The State of Book of Mormon Studies

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in apologetics, Mormonism

The October 2008 issue of Sunstone—a liberal Mormon magazine—includes a lengthy article by John-Charles Duffy entitled “Mapping Book of Mormon Historicity Debates—Part I: A Guide for the Overwhelmed” (36-62). The article is available online as well as in the print magazine; the online version has the advantage of easy access to links to numerous online resources. Duffy, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has written a must-read article on the state of Book of Mormon studies. Parenthetical references in this post are to the pages of the print edition.

The article is the first of two projected articles. The second article, to be published in the next issue, will examine “the social dynamics that sustain or alter people’s beliefs about Book of Mormon historicity” (36). Duffy warns his readers that in the second article he will contend that relationships with other people, not rational consideration of the arguments, are decisive in what positions people take on the issue. This first article is divided into three parts. The first part maps the history of the debates over Book of Mormon historicity. The second part maps the arguments that have been and are being made for and against the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The third part maps the positions that people have taken as to the book’s historicity. The article concludes with a lengthy bibliography.

I. Mapping the History of the Debates (37-42). Both orthodox Mormons and non-Mormon critics agreed that the Book of Mormon is either historical and inspired or inauthentic and fraudulent; there is no middle ground. In this regard, conservative Mormons defended the Book of Mormon’s accuracy in a way that paralleled conservative evangelical defenses of the Bible’s accuracy. Mormons also had common cause with evangelicals in rejecting biblical higher criticism, though for the specific reason that such criticism implied that the Book of Mormon was unhistorical. The most influential LDS apologist scholar for the Book of Mormon was Hugh Nibley. Since the 1960s a growing segment of LDS intellectuals have adopted a more liberal stance, viewing the Book of Mormon as nonhistorical yet inspired. A critical turning point that contributed to this movement was the discovery of fragments of papyri that were supposed to contain the Book of Abraham but that turned out to be Egyptian funerary texts. Liberal Mormonism became so visible that in the 1990s the Church began disciplining scholars advocating a liberal perspective. In the first decade of this century the Church struggled to respond to a controversy over findings that DNA studies proved that Native Americans were not descended from Israelites.

II. Mapping the Arguments (42-52). The easiest way to summarize this lengthiest part of Duffy’s article is simply to list the issues he addresses. These fall into two categories:  arguments against Book of Mormon historicity, and arguments in favor.

Arguments against Book of Mormon historicity (42-48):

  • skepticism about the supernatural aspects of the Book of Mormon’s origin
  • the Book of Mormon’s 19th-century environment as reflected in its views on the origins of the Indians, its explicit engagement with current doctrinal controversies, its political attitudes, and its theorized origins in Joseph Smith’s own life and psychology
  • the relationship of the Book of Mormon to the Bible, the Spaulding manuscript, and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews
  • alleged anachronisms (horses, flocks, steel, etc., in the pre-Columbian New World), geographical difficulties, and other internal problems in the Book of Mormon
  • issues pertaining to the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses

Arguments for Book of Mormon historicity (48-52):

  • correspondence between the Book of Mormon and the geography of Arabia in the Old World and the geography of Central America in the New World
  • a variety of New World parallels to or evidences for the Book of Mormon (e.g., evidence for transoceanic migrations, the Christ—Quetzalcoatl connection, Egyptian or Hebrew scripts or parallels in Old World finds)
  • a variety of Old World parallels (linguistic connections between the Book of Mormon and ancient Near Eastern sources; Hebraic chiasmus in the Book of Mormon; parallels with the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, and other ancient writings; cultural parallels involving warfare, ceremonies, horticulture, etc.)
  • the implausibility of Joseph Smith authoring the Book of Mormon, with arguments from wordprint studies, the book’s literary complexity, and so forth

III. Mapping the Positions (52-58). Mormons hold to a surprising variety of views on the Book of Mormon. Some regard it as a literal translation of ancient plates recounting literal history. Some deny any correspondence at all between the Book of Mormon and any ancient writing. Some, such as Blake Ostler, view the Book of Mormon as a modern expansion on an ancient text. Some view it as an ancient text but not entirely historical in genre. The Church’s official position is that the Book of Mormon must be deemed historical to be regarded as true and as scripture. A minority of LDS (and former LDS) scholars argue that the Book of Mormon can be both a nineteenth-century pious fiction and an inspired book. They argue that the truth and spiritual power of the book’s message is independent of its historicity. There is even a trend emerging of a more pluralistic, mystical form of LDS belief that views the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and other religious texts as esoteric expressions of mythic or mystical spirituality. Belief in the Book of Mormon as literal history and in the LDS Church as the one true church remain officially linked in Church teaching, but this linkage is increasingly being challenged from varying perspectives. Some scholars now favor a postmodern approach to the Book of Mormon, along parallel lines to what is also happening in postmodern biblical studies.

Bibliography (58-62). Duffy concludes with a lengthy bibliography that appears to offer an excellent review of the literature on the Book of Mormon. The writers who dominate this bibliography are conservative LDS scholars such as William J. Hamblin, Louis Midgley, Hugh Nibley, Daniel C. Peterson, John L. Sorenson, John A. Tvednes, and John W. Welch. The only notable exception is Dan Vogel, a liberal LDS scholar. Only a few works by orthodox Christian scholars are cited (I noticed the book Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon?, an essay by Biola scholar Thomas Finley in The New Mormon Challenge, a book by Mark Noll, and two articles by evangelical scholar Ronald V. Huggins in the liberal LDS journal Dialogue). Duffy’s bibliography gives some indication of the flood of apologetic literature that conservative Mormon scholars continue to produce, much of it now in response not primarily to evangelical countercult criticisms of the Book of Mormon, but to liberals and skeptics from the ranks of the LDS themselves.


Tags: , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Friday, October 24th, 2008 at 12:47 pm and is filed under apologetics, Mormonism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 comments so far


Whoa, this blog is new to me. Looks great. Thanks for pointing us to Duffy’s article. I also recommend his article that speaks of historic trends in Mormon missionary presentations, as well as his article on “How Apologetics Is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy“.

A small correction: According to Wikipedia, Vogel “is a former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an atheist and a skeptic.”

In any case, I think we can say, “We thank thee oh God for Sunstoners who publish valuable articles and books.”

October 27th, 2008 at 1:33 am


Oops, I was writing too quickly there and made a mistake. Thanks for catching and correcting it. I think Vogel went through a “liberal” period on his way to becoming a skeptic.

October 27th, 2008 at 10:45 am

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.