Thursday, April 7, 2011

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling - 04

Richard L. Bushman
Chapter 4: "A New Bible: 1830" (pp. 84-108)

In the first through third chapters of this biography, Richard Bushman skillfully covers the life of Joseph Smith from its beginnings up until the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, offering a brief survey of the initial public reaction to it. Here in the fourth chapter, Bushman steps back from the chronology of Joseph's life and adopts a more thematic approach; this chapter concerns itself entirely with the Book of Mormon. Bushman opens with a concise summary of the subject matter of the text:

The Book of Mormon is a thousand-year history of the rise and fall of a religious civilization in the Western Hemisphere beginning about 600 BCE. A briefer history of a second civilization, beginning at the time of the Tower of Babel and extending till a few hundred years before Christ, is summarized in thirty-five pages near the end. The founders of the main group were Israelites who migrated from Jerusalem and practiced their religion in the New World until internal wars brought them to the verge of extinction in 421 CE, when the record ends. During the thousand years, wars are fought, governments crumble, prophets arise, people are converted and fall away, and Jesus Christ appears after His resurrection. (84)

After a mention of divided literary reception of the text - noting, for instance, Mark Twain's reference to it as 'chloroform in print' on the one hand but Fawn Brodie's favorable assessment of it on the other - Bushman notes that most contemporaries of Joseph Smith seem to have classified it as a 'bible' in some sense. This was the case outside of Joseph's movement, of course - newspapers derided it as the 'Gold Bible' - but also the case inside of Joseph's movement, as when Martin Harris called it the 'Mormon Bible' while negotiating with E. B. Grandin to get it printed. Bushman notes that the format of the text creates a strongly biblical feel, although one major difference is that in the Book of Mormon, "these books are not divided into histories and prophetic books" (85).

Bushman then goes on to give a more detailed summary of the plot of the Book of Mormon, beginning with the prophet Lehi in Jerusalem just before the onset of the Babylonian Captivity. Lehi and his family "are led into the wilderness of the Arabian peninsula" and wander in the wilderness for eight years before constructing a ship somewhere along the seacoast, perhaps on the Arabian Sea (85). Eventually they reach their promised land, universally understood as the New World but never explicitly stated to be so in the text itself. After reaching their destination, "the migrants build a temple and follow the law of Moses much like the society they left in Palestine, but their religion is explicitly Christian" (85). The quarrels of Lehi's children result in the formation of factions that develop into rival civilizations: the Lamanites and the Nephites, who "battle year after year until, after a thousand years, the Lamanites destroy the Nephites" (86). The final Nephite prophet, Moroni, completes the collection of texts inscribed on golden plates and buries them; it is 1400 years later that he returns as an angel to lead Joseph Smith to them. At this juncture, Bushman makes special note of the way in which, according to the Book of Mormon, the New World experienced three full days of darkness between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ, and that Jesus visited the Nephites after his resurrection, delivered the Sermon on the Mount, appointed twelve Nephite disciples, instructed them in baptism and communion, and then departed (86).

The Book of Mormon, as Bushman describes it, presents itself as primarily the work of the Nephite military leader and prophet Mormon (the father of Moroni), who led the Nephites from 327 to 385 during their nation's twilight (86). Mormon ventures to the hill Shim, where a wide assortment of Nephite records are stored, and from these records Mormon compiles a history onto a new set of plates (87). As Bushman tells it, the resulting text is "an elaborate framed tale of Mormon telling about a succession of prophets telling about their encounters with God" (87). After offering a sense of the sweeping depth of the world that is evoked, Bushman mentions some of the main characters: Nephi the son of Lehi; Sariah the wife of Lehi; the Nephite king Benjamin who addressed his people from a tower; the "warrior missionary" Ammon who served under a Lamanite king; Alma, a Paul-like figure who underwent a radical conversion to become "a champion of the gospel"; Moroni the Nephite general; the Lamanite prophet Samuel who warned the Nephites from a wall; the heretics Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor; the assassin Kishkumen; and Gadianton, who organized "secret bands for robbery and murder" (88).

