Do we really believe the Book of Mormon?

Sitting in Sunday School this week and rereading 1 Ne 1-7, I couldn’t help but wonder if we as Mormons really believed the central theological message of the Book of Mormon that the righteous will prosper in the land, or whether we were forced to read the Book of Mormon’s prophetic stance allegorically in order for it to make sense. We all know that the righteous don’t always prosper. Then, I remembered that I had guest posted on this topic here at FPR more than a year and a half ago. This is what I wrote:

The two principal authors of the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Mormon, for the most part share a particular world-view. Both subscribe to the idea that the wicked are punished and the righteous prosper. This idea is so ingrained in the thinking of these two authors, that it forms the entire narrative framework of the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s description of the responsibilities his people bear in the Promised Land stand as a prophetic announcement, while Mormon chronicles the history of his people as the explicit fulfillment of Nephi’s warning.

All of the stories in the stories in the Book of Mormon are fed through this framework. Jerusalem falls because of its wickedness. Nephi’s people remain white and delightsome because of their righteousness. However, the Nephites are constantly at risk of destruction as they flirt with iniquity. The “Pride Cycle” is Mormon’s narrative outline, and every example of Nephite defeat or conquest is a direct expression of their righteousness. Consider all of Mormon’s “And thus we see…” interjections. We must resist the move to “spiritualize” these accounts, since Nephi and Mormon have in mind specifically the temporal success of the Lord’s people.

This narrative structure and explanation of the world is not unique to the Book of Mormon. Indeed, it is most prevalent in the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua to 2 Kings, excluding Ruth). Jeremiah’s connection with this literature is widely accepted as well. The production of this literature occurs in the exact same milieu as Lehi, which may be more than a coincidence. (However, this shared world-view is not enough to definitively locate the Book of Mormon in antiquity. This Deuteronomistic account of nations has proven incredibly influential, appearing most famously in modern times in Gibbons, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).

The question that one faces with the Pride-Cycle view of history is that it is incredibly problematic both historically and theologically. From a historian’s standpoint, one can no longer attribute the rise and fall of civilizations to some standard of “wickedness.” At the very least, this view completely ignores power and economics. Theologically, the notion of the wicked failing and the righteous prospering has also become highly suspect. It is simply one of the worst explanations for the problem of evil.

For the most part, I am not really sure that many members of the church subscribe to this world-view anymore, at least as regards to individuals. Indeed, we actually spend quite a bit of time worrying about the opposite problem, namely, why the righteous have to face so many trials. Though the sentiment does still exist in the Church, I think that most members would not attribute a great tragedy in the life of an individual to that person’s wickedness. (However, we do still seem to attribute great successes in life to righteousness. I call this the Abraham-syndrome…the idea that our flocks will be multiplied if we are obedient to the Lord).

At the corporate level, however, I would say that many members of the church do still subscribe to this world-view. I think that a lot of the rhetoric about SSM, for instance, can be traced to Nephi’s warning that those who inhabit the Promised Land will only prosper insofar as the nation is righteous. The justification for much of LDS politico-theological reflection is ultimately rooted in the idea that the nation’s righteousness is the key to its success. However, I think that the LDS community is still more reluctant when it comes to attributing national tragedies to our wickedness. I don’t think that many LDS would support the kind of comments that Pat Robertson gave after 9/11 when he blamed the feminists and homosexuals for the terrorist attacks.

The point of this post is not to determine how many LDS subscribe to this particular world-view at either the individual or corporate level. Suffice it to say that I think that it is declining, especially if General Conference-level explanations of the problem of evil are an indication. Rather, my point is to say that this world-view is deeply problematic and even harmful in some cases and perhaps we should consider rejecting it more explicitly at both the individual and corporate level. There are many ways of trying to salvage aspects of this world-view. In fact, I would argue that some elements of this view are worth saving. But what happens if members of the Church reject perhaps the central theological message of the Book of Mormon? Can members believe in the Book of Mormon without believing the Book of Mormon (on this issue)? Hasn’t this already happened in much of the church?

  • http://www.coldandcalculating.blogspot.com brianj

    TT, this is a great question. The fact that you asked it a year ago and still don’t have an answer makes me feel better about not having an answer myself. First, I don’t really know what “prosper” means, though it seems that Nephi means it in a physical/economic sense. (Maybe I just don’t want to accept what I know “prosper” means; i.e., I’m being a spiritual wimp.) If we set out with the belief that obedience leads to economic well-being, then we are in trouble when anything bad happens: was I obeying the wrong commandments, or was my faith mis-placed entirely?

    Second, I agree that there is a big problem in applying our need/desire for righteousness in the land to how we control the actions of others (e.g., SSM). “You can’t smoke/have sex/swear/gamble/etc. because I am trying to save up for my kids’ college fund and your sins will hurt my portfolio” just doesn’t sound right to me.

