define that), shouldn’t we take it as seriously as other works of history? If we just wash that complexity and nuance away by insisting that it was written by and translated by prophets (so the flaws don’t matter and discrepancies and bias from the writers were smoothed over), then what’s the point of even thinking of it as a history? Why even engage with it as a history instead of, rather, a book of parables and proverbs? Any new scholarship becomes counter-normative. And the end of that process isn’t inevitably that one is “no longer a Latter-day Saint in any meaningful sense.” If anything, we may become Latter-Day Saints who have a greater understanding of how to relate the experiences of the Nephite people to ourselves, today. And that will constantly change, as the issues we deal with will continue to change. Normative readings are frozen in time, we are not, and the Church is not. The problems the Nephites dealt with, and warned about (lying, deceit, whoredoms, secret abominations, idolatry, murder, priestcraft, envying, strife, etc.) look different today than they did then, and different today than they did when normative readings were being established. This is not overturning the teachings of those ancient prophets, but overturning and updating previous readings.

  4. this seems like a lot of windmill tilting. any real examples of this or is this all just “scholars bogeyman” bull$#^&.

  5. Just a note:

    JG and I both have PhDs.

    So, of course, we are both quite anti-intellectual and anti-scholarly. That’s why we have scholarly publications and stuff – because we hate scholars, being uneducated rubes jealous of our betters.

    Well, at least that’s me. I’m a hick from the sticks of middle of nowhere rural Alaska. My lack of education ain’t hurt me none, though. Somehow I fooled them city folks in Texas and got me one o’ them there doctorate thingies.

    Not sure if that applies to JG, I guess. JG can speak for himself.

  6. ATN Mack, I don’t think that’s the case – we’ve had many decades of pretty serious doctrinal study of the Book of Mormon text, and I don’t think our interpretation is fossilized from the 19th century. Are there things that may have been overlooked? Of course (I’ve got one coming up next week). I think it’s good and useful to keep asking what the text is trying to teach – and maybe the prevailing reading really does get something wrong that we need to revisit. But what I have in mind are the “Korihor and Gadianton were good, actually” readings of the Book of Mormon which attempt to interpret the text as saying the opposite of what it says, plainly and repeatedly. Scholarship doesn’t necessarily overthrow the prevailing narrative. It can also deepen, extend, complicate or strengthen it.

    I think the Book of Mormon asks to be treated seriously as scripture, but not as history. We get just enough historical narrative to see that it’s meant to be understood as grounded in real events, but not enough to easily locate those events in mundane history or conduct any kind of real historical inquiry. Treating the Book of Mormon as proverbs and parables seems to be fine – that’s more or less what we do in Sunday School, giving the historical side just enough weight that we don’t treat it as myths and fables.

    My assessment of the end result of contrarian readings of the Book of Mormon is based on some long-term observations and not on hypothetical speculation.

    DLC, as Ivan mentioned, I’m pretty familiar with the potential and limitations of scholarly inquiry. The experience of piecing together the silhouette of a solution to a historical puzzle is an intoxicating experience. But it’s also possible to construct a solid argument for things that are not true. Not all readers are prepared to understand the distinction between “an interesting possible reading of the text” and “the REAL truth that the Mormon Church won’t tell you,” and not all writers are interested in making that distinction clear.

  7. No fancy PhD here. I’m just a plain-Jane, averagely educated member and I’ll take all the different ideas and perspectives I can get. Sure, not all are created equal, but navigating that is part of being an adult. Personally, varying ideas and perspectives push me to really search the scriptures and myself as I grapple with contrasts, difficulties, and moral gray areas. This struggle is where I find God.

  8. There is a reason why no working historian who wishes to remain so, would ever treat the BofM as a pre-Colombian, non-19th century subject. The reason being, of course, is there are zero primary sources (material, cultural, or documentary) to support the claim that the characters in the book actually existed (at least not yet, anyway). However, the BofM does lend itself perfectly well to literary criticism. Plenty of believing Christians read the Bible this way and get a lot out it, without being particularly bothered about its increasingly disputed historicity. Yes, there is some really bad literary criticism out there, but most of that is produced by college undergrads attempting to write say, a Marxist interpretation of Canterbury Tales. Personally, I welcome BofM “historical revisionism,” or innovative literary criticism if it is done well a gives a new and productive lense to look through. Were Laman and Lemuel good dudes? Probably not. But it’s true they never killed anyone. Nephi, on the other hand…..
    Note: Since we seem to be disclosing our education level on this thread: I am also, PhD – less, but I do have a BA in history, if that means anything. ;)

  9. I favor scholarly work that helps the Book of Mormon to speak for itself. It’s when we cross the line from there to putting words in the BoM’s mouth that we get into trouble. It’s one thing to be offered insights that are calculated to help us understand what BoM prophets are really saying–and quite another to be indoctrinated in ways that reflect what some folks would *like* those prophets to be saying.

    And regardless of time or place or culture–I don’t think the doctrine of repentance in the Book of Mormon has ever been so ambiguous that it needed to be unfolded by experts before we could understand its basic meaning. And for that reason the BoM has always been powerful in its messaging regardless of whatever academic tools have (or have not) been brought to bear on its text.

  10. With all the “bright minds” here (and I am for sure not one of them) what am I missing regarding the hate toward Laman? Isn’t one of the lessons learned in the BoM is that the so called “bad seeds” eventually turn out to be the good people? In the end the Lamanites “win” so to speak?

    Mack the turtle – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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