Thank you Nathaniel for your introduction, and thank you to Times & Seasons for the opportunity to share my thoughts and observations with you. A curious paradox of modern Mormonism is how Mormons and non-Mormons frame its heritage. Mormonism appeared in early nineteenth century North America as a new religion amidst a largely Protestant setting. Joseph Smith proclaimed new revelation – the First Vision of 1820; followed by a vibrant stream of additional revelations in the decades that followed; and new scripture – the Book of Mormon – introduced in the visions of Moroni beginning in 1823. All of this leads naturally to an outsider’s framing of Mormonism as a revealed religion, but less so as a historical religion with a palpable religious provenance or lineage tracing back through time to an original source. Thus Yale scholar Harold Bloom admired Joseph Smith as an imaginative genius, but he dismissed the Book of Mormon as Joseph’s “first work; it is the portrait of a self-educated, powerful mind at the untried age of twenty-four . . . wholly tendentious and frequently tedious.”
The idea of provenance is enormously important, in religion and in life. If you could choose between two identically appearing works of art, which would you choose? One has no verifiable provenance, but is beautiful; the other is equally beautiful, but has a clear documented provenance tracing its ownership, custody and transmission back through time to the original artist and setting. Art historians have long observed that well-provenanced works of art and sculpture command price premiums for their more certain value and worth.
Provenance is deeply influential in religion. Catholics stress a provenance of the Apostolic origin of the episcopate with a papal legacy tracing back to the apostle Peter. Jews stress a provenance of a biblical scribal heritage traceable through interpretive medieval and rabbinic Talmudic texts, ultimately back to the ancient texts of Moses and the visions of Sinai. But what about Mormon provenance?
For nearly two centuries Mormons have embraced a prophetic restitution narrative that frames the new Church as a restoration of the original New Testament Church in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That is, Mormonism claims a revealed provenance that traces directly back to the biblical foundations of Christianity and Old Testament religion. In the mid-1830s Joseph Smith strengthened this historical provenance when he described foundational priesthood restorations that were anchored in biblical history: the visitations of John the Baptist (D&C 13), Peter, James, and John (D&C 27:12), and Moses, Elias, Elijah, and Christ (D&C 110). Above all, the Restoration was a biblical restoration, with a tangible – and surely miraculous biblical provenance.
However, in my research, which appears in my new book Schooling the Prophet: How the Book of Mormon Influenced Joseph Smith and the Early Restoration, I find that this dominant biblical provenance narrative is actually incomplete, if not quite historically accurate. What is missing is broad understanding of the ancient religious institutions documented in the Book of Mormon as sources of significant religious influence in Mormon doctrine, liturgy, and practice. That is not to say that the Book of Mormon was not influential; it was in quite profound ways, notably as an instrument for conversion, as Terryl Givens wrote a decade ago. Still, the Bible remained the dominant document of scriptural discourse among Latter-day Saints, just as it was among all Christians—the lingua franca of religious discourse among nineteenth-century Christianity. The Bible had thousands of years of scholarship, official sanction by religions and governments, and status as the unrivaled word of God by Christian and Jew alike; the Book of Mormon had none of this.
Have you ever wondered why the Lord chastised the early Saints in 1832 with this surprising passage in Doctrine and Covenants 84:56-57: “And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written.”
However, hidden beneath the surface of official Mormon discourse we find traces of Book of Mormon influence on the unfolding Restoration – rarely highlighted or conspicuously noted, and sometimes obscured behind the aura of biblical authority. I am convinced that the Book of Mormon had a profound formative influence on Joseph Smith’s doctrinal and institutional development during the nascent days of the nineteenth-century Mormon restoration. By the time of its publication, Joseph had spent seven of his young 24 years, first in preparation, then in translating, preparing two complete manuscripts, and finally printing and publishing his work as the Book of Mormon in March 1830. For Joseph there was a confidence in, a comfort with, and consequently a willingness to draw on the body of this ancient text because he knew it well and was certain of its origin. As one reviewer of my book wrote here: “By drawing out close linguistic ties, Smith creates a portrait of Joseph as theologically and doctrinally saturated by his experiences with the Book of Mormon.”
When I began my research I determined that I would tackle the most difficult test of my hypothesis: modern LDS temple worship. After spending a summer writing and researching I had composed three chapters on Book of Mormon influences on the emergence of temple worship – I had yet to explore baptism, sacrament, priesthood, doctrine, or theology. The Book of Mormon passed this most challenging test in surprising and unexpected ways – in Joseph’s expansive temple vision of many temples throughout the land (Brigham Young prophesied of “thousands of them”), in a progressive form of temple worship, in unusual temple design and construction especially evident in the Kirtland Temple, and in the meaning of temple worship and endowment in a post-resurrection world where the advent of Christ had transformed the existential meaning of the temple. Joseph must have asked himself in 1830 as he sent a delegation to locate the site of his first temple in the west – in Missouri: What should modern temple worship be? He found answers deep within the sacred narratives of Nephite temple worship. I will write more about these in my next post.
Other dimensions show similarly distinguishing influence – baptismal meaning so distinctive that the Vatican categorized Mormon baptism as not a heresy of original Christian doctrine, but of “a completely different matrix;” or Mormon priesthood offices of 1829 that clearly derived from the Book of Mormon, installed well before a restoration of New Testament priesthood offices such as bishop or deacon (the only two legitimate biblical offices according to vociferous critic Alexander Campbell); and a sacramental meaning so positively distinctive, yet clearly sharing a heritage with the Eucharistic traditions of other Christian faiths.
The Book of Mormon, paradoxically a historical work with a revealed heritage, bequeathed to Joseph Smith and the early Restoration a provenance that was at once distinctive, if not controversial, and historically authentic. Is it conceivable that without the Book of Mormon Mormonism might have slipped into history as another nineteenth-century restorationist movement that attempted to return to Christ’s pure and original New Testament religion, like the Campbellites, the Millerites, or the Christadelphians?
I hope to share in additional posts some of these insights, and look forward to your thoughts and comments in return.