  • NorthboundZax

    Given the mounting evidence that power and economics appear fairly divorced from the ‘pride cycle’ in history, it seems to me that maybe we should reject that lesson from the Book of Mormon. We’ve dumped or reduced in significance a number of traditionally taught messages from the bible as they become unsupportable by historical evidence (tower of Babel, for instance), maybe its time to cull a few myths out of the Book of Mormon, too.

  • http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    As a group, the righteous do prosper, as high trust societies prosper over low trust societies.

    Nephi also acknowledges that individuals are subject to significant set backs at the hands of the wicked and from circumstance.

    It is an interesting read, taken together.

    As to the pride cycle, it shows up all the time. I’m not certain what Northbound Zax is talking about it being fairly divorced. Any divorce was definitely unfair.

  • http://mormonmd@wordpress.com Doc

    I agree with Stephen,
    The righteous prospering is in reference to a Zion society. The pride cycle is in reference to Zion losing its moorings through materialism. That isn’t so hard for Mormons to buy into.

  • Rob Osborn

    I totally belive the BoM about how the righteous prosper while the wicked struggle. I live in a farming community and whenever we have droughts, a general authority or like person will come to the area and pretty much say- start obeying your covenants and the Lord will bless you with rain. A lot of times this means to remember the Lord God and have faith and pay tithes and offerings. Doing these things brings us back into more of a righteous society- and then it rains. It works every single time! I totally believe that God will protect and bless his righteous seed- even unto prospering on the face of the land. I also believe that eartquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, floods, famines, disease, etc, are poured out upon people because of their wickedness.

    I firmly believe that if you reject the BoM stance on the “righteous prosper/ wicked suffer”, then in essence, you reject how and why god chastizes his people. And rejecting that is in all reality, rejecting the very principles and laws of heaven!

  • CE

    I like your thoughts on this, TT.

    Even if the Book of Mormon was really written by ancient prophets in the Americas, this does not mean that it is a perfect record of God’s word. Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, etc. may not have written their records until many years after the events he described, and Mormon did not abridged those records until centuries later. Stories that are told and retold tend to morph into epic tales of good and evil with archetypal characters and clear inspirational morals. B.H. Roberts thought that stories like the “2,000 stripling warriors who could not be killed” seemed too good to be true. But a belief in a historical Book of Mormon does not necessarily mandate a belief that not a single stripling warrior died, or that the prison walls literally fell down around Alma and Amulek. These stories represent moral tales retold hundreds of years after they occurred, and Mormon seemed to have certain lessons he wanted to underscore by retelling these stories. A belief in a historical Book of Mormon does not necessarily mandate a belief that all of Mormon’s views were right.

    Compare this to the Old Testament. Some Old Testament writers attribute a great deal of death and destruction to God. It seems possible that this simply reflects a tendency to blame things on God that were really just a result of meteorology or socio-economic warfare. Does this make the Old Testament “untrue”? I think that issue by itself does not invalidate those parts of the Old Testament. The writings still represent a valid record of a people’s perception of their experience with God (although there may be other problems with the transmittal of their original record . . .)

    So we are left with a much broader and more difficult question: What should we make of the fact that God reveals his word through mortals whose limited understanding and cultural biases inevitably affect the way they transmit God’s word to us?

  • Gene

    Good question TT. I now feel that like most things, some believe some. I know too many who believe very little about the church but think that everyone else believes all of it. Myself, I can not buy into everything. Too may “strange” things that are not exposed. When you (I) doubt the church you must doubt the BOM.

    Gene

  • http://mormoninquiry.typepad.com Dave

    Nice thoughts on a tough issue, TT. It helps to note there are two ways to disagree here. First, one can disagree with the Deuteronomist (and BoM writers) because one disagrees with their philosophy of history. So one might disagree with seeing and writing history through the filter of covenant theology or through the prism of the “pride cycle” because one has a different (and of course better) template that should be applied to the facts.

    Alternatively, one can disagree with the Deuteronomist and BoM writers because one disagrees with any philosophy of history that is used to control or select or filter the facts. The facts may not speak for themselves, but (modernly) most agree they should be given first place in the narrative and biases of the writer disclosed in the introduction. So a modern Deuternomist might write: “As a fervent Israelite, I affirm an ongoing covenant between a jealous and interventionist God and the Jews, a chosen people, which probably colors my narrative at certain points.”

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Nah, I think it is easy to say we still buy into the idea that we prosper in the land if we are righteous — both on the individual and corporate level. This assertion is made possible by the fuzziness of the terms prosper and righteous. As long as we keep those terms pretty nebulous, and as long as we don’t define any specific time from, the claims the the righteous prosper and the wicked are cursed is pretty easy to defend.