After making a note that the bulk of the 584 pages of text must have been dictated in around three months at most, Bushman moves onward to survey early criticism of the Book of Mormon. Early local criticisms, even before the book was released, regarded it as "part of a scheme to swindle gullible victims" like Martin Harris; newspaper editors "placed Joseph Smith in a long line of false prophets beginning with Muhammad" (88). Among early critics, one of the most reasonable initial critiques was by American religious leader Alexander Campbell, another restorationist theologians and the founder of the Disciples of Christ; his attention was drawn to Joseph Smith's movement when it began drawing converts from his own movement, including one of his preachers, Sidney Rigdon. Campbell took the Book of Mormon seriously and presented a critique in his Millennial Harbinger on 7 February 1831. He alleged that Joseph Smith had "cobbled together fragments of American Protestant culture, mixed theological opinions with politics, and presented the whole in Yankee vernacular. The book had touches of anti-Masonry and republican government, interspersed with opinions on all the contemporary theological questions", which was understandable a quite suspicious mix for an allegedly ancient document (89). Campbell regarded the plot and the character array as simply a 'romance' (90).

Later critics wanted to give more attention to explaining how a seemingly illiterate Joseph Smith could possibly have produced such an intricate and lengthy plot. In 1834, Painesville Telegraph editor Eber D. Howe published the findings of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, an excommunicated Mormon who "found a half dozen old-timers in Conneaut, Ohio, who thought the Book of Mormon resembled a novel written twenty years earlier by Solomon Spaulding, a Dartmouth graduate and former town resident" (90). As they remembered it, Spaulding's novel talked about "lost tribes of Israel moving from Jerusalem to America led by characters named Nephi and Lehi", and some even recalled the names 'Moroni' and 'Zarahemla' (90). When Hurlbut found Spaulding's widow, he eventually did uncover a 'Manuscript Found' written by Spaulding, but this was about a group of Romans who were blown off course to America and lived among the Indian tribes and wrote down their experiences, with the conceit that Spaulding discovered their Latin manuscript and translated it into English. Hurlbut concluded that the residents of Conneaut must have been talking about yet another story by Spaulding; he decided that Sidney Rigdon had obtained this other manuscript in Pittsburg, transformed it into the Book of Mormon, and then conveyed it to Joseph Smith and only later pretended to be converted when missionaries reached him with the finished product in 1830 (90).

For decades, this 'Spaulding theory' remained the dominant critical explanation for the Book of Mormon until the 'Manuscript Found' resurfaced again in 1884 in Hawaii and came into the hands of Oberlin College president James Fairchild, who examined it and concluded that there never was a second manuscript and so that there was simply no good evidence for the 'Spaulding theory' (91). This opened the way for new critical explanations to emerge, and around the turn of the century, people like I. Woodbridge Riley, Theodore Schroeder, and Walter Prince began to maintain that the Book of Mormon "showed signs of Joseph Smith's psychology and culture, and so must be his work" (91). This was the perspective adopted in 1945 by Fawn Brodie, niece of David O. McKay and biographer of Joseph Smith. In 1977, interest in the Spaulding theory briefly revived at the suggestion that perhaps Spaulding's own handwriting appeared in the original Book of Mormon manuscript, but the handwriting experts then backed off from their own suggestion.

Bushman then mentions first a number of arguments from critics and then a number of arguments from defenders, and I would do Bushman's presentation a disservice if I didn't quote both. First, he states:

The modern critics write with the same confidence as the nineteenth-century skeptics. They are certain that any reasonable person who takes an objective, scientific approach to the Book of Mormon will recognize "the obvious fictional quality" of the book. They point to evidence in the book of the anti-Masonic agitation stirring New York in the years when it was being translated. In the doctrinal portions, they see anti-Universalist language and imitations of camp-meeting preaching. The critics complain that the Isaiah passages quoted by Nephi draw upon portions of the book now thought to be pseudepigrapha, composed long after the Nephites left Jerusalem. Turning to archeology, they point out that archeological digs have produced no evidence of Nephite civilization, yielding no horse bones, for example, an animal named in the Book of Mormon. Most recently, an anthropological researcher has claimed that Native American DNA samples correspond to Asian patterns, precluding Semitic origins. In view of all the evidence, the critics believe defense of the book's authenticity is hopeless. (92)

