Note: I updated the post to include some quotations from three of the articles cited in the last section of the post.
I’m going to do a long intro, then get to the main topic of the post. I’m going to reflect a bit on how one reads the Book of Mormon in 2020, given that’s the topic of study this year in Sunday School and in the broad Come Follow Me program.
Two Ways to Read the Book of Mormon
I’m going to suggest there are two way to read the Book of Mormon: as a sign or for its content. The Church itself often pushes the idea that the Book of Mormon is a sign of Joseph’s prophetic calling. Accept that line of thinking and everything else the Church wants you to believe or do seems to follow. You know the pattern: the Book of Mormon is true, Joseph Smith is a prophet, so X. And X can be anything from “the Priesthood was restored” to “contribute a generous fast offering each month” to “show up at the chapel at 10 AM to clean the bathrooms.” So a lot of LDS chips are placed on “the Book of Mormon is true” square. A Latter-day Saint’s (or an investigator’s) ability to properly read the book and adequately answer the “Is it or isn’t it?” question is of great importance. If we take the issue and the question seriously (which is what the Church asks of members and investigators), then the proper approach is to read the book carefully, taking in and evaluating all relevant evidence in order to make an informed decision and commitment. Does this verse or that claim make sense? Do I believe the events recounted in this or that chapter actually happened? It’s a serious inquiry.
And I’ll confess that this is the only way I can read the Book of Mormon anymore. I don’t read a verse and say, “Well, if Lehi says he had a dream and an angel told him to hold to the rod, avoid the mists of darkness, ignore the people shouting from that big building, get to the tree, and eat the fruit, then I need to make my life conform with what the angel told Lehi in his dream, which Lehi then wrote on a set of metal plates, which Nephi than copied on to his own set of metal plates, which Mormon later abridged in his own account on yet a different set of metal plates, which Joseph Smith later discoverd buried in a box in a hill in New York a millennium or two later, which he then somehow translated into English and gave to Martin Harris who lost it, so Joseph went back and translated a separate account Nephi made on yet another set of plates, dictating words which were then written down by Oliver Cowdery or another scribe and later published for all the world to read and ponder.” That’s the second way of reading the Book of Mormon (see below). No, I say to myself, “Does this make sense? Did this really happen? What facts external or internal to the narrative bear on this important question?”
The second way of reading the Book of Mormon is to give a sincere thumbs up to the initial inquiry and to then read the book as revealed scripture, attempting to discern what God is saying through the words of this or that prophet or narrator in any particular chapter and follow that directive or counsel. You implicitly accept the claim I spelled out in the long sentence in the prior paragraph, which can be applied to any character you read about in the text. “Well, if Mormon wrote that Amulek asked Alma to stretch forth his hand to save a bunch of women and children from being burned to death, and that Alma said no that’s not what the Spirit is telling me to do, and they all died, then that’s what happened and I should figure out what this instructive lesson means and what it teaches me about God and the Spirit and Alma, and how to apply it to my daily life.”
So how do you read the Book of Mormon? Are you a Type I or a Type II reader? My posts on the Book of Mormon are going to be critical in the sense of reflecting a Type I reading, but not critical in the sense of simply criticizing for the sake of criticizing (although I’m well aware that many mainstream Mormons and leaders take any discussion of the Book of Mormon that does not display unreflective and complete acceptance of standard LDS claims about the Book of Mormon as harsh criticism, despite the fact that the Church itself asks us to read the book with a view to pondering and deciding exactly that question!). In my first post I looked at Freemasonry, which I’ll no doubt revisit once I get my hands on Don Bradley’s new book on the missing 116 pages and can bring that topic back around to bear on the Book of Mormon more directly. This week I’ll look at Indian prophets. A few other posts in my mental queue include the Godhead as presented in 1 Nephi chapter 1, the journey through the desert of Lehi’s party, and the long oceanic sea voyage to America.
Yes, There Were Indian Prophets
So I stumbled across a copy of God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America (Basic Books, 2017) at my local library. The author is Louis S. Warren, a history prof at UC Davis, and it won the Bancroft Prize in history, so I figured it’s worth reading. I was interested in part because there is occasional speculation that links Mormonism to the origin or propagation of the Ghost Dance (not supported at all by this author, although the Ghost Dance religion was well received by those in Utah, see p. 54-55 and 96-97). I was also interested because Mormonism generally mangles the ancient and modern history of Native Americans so badly that I feel duty bound as a Latter-day Saint to get accurate facts on the matter when the opportunity arises.
The Ghost Dance and its attendant religious message is controversial because it led to the events at Wounded Knee in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, in which several hundred Lakotas, many of them women and children, were basically massacred by US Army soldiers. The book puts that terrible event and the whole Ghost Dance movement into its proper historical context. But I won’t get into those details. Instead I’ll focus on the Indian prophet who gave new energy to the Ghost Dance in the years immediately preceding Wounded Knee, a Paiute Indian in Nevada named Jack Wilson or Wokova.
Wokova was a prophet in every sense of the term (and I’m speaking in the Mormon fashion of taking prophetic claims at face value). He could make it rain, a prized ability in Nevada. He was reputed to have healing powers. He became a leader among his people. He had visions and communicated the substance of those visions to fellow Paitues, interested whites, and later other Native Americans who came from other tribes to hear his message. And that message to fellow Native Americans was more or less to live peacefully, to accept paying work and get cash wages, to send Indian children to schools to get an education, and to build community identity and unity through the Ghost Dance. Warren, the author, goes to great lengths to recover the actual content of Wokova’s preaching and the Ghost Dance, which often got twisted and misrepresented by later government sources and commentators (to justify the events at Wounded Knee, among other reasons).
