Reading the Book of Mormon

I have to confess that I am a bit surprised by the reaction of folks in the comments on the section from the Metaphysical Elders’ Historian’s remarks. However, I guess that I shouldn’t be. It is probably an empirical fact that most Mormons think that virtually all Native Americans came from the Lamanites. I also think that this is the position taken by most early church leaders and has been the dominant understanding of the issue historically. However, one important thing to remember is that historically, Mormons have not read the Book of Mormon very carefully. Terryl Givens makes this point in his book By the Hand of Mormon, arguing that the Book of Mormon has been treated mainly as a sign rather than as a source of doctrine. Thus, historically most Mormons have been far more familiar with the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon than they have been with its content. Givens’ point is buttressed by some impressive research by Noel Reynolds suggesting that for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a few exceptions, Mormons were not that informed about the contents of the Book of Mormon.

The question then becomes, how much weight should we give to uninformed opinion. I think that the fairest reading of the text suggests that (1) the events occurred in a limited geography; and, (2) the Lehite colony existed in larger non-Lehite population. Admittedly, this second issue may not get you too far toward the “revisionist” account offered by the Historian, since the pre-existing population may have all been Mulekites or Jaredites. However, I don’t think that the text commits us to this position. This textually based reading is at odds with received opinion. Some of this opinion claims the status of revelation (for example the Zelph story), but most of it is simply recycling superficial readings of the text. Interestingly, Givens also demonstrates that even among some 19th century Mormons there were those who realized that the many common claims about the Book of Mormon could not be squared with its text.

So which way should we go? It seems that the institutional church has been quite clear, and I think that its position makes sense. The emphasis has been on the return to the text. The role and authority of commentary and tradition is down played and the emphasis is on actually reading the book itself. It is important to realize that this emphasis is barely a generation old. It will take several generations, I think, before the “facts” that everyone knows are all substantially based on the text itself.