The Next Century of Book of Mormon Studies

For at least one very obvious reason, I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about the past, the present, and especially the future of academic study of the Book of Mormon. What roads have led us from the beginnings of academic study of the book into the twenty-first century? What’s been accomplished with the Book of Mormon over the past decade or so? What needs doing immediately, what needs attention over the next twenty or thirty years, and where ought we to be in a century? Here I’d like just to provide some preliminary answers to this last question, this question about the future. Where might those interested in looking academically at the Book of Mormon focus their efforts, whether in the short term, in the somewhat longer term, or in the really long term?

Immediate Tasks

Most immediately, it seems to me that what’s needed is twofold.

First and crucially, we need to take stock of what has been done. There has been altogether too much dismissive talk of past work on the Book of Mormon. It’s been too devotional, too apologetic, too historical, too occasional, and so on. That may be, but I don’t see enough people reading seriously through what’s been done in the past to be able really to make such calls. The Comprehensive Annotated Book of Mormon Bibliography that FARMS published in the 1990s is enormous, and it of course doesn’t cover anything of what’s been done in the nearly two decades since its publication. What’s been done interpretively with the Book of Mormon? And what’s to be gleaned from that past work?

We need, then, to produce works that take seriously what has been done. Can we take the measure of the FARMS output in a productive way? Can we sift through Nibley’s extensive literature on the Book of Mormon and draw some conclusions? Can we read through the RSC publications on the Book of Mormon and see what needs to be retained? Can we revisit lesser known work and decide its significance? And then can we begin to put all such work into a longer narrative about the reception of the Book of Mormon—bringing it into a larger historical context? How does Book of Mormon study compare to study of the Bible? What of other scriptural traditions? How does direct textual study of the Book of Mormon fit into the larger history of artistic, cultural, translational work on the Book of Mormon? And so on. We need to take serious stock of what’s been done so that we don’t just reinvent the wheel, and so that we can learn to appreciate more deeply all that has been done.

Second, we need to encourage and produce a wider range of academic work on the Book of Mormon than has been done. There have been occasional literary studies of the Book of Mormon, but we need more and from better-trained folks. There has been very little done comparing the Book of Mormon text to other world scripture, but we need a great deal more of that. There has been startlingly little theological work done on the Book of Mormon, but we need to produce that in great abundance. Work on the critical text of the Book of Mormon has been the life’s work of one person, but we need a conversation about that task. There have been only a few gendered readings of the Book of Mormon, and it’s time to see more of that in circulation. And so on and so on and so on.

We need, then, to do all we can to get a wider range of academics working on the Book of Mormon, at the very least so that we can begin to see how much more is at work in the text than we’ve tended to see. Grateful for all that has been done, it’s time to widen the scope of what can be done, so that we have a broader vision of what this text accomplishes.

Tasks for the Next Two or Three Decades

Where should we be focusing our somewhat longer term efforts? I’m convinced that a few serious longer-term projects ought to get off the ground sooner than later.

First, I think there’s good reason to produce a wealth of tertiary literature, that is, a wealth of reference material. We’ve seen the publication of transcripts of the Book of Mormon’s manuscripts, along with the six volumes of Skousen’s analysis of the variants in the manuscripts and publications of the Book of Mormon. It’s precisely that sort of thing that needs to be available. Computer software has made it possible to do serious work on the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Bible, but there needs to be a sifting of possible connections and then some kind of presentation of them, even if in undeveloped form. We need an update of the Comprehensive Annotated Book of Mormon Bibliography, maybe with an online component that allows for regular updates. We need things like the Book of Mormon Reference Companion that do a lot more work on just the meaning of the text. We need to have the 1830, 1837, and 1840 editions of the Book of Mormon readily available in print in reliable formats. We need published works providing basic textual structures, etc. We need a gathering of major translations of the Book of Mormon into other languages. We need a summary commentary that brings the best of FARMS’s work together into the form of a commentary. We need a good dictionary of early nineteenth century usage, including slang if possible. I don’t know what else. Whatever can be produced that gives people a starting place for seeing what can be done with the text. I’m envisioning a “Book of Mormon Reference Library,” a series of twenty books eventually, all of which help to establish a kind of base line for further academic work on the Book of Mormon.

