I rarely listen to the Sunstone podcast, mostly because there’s so much going on right now that Mormon podcasts have fallen off my radar in favor of political ones. The latest podcast was very interesting, though. John Larsen interviews Christopher Smith from Claremont University. Although he has never been LDS and was raised Evangelical, he is an avid researcher of the Book of Mormon and has focused on Mormon Studies during his academic career. From an interview with Gina Colvin at A Thoughtful Faith podcast I found this bio:
Chris Smith is not LDS but has been fascinated with the tradition since he dated the local Mormon bishop’s daughter in high school. His research as a religious historian has lead him to the conclusion that Joseph Smith sought to resolve 19th Century America’s political conundrums allegorically through the Book of Mormon. He argues that Joseph’s hope was that one day the church he established would redeem the USA and become the Kingdom of God on Earth.
The Book of Mormon is not, he argues, a literal history of an extinct Native American civilization. Unless of course the Nephites and Lamanites were experiencing exactly the same political, social, economic, racial and cultural issues that characterized antebellum USA.
So his perspective is not to convince anyone that the Book of Mormon is literal history, nor is he dogmatic about convincing anyone otherwise, although it’s a natural byproduct of the stance he takes. He examines the Book of Mormon to see how we can better understand the world in which Joseph Smith lived, and sees evidence throughout the book that it’s a reflection of those early 19th century American values, the values of settlers, dispossessing natives from their lands, and justifying their actions using a script that is very common to the era. The core beliefs of these white settlers like Joseph Smith were:
- White people are civilized and industrious
- Natives are lazy, dirty, and bad and steal from white people
- God has given this land land to white Christians
- Natives can be redeemed through colonization and conversion to Christianity
No wonder Gina was interested! As a woman of Maori descent, she’s done a lot of important work on colonization. Christopher Smith’s analysis of the Book of Mormon as essentially the water Joseph Smith was swimming in is an interesting perspective, one that is foundational to the ideas in the text and that explains why messages of white supremacy are not only in the Book of Mormon, but the basis for the entire book. You can’t just excise a few troubling passages and all is well again. The entire book is based on this.
Christopher Smith’s theory of the book is that Joseph originally started to write it as a security “history” of Native Americans that actually addressed the issues of his own day and political climate, mostly as a financial endeavor. He says that when Olivery Cowdery joined the project, it became a religious project because Cowdery was more devout than Smith and infused religious ideas into the text. When Cowdery’s wife expressed skepticism about the project, Christopher Smith quotes him defending the project, telling her “Even if it’s a lie, I’ll make money at it.” This theory is a common one among detractors of the Church, although for me, having been raised LDS, it doesn’t comport with my views of Oliver Cowdery. Supporters of the Church point to Oliver Cowdery’s refusal to deny his testimony of the Book of Mormon, and point to his rebaptism later in life, both of which Christopher Smith sees as Cowdery navigating difficult reputational issues. If he admitted to conspiracy to commit fraud, that would be an even worse outcome for his reputation as a lawyer, and in later life, after suffering setbacks in his personal life, he returned to the Mormon community that had been a positive time in his life. There was some possibility that Cowdery may have had other motives such as opposition to polygamy, but really, who knows? This is all obscured by the conflicting accounts of history and interpretations of historians.
I do always find it interesting to hear the perspectives of outsiders on Mormonism, though, because on some level, they have no dog in this fight. (That’s less true for those who are adherents to competing religions or whose academic credentials become tied to a set of theories).
There were additional colonialist / racist aspects to the Book of Mormon that were discussed in the interview with Gina Colvin:
- The borrowed from Protestantism idea that dark skin is a curse for moral failing. The so-called “Ham doctrine” that was widely believed by Protestant sects at this time posits that Ham was wicked and cursed because he saw his father’s nakedness when he was drunk while his more righteous brothers covered their father’s nakedness. I mean, let’s go back to the crux of that story. Their dad was naked and drunk. Being naked drunk is further down the scale than just casual Friday drunk. So like, basically this story is that Ham broke the Bro Code. He didn’t have his dad’s back (er, backside?) when his dad was incapacitated. And for that, he and all his progeny were “cursed for millenia.” M’kay. Sounds legit. What would he get for drinking milk straight from the jug? Extinction?
- The literal transformation of race upon conversion to the house of Israel. There was an idea that 1) gentiles were descended from the lost ten tribes of Israel (as were the Battlestar Galacticans), and 2) that being baptized would cause your blood to transform to Israelite blood which would send you through convulsions and whatnot. We often forget that early Mormons were big into Pentacostal stuff that would really make us all uncomfortable now.