This, of course, is only a brief sampling of the criticisms, and here as in the third chapter, Bushman regrettably gives a noticeably slanted portrayal of the current field of research. As will be seen, he casts the critics as uniformly intellectually arrogant and lacking in expertise, while the defenders of the Book of Mormon are characterized as unquestionably superior scholars who nevertheless express a commendable epistemic humility. Both of these are caricatures, and Bushman's work is all the worse for their inclusion. Here is his presentation of the work of Book of Mormon defenders, which of course omits any mention of the further strong rejoinders presented to some of these points by the critics:

The proponents are not searching for a single conclusive proof that the Book of Mormon is ancient; instead they draw attention to scores of details that resemble the local color and cultural forms of ancient Hebrew culture, many of them unknown even to scholars when Joseph Smith was writing. They find passages written in the Hebrew poetic form of chiasmus, where a series of statements reverses at a midpoint and repeats itself in reverse order. The proponents notes how chapters about a Nephite king bestowing his crown on his son conform to the coronation rituals of antiquity. The "reformed Egyptian" in the Book of Mormon, the proponents say, compares to ancient Meroitic, which used Egyptian characters to write Meroitic words. The extended parable of the olive orchard in Jacob 5 reveals an accurate understanding of olive tree culture. In response to the absence of horse bones in Latin American archeology, the proponents point out that no archeological evidence of horses has been found in regions occupied by the Huns, a society dependent on horses. Proponents are quick to note that a Book of Mormon archeological site in the Middle East has been tentatively located. The Book of Mormon describes Lehi's journey down the Arabian peninsula and directly east to the Gulf of Arabia. Here Lehi's people came upon a pocket of fertile land and bounteous food in an otherwise desert area. A site in Oman fulfills many of the Book of Mormon requirements. Along this route, a site has been located that bears the name "Nhm," corresponding to the name Nahom given in the Book of Mormon as one stop on Lehi's journey. On point after point, the proponents answer the critics and assemble their own evidence. Unlike the critics, they do not claim their case is conclusive; they accumulate evidence, but admit belief in the Book of Mormon requires faith. (93)

Even if it should happen that the proponents are correct in their arguments - which is far from a foregone conclusion - this sort of prose is ill-befitting a historian of Bushman's caliber. Moving along from the thoroughly biased presentation of this dispute, Bushman goes on to laud the revisionist view of Book of Mormon geography. He has no choice but to grant that early readers of the book - including, though he doesn't mention it here, Joseph Smith himself - all firmly believed that Book of Mormon geography covered essentially the whole of North and South America (93). This had been the universal view of Latter-day Saints until recent revisionist interpretations emerged. Bushman notes that these scholars have questioned whether such a scope is feasible in light of the journeys on foot recorded in the text; thus, he says, the action may have been confined to "a patch of land comparable in size to ancient Palestine" (93). Bushman does not deal with the numerous obstacles for the limited geography thesis, such as the strong sense in the text that the land of the Book of Mormon is the land of the Native Americans, with several key sites (e.g., the Hill Cumorah, the burial site of 'Zelph', etc.) being obviously far, far removed from the 'limited geography' locales. This makes room for the existence of numerous other civilizations alongside the Nephites and Lamanites; Bushman claims, though provides no evidence, that "tiny hints of their presence turn up in the text" (94). Finally, Bushman briefly notes that non-LDS scholars have virtually uniformly dismissed LDS apologetic claims, but quickly rushes on to the isolated handful of "maverick" scholars and others who have produced research that could be used to support Book of Mormon authenticity (94). As in so many cases before, Bushman soft-peddles many things that could cast too much doubt on LDS beliefs, preferring to give wildly disproportionate emphasis to the exceptions rather than the rule. It may be that the maverick scholars are completely right and the mainstream scholars are wrong, of course, but Bushman's citations of critics of LDS apologetics are so few and far-between that the reader is not enabled to investigate this further.

