Salt and Seed
Verifying Scripture in an Empirical Age
The other night I read Alma 25 with my kids, a strange chapter about the gruesome fate of an apostate group called the Amulonites on the one hand and the exemplary growth of a pacifist group called the Anti-Nephi-Lehies on the other. The chapter concludes incongruously with Mormon glossing the events in what seems like the most reductive possible way, wrapping everything with a tidy bow: the conversion of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies had been foretold to the missionaries who introduced them to Christianity, and thus all these events merely show that the Lord "had also verified his word unto them in every particular" (Alma 25:17). The human suffering implied in the appalling demise of the Amulonites, the radical meaning of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies' pacifism, none of this seems to matter to Mormon as much as the fact that the Lord's word had been "verified."
The word "verify" seemed so strange and unscriptural that I searched for it electronically at lds.org to find all its occurrences. It shows up seven times in the Book of Mormon, and only four times in all other books of scripture combined. This isn't surprising, given Mormon's obsession with prophets, prophecy, and the fulfillment of prophecy, of which the development of Nephite Christianity and its culmination in the appearance of the resurrected Christ are exhibit A. Indeed, all instances of "verify" in the Book of Mormon (including two in Alma 25) occurs as part of Mormon's strenuously ideological interpretation of Nephite history to show that the Lord's word in scripture is always, without exception, proved to be true in the end.
There's a straightforward reading of this, which is simply to take Mormon at his word. God speaks directly to prophets, prophets record the word in scripture; scripture will be empirically verified in the end by the providential unfolding of knowledge and history. This is certainly a coherent idea, amply attested in scripture, and one that I find deeply compelling in theory. It's an idea that most modern believers have ignored or attenuated, however, in an effort to preserve the relevance of scripture in the present day. It turns out that it's not so easy to verify scripture, in the empirical sense Mormon seems to have in mind.
Rather than abandoning scripture altogether as unverifiable ancient relics incompatible with modern ways of knowing, we find new ways of reading. Theologians work out sophisticated theories of scripture, emphasizing metaphor or narrative or ethics or history; I love them all. Rank-and-file believers work out practical theories of scripture, emphasizing personal relevance and devotion; I love these too. But none of these, when applied to the Book of Mormon, seem to be able to account for its explicit and central language of verification. All of them somehow seem to dodge Mormon's repeated and emphatic assertion that the Book of Mormon's sweeping claims about hemispheric history, ethnic identity, and the destiny of Christianity will be verified.
Allow me to suggest an alternate reading of "verify," one that is a bit of a dodge itself but that at least has the advantage of grappling with the scriptural language as it presents itself. Abandon the notion of "verification" as our passive recognition that the scriptures are true, as the unfolding of irrefutable evidence that obviates our doubt, that compels us to accept scriptural claims. Instead read "verify" as an active transitive verb, like "beautify" or "electrify": one does not simply judge an object to be beautiful or electric, one must actively make the object beautiful, make it hum with electricity. To verify scripture, one does not simply find it to be true, based on the evidence; one must actively make it true. When Mormon tells us that the Lord's word was "verified" in the events of Alma 25, we can read this as the Anti-Nephi-Lehies' active living out of the Lord's word. Scripture became true because the scriptural actors verified it, made it true, in their lives and their hearts. In the same way, we can "verify the Lord's word" as we actively infuse it with truth, taking it in to our hearts and minds and breathing it out, verified, in our lives and choices.
Okay, but is this what Mormon really meant to convey in his language of verification? My reading may be clever (or it may simply be strained), but does it really get at what the Book of Mormon authors intended? Honestly, I don't think it does. I think Mormon had a much more literal, empirical notion of verification in mind. I was trained to do historically-correct readings of texts, and I'm the first to admit that in a lot of ways my little reading is completely unjustified. The only justification for ahistorical interpretation, perhaps, is that it makes the text relevant in the present day; it saves scripture for modernity, so that scripture can in turn save us. A mutually redemptive relationship to scripture—we redeem it for today, it redeems us for eternity—is something to be verified, indeed.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.