Second, I think there’s good reason to work toward a series of handbooks on various parts of the Book of Mormon. I’m picturing something like the Oxford Shakespeare volumes, or something like the Norton Critical Editions. It would be nice to see an edition of First Nephi along the following lines: (a) a seventy-to-one-hundred-page introduction with a history of interpretation, an outline of an interpretation, a review of the theological issues at stake, etc., etc.; (b) a critical presentation of the text, with footnotes marking textual variants, adding notes by way of basic commentary, etc., etc.; (c) an appendix of a hundred or so pages made up of major relevant texts, whether from the Bible, from the interpretive tradition, what have you; (d) a selective but productive bibliography. And then it’d be nice to see the whole of the Book of Mormon covered in a series of such volumes.

Third, naturally, I think we need to get the Book of Mormon more extensive and more serious treatment in academia more generally. It’d be nice to see more and more books along the lines of what Grant Hardy has done: responsible treatments of the Book of Mormon for a non-Mormon audience. I’d especially like to see treatments along these lines that tap the Book of Mormon’s theological and philosophical contributions. Perhaps in connection with this, I think it’d be helpful to see a series of books along the lines of Fortress Press’s “Guides to Biblical Scholarship.” A guide to this academic approach to the Book of Mormon; a guide to that academic approach to the Book of Mormon. Those would help to raise a generation of scholars with enough background in a serious discipline of study of the Book of Mormon to make for a viable academic field.

Extremely Long Term Tasks

Where should we be with the Book of Mormon in a century? Here, of course, it’s much harder to say anything productive. I do, however, think that we should be strategizing in such a way that it’s possible, in a hundred years, for the Book of Mormon to have taken on a life of its own. I’d be thrilled to see the Book of Mormon’s several parts being given individual treatment—for there to be a general recognition that it’s a very different thing to read the small plates than it is to read the Book of Helaman, and a very different thing still to read the writings of Moroni. I’d be thrilled to see the Book of Mormon being treated as a work outlining a theology worth taking seriously—with unique and relevant ideas, with narrative implications that need to be milked, with force in its own right. I’d be thrilled to see the Book of Mormon made more accessible in a variety of editions—one with corrected grammar and updated language and perhaps slightly edited for readability for interested lay readers (something like the RLDS/CofC’s Revised Authorized Version), one with all the messiness of the original but with enough of a critical apparatus to make clear that the critical text isn’t fully established (something like Skousen’s earliest text, but with more footnotes), and a host of in-between editions—all these with the blessing of the Church. I’d be thrilled to see the Book of Mormon being read as a contribution to world scripture, read quite seriously alongside the Gita, the Analects, the Qur’an—and hence made available in editions like those Oxford has published for university courses on world religion.

And what else? What thoughts do others have? This has been a quick and dirty review of just the things I fantasize about. But what needs doing with the Book of Mormon? Where ought we to go next? And where after that? And where after that?

Resolutions and Desires
Announcing the 2nd Wheatley Summer Seminar
“The Prophecy of This Book”
The Restoration and War
  • David Tayman III

    “We need a summary commentary that brings the best of FARMS’s work together into the form of a commentary.” – this is exactly what I’ve considered Brant Gardner’s Second Witness 6-volume series (from Kofford Books) to be, actually. At least as much as a single individual can do.

    • Joe Spencer

      Yeah, David, others have said that to me as well—and I’ve been consistently surprised by it. Brant unquestionably draws on much of the best FARMS work, but there are two things that keep me from agreeing. First, he draws on such work but does so much unique work of his own, as well as draws on all kinds of non-FARMS work, that the synthesizing work he’s done with FARMS is lost in the mix. Second, every time he draws on something from FARMS, I find myself visiting the Maxwell site to see what he’s left out.

