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I recently mentioned to an English friend that my parents don’t drink because they’re Mormons. ‘So, Dave,’ he asked sheepishly, ‘how many wives does your father have?’ I explained that the Mormon Church outlawed polygamy in 1890; Utah wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed to join the Union. I didn’t mind the question, though. Mormons may no longer be subject to extermination in Missouri (that legislation was rescinded in 1976), but the eleven million Latter-Day Saints – a little under half live in the US – are generally thought to be peculiar, when they are thought of at all.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith in Palmyra, New York, in 1830, shortly after he published the Book of Mormon. The Book purported to be the history of a family of Jews who had sailed to the Americas around 600 BC. According to the Book, shortly after the Resurrection Christ appeared to these inhabitants of the New World. The content of the Book, however, was less startling than its means of production: it had, Smith claimed, been translated from gold tablets that he unearthed from a local hillside. Smith, a farmer’s son, said he’d been directed to the hill by an angel, and the book was therefore evidence of Smith’s own status as a prophet, as well as of a new dispensation of Christ’s gospel on earth.

The Mormon canon also includes the Old and New Testaments, a collection of modern revelations (mostly to Joseph Smith) entitled the Doctrine and Covenants, and some other translations by Smith of ancient material collected as the Pearl of Great Price. Smith was a native of Vermont and a contemporary of Emerson – his radical, optimistic theology has echoes of the secular beliefs of the Sage of Concord (whom he never read, so far as I know).

During my second year at the University of Chicago, I found a class being taught by Wayne Booth. Booth, the author of The Rhetoric of Fiction and The Company We Keep, was one of the more famous members of the English department, and was known to be a good teacher, too. He was also a lapsed Mormon, born in 1921 in the town of American Fork, Utah, and raised there. He lost his faith, he told me later, while serving a mission. The Mormon mission is a two-year rite of passage for 19-year-old males, and females so inclined. Missionaries are sent all over the world to preach the gospel, while adhering to a strict code of behaviour. (I put off going on a mission because of my doubts.) It was while on his mission that Booth first became interested in rhetoric, as he presented the Mormon gospel to strangers, and attempted to conceal his unbelief as honestly as he could. He later coined the term ‘unreliable narrator’.

I became a student of Booth’s largely so that I could share my faith-related struggles with the famous professor. I went to see him, and told him that I no longer believed in the Mormon gospel, but couldn’t imagine an alternative view of the world. Booth asked me if I had read ‘Sunday Morning’ by Wallace Stevens. I hadn’t, but went straight to my room and found it in a cheap anthology bought not long before in a thrift store. ‘There is not any haunt of prophecy,’ Stevens writes, ‘nor cloudy palm/Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured/As April’s green endures.’ Who needed religion?

Well, my father, for one. He was disappointed when I told him of my loss of faith, and surprised by my reasons. I told him that I could not accept falsifiable claims made by the Mormon Church. The first that came to mind was that God lived on a planet called Kolob. This is one of the more obscure pieces of Mormon theology, found in the Pearl of Great Price, the least read book in the Mormon canon. Nonetheless, there it was. My father had already seen two children stop attending church because of lifestyle issues: Mormons do not smoke, or drink alcohol, tea or coffee; they donate 10 per cent of their pre-tax income to the Church; they don’t have sex before marriage. My father told me he never thought he’d have a child who left the Church because he couldn’t accept that God lived on Kolob.

The Mormon scripture that refers to Kolob has been the subject of controversy since the late 1960s. The ‘Book of Abraham’, which Smith published in 1842, purports to be a first-person account by the Patriarch in which Jehovah appears to him and reveals the nature of the cosmos. The Lord shows Abraham the stars, including the ‘one nearest unto the throne of God’, which is called Kolob. Smith ‘translated’ the work from Egyptian papyri bought in 1835 from one Michael Chandler, in Kirtland, Ohio. The papyri were long thought to have been lost in the Chicago fire of 1871. In 1967, however, they resurfaced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The museum returned them to the Church, and they were translated by an Egyptologist. He found that they were ordinary Egyptian funerary documents that dated from around 60 AD. Mormon scholars have struggled with the problem of the papyri ever since, suggesting and revising a handful of precarious theories.

Oddly, this controversy is nowhere mentioned in By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion by Terryl Givens.* While the book isn’t published by a Mormon press, it has a distinctly Mormon slant. Givens is a graduate of Brigham Young University, the private college owned and operated by the Mormon Church. He makes no mention of his religious affiliation – perhaps on the assumption that knowledge of his Mormon background would cast doubt on his meticulous scholarship. It shouldn’t, but in his account of the current debates concerning the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, Mormon apologists have the upper hand every time.

