What if Joseph Smith Published the Book of Mormon Last Year?

April 25, 2008
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Many of you may have heard about a man named Joseph Smith that recently claimed to have found some plates of gold, shown to him by an angel no less, and then to have translated those plates “by the gift and power of God” into The Book of Mormon. This Book of Mormon purports to be a story about an ancient people living millennia ago.

We at the New York Ages decided to do a review of this book with such an interesting back story. But we were disappointed to find the interesting stuff stops at the back story. We’d have at least expected a book that purports to be about an ancient people to not borrow so liberally from the front pages of your local newspaper.

In what is clearly a work of fiction oh-so-typical of the 21st century, this Book of Mormon only thinly veils its modern political agenda. The story begins with a single religious family led by the Abraham-like “father Lehi.” Lehi’s descendants soon splits into two tribes with vastly different religious beliefs. The “false” religious tribe, known as Lamanites, has a darker “Arabic-color” of skin while the “true and Christian” religious tribe, the Nephites, are all described as fair-skinned westerners.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, our western-like Nephite tribe is highly productive and soon builds large cities, is productive in capitalistic trade, and gains superior technology while their more technologically primitive Islamic Fundamentalist brethren have to rely on their larger numbers to compete. Hmm… have I heard this story somewhere before?

The Islamic fundamentalist scare continues as we soon find that a band of (straight from your evening news) terrorists – called Gadianton Robbers – has infiltrated the Nephite nation. They could be anyone or anywhere and they are ready to kill for their cause. The goodly Nephites are forced to preach Jesus Christ to our misguided terrorists and convert them away from their nefarious deeds or else the nation itself shall be lost to the terrorists. These hidden-terrorists-amongst-us are founded by one named Osama Bin Laden – oh excuse me, I mean Osama Kish-kumen – who manages to get away with a serious act of terrorism against our westerner Nephites.

The terrorists finally succeed in forcing the entire Nephite nation out of their homes and into the wilderness where they are easy prey for the terrorists who “sally forth from the hills, and out of the mountains, and the wilderness, and their strongholds, and their secret places.” If this all reminds you a little too much of the hiding places of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, well, just look the other way and pretend you didn’t notice.

At last, a great war in Iraq – oh, excuse me, I meant to say “the land which was between the land Zarahemla [or is that Zarahem-erica?] and the land [of] Bountiful [oil]” – is required for the Nephite’s to put an end to this terrorism. So we are told by the good Nephite/Christian/Billy-Graham-like-televangelist narrator that we must “to take up arms against those Gadianton robbers, yea, and also to maintain their rights, and the privileges of their church and of their worship, and their freedom and their liberty” or else we’ll lose out to the Islamic Fundamentalists. Oh kill me now.

But the Islamic Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones on the list of concerns. We soon find that Fundamentalist Christians are indicted as well. Though Christians are, in general, considered to be good, Smith never lets us forget that the Christians Fundamentalists have led the nation astray. It would seem that one named Jim Baker – oh, I mean Jim Nehor – is going around the nation telling everyone that “declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people.” I’m shocked Nehor wasn’t married to a woman named Tamy Faye.

Instead of Fundamentalist Christianity, a more traditional – and dare we say a more “liberal” – Christian point of view is advocated. Biblical inerrancy is attacked and the dangers of using only the Bible as one’s only creed are put down. Continuing in that theme, the evils of deterministic salvation are decried. It would seem Joseph Smith wants to keep reminding us that while Christianity is the one true way, extreme conservative Christianity isn’t.

We soon find other ills of our day represented. A Christian missionary named Corianton makes the mistake of hanging out with a prototypical porn-star named Isabel, so his prudish Christian father solemnly warns him “Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood.” Smith apparently worries a lot about the modern porn-culture and couldn’t figure out a more subtle way to work it in. You can almost imagine Isabel hanging out at a strip bar from the way the story reads.

