Mormon Insider Surveys the Book of Mormon

An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about ItselfSalt Lake City—As the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, enjoys record-breaking ticket sales from New York to London’s West End, Book of Mormon scholars continue a discussion about the book’s origins. Among them, Earl M. Wunderli, raised an orthodox member of the Mormon faith, found himself asking a fundamental question: Where did this uniquely American scripture come from? The book claims a mystical origin, mediated by angels to tell the true, ancient history of America. In An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself, Wunderli surveys decades of scholarship on both sides of the issues, including arguments by professors at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. A fan of such things, Wunderli analyzes authorship, use of idiom, anachronisms, contrived names, borrowed passages, and prophecies made and fulfilled within the book’s narrative frame.

The text of the Book of Mormon narrates the adventures of a family that split into two groups around 600 BCE. The righteous faction presents itself as the record-keepers and God’s chosen people while the unrighteous side becomes cursed with dark skin.

Wunderli’s observations about such things are deft and multifaceted. He notes that although the story spans several centuries, the cultures progress little, if at all. Prophecies about events prior to 1830 are remarkably specific, while those predicting post-1830 events are vague and cryptic. Among the book’s prophecies of past events are those about Jesus’s birth and crucifixion. “It’s disappointing,” Wunderli writes, that the only details about Jesus “are those already found in the New Testament. We are not treated to new episodes, teachings, or interpretations.”

Of everything Wunderli writes, his treatment of race is an especially powerful contribution to scriptural scholarship. He breaks down discussions of individual ethnicities, and in doing so demonstrates how the Book of Mormon reduces Native Americans, Jews, and Catholics to pity at best and condemnation at worst. Conversely, white European immigrants, their appearance in an allegedy millennium-old book of scripture being itself remarkable, are set aside by God to inherit the promised land, decimate the indigenous people, and reign as the new chosen ones.

Wunderli also surveys a wide variety of “curiosities” within the book, including events that, on first impulse, read as fictional stories, as well as large gaps in the narrative. Still, he seriously considers the arguments of Mormon apologists and others before presenting his own conclusions. Because his focus is on the scriptural text itself, rather than external evidence, his analysis is especially cogent for anyone simply reading or trying to make sense of the book. The supernatural claims of the Book of Mormon, by their very nature, invite the serious scrutiny Wunderli engages in here. Wherever readers land along the faith spectrum, they should appreciate his friendly, no-adversarial, readable style.

The original printing of the Book of Mormon was commissioned in 1830 by twenty-five-year-old Joseph Smith. Five thousand copies were printed in Palmyra, New York, by the Grandin Printing Company. Smith claimed that an angel sent from God first visited him when he was a teenager and began preparing him to receive records of ancient peoples of America who immigrated to the continent by boat from Jerusalem.

Smith said that after four annual meetings with the angel, he was entrusted with the records and, through mystical means, translated them into English before the messenger retrieved them from his custody. The 1830 Book of Mormon became the basis for a new American religion with Smith in the role of its prophet. Most of Smith’s followers left the United States to settle the American West after Smith’s death, a year prior to the region’s incorporation into the Union. Since then, Latter-day Saints have gained significant political influence in the United States and claim some 14 million members around the globe.

Earl Wunderli will participate in an author-meets-critics session, Thursday, August 1, at 11:00 a.m., during the annual Sunstone Symposium, Olpin Student Union Center on the University of Utah campus.

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