The Book of Mormon

For early Mormons, what marked the beginning of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career was the Book of Mormon, which Smith claimed he translated by the “gift and power of God” from golden plates that he received from an angelic messenger in 1827. Regarding the translation process, Smith’s associates later recalled that he used, at least initially, two “interpreters” (later referred to as the Urim and Thummim) that Smith stated were obtained with the records. However, it has also been reported that Smith completed the work using two seer stones that he placed in a hat to exclude light and, according to his scribe Martin Harris, read aloud words that appeared on the stones. The Book of Mormon manuscript was completed in 1829, the bulk of it being produced between April and June. After several attempts to sell the volume’s copyright to publishers in New York and Toronto, Smith eventually purchased a copyright for himself and made arrangements for 5,000 copies to be printed by E.B. Grandin, a Palmyra bookseller, using money that Harris had obtained by mortgaging his farm.

Called the “golden Bible” by Smith’s critics, the Book of Mormon was subject of immediate ridicule: some labeling it the construction of a fanciful imagination, while others deeming it from the devil himself. Still, many were persuaded that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, believing this newly-revealed word to be a sign of the Second Coming. The Book of Mormon tells the story of Israelites who journeyed to the pre-Columbian New World and flourished into ancient American societies who warred with one another to the point of extinction. Connecting America’s native inhabitants to the Holy Land was a popular notion in Smith’s time, although the Book of Mormon uniquely tells of ancient American prophets who foresaw the coming of Christ, with the climax of the Biblically-toned book being the post-resurrection visit of the Savior to the ancient American inhabitants. Where similarly-themed writings of Ethan Smith (View of the Hebrews, 1825) and Mordecai Noah (Discourse on the Evidences of the American Indians being the Descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, 1837) may now be relegated as curiosities of 19th Century religious writing, the Book of Mormon continues to gain devotees, having been translated into 83 languages and with more than 150 million copies currently in print.

The title page of the Book of Mormon was updated in 2007 to reflect current notions that the people it depicts may have been among the ancestors of native inhabitants, rather than the previous assumption that they were the principle ancestors, although ongoing debate continues over DNA studies of Native Americans. Critics of the Book of Mormon have used a lack of genetic support for Middle Eastern ancestry to challenge its historical authenticity; while believing scholars counter that a DNA approach cannot prove or disprove its historical authenticity due to limitations in data analysis and intermingling in populations over time.

Critics of the Book of Mormon also point to multiple passages it contains from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible popular in Smith’s day, noting that KJV translation errors are contained in the Book of Mormon as well. Similarly, critical scholars claim rhetoric specific to a nineteenth-century audience contained within the Book of Mormon demonstrates that it was not translated from an ancient source. Lastly, anachronistic references to animals, plants, and economics that have little to no archaeological support in pre-Columbian America pose further challenges to its historical authenticity.

Multiple possibilities for the existence of late-translation Biblical passages, nineteenth-century rhetoric, and anachronistic references have been offered by believing scholars, such as Smith’s attempt to translate ancient writing through his modern language and understanding. That he was not a trained translator of ancient languages, but rather a novice who performed the task through allegedly supernatural means, leaves room for the possibility of a loose translation that could contain ideas and references contemporary to Smith. Lastly, believing scholars point to internal complexities and consistencies within the Book of Mormon, as well as convergences with ancient Eastern and Mesoamerican societies, as evidence that it was not fabricated by Smith, particularly given his limited education and the short period in which the manuscript was completed.

Finally, critics of the Book of Mormon have raised questions about those who claimed to have been shown the ancient record by its angelic keeper, questioning both the credibility as well as statements of these eleven witnesses. Believing scholars counter that a close analysis of their accounts, as well as their continued belief in the experience, despite several of them having later severed their ties from Smith, supports the authenticity of their testimony.

Historical Debate

Many books relating to the Book of Mormon have been published, both from a historical and theological standpoint. In terms of historical debate, the largest questions are typically over the nature of the book itself. Was it ancient in origin? Where were the people of the Book of Mormon located? How did Joseph Smith translate it? Was he influenced by other contemporary works? Also, how reliable are the witnesses who claimed to have seen the golden plates? Regarding to the book’s historicity and possible location of the Book of Mormon people, BYU cultural anthropologist John L. Sorenson has published two influential books arguing for a Mesoamerican location: An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon  and Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book. More recently, Mesoamerican anthropologist Brant Gardner has published Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History. Earl M. Wunderli challenged the claims of historicity in his recent book, An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us About Itself. Brent L. Metcalfe edited a collection of articles critically analyzing the Book of Mormon’s historical claims titled, New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology as well as a follow-up volume co-edited with Dan Vogel titled American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon. Over half of Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins was likewise dedicated to a critical analysis of the historical claims of the Book of Mormon. In regards to Joseph Smith’s translation method, several books have been recently published by believing scholars, including Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick’s, Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones and Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat’s, From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon. Brant Gardner published a groundbreaking book on the topic of translation titled The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, which proposes a model whereby Joseph Smith was more actively engaged in the translation process, using his own vernacular and worldview, rather than simply dictating word-for-word from an ancient source. The seminal volume regarding Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones and the influence of early American folk magic on Mormonism is D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. In regards to textual changes made in the Book of Mormon, BYU linguistics and English professor, Royal Skousen, has published numerous volumes in the Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon series and John S. Dinger has published a single-volume critical edition titled Significant Textual Changes in the Book of Mormon. Regarding DNA evidence found among Native American populations that may either support or challenge Book of Mormon claims, Australian geneticist Simon G. Southerton published Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church. Conversely, D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens published Who are the Children of Lehi?: DNA and the Book of Mormon. More recently, Italian geneticist Ugo Perego contributed a chapter discussing DNA evidence in the anthology A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, edited by Laura Harris Hales. Finally, regarding the reliability of the witnesses, no book-length scholarly treatment has been published; however, several important articles have debated the claims of the eleven witnesses, including Dan Vogel’s “Book of Mormon Witnesses Revisited,” which was a response to several faithful scholars who challenged his claims that the witnesses were unreliable. Likewise, Grant Palmer relied on Vogel’s arguments in his chapter dealing with the witnesses in An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. Steven C. Harper’s article, “Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses” shows the other side of the argument. More recently, historian Alexander L. Baugh contributed a chapter discussing the character and reliability of the witnesses in A Reason for Faith.

Further Reading

Gospel Topics Essays: “Book of Mormon Translation,” “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” and Devery Scott Anderson, “An Introduction to the Book of Mormon.”