Part of that historical context is the long history of Indian prophecy and prophets. There was Wodziwob, an earlier Paiute prophet and visionary who initiated an earlier form of the Ghost Dance. There was Tenskwatawa or the Shawnee Prophet, the brother or Tecumseh. And there was Handsome Lake, a Seneca “who led one of the most successful Indian revivals” and who “in 1799 … had received a series of divine revelations that inspired a reworking of Seneca spirituality in what became known as the Handsome Lake Religion, or the Longhouse” (p. 345). The Seneca lived in Western New York. Near Palmyra. In fact, it was the sale of Seneca lands to the United States after the Revolution that opened up Western New York for settlement by whites.
Handsome Lake told a tale of how America was discovered that involved Indian contact with Christopher Columbus before he made his voyages. Handsome Lake’s teachings were summarized in a Code of Handsome Lake, which remains in circulation among some Native Americans. Red Jacket was another Seneca, a contemporary of Handsome Lake. He was a noted orator. He came through Palmyra in 1822 and gave a speech in town. It’s possible that young Joseph Smith (16 or 17 at the time) would have attended.
I won’t try to stretch those connections and further, but I will give some additional references below that readers are free to pursue. I do find it a bit intriguing that the only groups in early 19th-century America who embraced the idea of contemporary prophets were Native Americans and Mormons. And the Native American tradition came first.
Links and Quotes From Other Interesting Accounts
“Early Mormon Lamanism, Forgotten Apocalyptic Visions, and the Indian Prophet,” a 2010 post at Juvenile Instructor by David Grua, an LDS historian. Lots of good information on the Indian Mission of Oliver Cowdery and three other young Mormons in 1830. A quote:
Wounded Knee also had significant consequences for what might be called “Lamanism,” or the cultural production of Lamanites among white Latter-day Saints. As John-Charles Duffy suggests, the massacre ended “armed resistance to the U.S. government . . . [and] Indians’ submission to the reservation system dulled apocalyptic expectations about Lamanites violently reclaiming their promised land.”  In truth, it is doubtful that most white Mormons today, or even most Mormon historians for that matter, recognize the full significance of Lamanites/Native Americans in early Mormon history. When The Book of Mormon appeared in 1830, it was a radical document, one that envisioned the eradication of much of white America by Native Americans and the absorption of a small group of converted Gentiles into the chosen remnant of Jacob (see especially 3 Nephi 21). Much of Joseph Smith’s Zion project centered around the promise of the large-scale conversion of Lamanites and rumors circulated from the 1830s through the 1890s of a white Mormon/Native American alliance that would wipe out white America.
“Joseph Smith in Iroquois Country: The Handsome Lake Story,” another 2010 post at Juvenile Instructor, this one by Lori Tayor, an American Studies PhD who wrote a dissertation in 2000 titled “Telling Stories About Mormons and Indians.” A quote:
[T]here are parallels between Handsome Lake’s teachings and Book of Mormon, economic and social interactions between Iroquois and white settlers at the time were still extensive during the early decades of the 19th century, and Lucy Mack Smith wrote that Joseph talked about Indians “as if he had spent his whole life among them.” Joseph Smith was interested in the people who lived around him. Young Joseph was a member of the juvenile debating club in Palmyra during 1822 when Red Jacket, arguably the most widely-known Seneca of this period, delivered a speech in town. Joseph also liked to hang out on Ganargua Creek (Mud Creek) in the area where Iroquois travelers camped. He had interest and access.
Jared Hickman’s article “The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse,” which if you haven’t read before you should do so immediately. The link is to a straight text version of the article, which is the best I can find. References omitted in the following quotation:
The Book of Mormon becomes, on multiple levels, a racial apocalypse, albeit a contrarian one. Not only in the immediate temporal frame of the narrative do the dark Lamanites extinguish the fair Nephites in a thousand-year war; in the narrative's prophetically extended temporal frame, which encompasses the nineteenth-century moment of its readers, the resurgence of the Lamanites' Amerindian descendants in antebellum America, by more bloodshed if necessary, is imagined. In an almost perfect inversion of (post-) Puritan racial theology, the Book of Mormon prophesies that Indian Israel, rather than the interloping Euro-American Gentiles, will erect a New Jerusalem on the American continent. In an era when the prevailing providentialist paradigm in the United States at best fostered a tragic image of "the vanishing Indian," it is perhaps no surprise that early readers of The Book of Mormon, whether they converted to Mormonism or not, located its theological interest not in its explicit Christian-doctrinal statements, which seemed derivative, but rather in the novel racial eschatology implicit in its narrative premises. For those who did convert, like Pratt, The Book of Mormon inspired a "Mormon version of Manifest Destiny" that posed more than an imaginary threat to the US state. In response to Book of Mormon prophecies, early Mormons continually relocated on the advancing western frontier near "the borders of the Lamanites" — from Far West, Missouri, to Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah — in the hopes of forming a Mormon-Lamanite alliance that would hasten the building of the New Jerusalem. The Book of Mormon thus keyed the formation of an alternative chosen people — Mormons and Indians — whose millennial triumph, from the perspective of many Euro-Christians, amounted to the foreclosure of the nation's providential expansion. In fact, (Book of) Mormon millenarianism dovetailed with contemporaneous Amerindian spiritualities so productively that Gregory Smoak goes so far as to say that The Book of Mormon has "forever linked" Mormonism with American Indian prophetic movements.
Americanist Approaches to The Book of Mormon (OUP, 2019), edited by Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman. I have a copy of the book right in front of me, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m sure the articles in this book touch on some of these topics.
Dan Vogel’s Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon (Signature Books, 1986). The link goes to the full text at the Signature Books Online Library.