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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction

The Book of Mormon

In March 1830, Joseph Smith published the 584-page Book of Mormon, an unusual beginning for a life as a minister of the gospel. No other religious career in Smith’s time began this way. Others of his generation claimed visions, but none published a “translation” or wrote a parallel Bible. Charles G. Finney, an apprentice lawyer in Adams, New York, claimed to see a vision of Christ at the time of his conversion in 1821, but Finney immediately began preaching; he went on to become the most influential evangelical preacher of his generation.13 Other budding religious reformers took the same path, moving from visionary to preacher. Joseph Smith, instead of communicating with the world through sermons, made his entrance onto the religious stage with the translation of a large book of ancient records. Though not widely read himself, he instinctively sensed the increasing potency of print in disseminating religious knowledge.

The publication of the Book of Mormon plunged Joseph Smith into immediate controversy. Even before the book was published, his Palmyra neighbors pledged not to purchase it, hoping to discourage printers from finishing the job. The Palmyrans thought the book was a scheme to swindle the gullible. One acquaintance later claimed Smith had put white sand in his frock and told his family it was the gold plates.14 Smith’s refusal to show the plates to curious inquirers encouraged such speculations. Though never able to silence the critics, he did have an answer to their questions about the plates. Eleven of his friends and family members said they saw the plates and agreed to have their testimonies printed in the back of the Book of Mormon.

Apart from its origins, the book itself was contested. Some early readers were enthralled. One convert, Parley P. Pratt, said after obtaining a copy, “I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep.”15 Others were more skeptical. The Reformed Baptist theologian Alexander Campbell hypothesized that Smith had cobbled the text together from bits and pieces of cultural information swirling about him in Palmyra. Campbell wrote, “This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years.”16 Campbell was referring to the book’s sermons, prophecies, and discourses on doctrine, but his explanation could not account for the extensive narrative tying the religious passages together.

The Book of Mormon is an elaborate, thousand-year history of a civilization that flourished and then collapsed more than fourteen hundred years before Joseph Smith published the book. In its ambitious scope, the Book of Mormon most resembles the Bible. The first hostile reports immediately called it the “Gold Bible,” partly because of the echoes of King James English in the prose. The text begins with the flight of two Israelite families from Jerusalem in about 600 BC and ends with the destruction of their civilization in about AD 421. The text is divided into “books” named for prophets, similar to the prophetic books of the Bible, and tells stories of God’s intervention in human affairs. In a reprise of the New Testament, Christ appears to these people after his resurrection and teaches the Christian gospel. Although many New England writers of Smith’s generation tried to produce scripture-like writing, the literary historian Lawrence Buell has pointed out that none succeeded in completing more than a few fragments of inspired poetry. “The new Bible did not get written,” he says, “unless one counts The Book of Mormon.”17

Though like the Bible in many respects, the Book of Mormon is not a copy. It introduces scores of distinctive characters and tells dozens of original stories about the struggle to establish a righteous society. The account, which takes place largely in the Western Hemisphere, where the migrating families arrive by ship, re-creates an economy, a culture, a political system, a military, and a church. The complexity of the story and the scene makes it difficult to sustain the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon merely imitates the Bible or that, as Campbell argued, the uneducated Joseph Smith pulled together snatches of theological and political controversy to patch the book together. Considering that Smith dictated the bulk of the book in less than three months, it is perhaps the most notable example of untutored genius in all of American history.

To account for the narrative complexity, critics soon began to hypothesize the existence of another author. In 1834, Eber Howe, a newspaper editor writing from Painesville, Ohio, near Mormon headquarters in Kirtland, argued that the Book of Mormon was derived from the work of Solomon Spalding (or Spaulding), a Dartmouth graduate, then dead, who had been fascinated with the history of the American Indians. Spalding had written a romance about a Roman legate to Great Britain who was cast ashore on the North American coast and lived among the native inhabitants for several years. Although Spalding’s manuscript was not published, his friends thought they remembered characters resembling those in the Book of Mormon. Howe speculated that Joseph Smith’s learned associate Sidney Rigdon had seen Spalding’s manuscript, transformed it into the Book of Mormon, and somehow smuggled it to Smith.18

The theory fell apart when the Spalding manuscript was discovered in the 1880s and found to bear only a faint resemblance to the Book of Mormon.19 Josiah Quincy, the Boston Brahmin who visited Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844 and later read Spalding, saw no comparison between Spalding’s “tedious romance” and the Book of Mormon.20 In recent years, the preponderance of non-Mormon scholarly opinion has returned to Campbell’s theory of an ingenious Smith writing the book himself.21

The debate over the Book of Mormon’s origins has partially obscured the actual nature of the text. Critics have been so absorbed in proving or disproving the book’s historical authenticity that the literary and theological qualities have been relatively neglected. The authoritative Cambridge History of American Literature makes virtually no mention of the book.22 But even at first glance, it is evident that the Book of Mormon is first and foremost a work of intense piety. Long before Jesus is born, Christ figures in sermons and visions. The urgency of the preaching comes through in passage after passage. Jacob, son of the patriarch in the founding family, exhorts his people to believe:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness, that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. . . . Will ye reject the words of the Prophets? and will ye reject all the words which have been spoken concerning Christ, after that so many have spoken concerning him?23

The pleading, exhorting, and promising continue down through the final prophet, Moroni, writing four centuries after the birth of Christ:

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.24

The text is saturated with Christian faith, a side of Joseph Smith’s mentality sometimes overlooked by biographers drawn to the more sensational episodes in his life.