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?

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