Later, 60′s Southern racism is tackled and a re-enactment of the civil rights movement takes place. It would seem some of our dark-skinned Lamanites have accepted Jesus and now represent African Americans living in the segregated South – oh I meant to say segregated Jershon. At the same time, the Nephites have turned from Jesus and have now become secular aetheists and/or marginal Christians.

Soon a Lamanite preacher is standing on a Texan-style fort wall (Smith must have recently watched the Alamo) and preaching to Nephites about how they need to accept Jesus and repent. Samuel’s “vision” (you know, sort of like a “dream”. Hint hint.) of their future looks bleak, unless they return to Jesus Christ and racially integrate.

Luckily for us readers, on the edge of our seats, many of the Nephites do accept Jesus and a full scale civil rights movement ensues, starting with racial integration for the sake of the army (“And he caused that armies, both of the Nephites and of the Lamanites, or of all them who were numbered among the Nephites, should be placed as guards round about to watch them, and to guard them from the robbers [i.e. terrorists] day and night.”) and then finally full racial integration of Nephite society: “Lamanites who had united with the Nephites were numbered among the Nephites.” Inter-racial marriage is accepted now and the end result is a merging of the races – well, at least the ones that really believe in Jesus Christ. This continues without much problem until centuries later when the people reject Jesus again and racial tensions start anew.

Well, it’s obviously all a bit over the top and not very original. It’s hard to believe Smith would actually think anyone would believe this isn’t a 21st century work of fiction. But at least the Book of Mormon gave us a few good laughs.

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14 Responses to What if Joseph Smith Published the Book of Mormon Last Year?

  1. Derek P. Moore
    April 25, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Humans have such great intuition that they are capable of reading into almost anything… This is likely why people find recourse in astrology and psychics.

  2. Just for Quix
    April 25, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Creatively written and pleasant to read, Bruce. Some of the Christian correlatives are a bit mixed, like deterministic salvation equated with liberalism (such can be housed in very socially conservative and socially liberalized meta-doctrines) or that corrupted televangelists are fundamentalists (can be but not necessarily). At any rate, not to divert the point… your post does show the pattern-finding abilities of the human mind, and also the transmutable power of myth. (A good kind of myth.) Also, the important necessity of holy texts to be able to work on many levels.

  3. Ray
    April 25, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Nice, Bruce. Perhaps a cautionary tale for those who reject AND accept the BofM.

  4. hawkgrrrl
    April 25, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Nicely done! Very interesting parallels and an insightful view of the mind’s ability to find patterns and plaigiarism in almost anything.

  5. Jeff Spector
    April 25, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Very creative, Bruce. It demonstrates how well you know the BoM. I guess it was written for our day!

  6. April 25, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    A useful review, Bruce, on several levels. You did not state what this all means, however – no doubt hoping to make us think, which was very sneaky of you.

    While drafting some remarks in 1987, I wrote the following lines which were not published, but which may apply now, albeit not in such narrow context as I framed it then:

    “Bushman suggests that the Book of Mormon secret robber societies could be viewed by a different (say twentieth-century) audience as terrorist dissenters ‘undermining from within, and attacking openly when they had strength.’ Perhaps this is quite true, but in fact irrelevant. In the twenty-first century, talks may be given in the Mormon Tabernacle admonishing the Saints to beware of insidious Yuppie-Capitalist power brokers, of which Nephi of old will have warned us when he prophesied of evil secret combinations marshalling their forces in the latter days.

    “What matters here, in my opinion, is what the Book of Mormon itself contributes to our perception of nineteenth-century anti-Masonic parallels in its text, and how contemporaries of Joseph Smith understood it. . . .” (quotation above from Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism [Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, (1984)], 131.)

    Of course, by “irrelevant,” above, I only intended “irrelevant to establishing Book of Mormon historicity.” If all of the current themes and elements of today’s modern world which we discover in an old book’s text were also present in the writer’s own world – at least as powerfully then as now, and just as available – then while implications of the book’s universal application may stand unscathed, any insinuations of transcendent prophecy (regarding those specific themes and elements) lose logical ground.

