Jean Christophe Bouissou
and Wayne H. Ham (eds)
The Faith of The Church
Independence: Temple School, 1997
Four Origin Theories
Perhaps it is time for us to
openly admit to a variety
of views about the Book
of Mormon. (Cole)
For Latter Day Saints past and present the Book of Mormon is one of the important resources of the church. It stands as evidence of God's hand in the formation of the church and has served as one of the most widely used evangelistic tools to acquaint others with who we are. There is no doubt that the Book of Mormon has had, and continues to have, a major effect on how the church understands itself and how it is seen by others.
In one sense, explanation of the origin of the Book of Mormon is simple. Joseph Smith, Jr., produced the text, as he said, 'by the gift and power of God.' Joseph himself gave no detail as to the exact process of translation. Yet the basic inquisitive nature of human beings will not let the matter rest here. One of the major topics of inquiry by persons from within and without the movement over the years has been the origin of the Book of Mormon. Many persons have tried without success to show that parts or all of the book are in fact directly derived from other writings such as Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews and Solomon Spalding's Manuscript Lost [sic] and Manuscript Found. The only exceptions are the biblical quotations that are found in the Book of Mormon. Similar lack of success has resulted from the efforts of some to 'prove' the book's historical authenticity by means of archeological exploration. Such efforts have, at most, shown that compatibility exists between certain practices described in the Book of Mormon and those used by some early American peoples. The science of archeology explores the known sites of previous civilizations and reaches conclusions based on data that are discovered. No known sites of Book of Mormon habitation exist and therefore the findings can only suggest possibilities.
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[For a further discussion of this issue, sec Dee F. Green's, 'Book of Mormon Archeology -- The Myths and the Alternatives, Dialogue IV, No. 2 (Summer 1969), 71.]
Among the theories concerning the origin of the Book of Mormon, there are four listed here. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive but may be combined in a variety of ways.
2. A second theory views the Book of Mormon as having come to us by revelation through a fully conceptual means. In this instance, God would have revealed the meaning of an unknown language to the prophet, who then would have had to express the concepts in his own language. In this instance, the prophet functions as dictator as he expresses the concepts in his own language.
3. A third theory understands the Book of Mormon as having been received by human authorship. Joseph Smith was a gifted person and could have written the work himself, or he might have written it with the help of others. In this instance, he functions as author, and not simply as dictator, or as dictating machine. Because be possessed personal charisma, this gave credence to his presentation of the book as scripture. According to this theory, if it were an original composition, it could have been the product of his own mind and of the times in which speculation concerning the origins and history of ancient Americans was popular. It may or may not have been based to any degree whatsoever on writings by others during that same period.
4. A fourth theory suggests that the book resulted from Joseph Smith's giftedness as a seer. This theory would suppose that, while not being a charlatan, nor an opportunist or manipulator, Joseph was nevertheless gifted with extrasensory perception and other unusual psychological gifts. His use of the artifacts relating to the Book of Mormon and to other phenomena la noted. This theory would make use of his prophetic insight as well as the conceptual nature of revelation.
Given the historical data presently known to us, perhaps the majority of Latter Day Saints feel more comfortable in thinking of the revelation of God as resulting from the interaction of the divine mind with the human mind. Consequently some combination of theories 2 and 3 above may best represent our present-day understanding of the origin of the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the church's ideal stance regarding the book's origin would be one of permitting pluralism. Because these theories are not mutually exclusive, they may each represent some part of the truth, were it fully known by us. Pluralism leaves the church relatively uncommitted to any one theory, while still exploring all of the possibilities which offer some viable explanation.
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The issues of the origin of the Book of Mormon and its use are, for some Latter Day Saints, tied closely together. They tend to see its use and place in the church dependent on a certain view of its origin. If the book includes the thoughts and expressions of human authors, then, in some way, it is less divine and less valuable and usable as scripture. Other believers in the Book of Mormon separate the concerns of use and origin. They find the book to be valuable for its content and applicability to the needs of the church and the world today.
For some members the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is anything other than a direct translation of golden plates delivered to Joseph Smith by an angel has not been acceptable as an option. For them, an implied test of allegiance and commitment to the church has been belief in the Book of Mormon as traditionally interpreted. Questions have focused on the black and white issue of whether or not one 'believes in' the Book of Mormon.
More recently, however, questions regarding the Book of Mormon have tended to move in the direction of what one believes about the book. This kind of inquiry allows for a wide variety of answers reflecting differing viewpoints. It goes beyond each person saying 'Yes, I believe' or 'No, I do not believe.'
Unfortunately the body of Christ has suffered as the result of some members making negative judgments about other members who do not hold beliefs identical to theirs on matters which they view as vital to the faith. This happens from various perspectives. For example, some who hold the traditional understanding of the Book of Mormon have questioned the faithfulness and commitment of those who hold a different view. On the other hand, some who believe the Book of Mormon to be reflective of the thinking of nineteenth century America -- especially in the "burned over district of Western New York" -- have questioned the intelligence or openness of those who believe it to have exclusively ancient American origins. Regardless of the perspective from which such judgments come, they are definitely contrary to the movement of God's Spirit toward the unity to which the church is called.
Insistence that the Book of Mormon itself, or more especially any particular view of it, be a test of faith is contrary to the message of the Book itself. Our allegiance must not be to the Book of Mormon or any other book, procedure, or form. Rather our allegiance is always to Jesus Christ, of whom the Book of Mormon testifies and who is the center of the church. We must resist the temptation to judge others on the basis of emotion and misunderstanding. Rather, we need to thank God daily that the church contains persons who view some basic understandings from different perspectives. If we all had identical beliefs our potential for growth would be severely limited.
Perhaps it is time for us to openly admit to a variety of views about the Book of Mormon. We need to reach our own conclusion about the book's origins and meanings and determine for ourselves what implications, if any, these conclusions have for the ways that we will use the book.
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Even though it would be hard for any of us to imagine the church being without the Book of Mormon, the church does not stand or fall on this book or any other resource, as important as it may be. Out understanding of the Book of Mormon needs to be open and flexible enough that questions raised by ourselves and others do not destroy the foundations of our faith. As with other aspects of church belief and practice, we need to be willing to grow in our understanding of the origin and significance of the Book of Mormon as new evidence is uncovered.
(remainder of this text not transcribed)