Paul C. Gutjahr. The Book of Mormon: A Biography. Princeton University Press. 2012.

First, I have to declare an interest in this book. Not just the passing attention of a reviewer, but a deep visceral reaction to everything in its pages, both explicit and implicit. For as a one-time Mormon convert (fanatical) and even missionary (local), my first reaction as an apostate (fanatical) to receiving this work was ‘Oh come on. Don’t tell me a non-Mormon scholar has even begun to take the Book of Mormon seriously!’ But then I realised it is my duty to be scrupulously fair to the author, who after all has gone to a lot of trouble to deconstruct the book in a markedly sober and non-hysterical tone and without a shred of bias. So basically, if he can, so can I. Well, up to a point.

Gutjahr’s little work is part of the Lives of Great Religious Books series, which also includes The Tibetan Book of the Dead and, perhaps more surprisingly, The I Ching. But this list does reveal that the intention behind the series is more about the social and cultural importance of texts considered to be sacred than any criticism of their authenticity as conduits of eternal truths.

But make no mistake, we ignore the Book of Mormon at our peril. At the time of writing in June 2012, Mitt Romney has just become the official Republican candidate for the race to the White House. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, from the name of their own scripture, the Book of Mormon – the subject of Gutjahr’s analysis. The Romney connection alone makes it peculiarly and – some would say - dangerously, important.

Add to this the fact that Mormonism is the fastest growing sect (it isn’t exactly a religion, being firmly, if quaintly, in the Christian camp) in the world with membership standing at around 14 million. By the time you read this that figure will be rocketing exponentially, thanks to the tireless work of around 50,000 missionaries in around 160 countries, some of whom will knock on your door sooner or later. (They look like Men In Black, and seeing as they are favourite CIA recruits, that’s probably what they are.)

So what with the prospect of a Mormon possessing the authority to press the Armageddon button and the rise of his faith all around us, whether we live in Swaziland or Solihull, a little light swotting up about their sacred book is perhaps a good idea, if only to discover what we’re up against. And Gutjahr has certainly provided a fascinating and learned examination of the Book of Mormon.

As any good Mormon – or even a really bad ex one, such as myself – will tell you, in the 1820s a New York State farm boy called Joseph Smith was visited by visions, including one of an angel called Moroni who told him where to dig to find some inscribed golden plates, together with mysterious stones that were the means to translate them. Eventually these became the Book of Mormon, the story of Jewish tribes who, in 600 BCE, travelled to what is now the New World and who, after being visited by the resurrected Jesus, became Christians. The idea, which delights many seekers with its symmetry and apparent fairness, is that God has given us the Bible as his Word to the Old World, and the Book of Mormon as its companion to the New.

Also, God had restored his original Church through Joseph Smith – the first one having fallen apart after the famous eleven apostles died. (It would have been twelve, but Judas, if you recall, never made it past the 30 pieces of silver corruption scandal.) In case there is any misunderstanding here, let me spell it out: the only true Christian church is this Joseph’s – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He was called and chosen as God’s own ‘revelator and seer’, the first of a long line of modern Mormon prophets, each believed to have a hotline to the Lord, and from whom all doctrine emanates as holy writ. Central to their dogma is the Book of Mormon.

Basically if you believe it’s the word of God, you’re almost certainly already a Mormon and are unlikely to be reading this review. Even objective criticism of the sect is frowned upon, to say the least, and in any case boat-rocking is hardly a favourite pastime of the modern ‘Saints’ (as every member of the church is known).
Joseph Smith receiving the golden
plates from the Aagel Moroni
As Gutjahr notes, Smith claimed that, ‘The Book of Mormon was a purer text than the Protestant Bible. It had been passed to his hands directly … and had not been defiled by centuries of scribal error and Church politics.’ (But surely, for similar reasons, neither had the Gnostic Gospels, though Smith and all the subsequent Mormon prophets have remained utterly silent on the subject.) But perhaps more to the point, ‘Along with its pristine status, the book also testified to the fact that the canon of scripture was not closed.’ If you want the living word of the Lord, look no further than Mormonism.
Clearly, however, God didn’t always get it right first time (a problem we note also crops up in relation to the ex-cathedra pronouncements of popes), as Smith revised the Book of Mormon several times. This, however, is by no means the only problem with the Saints’ own scripture.

Nobody apart from Smith saw the golden plates. True, there were witnesses – of sorts – to his actual translation process, though even that was conducted behind a curtain. Some favoured acolytes were allowed to feel the plates through a cloth covering, but that was as far as it went. When the work was done, the angel Moroni took them back with him to wherever he came from.

