Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

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.

10 Responses to “Taking the Book of Mormon Seriously as History”

  1. Ardis said

    I’ve been reading a lot of that scholarship for the first time while gearing up to teach this year, and quickly realized that we really, really have to trust who we’re reading when that work goes beyond the text of the Book of Mormon itself. I’ve seen quite a few places, for example, where writers confidently proclaim, “‘Lehi’ is a name meaning ‘jawbone.'” Yet when I read earlier scholarship, apparently the first to suggest that possibility, the scholar was very careful to say that the closest ancient-language parallel he had found to ‘Lehi’ was this other word meaning ‘jawbone’ (sorry, I don’t have citations handy). In other words, he cautiously suggested a link, while less cautious people stated the idea as if it were unquestioned fact. I am not now, nor ever will be, qualified to judge matters of ancient language, geography, culture, anthropology, transportation, architecture, or any other such field; what I can do is evaluate the care with which writers promote their ideas and claims.

    On the other hand, I do feel comfortable with the text itself, both as scripture and literature, and have been almost blown away by the literary studies I’ve been reading in the past few weeks, and the understanding of doctrine those literary techniques point toward. I’ve always accepted the Book of Mormon as an ancient history; this time through, I’m understanding and feeling that belief in ways I hadn’t realized were possible.

    So yeah, three cheers for taking the text seriously … but be cautious about accepting everything you read, even when it’s written by others who take the text seriously.

  2. robf said

    For sure a lot of speculation and some utter garbage out there, Ardis. I have a couple of books on the Book of Mormon that I will probably review here in the future to look at some of the good, bad, and ugly out there.

  3. BOMC said

    Keep in mind that [edited by admin].

    The fruit of the church wide curse is a “darkened mind.” (DC 84:54-57) Or as Millet put it:

    “In a broader sense, I believe the condemnation that rests upon the Latter-day Saints is a loss of spiritual power, a loss of blessings, a loss of perspective about eternal possibilities. Perhaps we have not enjoyed the revelations, the divine direction, the sweet promptings of the Spirit, that might have been ours. We have not been the recipients of the fruit of the Spirit–‘love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance’ (Galatians 5:22-23)–as we could have been. Surely we have not enjoyed the understanding, the light and truth, the lens of pure intelligence, that is so readily accessible. In too many cases our minds and hearts have not been shaped and prepared by the Book of Mormon, by its lessons and logic, testimony and transforming power, and thus too often the judgment and discernment so essential to perceiving the false doctrines of the world, and even the irrelevant, have not been as strong as they might have been. Because we have not immersed and washed ourselves in those living waters that flow from the Book of Mormon, we have not enjoyed faith like the ancients, that faith which strengthens resolve and provides courage and peace in a time of unrest…yet too often we walk in darkness at noonday, or at least we traverse the path of life in twilight when we might bask in the bright light of the Son.” (Robert L. Millet, The Power of the Word: Saving Doctrines from the Book of Mormon, 1994, p. 303)

    It is [edited by admin].

    [Comment edited 29 Dec 2011 11:30PM by admin]

    • BrianJ said

      In addition to what Robf says below, I’ll add that comments like yours that disparage or denounce the Church (of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) are not welcome on this blog, will be edited or deleted, and could result in being banned from further participation here. If I have misread or misunderstood then please forgive me but also clarify your comment.

  4. robf said

    BOMC, I can appreciate the sentiment but this blog is dedicated to doing exactly what you claim isn’t possible–to be a doer of the Book of Mormon and to have the this darkening lifted as individuals and as a Church.

  5. BrianJ said

    Rob, I was just thinking about this more and a problem occurred to me. To illustrate, let me first distinguish between what is:

    a) historical: that which actually happened; the facts
    b) a history: someone’s recollection, interpretation, or representation of that which actually happened

    It seems that to take the BoM seriously as history we must recognize that it is a history and not an unbiased time machine into the past. Thus, the specific names, dates, and events that are recorded were chosen for particular reasons (likewise for those omitted) and likely do not accurately reflect what really happened, etc. The “facts” presented by the historians are best viewed as part of their narrative—i.e., the historian always shapes the facts but the facts do not always shape the history.

    I should stress that I don’t see this a criticism of the BoM or its authors. But if we’re going to take it seriously, we should take it seriously for what it really is. That means that we recognize that, for example, Mormon chose to write about Teancum not because he had to but because, well, because he chose to. So, why did he choose to?

    Of course, it’s wonderful when we read other histories—say, of the Middle East or Western Europe—to be able to consult multiple histories (i.e., interpretations) to better understand what really happened and also why one historian might have chosen their particular biases, but we can’t do that with the BoM.

    (To be clear, I don’t think this disagrees with anything in your post, but I thought it worth stating directly.)

  6. “… not because he had to but because, well, because he chose to.”

    Or was inspired to.

  7. joespencer said

    When the Spirit is working at Its strongest, I think it’s hard to draw a strong distinction between “chose to” and “inspired to,” no?

    In the meanwhile, I think it’s worth saying that another consequence of taking the Book of Mormon as history seriously is that we need to recognize that it won’t present the same ideas throughout. Nephi’s interests and even teachings will differ from those of Abinadi’s, whose will differ in turn from those of Mormon. We are altogether too prone to see the Book of Mormon as a flat presentation of a few rather static ideas (mostly culled from things like Gospel Principles), rather than as a dynamic history during which certain ideas waxed, others waned, some were invented, others developed beyond recognition, still others disappeared for a while—and many of these ideas, though each of them, I assume, was entirely inspired, conflict with each other, or at least bear real tensions with each other.

    If the book is a history, we’ll have to get over the idea that it presents a stable doctrinal catechism….

  8. SLC said

    I must admit that I don’t follow names in the Book of Mormon very closely (maybe in part it is because I have a bad memory and feel I can’t remember all of those names). But I do pay close attention to the chronology and geography when those things are mentioned. Especially the geography. Maybe in this life we will never learn EXACTLY where the events of the Book of Mormon took place, but I still enjoy thinking about it.

  9. BOMG said

    Look to where the land prophecies were fulfilled – all during colonial times – which excludes Missouri, Utah, Mesoamerica, Baja, Malay, Africa, etc.

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