Taking the Book of Mormon Seriously as History
Posted by robf on December 29, 2011
While we often focus on the spiritual messages of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon itself is not written as a mere collection of sermons or prophetic teachings. In order to take it seriously on its own terms, we need to pay closer attention to the Book of Mormon as historiography–”an account written by the hand of Mormon” and others containing “an abridgment of the record” of at least two ancient historic peoples.
There are at least three areas where I think we can profitably pay more attention–
Names: As a historical account, the Book of Mormon provides us with the names of hundreds of people. What can we learn by paying closer attention to these names? Why are we provided with the names of some seemingly minor characters–such as the four Mulekite brothers Ammon, Amaleki, Helem, and Hem (Mosiah 7:6)–yet we are not provided with the names of others such as most of the women mentioned in the text or even a few major figures like the Brother of Jared? In many societies, names are very important and are meant to convey messages beyond their use as tags for people. What messages are the names in the Book of Mormon able to convey to us? As an example, how might the names Amalaki, Amlici, Amalekiah be related and what might they tell us about the relationships, if any, between these people?
Geography: As with the names of people, we are provided with the names and locations of dozens of places in the Book of Mormon. Why do we get so much geographic detail in a book devoted to sacred history? Why would Mormon (or Moroni or Nephi) provide this information to us? What can we learn from paying closer attention to the geography described in the Book of Mormon? The study of Book of Mormon Geography has provided some of the most embarrassing moments in Book of Mormon study in the past, and continues to be a source of conflict and confusion. How can we move beyond the study of Book of Mormon Geography as arguments about the possible location of Book of Mormon places in the real world? Can we determine from the text itself why it may or may not be important to actually identify Book of Mormon locations in the real world?
Chronology: Just as the Book of Mormon carefully provides an abundance of personal and geographical names, the text also provides a careful chronology–even to the month and date of important events. What can we learn from this use of chronology in general, as well as the specific mentions of dates in the Book of Mormon? How is an understanding of the chronology provided important for understanding the internal story lines of the Book of Mormon? Is the chronology also important for situating the Book of Mormon narrative within the ancient world? How does the use of chronology in the Book of Mormon compare with its use in other ancient historical accounts?
In many ways we seem to be entering a new golden age of Book of Mormon study. There is more careful scholarship than ever before, though there is also a lot of questionable studies and assumptions that need to be weeded out, and not near enough careful attention to the Book of Mormon text itself by most of us. As we study the Book of Mormon in Gospel Doctrine class as a church this year, let us feast more deeply and find those truths that “careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts” on the names, places, and chronology of the Book of Mormon can only find out.