Leaving this all behind, Bushman observes that most early readers - both the early Mormons and their early critics - regarded the Book of Mormon as being "a history of the Indians" (94). Joseph Smith clearly regarded the Lamanites, for instance, as being 'the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians'. However, Bushman wishes to call all of this into question. He asserts that there was no reason that Joseph Smith in particular should have been interested in the origin of the Native Americans, despite the general fascination with the topic in the United States at that time. Bushman states that "the Smiths exhibited no particular interest in the original occupants of the land until Joseph got involved with the gold plates" (95). Bushman does grant that, among the many speculations on the issue that were prevalent in the 1820s, one was that the Native Americans were descended from the lost tribes of Israel; Bushman admits that this was popular but stresses that it was not universally accepted (95). Bushman mentions how in 1823, Vermont minister Ethan Smith published his View of the Hebrews promoting this idea; it talks about migrations from Palestine to Ameica with the result being a great civilization that split into a civilized branch and a savage branch, with the latter winning out in the end; there is also a possibility that Oliver Cowdery was familiar with this work before he went to meet Joseph Smith (96). After all, Ethan Smith was Oliver Cowdery's pastor during the period when View of the Hebrews was written. Bushman does not delve further into some of the other similarities that have been seen between the texts.

However, Bushman says, the Book of Mormon "was not a treatise about the origins of the Indians, regardless of what early Mormons said" (96). It was very different from other such treatises, because it never used the word 'Indian' and also didn't attempt to assemble evidence and argue a case. Of course, both of these are irrelevant as to whether the Book of Mormon was a nineteenth-century story about Native Americans. Bushman also notes that other such works usually drew alleged parallels between Native Americans and the Old Testament, whereas the Book of Mormon is unique by presenting the prophets as teaching "pure Christianity" even before Christ's coming (96). Bushman must grant, however, that early Mormons disregarded these differences and "eagerly cited all of the scholarship about the original inhabitants of North and South America as proof of the book's accuracy" (96). Bushman cautions, however, that where other books set among the Native American contained numerous references to stereotyped Native American practices, the Book of Mormon never used Native American names for things and lacked any of the "trademark Indian items" (97). Bushman notes that, while bows and arrows were used, they were accompanied by more classical weapons foreign to Native American use; the closest the Book of Mormon "comes to an Indian identification is the description of Lamanites as bloodthirsty and bare-chested" (97).

Bushman's next area of attention is the alleged racism of the Book of Mormon, since it talks about the Lamanites being marked with dark skin as a curse from God, and then presenting the Lamanites as stereotyped savages, which sounds "like the Jacksonian view of Indians common to most Americans in 1830" (98). Bushman counters, however, that the Native Americans are presented as being God's chosen people destined for greatness in world history. As presented in the Book of Mormon, "the Lamanites are destined to be restored to favor with God and given this land, just as Jews are to be restored to the Holy Land"; Bushman also notes that, despite their evil dark skin, the Lamanites are sometimes presented as occasionally righteous (98). Bushman reads the Book of Mormon as stressing the greatness of the Native Americans and presenting the later European settlers as Gentile interlopers whose sole function is to support the Native Americans or else be doomed to perish. This reading is, needless to say, highly idiosyncratic.

Bushman's next area of focus is the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Bible. He notes that the Book of Mormon relies heavily upon the Bible, often reproducing considerable segments of it and including numerous common phrases - rendered, of course, in the style of the King James Version. The Book of Mormon is presented as a further confirmation of the Bible, and yet "the Book of Mormon challenges the authority of the Bible by breaking the monopoly of the Bible on scriptural truth" (99). The Book of Mormon charges that "biblical revelation has been depleted" and "declares the Bible to be deficient" (100). Bushman goes on to claim that the Book of Mormon presents a highly nuanced understanding of the Bible, not as "a book of holy words, inscribed by the hand of God in stone", but rather as texts "coming out of a people's encounter with God" (100). Bushman's efforts not withstanding, it seems clear that the verses he cites do not bear the tremendous philosophical weight he places upon them. Bushman moves on to note how the Book of Mormon presents all the tribes of Israel as having their own distinctive scriptures to someday contribute, and observes how the Book of Mormon castigates and ridicules all Christians who don't accept its message and who instead think that the Bible contains the fullness of scripture to be given in this age (100). The Book of Mormon, as it presents itself and as Bushman presents it, "is but one record in a huge world archive", and this paves the way for Joseph Smith as producing further new American scripture (101).

