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LDS Apologetics from Oxford: A Review of "By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion" by Terryl L. Givens

by Massimo Introvigne 

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Oxford University Press has published (2002) one of the most comprehensive studies to date of Book of Mormon controversies, authored by Terryl L. Givens, a (Mormon) professor of English at the University of Richmond, Virginia. The book includes both history, theology, and Givens’ statement of contemporary controversies. The first part of the book is largely devoted to telling, once again, the story of Joseph Smith, Hill Cumorah, and how the Book of Mormon was received, translated, and published by the prophet. There is nothing particularly new here, although Givens’ summary will be useful for the readers not particularly acquainted with the most recent specialized scholarship. Secondly, Givens explains how the Book of Mormon was used by early LDS missionaries and criticized by the first generation of anti-Mormons. He reiterates a point quite familiar to scholars of early Mormonism (particularly after the publication of the journals of William McLellin and the discussion they caused): that what was new, and controversial, was the fact that a new scripture had been found buried under an American hill, rather than its content. Not only was its theology in itself regarded as comparatively non-controversial; the first Mormon preachers always mentioned the marvellous circumstances surrounding the coming forth of the book but seldom bothered to elaborate on its content. A movement for going back to the Book of Mormon’s content in the LDS church is a comparatively recent affair.

The second theme running through Givens’ book is an analysis of Book of Mormon theology. Givens questions a certain received wisdom, maintaining that the Book of Mormon did not include anything substantially different from mainline Protestant theology of its time, while the uniquely distinctive LDS doctrines are found in revelations received by Joseph Smith other than the book itself. Givens persuasively proves that Book of Mormon doctrine is less standard Protestant fare than many have consistently thought, and at least anticipates many of the LDS peculiarities more clearly articulated in other texts. Givens also insists that the Book of Mormon already hints at a way of producing and receiving revelation that he regards as uniquely Mormon and identifies as "dialogic revelation". Unlike other Christians, Givens argues, both the Book of Mormon Nephites and the Latter-day Saints receive personal guidance and revelations without being constrained by a closed canon. What Givens said about the importance of the LDS open canon is indeed interesting; it is, however, questionable that an open canon and reliance on personal revelations is a uniquely Mormon peculiarity. 500 millions of Pentecostals are encouraged to receive revelations and personal prophecies on an almost daily basis. In contemporary Catholic Church, private revelations and messages from Jesus or the Virgin Mary are both widespread and booming. It is true that the hierarchy explicitly approves very few of them (such as Lourdes or Fatima), but most of the others are tolerated insofar as the seers and their milieu do not claim that they are normative for the whole church. This is, of course, also true for personal revelations received by individual members of the LDS church, from the prophet’s time up to the 21st century.

The third theme of Givens’ book, and the one most likely to be noticed and discussed, is a review of both old and present controversies. A very astute scholar of anti-Mormonism (and the author of the excellent award-winning book on the subject, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, also published by Oxford University Press in 1997) , Givens is at its best when he ridicules claims by both 19th century and contemporary anti-Mormons, who were persuaded that the Book of Mormon could be disposed of by using two or three simple arguments. Early anti-Mormons claimed that non-primitive cultures never existed in America, an argument which soon became untenable in the face of new archaeological discoveries. Contemporary anti-Mormons often maintain that the Book of Mormon is incompatible with the wide diversity of pre-Columbian cultures, which would be an obviously valid objection if the book would be interpreted as hemispheric history. Although (while not acting, according to Givens, as a prophet) Joseph Smith implied something similar himself, the Book of Mormon as history of the whole American hemisphere is now, the author claims, a "red herring" (p. 128). The semi-official position of the church is that the book does not relate the whole history of the Americas, but only the history of a particular Mesoamerican area (including a small part of Southern Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to the most popular LDS hypotheses): a small area, indeed, which is however larger than the area where "95 percent of Old Testament events took place" (p. 128). More generally, Givens observes that most anti-Mormons still criticize 19th and early 20th century LDS works on the Book of Mormon, and are unaware of the amount of scholarships produced by contemporary LDS scholars, particularly those associated with Brigham Young University and FARMS (the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies). Some readers may be disturbed by the fact that, even on such controversial items as the presence of horses on pre-Columbian America and theories on the origins of Native Americans, Givens (who, after all, has published his book with Oxford University Press rather than BYU) unashamedly takes sides in favour of the like of FARMS and against FARMS’ critics. Overall, however, he makes a convincing case that most anti-Mormons need to redo their homework and understand what arguments LDS scholars are using in 2002, rather than crossing their 21st century swords with 19th century early Mormon apologists. Givens also comments that, although Evangelical and secular anti-Mormons are not particularly persuasive, nor dangerous for the church, more serious damage to the Book of Mormon may come from Signature Books, "the main vehicle for publications that challenge the borders of Mormon orthodoxy", or the journals Sunstone and Dialogue, where "intellectual inquiry (…) from time to time takes the form of dissent or outright hostility" (p. 296).

