Today we’re pleased to share a guest post from Benjamin Park. The post refers to his review essay “The Book of Mormon and Early America’s Political and Intellectual Traditions,” which is available to read at the Maxwell Institute site here, or as a Google document here. We have also published a follow-up comment from David Holland, whose book is one of the subjects of Park’s essay. We have closed the post to additional comments. We will now turn the time over to Brother Park.
[This is a response to the number of posts and comments dealing with a review essay of mine, “The Book of Mormon and Early America’s Political and Intellectual Traditions,” which appears in the most recent issue of Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. In the essay, I reviewed what I found to be two smart and important books: David F. Holland’s Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) and Eran Shalev’s American Zion: The Old Testament as Political Text from the Revolution Through the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).]
My fellow saints,
This will likely be my only response to the several posts and many comments that have appeared in the last few days, so I apologize if I overlook any particular questions or issues. But I hope that I can be a bit more clear about what I intended my review to accomplish.
It can be a bit unnerving to see one’s work receive such a large and vibrant response. Regardless of what else can be said, I think it is clear that the Book of Mormon still energizes a broad array of people and approaches. I can sympathize with that enthusiasm, and I admire the strong desire to take the sacred scripture seriously. In many ways, the academic study of Mormonism would not exist the way it does today if it were not for strong and committed communities that cherish Mormon’s book.
What I found so exciting about the two books I reviewed, and what I tried to bring out in my essay, is that they embody a recent trend that I think is laudable: their authors believed that the Book of Mormon has potential to address many historical issues and engage multiple academic fields. Previous historians have examined the cultural reception of the Book of Mormon, many with great success, but much of the discussion continued to circle around the nature of Joseph Smith’s authorship, a question which, while important, has only a limited audience. While those discussions will and should continue, they have at least two limitations: first, they are only of primary interest to those in Mormon circles; second, they fail to explain what made the Book of Mormon such a potent artifact in antebellum America. The books under review provided a much wider field in which to understand the text, one that suggests that it ought to be of greater interest to historians of the nineteenth-century, including those that are otherwise uninterested in Mormonism and perhaps even religion in general.
When I spoke of the methodological limitations of past discourse, I did not mean that viewing the Book of Mormon as an ancient text is a mistake. I simply meant that the important scholarly work on questions of central importance to an internal, predominantly Mormon audience has paved the way for a broader scholarly conversation about ways that Joseph Smith and his religion connected with other streams of nineteenth-century thought. I in no way expect or want scholarship that explores an ancient setting for the Book of Mormon and other questions of vital importance to Mormons to cease—indeed, the very first page of my review notes that these past discussions are both important and should continue. There is nothing about this new work that precludes continued attention to questions surrounding the text’s ancient origins. I was pleased to see that the very issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies in which my review appeared featured several articles that explored the Book of Mormon’s ancient setting, a form of scholarship that the Maxwell Institute continues to support. I regret that the talk surrounding my emphasis on the nineteenth-century context has overshadowed the primary point of the last few pages of my review: that even the contextual frameworks ably provided by Holland and Shalev don’t fully capture the breadth and depth of the Book of Mormon, as the book continues to elude narrow categories of contemporary analysis.
In short, my review was meant to highlight the interest that the Book of Mormon ought to command from a variety of people and perspectives, especially those traditionally outside the typically narrow circles of Mormon studies. My excitement to see the conversation transcend what I infelicitously referred to as parochial boundaries of Mormon-centric discussions grows from my belief in the book’s power and promise, not its limitations. I in no way meant to dismiss the work on which my own scholarship stands, and which forms an important foundation for expanding scholarly work.
I am particularly sorry that apparent misunderstandings of my review have led to public speculation about my personal religious beliefs. While I would prefer to discuss my religious beliefs in more appropriate contexts, I do not want misinformation concerning my faith to contribute to any ongoing misrepresentation of the Maxwell Institute. I believe in the Book of Mormon, both its powerful spiritual message and its historical claims. It is, in part, because of that belief that I hope to see academic engagement with the Book of Mormon expanded.
I express my good wishes to everyone involved in this conversation, and I hope we can all embrace the spirit of this holiday season.