Title: By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion
Author: Terryl L. Givens
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Extensive original documentation on the Book of Mormon
Compares reactions of believers and non-believers
Emphasises importance of supposed divine origins of Book of Mormon
Not necessarily for those totally unfamiliar with Mormonism
Describes origins of the Book of Mormon
Explores the various ways in which the Book of Mormon has been received
Discusses ways in which people have tried to prove the Book of Mormon true
Mormonism has certainly been the subject of a large number of books, some skeptical and most apologetical, but few have provided a focused, scholarly examination of the Book of Mormon itself. Terryl L. Givens, a Mormon professor of English at the University of Richmond, Virginia, has recently written just such a book, providing an important resource for the general study of Mormonism and American religion.
So, what is the Book of Mormon supposed to be? Evaluations have differed radically. Some have considered it to be the ravings of a lunatic. Some see it as a guide to ancient American history and geography. Skeptics have largely viewed it as a product of 19th century religious and cultural beliefs. Mormons, of course, believe that it is a recent, supernatural revelation. It should therefore qualify religious scripture, but the nature of scripture is not easy to define. What is required is an examination of how the text has been received by both believers and outsiders.
This is the primary theme running through Givens book: what the Book of Mormon has meant to different people, and why. Believers think that the basis for the Book of Mormon was a set of golden tablets discovered by Joseph Smith in 1823. These were not finally translated until 1829, when he also had the text published. People everywhere, but especially religious leaders, reacted with astonishment and anger, incensed that Joseph Smith dared to claim a divine origin for his book.
Contrary to modern assumptions, however, the book was not used in the way traditional biblical scriptures were:
- ...the American scripture has exerted influence within the church and reaction outside the church not primarily by virtue of its substance, but rather its manner of appearing, not on the merits of what it says, but what it enacts. Put slightly differently, the history of the Book of Mormons place in Mormonism and American religion generally has always been more connected to its status as signifier than signified, or its role as sacred sign rather than its function as persuasive theology.
In other words, it is the origin and nature of the Book of Mormon which was most important for Mormons, not its contents. Although today it is certainly used as a basis for doctrine, it cannot be understood on that level alone. The Book of Mormon, even today, functions much more as a concrete manifestation of a sacred utterance, and early critics treated it appropriately - objections raised were typically aimed not at problematic teachings in the text, but rather at the idea that there could be yet another revelation from God and that it could be found in the manner claimed.
Being a Mormon, Givens makes the same basic assumptions: the Book of Mormon stands or falls as religious scripture based upon the validity of the claims of its origins. If those claims are genuine, then Mormonism should be accepted as a true religious system; if those claims are not genuine, then what status is left for the Mormon church? Thus, Givens makes some attempts to refute arguments that the Book of Mormon is a product of the 19th century and to make a case for its having an ancient origin. He has a vested interest in this being the correct interpretation, although the arguments he offers are not very convincing.