Intellectual Confessions and the Book of Mormon


If you’re like me (and I hope you aren’t, because that would mean double or triple or quadruple the insanity I already bring to the world), you are an American religious historian who has some intellectual confessing to do. You may have never read Bob Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street; you may secretly like revival meetings; you may think that “women’s history” is not “religious history” (or vice versa). For me, the first of my confessions is that I have never read The Book of Mormon. I teach about the Church of Latter-Day Saints all the time; heck, I even have friends who consider themselves part of the tradition. But I’ve avoided the Angel Moroni; I’ve steered clear of Alma and of Nephi.

This will all change now. Penguin Classics just released a beautiful new edition of The Book of Mormon with an introduction from one of the finest American religious historians of the past twenty years: Laurie Maffly-Kipp. The cover is gorgeous and the introduction drew me not only in the world of early 19th century America, but also into the tradition of a truly “American” faith (or is it profoundly unAmerican? ... I’ll let the historiographical slugfest continue with perhaps a twist to that question: if “women’s history is religious history,” as Ann Braude claims, then how does the history of Mormonism fit into American women’s religious history?).


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the heads up on the book's release, Ed. Penguin Books and Maffly-Kipp appear to have produced a version of the book that will be more accessible (and appealing) to scholars and other interested individuals alike.

A good place to start answering the question you pose at the end of the post is Jenny Reeder's (PhD candidate studying material culture and American religious history at George Mason) site dedicated to the subject. Check it out here.A helpful list for readings in Mormon women's history (also compiled by Reeder) can be found here. Finally, Utah State University Press's "Life Writings of Frontier Women" series contains some fantastic primary sources of 19th century Mormon women.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks for the prod, Ed. I'm particularly embarrassed not to have read the BOM (though I have read Orsi). It's high on my list of things to do but has always felt like an imposing item on that list. But I certainly won't be a credible historian of Mormonism without reading the BOM and D&C. Is the new edition annotated? I've also envisioned it would be easier to read an annotated BOM with some clues to how verses have impacted the history of the Latter-day Saints, etc.

I'd also like to select some excerpts to use in an American Religious History class this spring -- any suggestions from our readers?
David G. said…
Thanks, Ed. Hopefully this LMK edition will move more historians to actually read the book rather than just summaries.

As for your question, John, Moroni 10:3-5 is terribly significant for contemporary Mormon thought and proselytizing--all youth and new investigators are encouraged to read those verses and pray for a confirmation from the Spirit that the book is true. But I'm fairly sure that those verses have been "read" differently over time, and only recently have they taken on the significance that they have now. Also important are the chapters in 3 Nephi, starting in chapter 11, describing Christ's visit to America, which is of course a distinctive Mormon belief.
Anonymous said…
Grant Hardy's reader's Book of Mormon from University of Illinois Press is nice, and has some very helpful appendices with historical information.

Beyond that, I think Givens' By the Hand of Mormon (Oxford UP) is probably the best thing around as far as reception history.

I would probably wait for Revelations vol. 1 of the Joseph Smith Papers, which comes out in the first part of 2009 and maybe go with that instead of (or with) the Doctrine and Covenants. Though out of print and definitely with a devotional slant, Lyndon Cook published a reasonable companion for the D&C that gives historical background for each section entitled, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary of the Doctrine and Covenants. It would probably be very helpful for those not familiar with all the people and events involved.

Can't say enough about Mormon women's history.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks, Jonathan. I wasn't aware of the Grant Hardy volume (sigh, another embarrassment) but it sounds like what I've been hoping to find.

Thanks David as well.
Anonymous said…
I'm not sure if it is precisely what you are hoping to find (the annotation really isn't that helpful).

Just noticed in your previous comment that you asked about excerpts. I would consider:

2 Ne 2
Mosiah 2-5
Alma 7
Alma 32
Moroni 7
Anonymous said…
Jana Riess's The Book Of Mormon: Selections Annotated & Explained is a possible resource as well.
Anonymous said…
John, and others, I personally just powered through the 1830 facsimile reprint a few months ago. It reads quickly, and in that format allowed me to at least conceptually have a better sense for its nineteenth-century reception context. For just a quick flavor for the book, I agree that Jana Riess is a good place to start. If you ignore the unusual onomastics, it reads like a fascinating morality tale about rich vs. poor, formalist vs. enthusiast, Israelite vs. Gentile.

(I will confess to being a practicing Mormon. I hadn't read the Book of Mormon for about a decade of doing cultural history scholarship, and the 1830s facsimile reading was an attempt to read it from the perspective of trying to understand how antebellum Mormons would have perceived the book.)

Anonymous said…
Hadn't read John's full post on initial comment.

Terryl Givens has a Very Short Intro to BoM coming out from OUP in the next little bit (I think he said it's in galleys or similar).

As for sections, I think the Jaredite narrative (Ether primarily) is a do-not-miss. In my chapters 4&5, I discuss at length the Jaredites in terms of battleground graveyards, and Mosiah (the seer who unlocks their secrets) as a fairly self-conscious type for Joseph Smith Jr. The Jaredite narrative in fact is emphasized both in the 1830 introduction and in the 1830 statement of witnesses appendix.

This nested narrative I think is a productive line for trying to interpret the Book of Mormon.


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