The Book of Mormon is a wholly American Scripture. It is the sacred text for the 15 million-strong Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s the calling card for thousands of missionaries, and part of the inspiration for a Tony award-winning Broadway musical. But rarely has the book, on its own merits, been considered a genuine work of art. That’s changing, as American literary scholars embrace it as worthy of attention. In 2012, during the waning days of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the nation’s so-called “Mormon moment,” literature professors were on the cusp of their own “Book of Mormon moment.” For the first time, studies of the Book of Mormon’s literary qualities were appearing in major journals of American literary studies. Literature courses that prominently featured the Book of Mormon started to appear with more frequency in secular university course catalogues. Now the text, first published in 1830 and once derided as “a fiction of hob-goblins and bugbears,” is being parsed by non-Mormon students across the country, with literature scholars breaking more than a century of professional silence on the book.
Seth Perry is an assistant professor of religious studies at Princeton University whose “American Scriptures” course begins with the Book of Mormon and proceeds through scriptural touchstones like Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. The aim is to ascertain how these works use rhetoric to present themselves as Scripture. For him, the Book of Mormon is the quintessential example of this kind of text, but he is the first to admit that it’s not easy to teach, especially in the early weeks of a semester. The single “biggest barrier” to this, he says, is that the Book of Mormon “has historically been marked as not artistic.” Perry has students read passages from the book aloud in order to experience it as an oral work first and a text second, which enables them to grasp those aspects of book most often sneered at—its repetitious style and use of mnemonics—and arrive at a more sophisticated sense of its style, shape, and origins.
Someone outside the field of literary studies might not be surprised to learn of the Book of Mormon’s historical exclusion from secular literature classrooms. After all, as a sacred text, its proper home would seem to be on the preacher’s pulpit rather than the professor’s lectern. But literary studies is an omnivorous and often indiscriminate discipline. The sacredness or profaneness of any given text has never been an obstacle to literary-critical appropriation.
Take the Bible, for instance. When the renowned literary critic Northrop Frye began teaching “The Bible and English Literature” at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, he, along with luminaries like Robert Alter, helped usher in a curricular revolution that would transform how universities taught the Bible. The Bible-as-literature movement was so successful that by the fall of 1982, when the notoriously shy Frye—bedecked in an ill-fitting powder blue suit that made him look like an unkempt televangelist—stood in front of a gaggle of undergraduates and two video cameras to recount the history of his most famous course for posterity, literature classes on the Bible had become a staple of English departments across North America.
This same period also saw the ramping up of what would come to be called the “canon wars,” as scholars busily recovered authors and texts that had been excluded from the literary pantheons of earlier generations of critics. In this heady period of scriptural appropriation and literary recovery, it would have made sense for the Book of Mormon to find a home in the expanding canon of American literature, given that it has remained one of the most popular, influential, and historically significant texts from the nineteenth century, not to mention one of the only published works of the period that continues to be read and studied outside of lecture halls. That it never did wasn’t because calls for its study as literature weren’t being made, either.
In her groundbreaking biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie—a Mormon apostate—expressed bafflement that “scholars of American literary history have remained persistently uninterested in the Book of Mormon.” Brodie wrote that sentence in 1945, but it could as easily have been written in 2005, when the total number of articles on the Book of Mormon that had ever been published in academic journals specializing in American literature was one.
Throughout most of the discipline’s history, the virtually universal neglect of the Book of Mormon by professional literary critics was never debated and rarely even questioned. As a case in point, one non-Mormon scholar I spoke to recalls having an essay on the Book of Mormon rejected from a prominent journal of American literary studies because the book, her anonymous reviewer wrote, “wasn’t a valid object of literary study.” Although the religious bias lurking behind a remark like this is obvious, it is interesting for how it couches prejudice in the language of aesthetics. This strategy is particular to anti-Mormon discourse going back to the nineteenth century, and one that helps to explain literary studies’ unreasonable distaste for the book, as well as the significance of its recent recovery.
At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, English professor Jared Hickman celebrates the “audacity” of the Book of Mormon’s style in his “American Bibles” course. He teaches the Book of Mormon alongside Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, and Lew Wallace’s epic Ben-Hur. To Hickman’s mind, placing these weighty tomes together makes perfect sense given their stylistic excesses and common obsession with the problem of how to interpret signs, symbols, texts, and the natural world. Given that the Book of Mormon is also a text that purports to be a history of ancient Israelities who crossed the Atlantic to become American Indians, Hickman prods his students towards creative interpretations of the Book of Mormon’s treatment of indigenous peoples, asking them why, during the era of Indian removal, an American Scripture would also be “a history of Indians.” Although he deliberately brackets discussions of how LDS Church members typically read the Book of Mormon, Hickman does invite students to consider the strange power the text has in our culture by asking them to carry the book around conspicuously for several days and observe how people react. Every time, he says, students report numerous sidelong glances at the library and double takes on the quad.