- A progressive vision of native people compared to what Andrew Jackson (Trump’s favorite POTUS, BTW) wanted and did, despite lack of Congressional support (to whom he essentially said, “OK, go ahead and stop me.”) The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by Andrew Jackson in May of 1830. This forcible removal of natives to west of the Mississippi River was also known as the “Trail of Tears.” By contrast, the Book of Mormon taught that if natives embraced white Christianity, they would “become” white (maybe like the Irish and Italians did?).
- Legitimizes the claims of white people on native lands. The Book of Mormon goes out of its way to claim that white settlers had been given the American continent because it was God’s will, they were adopted into the house of Israel which made them God’s people, and like in the Bible, God had promised the land of a “less deserving” people to his own people. Unlike the Bible, it wasn’t considered acceptable to burn every Canaanite town, family, cattle, and take no prisoners. Even Andrew Jackson who sucked BIG TIME wasn’t going that far. The fact that the Book of Mormon is attempting to justify taking the lands from natives “Given this land / if they live righteously” shows that it was all about alignment with and colonization of natives by white Christianity. If natives give up their own spiritual practices and culture, they can stay.
- Theocracy with a “righteous king” as head of state is supported. Although the Book of Mormon preferences a government based on a system of judges (who also have concurrent religious roles), it does go so far as to legitimize a king if that person is righteous. This aligned with Joseph Smith’s ambitions; he had himself anointed King in the Kingdom of God during the Council of Fifty. Additionally, it’s more or less how the Church runs as well, but with a two-level council (First Presidency, then Quorum of the Twelve) that defers to the top leader.
- Democratic ideals are discussed in various stories in the Book of Mormon. Topics of democracy in the Book of Mormon reflect the ideas under discussion in the US at this time, including the role of religion in government, and the freedom and responsibility that comes with democratic government. According to Bruce E. Johansen, we often underestimate the influence of native tribes, particularly the Iroquois, on the emergence of American democracy.
- The “just war” theory ideal in the BOM was a contemporary discussion in Joseph Smith’s day, and frankly still is. Nephi cuts off Laban’s head and justifies his actions, quoting Spock in Star Trek III: Search for Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.” Anti-Nephi-Lehis are a stand in for the Quakers’ pacifist argument which holds a special place in 19th century society. In the endless war chapters of the Book of Mormon, the righteous prefer not to go to war, but if they have a cause, particularly a defensive cause, they will. Taking this approach means that within the Book of Mormon, and perhaps in the mind of Joseph Smith, war requires a moral or religious justification. The book is an apologetic for war.
- The dangers of “secret combinations” are a frequent theme. This theme is often identified as an indictment of Masonic society which was prevalent in the 19th Century.
- Universalist ideas exist in the Book of Mormon. This was a theme not only important to the time frame, but Joseph Smith, Sr. was a universalist. The Book of Mormon ultimately rejects full-on salvation-for-all universalism, but it embraces the idea that those who didn’t hear the gospel during their lifetime could be saved.
It wasn’t mentioned in the interview, but the Book of Mormon is also very anti-polygamy for a book beloved by a religion that shortly thereafter embraced polygamy. This theme parallels the theme of sexual exploration that was common among churches that emerged during the Second Great Awakening. Some dabbled with celibacy; others with polyamory.
Gina consistently returns to her own affirmation of the BOM as relevant and instructive and having value, even if not historically true, but acknowledges the controversy of having this discussion with Chris on her podcast, a conversation that most conservative Mormons (or even really most believing Mormons in general) would find threatening. He acknowledges the same.
Chris Smith’s view of the Book of Mormon is not as favorable. As he notes, the perspective of the book is from colonial interests, not indigenous interests, spirituality or values. It’s one reason Book of Mormon characters feel flat; they are caricatures with simplistic motives. Smith points out it also doesn’t comport with ancient Hebraic practices or views (e.g. baptism, synagogues and anachronistic scriptural references). Gina points out the lack of male-female balance in the religious practices as described in the Book of Mormon, and Smith agrees that it is completely different from the religious practices of the Iroquois and other known native people, yet it comports with the stereotypes white settlers believed about natives. Ironically, most of these negative stereotypes about native culture were because of the devastating disruption of white settlers who altered the eco-system forever which adversely impacted natives’ survival techniques and areas of expertise, causing them to become nomadic and unsettled. The Book of Mormon as written is not particularly insightful about native cultures; it is very insightful about 19th century American culture. Christopher Smith sees this as its great value, one that most Mormons aren’t interested in because it is so important to read the book as historical that this insight is discarded.
In short, the Book of Mormon is self-described as a book for our day rather than a book for its own (purported) time, and then spends its entire length discussing concerns relevant to the 19th century United States. Are these same issues equally significant in 2020? Not all of them are equally important, but many of them are still relevant. For example:
- Is the core sin of the Book of Mormon racism? (The endless wars between Nephite and Lamanite culture are always about race).