    By not insisting that your reviewer at “New York Ages” implied anything of the sort, of course, you invite us to appreciate modern benefits of a significant text which – I would contend – need not have imagined the news-worthy events of today in order to advise and warn us of them nonetheless. For example, your reviewer discovers a “western-like Nephite tribe” which “builds large cities, is productive in capitalistic trade, and gains superior technology while their more technologically primitive Islamic Fundamentalist brethren have to rely on their larger numbers to compete.” A little more archaically, on the other hand, I see . . .

    “. . . the imagined origin of the race of men supposed to have inhabited the western parts of America long before the Indian tribes roamed in that once cheerless wilderness, and to whose labors have been attributed the numerous mounds and forts of earth discovered in several of the western states, particularly in Ohio, and indicating in their builders such a knowledge of the arts of civilization as none of the Indian tribes have ever been known to possess.” (Collections, Historical and Miscellaneous: and Monthly Literary Journal 2 [September 1823 issue, edited by
    J. Farmer and J. B. Moore, Concord, New Hampshire], p. 286)

    Your modern reviewer discovers “a Lamanite preacher . . . standing on a Texan-style fort wall (Smith must have recently watched the Alamo) and preaching to Nephites about how they need to accept Jesus and repent.” I see Samson Occom (1723-92) creating a sensation preaching both to Anglo aristocracy and to his fellow Native Americans, finally residing among the humble Oneida of New York State who fully espoused Christianity and united themselves with the American colonists in opposition to the hoards of British-allied Indians who sallied forth from the wilderness throughout the American Revolution to terrorize, to raid and to torture.

    “Instead of Fundamentalist Christianity,” your reviewer discovers “a more traditional – and dare we say a more ‘liberal’ – Christian point of view” in this recently-published Book of Mormon. “Biblical inerrancy is attacked and the dangers of using only the Bible as one’s only creed are put down. Continuing in that theme, the evils of deterministic salvation are decried. It would seem Joseph Smith wants to keep reminding us that while Christianity is the one true way, extreme conservative Christianity isn’t.” I don’t work so hard as your reviewer, but I see hardships endured by poor 1820s Reformed Dutch worshippers just south of Fayette, Seneca County, New York who have recently been kicked out of their house of worship by “Antinomians” who, like Book of Mormon Zoramites in the land of Antionum, insist upon more conservative Calvinism than their more liberal brethren. (Wilhelmus Eltinge, A Discourse, Designed as an Exposition and Refutation of the Reasons Assigned in a Pamphlet, By a Number of Ministers, Elders, and Deacons. For Declaring Themselves the True Reformed Dutch Church, In the United States of America. By Wilhelmus Eltinge, A. M. [Ovid, N. Y.: Printed by M. Hayes, n.d. (but 182-?)], 4; Alma 31:3)

    And yet, and yet, and yet . . . if the book “is clearly a work of fiction oh-so-typical of [its] century, this Book of Mormon only thinly veils its modern political agenda,” . . . if we will only see it. Like any world literature, the text at hand can contain whatever readers will find in it. If that were not the case, we would not hear of an exciting second edition (with a few doctrinal and grammatical revisions) which is anticipated shortly.

  7. Bruce Nielson
    April 25, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    “Some of the Christian correlatives are a bit mixed, like deterministic salvation equated with liberalism (such can be housed in very socially conservative and socially liberalized meta-doctrines) or that corrupted televangelists are fundamentalists (can be but not necessarily).”

