A fine line divides scripture from non-scripture, writes Robert M. Price in American Apocrypha. There are books that are not in the Bible that are as powerful and authoritative as anything in the canon. At the same time, much of the Bible was written centures after the events it narrates by scribes using fictitious names. Clearly, the hallmark of scripture is not historical accuracy but rather its spiritual impact on individuals; exclusion from the canon is not reason to dismiss a book as heretical.
Consider the Book of Mormon, first published in 1830. The nature of this volume—in particular its claim to antiquity—is the theme of nine ground-breaking essays in American Apocrypha. Thomas W. Murphy discusses the Book of Mormon’s view that American Indians are descendants of ancient Hebrews. In recent DNA tests, Native Americans have proven to be of Siberian ancestry and not of ancient Jewish or Middle Eastern descent. Nor is the Book of Mormon a traditional translation from an ancient document, writes David P. Wright, as indicated by the underlying Hebrew in the book’s Isaiah passages. Other contributors to American Apocrypha explore the evolution of ideas in the Book of Mormon during the course of its dictation.
Editors Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe have chosen essays by authors who represent a wide range of disciplines and perspectives: Robert Price edits the Journal of Higher Criticism; Thomas Murphy chairs the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College; David Wright teaches Hebrew Bible at Brandeis University. They are joined by Scott C. Dunn; Edwin Firmage, Jr.; George D. Smith; and Susan Staker—all of whom explore what can be reasonably asserted about the Book of Mormon as scripture.
Said to have been dictated by Joseph Smith as a translation of an ancient Egyptian scroll purchased in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835, the Book of Abraham may be Mormonism’s most controversial scripture. Decades of impassioned discussion began when about a dozen fragments of Smith’s Egyptian papyri, including a facsimile from the Book of Abraham, were found in the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1966. The discovery solved a mystery about the origin of the Egyptian characters that appear in the various manuscript copies of the Book of Abraham from 1835, reproduced from one of the fragments. Some LDS scholars devised arguments to explain what seemed to be clear evidence of Smith’s inability to translate Egyptian. In this book, Dan Vogel not only highlights the problems with these apologetic arguments but explains the underlying source documents in revealing detail and clarity.
When Joseph Smith entered Kirtland, Ohio, for the first time, he had only the year before established a church and brought forth a new book of scripture, the Book of Mormon. After moving the church and most of its members from western New York and establishing its headquarters at Kirtland—while simultaneously establishing his Zion in communities in Missouri—he oversaw a decade of both peace and prosperity and chaos and conflict.
But just who was Joseph Smith? What motivated him? In examining Smith’s life during his Ohio and Missouri sojourns, Vogel seeks to answer those questions. But, Vogel is quick to note, “There are, in fact, many possible constructions of Joseph Smith, and depending on how one assesses the evidence for his truth-claims, a completely different Joseph Smith emerges. But this is probably as Smith wanted it.”
During this period, Smith established a temple, printing presses, additional scripture, expanded church offices, and built a bank—all indicating a sense of permanence and strength for his young church at one level while causing its near collapse at another.
Rarely does a biographer capture the sense of being in a different time and mindset to the extent that readers feel they are reliving events through the eyes of the biographer’s subject. This is the skill of Dan Vogel—after twenty-five years of researching Joseph Smith’s life and publishing on such related issues as Seekerism, the Book of Mormon, views of Smith’s contemporaries about Indian origins, and the existing documents pertaining to Smith family experiences.
Vogel weaves together strands of evidence into a complete fabric including, among other aspects of Smith’s environment, the content of his daily dictation of scriputre and revelation—all contributing to a nearly complete view of what occurred on any given day in Smith’s lfie. The result is as much intellectual history as traditional biography. Readers will feel engaged in the dramatic, formative events in the prophet’s life against a backdrop of theology, local and national politics, Smith family dynamics, organizational issues, and interpersonal relations. One can form a mental picture, and many will find themselves carrying on an internal dialogue about the issues raised.
Vogel addresses the following broad themes:
1. The home that Joseph Smith was raised in was religiously divided. His mother’s family was orthodox and partly mystical; his father’s family tended toward rationalism and skepticism. Joseph’s maternal grandfather published an account of seeing a heavenly light and hearing Jesus’ voice. Joseph’s paternal grandfather promoted Thomas Paine’s skeptical critique of the Bible, The Age of Reason.
2. When Andrew Jackson was elected U.S. president in 1828, it was a key transitional period in American history. Jackson was a Mason and an advocate of secularism, which alarmed evangelical Protestants.
3. The Smith family experienced a series of financial setbacks and lost their farm in 1825. Joseph felt disinherited and saw no way of escape—no chance for his family to regain its former standing in the community.
4. Joseph found solace in religion. In the early 1820s, he had a powerful conversion experience and felt that Jesus had forgiven him of his sins. This inspired him to share the gospel message with others, particularly with his own family. About the same time, Smith found a talent for preaching and delivered “passable” Methodist sermons at a nearby revival.
5. Over time, Joseph became aware that people trusted him and that he could be an influence for good or ill, that even through nefarious means, God worked through him when his heart was right. He realized this when he led groups in search of Spanish treasure in New York and Pennsylvania. Although no treasure was found, the men sincerely believed that Smith had a spiritual gift and could see where casks of gold were hidden in the earth. This training ground in spiritual leadership was invaluable because the prophet learned how to create an environment for belief—one in which people could exercise faith and be converted to Christ through the sensible influence of the Spirit, all prior to the overarching work of restoring primitive Christianity.