- Do non-Christian races need to become Christian to merit equal treatment under the law? (Look no further than many of our current GOP to see that this one is under review)
- Is theocracy a good thing (as white Christian nationalists believe) or should we have separation of Church and state (not the BOM’s stance, but definitely under discussion in our political climate)? Can you have a good theocracy or does absolute power corrupt absolutely?
- Was the Iraq invasion a “just war”? Is it a “just war” to try to bring democracy to other countries that aren’t ready for it or can’t sustain it? How should things like trade, capitalism and climate change intersect with foreign policy, diplomacy and war? Is it moral to pursue war based on a moral ideology but that requires moral compromises throughout the war?
- The current climate of conspiracy theories brings the “secret combinations” theme into fresh relevance. What about the danger of believing there are secret combinations that aren’t real? Is this focus on “secret combinations” that may have been a caution against the Masons now being used by Church members to support their belief in QAnon?
The interview with Gina and Chris then moves into discussing whether it’s important or not that Church members be allowed to have a non-literal view of the Book of Mormon, and while Gina initially suggests that it would be a more welcoming, better experience, one that would improve Church immensely, Chris points out that if the Church cares about retention and growth, the answer is no. If you become more nuanced, you may become more moral, but you will retain fewer Church members and feel less important to people’s lives, less necessary to being good people. The more certain people are, the less kind they often are because what they want from Church is to be right(er), not to be kind(er) toward “wrong” people. Or something like that. Unfortunately, that sounds a lot like because the mission of the Church is to grow the Church, it will really only to that at the expense of helping members become more Christ-like. Even if that’s not to enrich the Church’s coffers (a claim some make), it is perhaps an unfortunate side effect of a growth mindset if so. That observation coincides with Oaks’ caution that you can’t let your love for your neighbor be more important than your love for God, which feels like a coded version of this same dichotomy.
The Book of Mormon says that it is written for “our day” which could mean 1830, 1960 or 2020. What are your thoughts about this ahistorical perspective on the Book of Mormon’s relevance as socio-political commentary?
- Do you see the Book of Mormon as valuable commentary on 19th century politics, current politics or ancient civilizations’ politics?
- Do you find the political arguments of the Book of Mormon compelling or do you prefer the spiritual-focused content?
- Would it be valuable to have this kind of discussion in Gospel Doctrine or would it result in ward-level shout-downs, conspiracy theory talk, and bloodshed?
 It’s also featured in Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novel The Poisonwood Bible.
 Tearing up just thinking about this scene.
Not so much now, thanks to their policy of celibacy. Actually, that was the Shaking Quakers (see comments below). From Wikipedia: “They were initially known as “Shaking Quakers” because of their ecstatic behavior during worship services. … They practice a celibate and communal lifestyle, pacifism, uniform charismatic worship, and their model of equality of the sexes, which they institutionalized in their society in the 1780s.”
Great stuff as always. The BOM in context is not actually so racist. Provided Joseph Smith wrote it (I believe he did) he was offering up a solution to build relations between native Americans and white settlers. The first mission Joseph Smith sent his followers on was the mission to the Lamanites in 1830. The aim was to bring the native Americans on the frontier of the US to their believed ancestors’ true religion. The hope was to build a religion that brought whites and Indians together. It failed, but the intent can be interpreted as somewhat noble (in proper context).
Rather than engage your topic on any meaningful point, as I have not the qualifications to do so, I just would like to point out that the Spock quote originated in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Though it was reversed in the next movie.
Back in 2015 Nathan Sproat wrote an essential essay in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies called “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis.” It’s available in the Scholars Archive here:
Sproat, Ethan (2015) “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 24 : No. 1 , Article 7.
Available at: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/jbms/vol24/iss1/7
I highly recommend giving it a close read. (I see it has now been downloaded 3000+ times, which is far more than anything of mine in the archive.) In a recent Interpreter essay, reviewing Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon, I noticed that several of the contributors to that volume read the Book of Mormon as reflecting 19th century racist tropes.
None of them cited Sproat, though a few knew better. I think that 19th century readings risk distorting the text, and Sproat’s essay is an excellent example of how that works, in contrast to 2 Nephi 25 on how we cannot under stand the things of the Jews, or any other culture that is not us, unless we are taught to see as they did.
We are told that the Book of Mormon contains “plain and precious” truths. Yet, we can read something very plain about skin color and then have an apologist tell us that the words “dark skin” don’t mean dark skin. We are told to listen to modern day prophets and that they will never lead the people astray. Yet we can have one tell us that some Native Americans’ skin has turned more “white and delightsome” as they have embraced the Gospel.
I recently read the transcript of a youth fireside in which an Apostle of the Church said that “Christ can answer all your questions”. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to be working in the context of my first paragraph.