For the Book of Mormon’s earliest critics, deriding its style was as important as dismantling its truth claims, a way of undercutting the possibility that even if the book was not true Scripture, it might still be good fiction. In his lively 1830 pamphlet Delusions (the first polemic directed against the Book of Mormon) the Christian Restorationist Alexander Campbell concluded that, besides being fraudulent, the Book of Mormon also had “not one good sentence in it.” (It has several.) By the time Mark Twain referred to it as “chloroform in print” in 1872, the aesthetic delegitimation of the book was complete. Twain found the book “slow,” and wrote, “If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle — keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate.”
Even as eloquent a defender of the book as Terryl Givens—a professor of religion and literature at the University of Richmond who has since the 1990s been an emissary of Mormon culture and theology to non-Mormon intellectuals—felt compelled to admit that “searching for literary wonders in the Book of Mormon is a bit like seeking lyrical inspiration in the books of Chronicles or Judges.” In the absence of full-throated arguments on behalf of its literary merits, an (un)critical consensus about the Book of Mormon congealed within professional literary studies that besides being patently false, it was also tedious, risible, caricaturish, artless, vulgar, and transparently proselytic. Why would anyone read such a book?
In recent years, however, American literary studies has undergone a paradigm shift as it has turned attention to the blindspots and limits embedded in its secular identity. In the midst of this institutional self-examination, and nudged on by the work of Mormon scholars like Grant Hardy who have begun applying narrative theory to it, the Book of Mormon was primed for a reevaluation. These factors, in addition to the wide availability of attractive reader’s editions of the Book of Mormon armed with immaculate scholarly introductions framing it for non-Mormon audiences—notably Hardy’s 2005 University of Illinois Press edition and Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s 2008 Penguin edition—have made the Book of Mormon’s inclusion on American literature syllabi that much easier. Thus, Mormon and non-Mormon students alike are being asked to confront this most strange and difficult American text in a pedagogical setting nineteenth-century Americans (and many contemporary ones) wouldn’t have dreamed of. In these post-secular classrooms, it is not the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness that is being put under the analytic microscope, but its rhetoric, its form, and its historical import.
Perhaps the most conspicuous academic embrace of the Book of Mormon is occurring in—of all places—liberal secular Vermont, where Elizabeth Fenton is currently teaching a graduate seminar at the University of Vermont called “The Book of Mormon and its World,” which all available evidence suggests is the first literature course outside of Utah to focus exclusively on the Book of Mormon. After requiring students to spend three weeks reading the Book of Mormon in its entirety, Fenton is devoting the remainder of her course to a series of “meditations” on potential historical and theological contexts for the book. Because it is a living religious text, Fenton acknowledges that the book must be taught “with a certain generosity,” but she emphasizes that her course is focused exclusively on intellectual questions rather than questions of faith. Given the multitude of preconceptions students have about the book, distinctions like this are paramount. “Truth in advertising is important with the Book of Mormon,” she says.
In the short time she’s been teaching the course, Fenton says that her students have come to appreciate the Book of Mormon as an artistic achievement even as many of them openly balk at its supernatural origin story. One of the fruits of this openness to the book is that certain episodes have organically emerged as focal points of discussion, the most frequent of which is an episode from the second chapter of the book of Mosiah wherein the aging King Benjamin, after a transformative visit from an angel, attempts to deliver a valedictory gospel to his subjects. In the story, the teeming masses gathered outside Benjamin’s palace inspire him to build a tower from which to proclaim his good news so that all might hear him. When some of his listeners are still too far-flung to hear his voice, he instructs his scribes to mass-produce and distribute pamphlets of his speech in order to ensure a universal access to his words. Beginning with a revelation and ending with the production of a text, this borderline comic episode of ancient American media strategy would seem to be the Book of Mormon reflecting on its own emergence as an oral text.
Whereas King Benjamin’s pamphlets incited mass conversions, Joseph Smith’s written words moved more slowly, but did eventually inspire millions of followers. Today Smith’s most important literary production is being received in ever more complex, subtle, and unexpected ways. The LDS Church founder once remarked that his writing suffered from a “lack of fluency according to the literati of the age.” But for the literati of our own age, the Book of Mormon may be finally getting its due.
Grant Shreve has a PhD in American Literature from Johns Hopkins University. He is currently at work on a book about secularity, religious diversity, and the rise of the American novel.