America is experiencing something of a Mormon moment, thanks to Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency and a Tony Award-winning musical named after the Book of Mormon. But much remains unknown about this faith, including the circumstances surrounding its primary sacred text.
Paul C. Gutjahr’s well-written and erudite account of the history of the Book of Mormon fills much of this void. In The Book of Mormon: A Biography, he describes an earthly drama that begins in upstate New York in the 1820s, connects with a mythological past about ancient North American civilizations (which includes a visitation by Jesus, well before the New Testament era), and finally moves forward into the present. The story is one of divine and human encounters, at once mysterious and murky in its meaning.
Three schools of thought have developed about the book’s origin: 1) Joseph Smith Jr. translated the text from plates of gold; 2) Joseph (as he was called by his followers) plagiarized the book from other sources; and 3) Joseph was simply a gifted storyteller with an amazing imagination and a strong sense of mission. Proclaiming himself to be God’s prophet, sent to Earth to restore a purer form of Christianity, Joseph added teachings not found in the text that favored polygamy, baptism of the dead, and the plurality of Gods. These newer revelations set Mormons further apart from other Christians and divided Mormons themselves, splitting the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from those who chose to follow Brigham Young westward.
Almost from the beginning, disputes arose over corrections and revisions to the text; the Reorganized Latter Day Saints now produce and control their own official version.
Gutjahr’s account leaves one with considerable appreciation for the enduring value of the Book of Mormon. Like all sacred texts, it bears a deep human imprint, but this simply underscores the fact that within any religion that lasts, the spiritual is intertwined with the perplexing, often messy realities of everyday life.
Reviewed by Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society, University of California, Santa Barbara