Sean K: “KAAAAAHHHHNNN!”
Kevin, I downloaded and read in full the Sproat article on skins being garments. Then I reread the passages in the Book of Mormon describing the physical appearance of the Lamanites. No way. The Sproat article was nothing more than a performance of extreme mental gymnastics defying Occam’s Razor in every way imaginable in order to avoid acknowledging an inconvenient fact: the Book of Mormon is racist.
I also noticed that Sproat is an English professor. And that explains a lot. He is writing an article about history but doesn’t appear to actually have training in the field of history. The literature critics routinely fail to write good history. For history is in large part a study of how and why human events actually happened. And literature critics are too obsessed about perception and how the text reads to contribute anything useful to understanding history. Always missing the forest for the trees.
It is always interesting to find individuals who view the Book of Mormon as Chris Smith does. He approaches the Book of Mormon as a tool to psychoanalyze Joseph Smith.
It reminds of Fawn Brodie’s book,No Man Knows My History. She attempted a psychobiography of Joseph Smith with the help of Freudian psychology. When I was in 8th grade a friend of mine in subdue tones told me about a book his dad had that would destroy the Mormon church. He went into the other room an emerged with Brodie’s book. Her book didn’t destroy the church, it created a small ripple that lasted a few years.
I recall something Hugh Nibley once said about “words”. You can create anything you want with words. That is what lawyers do for a living.
I love the Book of Mormon. It changed my life and to this day I continue to study and be lifted by it many messages. It really was written for our day and speaks powerfully about what is coming. Hugh Nibley referred to it as Tomorrows Newspaper.
Spot on, John W. And what is Terryl Givens a professor of?
I have found that fully recognizing the limitations of the BoM’s narrators / authors / revelators (since we don’t say translated anymore) / whatever you want to characterize them as kind of saves it for me. I was so tired of and annoyed with Nephi until I read Grant Hardy’s take on him as basically a failure looking back at his life and trying to make sense of it. Then he became much more interesting to me. Likewise, recognizing all of the 19th century influences helps make sense of a lot of things that I no longer have to spend a ton of emotional and mental energy trying to understand why God would want to tell us these things (answer, maybe God didn’t).
I guess I’m with Gina where there’s a lot I like about the BoM. Maybe it’s just because spending any time trying to connect with God through text is fruitful and the BoM is where I have done the most of that. Or maybe because there is stuff there that is genuinely inspired and inspiring. In any event, it’s nice to cut through some of the stuff that’s not quite so valuable or inspired. Just as there is plenty in the Bible that isn’t particularly inspired or inspiring. I can enjoy the passages that are beautiful (few and far between, but there) and the stories that have inspired me (maybe just stories, but still helpful archetypes) and not sweat the rest.
Was Joseph Smith educated enough to produce a book that addressed and provided answers to political, social, and theological issues of his time? Some issues in the Book of Mormon did not exist in the 19th century. For example, the “choice land” prophecy of Ether 2: 9-12. America was not recognized as a nation by many foreign powers in 1830. And after well over a dozen armed conflicts, it is still “free from bondage, and from captivity”. But America’s diminishing religious life validates the flip-side of that prophecy; neither of which Joseph had the intellect to foresee.
For a great read into the Book of Mormon for contemporary times, try to locate “BOOK OF MORMON DEEPS” by Roy E. Weldon and F. Edward Butterworth, Vol. I and II.
And that highlights the racism in the BofM *and* in the USA. This land is not free from bondage and from captivity for its native inhabitants or for too many people of color.
“When Cowdery’s wife expressed skepticism about the project, Christopher Smith quotes him defending the project, telling her ‘Even if it’s a lie, I’ll make money at it.’”
Oliver Cowdery married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer in 1832, over two years after the Book of Mormon was published. She is the daughter of Peter Whitmer, Sr. It was his home where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery finished the translation of the Book of Mormon. She joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints after Oliver’s death. I do not think she doubted the truth claims of the Book of Mormon.
On the other hand, Lucy Harris, wife of one of the other Book of Mormon witnesses, Martin Harris, did express skepticism. Her sister Abigail is quoted in Mormonism Unvailed (E.D. Howe) stating “I heard Mr. Harris reply: ‘What if it is a lie; if you will let me alone I will make money out of it!’”
It appears Christopher Smith mixed up the two witnesses and their families.
On the topic of the Book of Mormon written for “our day,” this was very noticeable to one of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, Alexander Campbell, who wrote the earliest known review of the Book of Mormon (Millennial Harbinger, February 7th 1831). In it Campbell stated:
“This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in N. York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies – infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of freemasonry, republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to. How much more benevolent and intelligent this American Apostle, than were the holy twelve, and Paul to assist them!!! He prophesied of all these topics, and of the apostacy, and infallibly decided, by his authority, every question. How easy to prophecy of the past or of the present time!!”