Any Latter-day Saint who has ever defended his or her beliefs has likely addressed issues first raised by Eber D. Howe in 1834. Howe’s famous exposé was the first of its kind, with information woven together from previous news articles and some thirty affidavits he and others collected. He lived and worked in Painesville, Ohio, where, in 1829, he had published about Joseph Smith’s discovery of a “golden bible.” Smith’s decision to relocate in nearby Kirtland sparked Howe’s attention. Of even more concern was that Howe’s wife and other family members had joined the Mormon faith. Howe immediately began investigating the new Church and formed a coalition of like-minded reporters and detractors. By 1834, Howe had collected a large body of investigative material, including affidavits from Smith’s former neighbors in New York and from Smith’s father-inlaw in Pennsylvania. Howe learned about Smith’s early interest in pirate gold and use of a seer stone in treasure seeking and heard theories from Smith’s friends, followers, and family members about the Book of Mormon’s origin. Indulging in literary criticism, Howe joked that Smith, “evidently a man of learning,” was a student of “barrenness of style and expression.” Despite its critical tone, Howe’s exposé is valued by historians for its primary source material and account of the growth of Mormonism in northeastern Ohio.
[p.vii]Belief in continuing revelation and an open canon of scripture distinguishes Mormonism from mainstream Christianity. That the church founded by Joseph Smith would proceed on grounds of continuing revelation was established at the outset. The day the church was organized, 6 April 1830, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation commanding the church to “give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them,… for his words ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (LDS D&C 21:4-5; RLDS D&C 19:2). Another revelation declared that the Lord had “given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed” (LDS D&C 28:7; RLDS D&C 27:12). The principle of continuing revelation insured a gradual unfolding and canonization of various doctrines.
In addition to the Bible, the official canon of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes the Book of Mormon (first published in Palymra, New York, in 1830), the Doctrine and Covenants (issued in 1833 as A Book of Commandments [incomplete] and in 1835 in Kirtland, Ohio), and the Pearl of Great Price (first published in England in 1851 and republished with changes in Salt Lake City in 1880). This latter volume of scripture contains selections from Joseph Smith’s writings including the Book of Moses (extracted from Smith’s “inspired version” or “translation” of the Bible) and the Book of Abraham (taken from Smith’s interpretation of an ancient Egyptian papyrus). The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, headquartered in Independence, [p.viii] Missouri, the second largest institution tracing its origins to Joseph Smith, publishes its own editions of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, as well as Smith’s revision of the Bible, but has not canonized the Book of Abraham.
All but one of the following fifteen essays chosen for inclusion in The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture were written by Mormons from either the LDS or RLDS tradition. (The exception is Susan Curtis.) However, rather than being guided by institutional imperatives, each author has attempted to understand Mormon scripture on its own terms. Additionally, each essay wrestles with the problem of the human and the divine in scripture.
Because one’s belief about revelation affects how one approaches scripture, debate about scriptural interpretation often centers on the nature of revelation. The written “word of God” does not come to us direct but rather through human intermediaries. In the words of J. R. Dummelow, writing in A Commentary on The Holy Bible (New York) in 1908, “It is as sunlight through a painted window—the light must come to us coloured by the medium… It is foolish to ignore the existence of the human medium through which the light has come” (p. cxxxv). Book of Mormon prophets, for instance, repeatedly express anxiety over human limitations to convey in language their spiritual teachings. Nephi prays that “the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong” (LDS 2 Ne. 33:4; RLDS 2 Ne. 15:5), and Moroni writes, “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God” (Title Page); A position which does not account for the human in revelation will undoubtedly produce disillusionment or distortion.
To consider the human aspects of prophets, revelation, or scripture does not detract from religion, as some traditionalists fear. On the contrary, what cultural and environmental studies challenge are simplistic assumptions about the nature of revelation. Again, Dummelow notes, “Because of our false theory of Verbal Inspiration we are puzzled when the divine is mingled with the human. We must learn that the divine is mingled with the human” (ibid.). We must seek a definition of revelation which accounts for the spectrum of characteristics we encounter in scripture.
Even when we acknowledge the human in revelation and scripture, what exactly is its role and influence? These are not easy [p.ix] questions to answer. But the more precise our identification of human influence on scripture, the more refined our definition of revelation will become. It is hoped that this collection of essays will contribute to that process of understanding.
An awareness of revelation and scripture is an ongoing process and there are differing positions. Readers should therefore understand that neither the authors nor the editor necessarily agree with the views and conclusions reached in all of the essays that follow.
Appreciation is extended to the following authors and publications for permission to reproduce, sometimes in a different format and/or under a different title, many of the essays appearing here: to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought for essays by Kevin L. Barney, Lester E. Bush, A. Bruce Lindgren, William D. Russell, and George D. Smith; to Sunstone for essays by Anthony A. Hutchinson, Melodie Moench Charles, and Mark D. Thomas; to the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal for essays by Susan Curtis and James E. Lancaster; to Courage for the essay by Richard P. Howard; and to University Bulletin (RLDS) for the essay by Geoffrey F. Spencer. Three of the essays—”Joseph Smith’s Scriptural Cosmology,” by Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe; and “Reducing Dissonance: The Book of Abraham as a Case Study” and “Making the Scriptures ‘Indeed One in Our Hands,'” both by Edward H. Ashment—are published here for the first time.
Throughout the essays standardized parenthetical scriptural references are provided for the most recent editions published by both the LDS and RLDS churches. Thus LDS D&C 76:1 refers to the most recent edition of the Doctrine and Covenants published by the LDS church, section 76, verse 1. RLDS 1 Ne. 2:4 refers to the Book of First Nephi, chapter 2, verse 4, in the most recent edition of the Book of Mormon published by the RLDS church. JST means the Joseph Smith translation of the King James Bible published by the RLDS church; Moses to the Book of Moses and Abr. to the Book of Abraham as found in current editions of the Pearl of Great Price (PGP) published by the LDS church.[p.1]