      Neither of those, of course, amounts to a criticism. I think Brant has done excellent work *because* he’s done those things. But I’m picturing something else—a kind of FARMS-only commentary that sums up the work of FARMS in a definitive way, making clear where further work in ancient historiography might be done, and gathering together the literature for those working in other kinds of approaches.

      • David Tayman III

        Oh, I agree that Gardner’s work is not completely exhaustive. But that this work – which isn’t as well known or as accessible to many as I would wish it could be – gives a very helpful glimpse of what such a thing could look like. It’s the only such work I know of which does attempt to pull from much of the FARMS scholarship, as well as re-assessing some earlier material that is popular, but perhaps needs to be re-thought. I think it’s a wonderful model, and perhaps a prolegomena of sorts to what you are envisioning.

        I actually love (and am excited by) your expression of having a sort of exhaustive “Anchor Bible Reference Library” for the Book of Mormon, with genred sub-series under the single general banner. It seems like something of this sorts (but perhaps to a significantly smaller degree) was begun or at least conceived in regards to the FARMS Book of Abraham Project.

        It truly is a new day for serious Book of Mormon scholarship, and your vision is inspiring. I look forward to seeing its fruits.

  • Neal Rappleye

    William J. Hamblin made these suggestions about a year ago:

    • Joe Spencer

      Thanks, Neal. I particularly like Bill’s suggestions regarding a geography and a chronology. I’d love to see those in a Book of Mormon Reference Library.

  • Morgan Deane

    I’ve always thought expanding the summer scholars program would help a great deal. The program looks great for 19th century historians and expanding that conference to include those that wish to explore the ancient topics would find a great deal of interest. This would also have the benefit of providing further training for the many young or amateur scholars studying the BoM. It would help collaboration among scholars working on similar subjects, and move towards making it a viable field as you wish. Each years theme could also be one of those topics that you want such as a gendered reading of the text and so forth. (I’ve already offered a few thoughts on gender and the BoM here: Since the program is already run through the MI, the overhead cost of expanding this would be fairly low.

    • Joe Spencer

      Keep your eyes open….

  • paul

    Conspicuously absent from your to-do list: Actually find the civilizations upon which the Book of Mormon is purportedly based – or is that no longer important?

    • DougH

      As important as finding proof of the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan. Still, we may have already found those civilizations, and just lack the kind of connections that allow us to link archeological evidence with written history.

      • Magic_Stick

        Mormons don’t believe in the bible in any event.

        • DougH

          Wrong, it’s the largest book in our collected scriptures, and without it the rest don’t make much sense. Chuck Swindoll’s “Insight for Living” is my favorite radio/internet program, magnificent, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

          • Magic_Stick

            Yes, but mistranslated. And the book of Mormon written by a fraudster with seer stones in pure.

          • DougH

            And just how many Christian sects are there, all because we disagree on how the Bible should be read? As for your slur of Joseph Smith, the Pharisees didn’t exactly have a high opinion of Jesus, either – a drunkard that hung out with social pariahs and cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub, they said.

          • Magic_Stick

            I’m Catholic so the talk of sects to doesn’t apply to me. but it’s really bizarre how Mormons use critiques of Christianity to some how justify Mormon heresy.

          • trytoseeitmyway

            It’s really bizarre how the Catholic Church claims any legitimacy at all when you see what has happened to its priesthood.

          • Magic_Stick

            Please, anyone who believes that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God has no standing to discuss legitimacy. He was a fraudster, adulterer, thief and coward

          • trytoseeitmyway

            It’s really bizarre how the Catholic Church claims any legitimacy at all when you see what has happened to its priesthood.