John W., I notice that you labeled and dismissed Sproat’s arguments, and added a bit of ad hominem, but you did not actually depict and analyze them in your comment. For instance, how is this straight-forward observation of a key passage on “skin” in Alma 3 “extreme mental gymnastics?”
“Alma 3:5–6 is comprised of two sentences, in each of which the word skin(s) appears. Commentaries handle the two sentences in one of three ways: (1) by treating both of them independently, as if two very different things were at issue; (2) by commenting on only the second of the two sentences, remaining silent about the first; or (3) by failing to comment on either sentence. All three of these approaches miss the fact that, when read in context, the use of skins in the second sentence appears to form part of a historical explanation of the use of skin in the first sentence. Here is the text:”
‘Now the heads of the Lamanites were shorn; and they were naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins, and also their armor, which was girded about them, and their bows, and their arrows, and their stones, and their slings, and so forth. And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men. (Alma 3:5–6)’
“According to a reading I will defend in the course of this article, this passage suggests the possibility that “the skins of the Lamanites” are to be understood as articles of clothing, the notable girdle of skin that these particular Lamanites wear to cover their nakedness. Significantly, these are the only two references to skins in Alma 3, which contains the Book of Mormon’s most thorough explanation of the Lamanite curse and the curse’s relationship to skins. Thus situated, Alma 3:5–6 might serve as an interpretive Rosetta stone. If both instances of skins in Alma 3:5–6 refer to clothing, then the other five references to various-colored or cursed skins in the Book of Mormon could also refer to clothing and not — as traditionally assumed — to human flesh pigmentation.”
It happens that Joseph Smith made a key observation that “the different teachers of religion” understood the same passages of scripture very differently. And Jesus, in explaining how the same seeds [expressly understood as “the word”] could yield vastly different harvests, all depending on soil, time, and nurture, commented “Know ye not this parable? How then shall ye know all parables?” N. R. Hanson, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery famously observed that “All data is theory-laden.”
The point is that the way we contextualize the words we read can make a difference in how we read them. “To a mouse, cheese is cheese. That is why mousetraps work.” There was a lot of racism in 19th Century America that condition how they read, and a lot of obvious tribalism and division in the Book of Mormon. But is that the most telling context in which to situate the Book of Mormon passages, particularly since this specific Alma 3 passage in a straight forward and clear way does equate skins and garments?
And I notice that there is a great deal of movement back and forth in the Book of Mormon, with people crosssing from one tribal affiliation to another. People can become Lamantes. From Jacob 1:13-14, Lamanite becomes a primarily a political designation rather than a geneological one. Alma 3 also reports that the Amlicites “were fulfilling the words of God when they began to mark themselves in their forheads; nevertheless they had come out in open rebellion against God…” (Alma 3:18).
Regarding the “skin of blackness passage” in 2 Nephi 5:21, Sproat has this:
“Skousen specifically points to the use of the indefinite article a in Enos 1:20 (“a short skin”), Alma 43:20 (“a skin”),
and 3 Nephi 4:7 (“a lamb-skin”).5
Intriguingly, this same syntactical pattern also holds true in the KJV, in which the only passages using the indefinite article a with skin are unambiguous references to clothing
(see Leviticus 13:48, 51; Mark 1:6). However, Skousen fails to note that other than those three Book of Mormon passages he cites, the only
other instance of the indefinite article a preceding skin in the Book of Mormon appears in 2 Nephi 5:21 in which “the Lord God did cause a
skin of blackness to come upon [the Lamanites].” Skousen’s comparison of Enos 1:20; Alma 43:20; and 3 Nephi 4:7 would appear to suggest that
when the text of the Book of Mormon describes “a skin of blackness” in 2 Nephi 5:21, it is referring to something made of animal skin.”
It also happens that Nibley has pointed out that “skin of blackness ” is an Egyptian idiomatic phrase referring to lifestyle (see Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 1, Lecture 18, pages 228-229).
“One was “exceedingly fair and delightsome,” and the other was a skin of blackness. As I said, shå˙ør is a skin of blackness, which means dark. A good source for that would be
Morris Jastrow’s Aramaic Dictionary. For the word black, it gives dark, unpleasant—everything sort of uncomplimentary. We don’t need to linger on that. Here
it is [in verse 23]; it says it’s a cultural affair. If you mixed your seed with them, you got the same cursing. If you intermarry with them, you are sharing their culture, and you
become just like them. In other words, it is not a racial thing because you can get it yourself. “And because of their cursing which was upon them, they did become an idle
people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.”
Notice that the 2 Nephi 5:21 is the only occurance of that phrase is only occurance in all of the scriptures. Nephi is the only one with the cultural background to use it. No one else has that background, so no one else uses that phrase.
