Reviews – American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon

Essays on the Book of MormonJournal of Mormon History, Paul M. Edwards
American Apocrypha is the latest in Signature Books’s excellent Essays on Mormonism Series. Well produced, edited by serious scholars, and containing essays by nine well-informed authors, this study of the Book of Mormon makes an essential contribution to the understanding of the complexities of Mormonism.

The collection is exactly what it purports to be, a reasoned look at the Book of Mormon. The editors introduce their perspective by stating: “The nature of faith is not what is at question here, but rather the structure of reason and theory” (xiii). The work presented is, almost without exception, outlined with clarity and kindness. I suspect that no one reading this collection would find their belief in the divine origins of the book either strengthened or weakened. However, there is little doubt that, if they pay close attention, they will at least understand the source of concern expressed by so many people. The problems that many have with the Book of Mormon are inherent in the fact that it reflects times, places, and understandings that are not consistent with what we know from other sources about these same times, places, and events.

The essays in this collection, as is often the case, are of varied interest and insight, but I found all of them well crafted and interesting. Each has supplied notes and illustrations to support his or her comments. Edwin Firmage Jr. suggests evidence to question the assumptions of antiquity concerning the book in an essay he calls “A Personal Encounter,” while Old Testament scholar David P. Wright proposes a modern source, the King James Version, for the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon. Anthropologist Thomas W. Murphy also focuses on the book’s claims of antiquity, providing a significant challenge based on patterns of DNA distribution to the popularly held Mormon understanding that Native Americans had Jewish ancestry.

Addressing concerns over the role of the “author” of the Book of Mormon, Susan Staker makes the case for a parallel between the developing message of the book and the Prophet’s evolving self-image. Scott C. Dunn discusses the historical significance of “automatic writing” and raises questions about the manner in which one set of such writings might be more or less acceptable than another. Dealing with the authorship of the Book of Mormon, Robert M. Price compares Joseph Smith with the pseudepigraphists (I wish I’d said that), presenting the possibility that the founder of Mormonism was simply trying to find a way to give ancient authority to new conceptions by the use of well-known Bible stories and American myths.

Vogel has two essays dealing with the environment in which the Book of Mormon made its appearance. In the first, he questions the legitimacy of the claims of the three and eight witnesses that they saw and, in some cases, handled the plates. He argues that their witness was more plausibly based on a visionary, rather than a physical, experience. His second essay also challenges those who would question the connection between the secret practices of an expanding Mormonism with the rites and rituals of early nineteenth-century Freemasonry.

In a delightful essay on B. H. Roberts, George Smith sympathetically documents how this remarkable man, ecclesiastical leader, and apologist began to question the source of the Book of Mormon toward the end of his life because of the vast difficulties he found with its historical and archaeological claims.

What constitutes belief remains the penultimate question of men and women of faith. The degree to which the codifications of reason must be sacrificed to the fires of faith is, in itself, a matter of belief. Thus, the universal problem is created for those for whom faith must emerge from, and be ultimately dependent on, a source for which there is so little evidence of legitimacy.

Despite the degree to which some apologists have gone to preserve the internal legitimacy of the Book of Mormon, there is little that can be done to convince the rational mind (as George Smith summarizes a questioner’s perplexities expressed to Roberts) that the appearances of “horses, steel, ‘cimeters,’ and silk could be legitimately included in a book set in pre-Columbian America since they are absent from the archaeological findings of that period” (125). This, and the close relationship between the Book of Mormon text and previously published works, means that little can be done to make the source of the book and, by implication, what it says any less suspect. Although Roberts wrote a reassuring answer to the questioner, he candidly told a committee of other General Authorities that the answers generally given to these questions may “satisfy people that didn’t think, but [constituted] a very inadequate answer to a thinking man” (133).

The need for supernatural agents to serve as the presumed source of moral arguments has been quite apparent in Western civilization. But it troubles skeptics when they find the source of such positions implausible. On the other hand, David Sloan Wilson suggests in his excellent book Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) that the success of a religious moral code depends on whether it motivates the religion to achieve, not on the truth or fictitiousness of the source. Certainly, like any scripture, the Book of Mormon does not have to be true to be highly significant. But it would help.

Midwest Book Review
Collaboratively compiled and edited by Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, American Apocrypha is a selection of nine scholarly essays that focus on the Book of Mormon, scrutinizing the testimonies of witnesses and carefully evaluating historical context. It is a carefully researched, meticulously presented, and highly methodological collection—a welcome, seminal contribution to Mormon history that will supplement reading lists and academic reference collections.

Ogden Standard Examiner
This collection of nine essays examines the Book of Mormon as a powerful book of scripture separate from the Bible. Specifically, one of the essays focuses on recent DNA testing which revealed modern Native Americans to be of Siberian ancestry rather than Jewish or Hebrew descent.

“This is a ‘Galileo event’ for Mormons,” say the book’s editors. It means that church members will need to consider the book a part of a “scriptural tradition that includes fiction—parables, poetry, hyperbole, psalms, historical verisimilitude, and other genres,” according to advance publicity for the book.

The essays, written by academics from across the country, focus on other issues as well, including the presence of Hebrew in some scriptures, while other essays explore the evolution of ideas in the Book of Mormon during the course of its dictation.