  • CE

    Geoff J (#9) makes a good point. As long as there is room for confirmation bias and selective memory to work, then people will see God’s hand anywhere they want to. The same things that lead some to believe that “God sent rain” and “God helped me find a job” also allows people to wonder “How could God allow those shootings?” or even worse, conclude that “God sent the hurricane to punish the sinners in New Orleans.”

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    I know what Deseret believes about the word “prosper”. This is why they have Joel Osteen’s book in the bookstore.

  • Trevor M

    I think that this deals with a central piece of understanding of scripture. How do you view it? Do you see it as #6 does? Then you will have a view of a real but imperfect scriptural historian. A man that existed but wrote an imperfect abridgment from which received an imperfect translation. Complete with an exaggeration or tall tale here and there, Seems reasonable to me.

    To my mind the other view is this (I suspect it is much more prevalent in the church, if rarely articulated): People view Book of Mormon descriptions from what one might call “cultural windows” they see the direct monetary prosperity etc. as something that happened in the olden days, it was how God dealt dealt with his children, because that was how He could get them to understand. However, as with the passing away of the law of Moses, as science or knowledge or other things led to more and more societal change God began to deal with his children differently because He could reach them more effectively.

    Thus, instead of viewing righteousness as leading to monetary prosperity, in our day it is viewed as leading to emotional prosperity. Joy, inexplicable comfort in the face of trial et cetera. These are the modern fruits of righteous living, with wickedness yielding the opposite. Such things are difficult if not impossible to measure and so people find it easy to believe. Who hasn’t heard it said in Sunday School that the wicked who seem to prosper in worldly things are miserable inside, don’t know true joy, or find their lives inadequate in some other hidden, irreparable way. These claims, though unverifiable (or perhaps precisely because they are unverifiable) are widespread and widely held.

    In viewing scripture this way, we see a God who offers archaetypical promises of prosperity, destruction and the like and then adapts them to the needs and traits of his audience. Thus the Pentateuch says animal sacrifice will go on FOREVER and the BOM says that the righteous ALWAYS prosper. But as circumstances changes so does God’s method of dealing with man, though the underlying promises remain fulfilled, if in unexpected ways.

    Now perhaps or perhaps this does not seems a viable explanation for the “prosperity disparity” aforementioned, but I believe that it is at work in the minds of church members, as they try to explain why (at least to our knowledge) only our dispensation has the Word of Wisdom, or why God ordered genocide in the Torah, or why the wicked seem to prosper more than the righteous despite the teachings of Mormon.

    To them, God is a God of adaptation, this is was makes his love so special.

    Both views seem very plausible to me.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    IMO one thing we should probably do is be aware of LDS ability to give a more flexible reading of the text. I can think of two ways in which this is done:

    1) Citing examples such as Alma’s people and the people of Limhi (both in the the book of Mosiah) who are under bondage of the Lamanites. One group is righteous and the other no really all that much, yet both get more of less the same treatment (both being under bondage and later being freed from that bondage). This may serve to nuance the “prospering” put forth early in the BoM or at least provide a counter voice.

    2) Articulate a notion of “spiritual” vs. “worldly” prospering in the text (which the text may or may not support). Here “worldly” refers to anything we cannot explain as clearly coming from God, which in essence could mean just about anything depending on the circumstances. Hence it only “appears” that the evil prosper, and only “seems” like the righteous don’t. I’m not necessarily supporting this move, but it seems to be one which I’ve heard many members make.

  • Matt W.

    Something else is going on, Nephi is our example of prospering, but yet from chapter 1 vs 1 he is suffering many afflictions, yet highly favored. I personally think of this propering as more in line with faith being power unto deliverenace, like in the last vs of 1 nephi 1

  • http://www.zelophehadsdaughters.com Kiskilili

    Great post, TT. This is a topic I’ve been toying with posting about myself for a while now. It seems when it comes to the Book of Mormon we focus virtually all of our intellectual energy on establishing its historicity, on the assumption that its theological validity hinges on questions of historicity. But to my mind, much more problematic than historicity issues is its rather inadequate and facile theodicy (I realize I’m making a judgment here: I find its theodicy problematic for the reasons you outline). In certain respects, especially in its historiographical approach, it reminds me of the book of Chronicles even more than of the Deuteronomistic History–for the Chronicler, every vicissitude of history can be located in a rigid system of God’s justice, and disaster is never unexpected (or unexplained) because the people are always warned in advance by God’s prophets, yet another motif in the Book of Mormon. The Deuteronomistic Historian was at a loss to account for Josiah’s untimely death, for example; the Chronicler tidied this up nicely.

