No matter whether one considers the Book of Mormon to be divinely inspired holy writ or the work of one man's impressive imagination, it is increasingly hard to argue against the growing scholarly consensus that "the Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature." While the book stands as an important artifact in the study of the American history and culture, it is no less important as a contemporary religious text with global influence. The book can now be read by nearly 90 percent of the world's inhabitants in their native languages. Enjoying ever larger print runs in its nearly two-century history, the Book of Mormon achieved a distribution of 150 million copies worldwide by 2011. Changes in American publishing in the late twentieth century have allowed for exponential growth in producing the Book of Mormon. Computer technology has helped translate the book into dozens of languages bad has expedited the printing of more than 50 million copies of the book in the last ten years alone. Such massive publishing statistics lend credence to the religious historian Rodney Stark's argument that, given the right conditions, by the mid-twenty-first century Mormonism might "achieve a worldwide following comparable to that of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and the other dominant world faiths." Whether or not Stark's projection proves correct, it is obvious that the book that gave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints its popular name might be considered the most important religious text ever to emerge from the United States. (9-10)
I do hope the above is not true, but I am having a hard time disagreeing with it. Perhaps no book, written on American soil, has had a larger influence and been translated into more languages than Joseph Smith's The Book of Mormon. As a result, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must be taken seriously and can no longer be looked at as a fringe group outside orthodox Christianity. Rather, they must be understood theologically, culturally, morally, and historically. Therefore, I picked up the helpful book by Paul C. Gutjahr entitled The Book of Mormon: A Biography.
The title of the book is a fascinating one for it is the first of its kind I have ever considered. I have devoured dozens of biographies and autobiographies (not to mentioned memoirs) in my life, but never have I considered a biography of a book. What Gutjahr, and the other books/authors in this series, seek to do is to tell the story of their respective book. In Gutjahr's case, he tells the story of the composition, influence, changes, and ongoing reach of The Book of Mormon.
In one sense, in order to understand the LDS church one must understand The Book of Mormon both its content and its composition. The book is very much the work of Joseph Smith (regardless of one's theory of its composition). The Book of Mormon did not descend from above nor did Smith merely recite the words of God (as Islam claims Mohamed did). Rather, it is a deeply edited and translated worked closely linked to Smith himself. Thus to understand the LDS church, one must understand The Book of Mormon; to understand The Book of Mormon, one must explore the life and mind of Joseph Smith.
Gutjahr takes us on this journey of Smith's life and how he "discovered" the golden plates he would later "translate" from Reformed Egyptian to King James English. We learn of Smith's background as an impoverished youth always having to move who experienced as very painful leg surgery deeply interested but dissatisfied in religion.
Even after its publication, though, the book is very much Smith's child. One striking insight gained from the author's research regards Smith's multiple edits and editions of the book. He reports:
In the years following the founding of the Church, Joseph embraced other revelatory work of an even more startling nature. He returned to the Book of Mormon twice to revise its text. In Joseph's hands, the Book of Mormon was no static entity. A living prophet made it a living book, capable of change. His oracular status made him fully comfortable in correcting what he told his followers was "the most correct of any book on earth"This, at least to me, poses a serious problem for Mormonism. The traditional orthodox Christian view is that the autographs are inspired. Whatever was originally written was given by God. The LDS church are forced to hold to a very different view. They must affirm that Smith's first and second edition of the Book of Mormon was inadequate and in need of an update. This is strange considering Smith claimed to merely be translating the text, not writing it.
He first revised the book in 1837. This second edition proved important because it included more than three thousand alterations from the 1830 edition, clearly signaling that the Prophet was not afraid to change his work. For the most part, these changes were matters of adjustments in grammar. . . . Joseph had, however, made theological adjustments to the text as well, hoping to rid the book of inconsistencies and harmonize its content with his more recent teachings found in "Lectures on the Faith" and the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The most important changes int his regard appear in the first two books of Nephi where Joseph revised to indicate a difference in the person of the Godhead, making way for his further teachings on the plurality of gods. (64)
Furthermore, though one need to understand The Book of Mormon in order to under the LDS church, one cannot understand LDS doctrine by only exploring The Book of Mormon. This is a striking revelation for most. Many of the controversial and central doctrines of the LDS church are not found, or at least developed, in Joseph's Golden Book. Rather they are established in their other official documents like The Pearl of Great Price, Doctrines and Covenants, and official sermons and writings from Smith and later presidents and apostles of the LDS church. Thus when Mormon missionaries assure potential converts that reading The Book of Mormon is sufficient to convert them, they are misleading them for there is very little Mormon doctrine in the Book of Mormon.
The reason for this is obvious. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a revelatory faith centered on texts, rather it is centered on a personality, namely, Joseph Smith. What he believed and claimed were gospel even if they had no grounding in the churches authoritative writings. This ultimately explains where plural marriages came from - not from the supposed angel Moroni, but from Smith himself.
In the end, Gutjahr has written a fascinating book about an important, though deeply flawed, book of American literature. I am clearly biased in regards to The Book of Mormon. Its history is bunk (and the author makes it clear the LDS church can offer no historical or archeological evidence to support it in spite of much research), its composition is questionable, and its "translator" is, I believe, a fraud. Nevertheless, in order to understand Mormons one will need to address their favorite book. Gutjahr tells the story beyond its pages.