(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) In “The Book of Mormon: A Biography,” (Princeton University Press, 2012) author Paul C. Gutjahr notes that critiques and evaluations of Mormonism’s most important book have moved simple two-way, primarily theological debates between Mormon apologists and mostly evangelical critics who opposed the book for its claims of being holy scripture. As Gutjahr writes, including his own, slim but scholarly volume as one example, “By the early twenty-first century it was finally escaping the narrow confines of Mormon/non-Mormon religious debate as it increasingly came to be treated as an important text in American culture more generally.”
“The Book of Mormon” has inflamed passions, and interests from the moment the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith announced he was translating scripture that detailed a history of the Americas. Gutjahr charts how the book came to be, while adding some details that will come as news to many. One example: while at the printer’s shop of E.B. Grandin, copies of the Book of Nephi were lifted and printed in a local periodical. Smith warned the publisher of the legal consequences of the printing, and publication of the excerpts ceased.
“The Book of Mormon” was preceded, Gutjahr, explains, by an era when religious leaders sought to get the Holy Bible into as many American homes as possible. Its advertisement as additional scripture, as well as its egalitarian, democratic, and patriotic message, certainly helped it gain adherents in the individualistic, very religious U.S. frontier.
Readers will be interested to know that for the latter half of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, The Book of Mormon’s importance was overshadowed by The Bible. Gutjahr notes in that the Southern States Mission, President Ben E. Rich, an LDS apostle, intentionally featured The Bible over the Mormon scripture, realizing that converts needed to be familiar with scripture that they were comfortable with. However, putting less emphasis on The Book of Mormon turned into a problem for LDS Church leaders in the 20th century as some professors at Brigham Young University, the church-run university, began advocating the theories that scripture, whether Bible or Book of Mormon, was largely fictional accounts designed to teach Gospel concepts. Church leaders, writes Gutjahr, worried that they were failing the Lord’s command to be stewards of The Book of Mormon, re-energized emphasis on The Book of Mormon, removed professors who doubted the book’s veracity from BYU, and gradually through the 20th Century elevated the status of The Book of Mormon to the point that today it is clearly the primary book of scripture of Mormonism. Members are repeatedly urged to read it often.
The importance of The Book of Mormon to Mormon culture and theology, explains Gutjahr, is underscored by how it is translated. The book is translated in literally dozens of languages (there is a list of translations in the book). The LDS Church trains all of its translators to use the conservative formal equivalency method of translation, which dictates a precise, word-by-word translation. Not used is functional equivalency translation, which is designed to capture the spirit of a book being translated. As Gutjahr writes, “The Church wishes each of its Book of Mormon translations to retain as much as possible the sentence structure, phrasing, and idioms of the original language.”
There is a direct contrast between the biographies of the larger Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church and its Midwestern brother, the formerly named Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the Reorganized Church maintained a greater emphasis on The Book of Mormon, as well as Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, than the Mormons did for well more than a century, the past couple of generations have seen a reversal: With the LDS Church doubling down with its emphasis on The Book of Mormon and the reorganized church, while remaining fond of Smith’s discovery, downgrading its importance and doubting its veracity. In fact, the reorganized church has abandoned most Mormon-specific theology, opened its offering of the sacrament to non-members and has changed its name to Community of Christ, joining mainstream Protestantism.
Gutjahr devotes parts of the book to the Mormon Church’s challenges of apologetics of The Book of Mormon. This has become difficult, as expeditions and DNA studies have failed to yield evidences that support the scripture. However, there is scholarly research devoted to defending the Book of Mormon’s claims. Its central hub is the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU. One evolutionary theory that differs from past defenses is that the entire Book of Mormon occurs in a very small portion of the Americans, primarily in Mexico and Central America, and does not deal with events in other parts of the continent.
Gutjahr includes chapters that deal with the Book of Mormon’s influence on art and film. Readers won’t be surprised at reading commentary on the iconic, masculine images created by Arnold Friberg but the more feminine Book of Mormon art of Minerva Teichert (1888-1976) is also discussed. Teichert’s softer depictions, which placed more emphasis on women (almost ignored in The Book of Mormon) and children, were largely ignored during her life but have recently gained prominence due to their display at BYU.
The chapter on films is fascinating. Readers will wish they could find a copy of the lost 1915 silent, “The Life of Nephi:” a still is shown from the book. And I would love to see a print of another seemingly lost film from 1930, “Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love.” This film, which dramatizes the sexual sins of Book of Mormon prophet Alma’s son, Corianton, included songs from The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. However, church leaders were distressed to discover that the pre-Hays morality code film contained nude shots of the actress who portrayed the harlot Isabel. (Alma: chapter 39)
The recent film, “Book of Mormon Movie Vol. 1, The Journey,” is examined. Gutjahr posits that the box office failure of the film — no sequel was filmed — is due to its direct faithfulness to the book. On the screen, formal equivalency, without nuance or character expansion, leads to dullness. This reviewer’s take on BOM’s “The Journey” is footnoted by Gutjahr, who writes, “One reviewer found the movie so boring that he parodied Mark Twain’s famous characterization of The Book of Mormon by calling (director Gary) Rogers’s motion picture ‘chloroform on film.’” Alas, it was. The LDS Church needs a Cecil B. DeMille to make a great Book of Mormon film adaptation.
In Gutjahr’s opinion, the best adaptations of the Mormon scripture are on the stage, where the enthusiasm of the actors are evident. He cites the many pageants that LDS faithful have produced, noting the famous Hill Cumorah Pageant. He also cites the success of the irreverent but widely acclaimed “Book of Mormon: The Musical” Broadway play.
The Broadway success of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible,” completely divorced from any Mormon involvement, stands as the best evidence that The Book of Mormon, while treasured by the LDS faithful, now belongs to the rest of the world. “The Book of Mormon: A Biography,” is a suitable serious secular introduction to this iconic book.