Sproat also points to the Temple:
“four of the six ambiguous passages related to skin color or skin curses have the Nephite temple as their context. For instance, 2 Nephi 5:21–25 is bookended
by the building of the first Nephite temple (see 2 Nephi 5:16) and the consecration of Jacob and Joseph as priests (see 2 Nephi 5:26). The next
three ambiguous passages appear in Jacob 3:5, 8, 9 within the context of a discourse delivered in the first Nephite temple. A fifth passage, Alma
3:5–6—while not explicitly referring to the temple—notes that certain skins were darkened because of the conflict that took place at the time
of the first Nephite temple as described in 2 Nephi 5:16–26. This overarching temple context suggests that garment-skins may somehow have
been associated with the Nephite temple and (more specifically) that the Nephites may have used skins as an item of temple clothing.”
Something I noted in my Table Rules essay is that there are many many more passages in the Book of Mormon that refer to clean or filthy garments that are used in exactly the same contexts and for exactly the same purposes as the few skin passages. Sproat has this:
“The association between garment-skins and the temple is subsequently solidified in the temple address delivered by Jacob, one of the consecrated temple priests mentioned above. He opens his address by referring to his clothing: “I, Jacob, according to the responsibility which I am under to God, to magnify mine office with soberness, and that I
might rid my garments of your sins, I come up into the temple this day that I might declare unto you the word of God” (Jacob 2:2).”
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye describes wearing a prayer shawl, and says, “Because of our traditions, each of us knows who he is and who God expects him to be,”
Sproat has this:
“Indeed, every single reference in the Book of Mormon that unambiguously describes animal skin as clothing also refers to people who set themselves as would-be conquerors over the Nephites:
(1) Enos describes the girdle of skin as common clothing among his Lamanite cousins who “were continually seeking to destroy” the Nephites (Enos 1:20);
(2) the Lamanite warriors who attack Zeniff ’s Nephite colony in part because they claim that the Nephites have unjustly “taken the ruling of the people out of their hands” are “girded with a leathern girdle about their loins” (Mosiah 10:15, 8);
(3) Lamanites combining with an army of Nephite dissidents wear a girdle of skin in their efforts to overthrow the Nephite government (see Alma 3:5);
(4) Zerahemnah, whose goal is to “gain power over the Nephites by bringing them into bondage,” leads an army of Lamanites, Zoramites, and Amalekites
also wearing a girdle of skin (Alma 43:8; see v. 20);
(5) Lamanites and Amalickiahites clothe themselves in “garments of skins” when attempting to “overpower and subject their brethren to the yoke of bondage”
(Alma 49:6–7); and
(6) dissenter Giddianhi’s Gadianton robbers similarly “had a lamb-skin about their loins” as they try to take over the
Nephites’ cities, lands, and possessions (3 Nephi 4:7; see 3 Nephi 3:6).”
Symbolic garments are everywhere in the Book of Mormon, if we choose to see them.
In my essay, I quote Kuhn: that “no part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are not often seen at all. … Normal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies.” John W.’s post doesn’t show evidence of having seen anything that does not fit his box. What does not fit, he labels and dismisses as of no worth. In these times, we can say very presidential.
The normal reading has been to see The Book of Mormon as racist, which some people embrace because it lets either lets them judge themselves as chosen and superior, or lets them judge the Book of Mormon as all too human and flawed, and therefore, not binding for enlightened moderns. However, In 3 Nephi, Jesus talks about the notion of other sheep, and how the Old World disciples “because of stiffneckedness and unbelief they understood not my word” (3 Nephi 15:18). Even though they were committed disciples, they misunderstood in large measure because they “supposed” they understood what Jesus was talking about (3 Nephi 15:22). Later, Jesus tells the multitude at the Temple in 3 Nephi that “ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words” and urges them to go and “prepare your minds” (3 Nephi 17:2‒3). In the New Testament, Jesus talks about how nobody “having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better” (Luke 5:39).
Try the new wine. It’s delicious to the taste and will make you wise. Mental gymnastics are not possible without taking mental exercises.
Kevin, That’s an interesting summary of the argument. But if “skin of blackness” referred to an animal skin girded about the loins, it strikes me as particularly odd that “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon [the Lamanites]”. I didn’t know God was into directly helping people get dressed. On the other hand if “skin of blackness” was an adopted Egyptian idiomatic phrase referring to lifestyle, it strikes me as odd that God caused the Lamanites to adopt that lifestyle.
