Chloroform in Print

Does the Book of Mormon get a bad rap?

Also in Slate, David Haglund wonders why there’s a dearth of great Mormon literature. Plus: Great Magnum photos of Mormons and Mormon sites.

To a nonbeliever, all religions perplex, but Mormonism perplexes absolutely. Let me immediately qualify that remark. To the non-Mormon faithful, and especially those conservative Protestants who consider it an anti-Christian sect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is hardly a religion at all.

Hostility toward Mormonism has many sources. A religion established in the 19th century has not had the time to establish its teachings as timeless. A religion founded in the United States lacks the exoticism of those more directly connected to the mysterious Middle East. A religion that once allowed randy elders to possess child brides and consigned its young males to oblivion makes the Catholic Church’s problems with wayward priests seem like a mere episode of, well, waywardness. A religion whose followers show a pronounced tendency to become CEOs of some of America’s largest corporations is bound to arouse envy.

Not least, there is the Book of Mormon itself. This text, depending on where one stands on the Mormon question, was either discovered by the 17-year-old Joseph Smith in upstate New York after the Angel Moroni directed him to golden plates written in reformed Egyptian, or it was the product of a budding confidence man who copied and pasted other pieces of scripture into a totally improbable tale in which ancient Israelites found their way to the New World. Whatever one’s views on the authenticity of the text, it has been widely regarded as a rather inferior work of literature, especially when compared to the King James Bible. “Chloroform in print,” is Mark Twain’s famous dismissal of it.

In Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, Grant Hardy, who teaches history and religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, * begs to differ. He asks his readers to forgo historical questions in favor of literary ones: Let us bracket the issue of what Joseph Smith actually did, he proposes, and instead engage in a careful reading of the text with which, whether as author or as conveyor, Smith is associated. The “narratological structures” Hardy finds in that text, he is convinced, show that Mark Twain did not know what he was talking about. Hardy believes that showing how the Book of Mormon is constructed to serve its rhetorical goals should persuade non-Mormons to give the religion more respect. His aim is neither to make truth claims nor to win converts, but to elevate the reputation of his faith’s guiding text.

I found myself willing—indeed eager—to go along with Hardy’s suggestion. Mormonism has fascinated me ever since I developed an interest in religion. It is not just that the Mormons I meet, however much I may dislike their politics, are among the most considerate and thoughtful of individuals. It is also the story itself: the ordeal of the Great Trek, the adventures in the Utah Territory, the efforts to meet the hostility of outsiders, the distinctive academic profile of Brigham Young University, and the phenomenal growth of a church that now flourishes all over the world. Social scientists tend to be impressed by success: Anything that works must work for a reason. If someone can convince me that the reason for Mormonism’s success lies in the narrative structure of its sacred text, I am willing to be convinced.

The Book of Mormon has a complicated structure. It is divided into three major parts: the small plates of Nephi, the words and books of Mormon himself, and the additions and books provided by Moroni. Those who lean toward dismissing the Book of Mormon as the work of a confidence man point to its repetitive nature; the same stories are told over and over again because Smith, for all his wild imagination, was lacking in talent. Hardy offers an alternative interpretation.

Consider, for example, his discussion of those portions of the text purported to be written by Mormon. (Mormon was an American-born descendent of the prophet Lehi, who was among the first to leave Jerusalem for the New World.) Mormon, Hardy reminds us, is in this part of the text an editor assembling the testimony of those who came before him, not an author in his own right. As such, “his task … is to make the hand of God manifest by deftly emphasizing (not creating) patterns that were already present in past events.” Repetition in this context not only helps his readers remember the history that binds them together; it also reminds them of God’s engagement with his people by calling attention to history as the working out of God’s will on earth. We must grasp the purpose the text is trying to serve if we are to understand why it takes the form it does.

Hardy adopts a similar approach to the story in the Book of Mormon most incredible to other Christians: the sudden appearance, in the Third Nephi, of Jesus Christ. The problem there is that the coming of Jesus to the New World is not foreshadowed in other portions of the text. In addition, those few sections of the Third Nephi dealing with this seminal event rely even more than usual on borrowings from the New Testament. All of this makes it possible for skeptics to conclude that Smith had let the story run away from him. Long after he began writing, he suddenly realized the need to insert Jesus into the picture and so simply wedged him in.

Hardy argues otherwise. We should not, he insists, read the Third Nephi as straightforward storytelling; if we do, presumably even if we are Mormons, we will be disappointed. Instead, in these particular passages the narrator, once again Mormon, is neither a historian nor a moralist (as he was in other books) but a prophet. Hardy concedes that the teachings of Jesus in the New World may seem “derivative” but, in his view, Mormon is mediating not only between the different books that compose the Book of Mormon but between Christianity and this new faith founded by Joseph Smith. However awkward it may appear to have an Old World prophet suddenly show up in the New World from a storytelling perspective, it makes perfect sense from a prophetic standpoint. Hardy is really stretching here. Even he acknowledges that the Third Nephi does not address such important theological issues as when Jesus arrived in the New World, whether he was wounded, or how he could promise atonement.

Hardy concludes his book by citing Twain’s famous quip that Wagner’s music “is better than it sounds.” The Book of Mormon, he wants us to believe, is better than it reads. Here is where he loses me. I can get so absorbed in an opera like Siegfried that when it ends, six or so hours after it began, I cannot wait until the next one in the Ring, Die Götterdämmerung, starts. The same thing simply cannot be said about the Book of Mormon, at least to a non-Mormon like me. Hardy’s heroic efforts to prove that there is literature somewhere buried in all those passages starting with “Behold” or “And so it came to pass” leave me, like Twain, gasping for air. Hardy does convince me that writing the Book of Mormon required an amazing amount of dedication. How else to explain its length and the fervent imagination clearly at work within it. He has not convinced me that what was written qualifies as great, or even good.

Mormonism’s success suggests that a religion can flourish in spite of rather than because of its founding texts. I do not doubt that Mormons are inspired by the words associated with Joseph Smith. But if another reference to music is permitted, I simply cannot imagine anyone setting those words to music the way Handel did with the Bible in his oratorios. The Book of Mormon has a structure. It does not sing.

Correction, May 17, 2010: This article originally misspelled Asheville, N.C. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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