          • DougH

            See my earlier post on the opinion of Jesus held by most Pharisees. Add to my previous descriptors rabble-rouser and heretical blasphemer.

          • DougH

            Heresy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

        • LakersTrent

          Mormons spend 2 hours in sunday school studying the King James Bible for every 1 hour they spend studying the Book of Mormon

        • confess2me

          Such pablum, my little Roman Catholic friend (is it Christmas, or just Easter, that you attend??). The reason the entire Protestant world exists is because the RCC strayed from the Bible.

      • paul

        This article implies something else, though, doesn’t it, in effect a wholesale abandonment of archaeology in favor of … a TEXTUAL approach?! You’ve got to be kidding. Exactly how does that segue work, from absolute surety that those civilizations actually existed, to an analysis of what exists only on paper? It is breathtaking.

        • brotheroflogan

          I’m not sure what you mean. Do you mean that a textual approach is unprofitable?

          • paul

            I mean text is not primary. Historicity has to be determined before anything else – because, otherwise, what’s the point? You’re putting the cart before the horse.

          • DougH

            And most history comes to us from writings. Archeology can inform those writings, but rarely leads them.

          • paul

            Hmmmm – really?
            For instance, the writings, if you will, of the Maya only became intelligible to modern eyes a few decades ago. Almost everything we knew about that civilization to that point came from ruins and excavations. Same can be said for many ancient groups, new world and old, including those without script systems.
            How long can you kick this can down the road? The book is a history, in the full sense of that word, or it is not. I’m not necessarily saying that it has to be literally historical to be “real” scripture, but with the (historical) claims made regarding the BoM for over a century and a half, this needs to be clarified.

          • DougH

            You are right, there are a number of ancient groups throughout world history where our only source of information is archeological in nature, and in those cases we don’t know all that much – and much of that is guesswork.

            As for the Book of Mormon being history, it isn’t, any more than most of the Bible is – its purpose is religious and theological, not scholarly, and any historical details included are there to serve that purpose rather than history for the sake of history. We can try to suss out historical facts, and try to see how they compare to what we know of the facts on the ground in Mesoamerica (not much that far back, assuming Mesoamerica is indeed the place we need to look), but it isn’t easy and any conclusions are provisional.

          • paul

            “As for the Book of Mormon being history, it isn’t …”
            Well that’s interesting, DougH, and I’m a bit confused, because that’s not what I was taught at BYU. BoM as literal history was CENTRAL to its entire claim of legitimacy – just like the revealing angel Moroni was real, and the First Vision was real. Where have we finally gotten to? – that the only thing “real” from those days was the person of Joseph Smith himself? When did this happen? How did this happen?

          • DougH

            You missed my point. Yes, the BoM is historical. But it wasn’t written as history such as, for example, Thucydides on the suicide of Greece. It contains only those historical details needed to make the doctrinal/theological points that Mormon wanted. Except for the books from the Small Plates of Nephi, of course, and the more detailed sections there are spiritual autobiographies – more like Augustine’s “Confessions” than Julius Caesar’s “The Gallic Wars.”

        • Clark Goble

          Good textual approaches also engage things outside the text. Not just archaeology, anthropology or history but also things like economics, military strategy and tactics, theology and philosophy, science, rhetorical parallels, and a lot more. One can have a textualist emphasis while still engaging with other texts. Indeed I’d say the best textualist approaches simultaneously are very aware of context. So let’s not create a false dichotomy here.

  • Magic_Stick

    Mormonism and Islam are very similar in their prophetic claims and rejection of Christianity. Both come from the Devil.

    • paul

      Magic Stick, what a sad little post this is.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      1 John 4:3.

  • Bob Smith

    Congrats on your appointment as associate editor of JBMS, Joe.
    As to your preliminary list of concerns for the future of Book of Mormon studies, and your quick scan of some past efforts (and what needs to be done to assimilate it), I’ll send my own assessment your way via email.