Do you know if anyone has seriously examined the suggestion that I’ve sometimes seen that the racial reading of skin of blackness and its designation as a curse from God may have been a misunderstanding of some of the BoM prophet writers/abridgers/editors/translators not God’s word anymore than various mistakes made by other prophets? Where I’ve seen that suggestion it has generally been followed by a tentative conclusion that those writers were “racist” but the BoM is not, but instead, a demonstration of the destructive result of such racism/tribalism. I have not seen a thorough analysis of the text exploring that theory, but I also have not looked diligently for one. I wonder.
@Wondering I don’t recall reading anything specifically with that approach but Carol Lynn Pearson used a similar approach w/r/t women in the Book of Mormon. Basically everyone in the BoM was sexist and rather than trying to justify or explain it away, what does it teach us about the (very bad) consequences of sexism?
I suspect that Fatima Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming address this in “The Book of Mormon For The Least of These” but I’ve not read that yet (although I purchased it after hearing great reviews).
I think we can learn a lot from reading the BoM with the assumption that the writers and editors are not reliable.
Again, Nephi is the only one to use the phrase “skin of blackness” and the phrase refers to lifestyle, in the context of the Book of Mormon, a life outside of the covenants of God. When people do that, it makes a difference in their appearance as a consequence. But that difference is not necessarily a change in skin color. It can be a mark, or costly apparel, or lifestyle. When we enter into the covenant, we are numbered among the people of God. There are many more passages in the Book of Mormon that expressly say “garments” than say skins (which, remember, can also be garments) in that context. When we break the covenant, we are outside, which is why Jacob, a temple priest, discousing on the Day of Atonement, and quoting Isaiah, another temple priest says, ” “I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering” (quoting Isaiah 50:3 in a section discussing how people forsake God by violating covenants).” God, through Isaiah, is talking about how the heavens are closed because of what people have done, not that God has dressed the heavens in the Goth style.
For instance, Lamantations 4 has this:
For the punishment of the iniquity of the daughter of my people is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom, that was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands stayed on her.
Her Nazarites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire:
Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.
The point is to describe a moral fall, separation from God due to breaking covenants, not a change in pigmentation. Brant Gardner has observed that there are no stories in the Book of Mormon in which an obvious difference in skin color makes a difference in a story. If the difference was there, why not?
The background for that language is in covenant relationships, and the consequences of being in or out of the covenant, formally and behaviorally.
Gileadi has this:
“An entire vocabulary also forms part of the ancient Near Eastern background of Isaiah’s covenant theology. Already noted is the “father-son” and “master-servant” relationship between the suzerain and the vassal. The verb “love,” too, defines their relationship: if the vassal abides by the terms of the covenant, he is said to “love” the suzerain; if he does not, he is said to “rebel” against him. The suzerain, on his part, extends “mercy” and “compassion” to the vassal, both terms being ancient Near Eastern synonyms of covenant, as are “peace,” “lovingkindness,” “good,” and “evil.” The antithetical statement “I make peace and create evil” (Isaiah 45:7), therefore, need not cause any theological controversy over whether God created evil. “Peace,” in ancient Near Eastern terminology, means covenant or covenant blessing, the Hebrew term “peace” (salom) possessing the additional meanings of “well-being” and “completeness.” Within the same context, the Hebrew term “evil” (ra; ra a) signifies covenant curse, and entirely lacks its English equivalent’s connotation of an absolute, an abstract idea created in the minds of sophists and philosophers. So also, the exhortation to “do good” (see Isaiah 1:17), in the language of Isaiah, is an exhortation to keep covenant with the Lord, the rewards of such righteousness taking the form of covenant blessing, namely, eating the “good” of the land (Isaiah 1:19; cf. 3:10). Failure to “do good,” on the other hand, brings “evil,” or covenant curse, namely, the people’s destruction (see Isaiah 1:20; cf. 3:9, 11), the Hebrew term “evil” (see above) possessing the additional meanings of “disaster,” “calamity,” and “misfortune.” Throughout his book, Isaiah’s theology presupposes this formal and enduring covenant relationship with the Lord, leaving no middle ground for those not for or against such a relationship.”
The Amlicites mark themselves, Alma 3:13, and did not know that they were fulling the words of God that “I will set a mark on them”. God didn’t dress them and make them use make up. Yet the language they use is “God set the mark.” The language is akin to Isaiah 45 “I make peace and create evil.” But it is not the language of absolutes, but of covenant blessings and curses, where both the blessings and the curses fall from the actions we take. So we have to read the texts very carefully to properly understand. Otherwise, like Othello, we might find ourselves following, not clear evidence to an unmistakable conclusion, but our own pride and fear to tragedy of our own making.
And 2 Nephi 25 emphasizes that we cannot understand the things of the Jew like unto them save it be we are taught after their manner. Consider Jesus in John saying something about being “born again” and “Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” Jesus is using Temple language and Nicodemus misunderstands. Like the disciples who “supposed they understood, and did not ask.”