    JFQ, I’m sure you know this already… but for the record, I don’t necessarily agree with my New York Ages reviewer. :P

  8. April 25, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Rick Grunder makes an interesting comment: “If all of the current themes and elements of today’s modern world which we discover in an old book’s text were also present in the writer’s own world – at least as powerfully then as now, and just as available – then while implications of the book’s universal application may stand unscathed, any insinuations of transcendent prophecy (regarding those specific themes and elements) lose logical ground.” His examples warrant further research and discussion and with that I would suggest that the “New York Ages” peruse a similar narrative to the Book of Mormon, this one by a contemporary of Joseph Smith.

    Sarah Josepha Hale lived just down the road a bit from said Smith’s hometown. Hale is far better known for her nursery rhyme Mary Had A Little Lamb and also for her tireless effort in petitioning Congress and the Presidents to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. Her book is THE GENIUS OF OBLIVION; And Other Original Poems. By a Lady of New Hampshire.[Sarah Joseph Hale] Concord [New Hampshire]: Jacob B. Moore, 1823. Though not as lengthy and with no Masonic parallels or illusions to terrorists, robbers or Antinomians and perhaps will not garner the notoriety that the Book of Mormon will, it is nonetheless striking in its content.

    Seems this work of fiction preceded Smith’s own book by seven years. In the same year that Smith was holding his first interview with Moroni, Hale was busy writing her first book. Hale did not have the good fortune to have her book reviewed by the insightful New York Ages but it did help to fill the wide-spread interest in Native American origins along with VIEW OF THE HEBREWS, (also published the same year) MANUSCRIPT FOUND (The Spaulding Manuscript), AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES, and many others.

    Hale’s book also has an apparition: The “Genius of Oblivion,” who speaks to the book’s hero Ormond, a descendant of those now-forgotten people. Ormond, while praying one day in the forest, feels powerless to learn the history of his people, how they came to America and then perished,

    “. . . And where
    The archives of their history,
    Their tomes [i.e., volumes] of kings, forgotten lie?” [p. 37]

    The “Genius of Oblivion” appears and tells Ormond that the first American inhabitants came from Tyre (some hundred miles from Jerusalem) during the siege of Nebuchadnezzar (585-573 B.C.). As Nebuchadnezzar and his ilk are bashing down the gate to the city, a small band of people flee by ship across the Atlantic to the New World (“. . . Nor land more blest, than in the west . . . ,” p. 62). The pioneer Arvon and his bride Cora, with rowers and handmaidens, sail away from their Mediterranean home, knowing that the “western Eden will repay/ All present sighs and sorrow . . . ,” p. 61.

    Perhaps had The Genius of Oblivion been reviewed by the prestigious “New York Ages” we would all be reading and critiquing it, rather than the Book of Mormon.

    We do hope that the Book of Mormon’s “exciting second edition (with a few doctrinal and grammatical revisions) which is anticipated shortly” will help shed more light on what will certainly become a best seller. Who knows, maybe even The Genius of Oblivion with be reprinted.

    And further this deponent sayeth not.

  9. April 25, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    I really enjoyed this, even if I didn’t have much to say.

  10. Jon Blake
    April 27, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    Why do you say that Joseph Smith translated the BoM by the by the “gift and power of God”, when the facts are they were never translated at all, but instead the text was read from a peep stone in a hat. I really cannot understand why you can’t tell the truth?

  11. Bruce Nielson
    April 28, 2008 at 7:12 am

    I think Jon Blake’s comment deserves from attention.

    I have spent quite a bit of time (for a non-historian anyhow) studying how the Book of Mormon was translated. In looking at original sources, I came up with my own opinion on how the process worked. I’m probably wrong, and it’s just speculation, of course, since Joseph Smith (nor Oliver Cowdry for that matter) ever told us how it worked. The sources that do exist, such as Martin Harris, had a lot less familiarity with the process and, presumably, were coming up with their own theories based on their limited experience.

    Nevertheless, I still carefully read through what information was available and formed and opinion.

    In my opinion, the interpreters (either the Nephite Interpreters or the Seer Stone) were, to use a modern analogy, like a computer interface. They could store information — or possibly accesses it at a distance — and also suggested word for word translation of characters similar to the way Martin Harris described. (Marin claims the hierglyphics would appear and then a translation would appear).