Now, Magonians might recognise an old M.O. of the Tricksters there, whereby ufonaut contactees or alien abductees are given some artefact (say, a star map or a piece of pancake) only to discover it either turns out to be complete rubbish or simply vanishes, leaving egg – or pancake – on their faces. Similarly, history is packed to the seams with examples of visionaries who seem at first to be Chosen Ones, only to end up with unenviable fates. Think Joan of Arc or Jim Jones. Or indeed, Joseph Smith, who fell at the hands of an anti-Mormon, or to be precise, an anti Book of Mormon mob, though sceptics point out that he may have fired the first shots in the battle that ended with his martyrdom.

However, Smith may not fit too snugly in the category of World’s Top Visionaries. He may simply have lied. There is evidence that he had a history of pretending to find lost treasure through a sort of dowsing on local farmland. Indeed, disgruntled farmers took him to court for fraud. He was fined and told to get out of town. All of this, of course, is vehemently disputed by Mormon apologists – when they can be compelled to consider the subject at all. But the evidence seems fairly solid.

Smith certainly managed to horrify traditional Christians in whole host of ways. The Book of Mormon was seen as a direct threat to Protestants’ reliance on the New Testament as God’s only holy Christian writ – as, indeed it was and still is. And as indeed it is supposed to be.

Then there is the vexed question of polygamy, for which the Mormons are still infamous, despite their best efforts to sweep the subject under the carpet. As Gutjahr takes pains to point out, the Book of Mormon is entirely free of any exhortation to indulge in what Saints refer to as ‘plural marriage’, being vehemently on the side of monogamy, in fact. But this is where a hotline to the Lord is mighty convenient: he told Smith to take several wives but to keep it secret. At first the Prophet took this so seriously that he told no one, not even the first – or as far as she was concerned, the only – Mrs Smith, but when his 30-odd marriages, some to girls as young as 14, leaked out, suddenly it became official Mormon doctrine. Thus outed, Smith had no option but become the poster boy for polygamy, which to a large extent he still is.

As for the Book of Mormon itself, there are several, albeit all sceptical, alternative explanations for its existence. One is that it was simply plagiarised from a Bible-style novel. Another interpretation is that Smith created it from his own imagination, perhaps in a state of psychological dissociation. Certainly he was well known for his story-telling, having an obsession with fantasies about pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas. His first wife, the disgruntled Emma – driven away by polygamy and duly excommunicated - while being understandably free with her condemnation of Smith in later life, always maintained the story of the plates was true, as he couldn’t even write a well-worded letter, never mind a whole book of ‘scripture’.

Maybe he didn’t. Evidence, as Gutjahr mildly relates, has been piling up to indicate that all was not exactly as Smith and his devotees claimed regarding the provenance of the Book of Mormon. In 2008, for example, a group of scholars at Stanford University used sophisticated linguistic computer modelling to analyse the work, concluding that it was ‘written by multiple, nineteenth-century authors’ – all of whom they could trace back to Smith’s cronies but none of whom actually included the ‘prophet, seer and revelator’ himself. Was the Book of Mormon a scam perpetrated by a committee of grifters with Smith as their front man?

In any case, there are glaring howlers in the pages of the translated golden plates: wheeled vehicles, horses and steel feature in its pages, even though they were not introduced into the New World until the advent of the European conquerors some thousand years after the supposed events described in the golden plates.

Then there are the inconvenient facts that despite decades-long archaeological digs in Meso-America (where the adventures of the 600 BCE tribes were supposed to live) not a single artefact has been found to back up even so much as a line in the Book of Mormon. This, together with the evidence that DNA testing has shown that the indigenous peoples in that area show markers of a Far-eastern, not a Middle-eastern, origin, may be reasonably thought to add up to a spectacular anti-Smith QED.

But Gutjahr is nothing if not thorough in his analysis. Reading the Book of Mormon one is in no doubt that it is intended to be holy writ, and despite all the foregoing, that’s precisely what it is to millions worldwide. Indeed, that’s its image. Set out in double columns and largely in language that is remarkably similar to that of the King James Bible – ‘thous’, ‘doests’ and ‘it came to passes’ litter the pages – it defies the reader not to doff one’s hat in reverence.

Where the author is particularly fascinating is his digest of facts about the physical making of the various editions – their printing, illustrating and distribution. For example, as the Church’s missionaries began to extend their presence farther afield, new, more robust glues were brought into play to prevent the books falling apart in extreme heat, cold or humidity. In Japan the pages are cream, as white is the colour of death. And the pages in most editions are made from particularly high quality, exceptionally thin paper to cut down on bulk and distribution costs. There is also a psychological element here: larger tomes are more intimidating to the Mormon seeker or ‘investigator’.

As for illustrations, those of Arnold Friberg, which first saw the light in the 1963 edition, are still the most widely used and most beloved to the Saints – and, indeed, most eerily familiar to this reviewer. As the Book of Mormon is primarily, to outsiders even offensively masculine – with only five references to women by name in the entire work – the illustrations are suitably macho. Jesus, for example, sports the sort of blond, lumberjack look that would win him any White Supremacist beauty contest. Other heroes, such as the great Nephi, are so square-jawed and muscle-bound that when the tome was turned into Michael Allred’s comic book version The Golden Plates, the depiction of the action hero was virtually unchanged from Friberg’s original.