Bushman next attacks the popular American reading of the Book of Mormon as a nationalist text. Bushman observes that the vision of future Gentile prosperity in the land occupies a mere nine verses of the Book of Mormon, and "American constitutionalism is faintly invoked and then dismissed" (102). For Bushman, the style of government in the Book of Mormon is thoroughly un-American, presenting monarchy rather than anything approaching democracy. He grants that there are some mitigating points, but notes that there is a transition from monarchy to rule by judges, not rule by a constitutional republican government. In this new judgeship, successors to the first judge inherit the office, which exalts aristocracy. "The most valued features of republican government - regular elections, a representative legislature, and checks and balances - are absent. Moreover, throughout the text, church and state are liberally intermixed" (103).

The Book of Mormon does not focus on liberty but rather on an extension of Israelite history, focusing on the themes of apostasy and restoration; the Book of Mormon rejects the popular American self-conception as a new Israel and instead restores that term to fleshly Israel. Israel is the focal point. As Bushman goes on to say:

In the Book of Mormon, Gentile Christianity has apostatized. The book repeatedly condemns Gentile religion - for disbelief in revelation and miracles, for preaching for pay, for disregard of the poor, for erasure of key parts of the Bible. Although long favored by God to become a mighty people, the Gentiles have built up false churches as monuments to their own pride. Now they have a choice. They must either join Israel or be cast off. (103)

The Book of Mormon itself represents a great turning point, the beginning of the fall of the Gentiles and the renewed rise of Israel. The book "was not only the herald of restoration; the Book of Mormon was the instrument for accomplishing it" (104). As Bushman presents it, this "turned American history upside down" by rejecting the Europeans and favoring the natives, by exalting the Book of Mormon rather than the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, by stressing the gathering of lost Israel rather than the establishment of liberty. While the early Latter-day Saints understood the Book of Mormon as a confirmation of their old beliefs and patriotism, Bushman charges them with seriously misunderstanding their own book. Whatever the merits of a few of his points, I think the contrast between, on the one hand, the entire prophet-led community in which the text came forth and the whole tradition of its authorized interpreters, and on the other hand, an isolated historian treating all these issues in a single chapter of a biography, speaks for itself.

Bushman finally moves on to the role of Joseph Smith. He stresses that, at a mere age of twenty-three, Joseph Smith "dictated the Book of Mormon without any practice runs or previous writing experience. It came in a rush, as if the thoughts had been building for decades" (105). Bushman dedicates some space here to pondering the ways in which Joseph Smith might have seen himself in the text he was producing; Bushman compares Joseph to the character of Nephi (106). Bushman also observes that the production of this text marks the victory of Joseph's religiosity over his impulse towards treasure-seeking, because the Book of Mormon "thinks like the Bible" (107). In the Book of Mormon, religion is "a public concern", with messages directed to communities and the focus being on the national and communal rather than the individual.

Bushman concludes with a brief investigation of what captivated early converts about the Book of Mormon. For some, it was a sense of the presence of the Spirit as they read; for others, it was the very fact that the book was there at all. Bushman stresses that the overwhelming emphasis of the Book of Mormon is simply the gospel of "Christ's atonement for the world's sins", which resounds in passages that "anchored Mormonism in orthodox Christianity", despite all the later doctrinal and practical innovations (108). For the Latter-day Saints, "the Book of Mormon, their third testament, held them to the fundamentals" and bound them to certain traditional Christian beliefs at a time when 'higher criticism' was soon going to begin eroding it in some mainline churches. Bushman here perhaps overplays the degree to which the Latter-day Saints actually were kept anchored by the Book of Mormon.

Overall, while Bushman presents a decent summary and treatment of the Book of Mormon, this chapter was marked by a number of serious flaws. On the one hand, his treatment of criticisms of the Book of Mormon was so obviously slanted in favor of its defenders that one wonders if Bushman at this point even considered attempting to be balanced. On the other hand, he seems determined to minimize all standard readings of the text in favor of a radically idiosyncratic and revisionist approach that, if Bushman is right, went virtually unnoticed by prophets, apostles, and devout students of this work for over 150 years. In the space provided, I simply don't think Bushman has been entirely successful on that score. From here, however, Bushman goes on in his fifth chapter to cover the establishment by Joseph Smith and his early followers of the Church of Christ.

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