The Book of Mormon begins with Nephi, a Jew whose father is instructed by God to flee Israel with his family just before the Babylonian captivity. Nephi himself is then commanded by God to build a ship so that his family may sail to the New World. On the new continent, the descendants of the righteous Nephi and those of his wicked brother Laman become warring tribes. A series of Nephite scribes record the ups and downs of these peoples, culminating with the appearance of Christ in the New World, in about 34 AD. Having completed his ministry in Israel, Christ descends on the New World from heaven, delivers his second Sermon on the Mount and ushers in a period of righteousness and peace. Obedience to his teachings eventually ebbs, and, in the Book’s bloodiest battle, all but a few of the righteous Nephites are killed. After the battle, Mormon, a faithful Nephite on the run from his enemies, engraves an abridged version of the records on gold plates and passes them on to his son, Moroni, who writes a few more chapters before burying the plates in a hillside c.421.

And underground they remained until Joseph Smith dug them up in 1827. The area of western New York State where he claimed to have dug them up was known as the ‘burned-over district’, because of the many Christian revivals that had taken place in the area. Evangelical Christianity had reached such a pitch of activity in the northern US that ministers spoke of a ‘second great awakening’ (the first occurred in the middle of the 18th century). According to the Personal History he wrote in 1838, Smith prayed to God in 1822, at the age of 14, and asked him which of the many competing denominations was true. God and Christ then appeared to him (as two separate beings: Mormons are not Trinitarians) and informed him that none was. A year later, Smith was visited by Moroni, now an angel, who told him that there was a ‘book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang’. After three preparatory visits, the angel directed Joseph to unearth the plates, and with them a set of divine spectacles affixed to a breastplate. Using these, Joseph dictated 116 pages to a farmer called Martin Harris (they were subsequently lost, and never retranslated). A year later, Smith dictated the entire book – apart from the lost section – to a student called Oliver Cowdery, in a matter of weeks. This time, according to contemporary accounts, Joseph relied primarily on a seer stone he had had since 1825 (and used at one time for money-digging). After showing the gold plates to two groups of intimates Smith gave them back to Moroni.

Though the Book of Mormon is mostly consistent with traditional Christianity – even the idea that Native Americans are descended from Jews was not, in 1830, that unusual – in the ensuing years Smith had several revelations that broke completely with the Protestant and Catholic traditions. By the 1840s, he was preaching that devout men would become gods themselves in the afterlife, and would be married eternally to multiple wives. ‘God himself,’ Smith wrote, ‘is an exalted man, and has not existed for all eternity, but came into existence at some time, and dwelt on earth, the same as Jesus Christ did.’ And the universe, he claimed, was created out of something, not nothing. This radical, polygamous vision incited great anti-Mormon feeling, but Smith went on working at his vision of the Kingdom of God on Earth, a theocratic ideal that was very nearly realised in the town of Nauvoo, Illinois, where he was mayor and commander of the Nauvoo Legion, an armed militia authorised by the US Government. He was eventually arrested for ordering the destruction of a Nauvoo press that was being used to print tracts attacking him, and murdered in jail. He was 38.

As Givens argues, the contents of the Book of Mormon have always been less important than its supposedly divine origin. On the other hand, the integrity of Joseph Smith is fundamental to the Mormon Church, and his identity depends on the validity of the Book of Mormon. Mormon efforts at verification have a long and not uniformly distinguished history. When Mayan relics were discovered in Central America a few years after the Book of Mormon was published, the editor of one Mormon newspaper wrote that ‘the newly discovered ruins are among the mighty works of the Nephites – and the mystery is solved.’ Mormons later organised their own archaeological expeditions, eventually with Church funding, but Hebraic parallels have not been forthcoming.

While expeditions in the 1950s satisfied some Mormon apologists, they didn’t find anything so conclusive as Nephi’s tomb. (Givens provocatively describes an altar unearthed in the 1990s that bears a place-name found in the Book of Mormon as the first piece of archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historical validity.) A more recent generation of Mormon scholars has built a cottage industry out of comparative textual analysis. The godfather of this field is Hugh Nibley, who is still writing in his nineties. After returning from World War Two, Nibley began comparing the cultural world presented in the Book of Mormon with what is known about the Near East in the time that Nephi and his family sailed for the New World. Nibley has found parallels in ceremonies, metaphors and literary techniques used by the Nephite scribes, and in proper names.

His example has inspired a generation of Mormon scholars associated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Established in 1979, and incorporated into Brigham Young University in 1997, the Foundation publishes a newsletter, a journal, an annual, and books; its scholars are diligent, well-trained and cautious. Careful not to overstate their case, they prefer working with and around mainstream scholarly consensus to flying in the face of it. They are largely concerned with persuading non-Mormons of the intellectual plausibility of the Mormon faith. This audience largely ignores their work. By the Hand of Mormon is, as much as anything, an effort to change that. Most people, however, will remain unprepared for the moment when a pair of smiling Mormon missionaries – there are more than sixty thousand of them at any given time – show up on their doorsteps, ready to tell them all about it.

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