Gutjahr also discusses other cultural manifestations of the Book of Mormon, including the 1915 silent movie turkey The Life of Nephi and the 1931 film Corianton: A Story of Unholy Love, which proved too salacious for the Saints. My particular favourite is the Broadway sensation, the musical The Book of Mormon, though I doubt it will see too many revivals among the amdram community in the Saints’ own the state of Utah. One may appreciate the show’s tone from the identity of its creators, which include Trey Parker and Matt Stone, best known for their iconoclastic South Park animation.

Browse through Amazon’s Book of Mormon spin-offs and you will be amazed at the sheer number of titles, both obviously sceptical and equally obviously, breathlessly, devout. There are books in plenty for children, and others explaining the stories within the pages. This is necessary as the Book of Mormon is an incredibly rambling, complex tome that unbelievers might suggest is entirely consistent with the product of a stream of consciousness - and not necessarily God’s. (Perhaps the similarity of names such as Mormon and Moroni and even – one rather hopes it’s a misprint – Moron, suggest a flagging of someone’s creative juices.) And sadly, it’s not always a page turner, as Mark Twain recognised, calling it ‘chloroform in print’. Dan Brown has nothing to fear.

Yet no one can doubt, as Gutjahr expertly explains throughout his calm and reasoned little book, the sheer importance of the Book of Mormon in the unfolding of the religious and cultural history of America. I never thought I’d admit it – not since 1967 anyway – but this is undoubtedly a tome of the highest significance.

So I am converted, if only to the scholarly approach. Yes, I now agree that one should take the Mormon scripture seriously - if only to marshal one’s arguments against the pro-Romney campaign. And maybe it’s unfair to single out Mormonism. After all, there’s a whole industry devoted to the Bible – called theology – and the Lord knows that particular tome isn’t the epitome of historical accuracy or the cause of peace breaking out on a regular basis over the centuries.

Perhaps, though, one should end on a quotation from one of Smith’s original Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Orson Pratt, who wrote of the Book of Mormon: ‘This book must be either true or false. If true, it is one of the most important messages ever sent from God to man. If false, it is one of the most cunning, wicked, bold, deep-laid impositions ever palmed upon the world, calculated to deceive and ruin millions who will receive it as the word of God.’

Well, quite. -- Lynn Picknett.

1 comment:

  1. I had something to say about a review of Picknett's co-author of 'The Stargate Conspiracy', Clive Prince here at the Pelican re the latter's review of a recent conspiracy coloured book by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval. I am not going to repeat that all here, my original comment can be read at http://pelicanist.blogspot.co.il/2012/03/dangerous-game.html

    However what I had to say about Prince pedaling criticism of conspiracy prattle, when he is guilty of it himself, applies as much to his co-author of The Stargate Conspiracy, Lynn Picknett who wears her political biases on her sleeve.

    I am not going to defend Mormonism. I am not a Christian never mind a Mormon. Mormonism is clearly a new mythic variant of Christianity, adapted for its new home in America. However how that makes it any more or less egregious than mainstream Christian dogma Picknett does not explain. Yes she grudgingly concedes this point toward the end of the review, but it is a concession that hardly goes far enough. The Mormons are not responsible for the witch hunts, the Inquisition, 'manifest destiny' and pogroms against Jewry for one (something that heavily stains mainstream 'respectable' Christianity).

    Joseph Smith's extraordinary encounters certainly parallel those associated with fairy and alien encounter lore, yet despite Picknett's assertions, there is no concrete evidence of Smith having deliberately lied. Maybe, maybe not. The Stanford computer analysis may bamboozle those stunned into silence by any claims coming from the Ivy League, but computer analyses in a number of differing disciplines are fraught with problems, not least of which is that researchers manipulate algorithms to get the results they want. This is hardly deliberate deception for the most part, just an unconscious bias that operates in the background.

    Picknett can barely hide her contempt for Romney merely because he's a Mormon! If he were a Catholic or a Methodist or Anglican, would the absurdities at the heart of the latters' dogma get a free pass from Picknett, or is that only if the latter are liberals running on the Democratic Party ticket? Obama attended Jeremiah Wright's anti-Semitic church for two decades, yet that's clearly beneath the radar.

    It is not Mormons who are carrying out suicide bombings and terror attacks from Pakistan to Iraq and Egypt, mutilating young girls, carrying out honour killings, threatening death to apostates and forcing others to convert to their way of life, and calling for another holocaust of Jewry by the by. All in the name of religious dogma.

    Mormonism - as Picknett recognizes - has clear implications to the so-called alien encounter, automatic writing, the nature of the unconscious mind and the dynamics of mythology. Best to focus on that, rather than throw stones from glass houses..