    To follow my computer analogy, this is similar to how google translation works. It takes the words and then figures out the equivalent word or words in another language. It’s a non-intelligent process since it’s basically just a word for word look up against a database.

    However, I think Martin Harris, typical of a non-scholar, did not understand that a word for word translation is not a completed translation. If you ever google translate, it’s horrible because it’s so literal and the grammar is all wrong. Someone then must take those words and figure out a real English sentence to put the underlying idea into and there is a real art to doing this. This part of the process requires actual intelligence and can’t be done mechanically.

    I personally believe that is how the translation process worked and personally I think this is why Joseph Smith did indeed “translate” the Book of Mormon in the literal sense of the word. This opinion is fully informed by the sources, though it’s only one possible way to look at that data.

    Jon Blake has, as we see above, accused me and all Mormons of lying because, as it were, we hold an opinion different than his.

    Jon, you are entitled to your opinion as am I to mine. But I really have concerns over someone accusing anyone that disagrees with their interpretation as lying. In fact, I think this is a intolerant and prejudice act if done willfully.

    I hope that my explanation will help explain why a sensible person might quite literally believe Joseph Smith translated the plates while being fully informed by the historical sources and that you will be able to put this issue behind you now and stop accusing others of lying just because they disagree with you.

    Now I am willing to assume you did it innocently, but please, in the future, do not pretend to read other people’s minds. Please let people hold their own opinions and explain themselves rather than put words into their mouth and minds for them.

    I also highly recommend DPCs article on this subject of accusing others of lying just because they disagree with you: http://theuttermeaninglessnessofeverything.blogspot.com/2007/11/on-truth.html This is really just a form of conspiracy theory, as DPC demonstrates.

  12. FireTag
    April 10, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    I have a fundamental scientific problem with “historical” disciplinary judgments about the “historicity” of the Book of Mormon. Let me see if I can state it in as neutral a way as possible.

    Suppose you give an historian a translation of an ancient document and ask her as a historian to tell you whether the document is authentic. The historian can validly examine all of the contents of the document against the translator’s background and what is known about the era of origin of the document. If she finds that the correlation of the document with the translator’s era is much higher than with the era of origin (even if the latter correlation seems non-randomly positive), it’s valid to rule against the historicity of the document.

    But that is a straw man test in regard to the Book of Mormon.

    Anyone remember the Vorlons from the Babylon 5 TV series — the advanced alien race that manipulated the detailed history of humanity and other species over thousands of years to prepare for a galaxy-wide war with their enemies, the Shadows of Zarhadum? How would our historian’s test fare if the Vorlons were responsible for delivering the document as part of their manipulation of history? Now the widespread presence of ideas in the translator’s environment that relate to the message of the document becomes meaningless: the idea that the environment and the translator’s experiences are being manipulated is part of the explanation! In fact, the absense of such ideas would argue against the existence of the Vorlons, or at least that they were rather ineffective historical manipulators!

    By contrast, even a moderate non-random correlation of the document’s contents with the era of origin (particularly in areas unknowable to the translator) would become very significant, and warrant more detailed consideration of the era of origin. And that wouldn’t be the province of the historian specializing in the translator’s era and culture. Wrong scientific specialty.

    Change Vorlons to God, and you see my problem with pronouncements about BofM historicity that come from specialists in the 19th Century. I find it far more interesting that almost 2 centuries after publication, its even possible for serious scholars of the era of origin in both the Mideast and Mesoamerica can still engage in debate about the question. That tells me, as a non-specialist, that the correlation with the era of origin is NOT obviously random.

    Now, if a 21st Century scientist can find evidence of a holographic projector in an orbiting spacecraft in the 19th Century…

  13. July 11, 2009 at 6:22 am

    Can you provide more information on this?