A key point of the book is Givens’ criticism of the "middle ground" or "accomodationist" position that he sees as typical of both liberal LDS intellectuals of the Signature Books - Sunstone - Dialogue variety and sympathetic non-LDS scholars. Both, he claims, do not really believe that Joseph Smith found real, tangible plates under Hill Cumorah and translated them, yet they also criticize anti-Mormons who regard the prophet as a fraud and conclude that he was a religious creative genius, a genuine seer, a mystical visionary who created a meaningful and inspired scripture inherently capable of gathering a sincere and dedicated community. "But Joseph Smith, objects Givens, simply doesn’t cooperate in such a reconstruction. Because of his self-described excavation of the plates, repeated secreting of them in bean barrels, under hearthstones, and in smocks, his displaying of them to eight corroborating witnesses, and his transcription of them into hieroglyphics and translation of them into English - this continual, extensive, and prolonged engagement with a tangible, visible, grounding artifact is not compatible with a theory that makes him an inspired writer rewording the stuff of his own dreams into a product worthy of the name scripture" (pp. 177-178). Not even comparing Joseph Smith to the authors of the Bible is good enough for Givens: none of them claimed to have merely translated a divine book found in written and complete form; the "authors" of the Bible (as merely "inspired") may be compared to the Nephite authors of the Book of Mormon, not to the "translator" Joseph.

Although on the dust jacket of the book Jan Shipps calls Givens’ "an exceptional study", obviously her position is implicitly criticized here. So (again, implicitly) is mine, in an article called "The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective", originally published in FARMS’ very own Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (vol. 5, no. 2, 1996: 1-25). Or are they? Givens seems to be surprised by the fact that many contemporary Saints are grateful when non-LDS scholars appear to be sympathetic to the Book of Mormon and embrace the "middle ground" position, yet at the same time are disturbed when the same "accomodationist" approach is exhibited by LDS intellectuals writing for Signature Books. Just as he does when he presents as idiosyncratically Mormon the "dialogic revelation" position, Givens seems to suffer here of a common LDS fallacy, which tends to regard as unique to the Mormon community trends which are, in fact, quite common among religions in general. Givens, here, fails to distinguish between internal and external processes of legitimisation. Internally, most religions (with the exception of some very liberal form of Protestantism) would not allow their foundational truths to be questioned or denied, since this would be tantamount to deny the religious hierarchy’s legitimate role. Externally, those religions which are interested in interreligious dialogue do not ask their partners in dialogue to accept the same foundational truths (otherwise, they will be proselyted or converted, rather than engaged in dialogue); they simply ask them to take these doctrines seriously. There is no contradiction in this. A mainline Moslem organization presented an award to Karen Armstrong (a former nun turned admittedly irreligious author) for her sympathetic biography of Muhammad, although she obviously does not believe that the Quran was received by literal dictation from Heaven, but treats it with utmost respect as one of humanity’s great scriptures and the fruit of the prophet’s mystical experiences and religious genius. A Moslem scholar in Saudi Arabia or Iran reducing the Quran to just this would be lucky to end up being deprived only of his academic position, rather than of his head ("his" is the appropriate adjective here, since no women teach Quranic studies in Saudi Arabian or Iranian universities). The same Vatican, which cordially receives in interreligious dialogue meetings Hindu or Buddhist scholars "accepting" Jesus Christ’s resurrection as an event happening in the early community’s collective religious experience rather than in the empirical world, moved to discipline Catholic scholars who maintain just the same position. In short, external and internal dynamics are different. Interreligious dialogue does not require that partners convert to each other’s gospel, but simply that each take the other’s foundational story seriously and treat it with respect. Accordingly, perspective partners in an interreligious dialogue for Mormons are not those (hypothetical) non-LDS religionists and scholars who believe the Book of Mormon to be what Joseph Smith said it was: those will quickly move from the status of partners in dialogue to the status of Mormon converts. Genuine partners in dialogue are precisely those "accomodationist" non-LDS who are prepared to treat seriously the Book of Mormon and the revelations of Joseph Smith as meaningful religious scripture, without passing judgement on whether the story of their "coming forth" is literally true or not.

The situation is somewhat similar when we move from interreligious dialogue to the dialogue that LDS academics and scholars maintain with their counterparts in the secular academia. Very few historians today maintain a strictly positivist approach and are interested in passing judgement whether a religious narrative such as Joseph Smith’s is empirically true or false. Most historians are much more interested in its meaning, historical function, and consequences. Even if (as Givens maintains) problems may remain with some historians (who may be in fact interested in knowing whether the Book of Mormon is indeed a valuable record for the early history of a significant, if small, portion of Mesoamerica), there should be no such problems with sociologists and scholars of religious studies. The latter, by definition, are not interested (nor claim to be capable) of determining whether religious narratives are empirically "true" or "false", in both a theological or historical sense. Questions of meaning and function exhaust their chosen field of research. Trying to corner partners in either interreligious or academic dialogue into a "yes or no" position, where they are asked to state in so many words either that there was a genuine Mesoamerican record buried under Hill Cumorah or that Joseph Smith was a fraud, is not only impolite (and disadvantageous for the LDS Church), but misunderstands the very nature of the whole enterprise (perhaps an unavoidable mistake for comparative newcomers to these dialogues as the Mormons still are). To what extent criticism within the LDS community may be tolerated by the Church’s hierarchy "without doing violence, as Givens writes, to its own account of divine origins and providential involvement" (p. 174) is an entirely different problem. But, again, it is not a peculiar and uniquely Mormon problem: dissent management is a challenge for all kind of religious hierarchies in the 21st century, and different approaches have been adopted by various churches and communities with a mixed degree of success.

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