    We’re perhaps predisposed to invoke the afterlife to account for the problem of evil, but I don’t see the Book of Mormon making this move–as I read it (and I admit it’s not something I’ve given much thought to in a while), the Book of Mormon collapses any distinction between this life and the next and assures us
    God’s justice will be wrought in the here-and-now, particularly on the national level. I’m not sure what to conclude from any of this.

  • http://lifeongoldplates.blogspot.com/ BHodges

    I think the main problem is you seem view the Book of Mormon too superficially. ;)

  • a random John

    CE (#10),

    I go even further and say that beyond confirmation bias and selective memory is the LDS tendency to view anything bad as a God-sent trial and therefore a blessing as well. So everything is a blessing if you are righteous.

    Even worse, when observing those believed to be wicked the inverse applies. Their riches are seen as a sign of misplaced priorities and any bad that befalls them as divine punishment.

    Thus those that adopt this simplistic world view find that it accounts for everything that happens to anyone. It is easy to see why it is so attractive.

    However by explaining everything perhaps it explains nothing…

  • Popslc

    I was under the impression that the righteous will prosper and the wicked will be cut off from the presence of the Lord. I also remember that somewhere Brigham Young warned the saints against seeking wealth, even to the extent of forbidding them from prospecting for gold. And did he not express concern about the saints being tested by prosperity? Does not the story of Job have some bearing upon how we are to understand this doctrine? We also must consider what is meant in Malachi about the windows of heaven opening to those who pay their tithes and offerings. Are there no poor full tithe payers? Do they prosper?

    Perhaps prosperity has a different meaning than wealth. The perspective of time may influence our understanding of what it means to prosper. Perhaps it is how we respond to conditions that really matters. What does the wealthy person do with his wealth? How does the person living in poverty or dealing with financial set-backs respond to god and man?

    I do think we frequently equate wealth with righteousness. A little less often (but still too often) we equate poverty with wickedness. When we do either I am not sure we understand the Lord’s promise to Nephi.

  • http://www.ldsaliveinchrist.com Jared

    Why make this hard?

    The Lord will prosper us in His way. The Lord makes promises and fulfills them within the context of His plan. If we make and keep covenants we will receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost–the fulfillment of our baptismal covenant. That in my opinion is prospering. Look at what happen to the people in 4th Nephi–note how they prospered.

    Prospering might also mean that He will try our faith so that we will be eligible for eternal life (lifted up at the last day).(see Mosiah 23:21-22).

    The Lord’s work is what?

    “To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” Moses 1:39– then we will receive all that the Father hath. Talk about prosper!

    Does it mean to prosper financially? Sure, but how much to you need to be considered prosperous?

    Easy question.

  • http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com SmallAxe

    Easy question.

    From what I’ve read you’re basically saying “God will prosper us in his own way, so don’t worry about it.” Is that your “easy answer”?

  • Sterling

    Nobody here has mentioned Richard Bushman’s 1969 essay, “Faithful History.” In that article he outlines the ways that the Book of Mormon might serve as a model for the writing of history. He even probes the possibility of measuring or quantifying the prosperity of nations and linking it up with their righteousness. Is his essay a cultural artifact, reflective of the 1950s consensus history era when Bushman attended graduate school, or do Mormon historians still buy into the arguments he was making?

  • CE

    A Random John (#17)–

    Just saw your response to my #10. I like what you say. I have previously stated similar thoughts, but phrased a little differently:

    When good things happen to “good” people, it’s a blessing.
    When bad things happen to “good” people, it’s a trial.
    When good things happen to “bad” people, it’s luck.
    When bad thinks happen to “bad” people, it’s justly deserved punishment.

  • neslobladen

    Here is the consideration I have considered.
    I can’t distinquish with my supreme wisdom whether or not such a system, the pride (cometh before the fall) cycle, could or could not exist as a cultural framework but I have to consider that it is possible. Here we have a culture that has never existed on the face of the planet anywhere in know history. The good guys: who create a system of government not on the principles of religion but literally make their religion their system of government, and the bad guys: who create their entire identity in opposition to their brothers who stole their birthright.
    Of course we cannot compare this cultural system to the present system of today. It is nothing like it.
    The interesting thing though is that God has promised, if you believe revelations concerning the Second Coming, that He will be interacting personally with the physical realm again.
    Where do you draw the line and say, “Such things are not possible to God?”
    Do you or don’t you believe?

  • a random John

    CE (#22),

    I’m in agreement, though I think that when good things happen to “bad” people that many LDS assume it is because of the bad people’s materialism. Therefore anything that happens to a bad person is rooted in their sinful nature.

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  • Saul

    Joseph Smith wrote the BoM, you know the guy with 33 wives, the youngest two being 14 years old? Stop believing a poorly written novel that has incredibly lingered/festered for so long. Try Christianity, it works.

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