The Book of Mormon repeatedly and consistently uses language about temple garments in exactly the same way and for the same reasons and situations that the six skin passages are used. And Alma 3 should make it abundantly clear that skins can be garments. And the kinds of garments people wear in the Book of Mormon is often a public demonstration of their state before God, whether, “neat and comely” or “costly apparel,” or at times stained with blood, sometimes symbolically, and sometimes literally.
2 Nephi 9:14: “being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness” (Jacob speaking as a consecrated High Priest on the Day of Atonement)
Jacob 1:19: “by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.”
Jacob 3:5: “the cursing which hath come upon their skins”
Jacob 3:8‒9: “their skins will be whiter than yours … revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins”
Mosiah 2:28: “I have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together that I might rid my garments of your blood” (King Benjamin speaking at the temple as High Priest with a Day of Atonement context).
Alma 5:21‒24: Garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness contrasted with prophets whose garments are cleansed and are spotless, pure, and white
Alma 7:25: “having your garments spotless … in the kingdom of heaven”
Alma 13:11‒12: “garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb … garments made white, being pure and spotless before God”
(there are many more.. look them up)
Here is a passage from Table Rules:
Of the Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith observes that
there has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation. It has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn-dodger for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle. Even the Saints are slow to understand.
I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.33
Jesus himself asks, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3) and tells the parable of the wine bottles, targeting the minds of those who reflexively assume that “the old is better” (Luke 5:37-39). Again, Nephi says that we cannot “understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews … save [we] are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:5). Kuhn illustrates the process:
Looking at a contour map, the student sees lines on paper, the cartographer a picture of a terrain. Looking at a bubble- chamber photograph, the student sees confused and broken lines, the physicist a record of familiar subnuclear events. Only after a number of such transformations of vision does the student become an inhabitant of the scientist’s world, seeing what the scientist sees and responding as the scientist does.34
So it takes practice and experience for a newcomer to see what the practiced and experienced see as obvious. But there are circumstances in which what a person has learned to see as “obvious” can be tragically misleading, as Shakespeare’s Othello would be all too able to tell you. That is also the point of Kuhn calling his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, describing the kind of circumstances in which, “led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well.”35
The point of the excerise, the study, the contextualization, the nurture of the seeds in this kind of soil, and taking the time to prepare our minds, to have our minds expanded and enlightened is to be able to see things differently. To get a better harvest from the same seeds, some a hundred fold more, and others get nothing.
“For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to ccome unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” 2 Nephi 26:33
That is not a particularly racist statement. Not at all typical of 1820s America with Manifest Destiny and slavery and such.
4 Nephi expressed the ideal:
And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people….
There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.
And the fall from that ideal:
And it came to pass that they who rejected the gospel were called Lamanites, and Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites; and they did not dwindle in unbelief, but they did wilfully rebel against the gospel of Christ; and they did teach their children that they should not believe, even as their fathers, from the beginning, did dwindle.
No mention of skin color changes in 4th Nephi, but rather, a description of personal choices and the consequences of those choices.
Kevin, you have a bit of Gish Gallop going on here. Some apophenia as well. I mean now that you mention Fiddler on the Roof, well it all makes sense. And we all know that traditions portrayed in that movie are the same as Jewish tradition 2,600 years ago. #parallelomonia.
Yes, clothing is used for symbolic purposes in religion. The sun also shines.
The problem with Sproat’s argument and your argument is that simply because “skin” in the Book of Mormon does indeed mean clothing in some contexts, you want to try to make it mean clothing in all contexts. But that just doesn’t work.
Here is Alma 3:5: “save it were skin which was girded about their loins.” OK, this means clothing. We can comfortably substitute skin for “garment made from animal skin.”
Now Alma 3: 6: “And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.” Now if we substitute “skin” with “garments made from animal skins,” then it gets more awkward. “And the garments made from animal skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers.” A mark upon clothing set upon their fathers? Epidermis color in reference to the supposed Curse of Ham makes more sense here.
Jacob 3:9: “Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins.” Because of the darkness of their clothing? Come on, man.
Nevermind that the Curse of Ham was a prevailing belief in 19th-century American Christianity during Joseph Smith’s time. Most every Christian believer thought that human history didn’t predate 6,000 years and that darker skinned people had to have come from Adam somehow. Dark skin was widely believed to be a curse. That Joseph Smith also believed dark skin to be a curse and incorporated the idea of the curse into his writing of the Book of Mormon to account for how Indians, widely believed to be Israelites, came to have dark skin is not a far-fetched idea. A much more far-fetched idea is that some proto-Christian civilization existed in the ancient Americas who wrote about Lamanite people in a way that is strangely similar to the descriptions of Native Americans by 19-century white Americans but when they mentioned skin being dark they only meant it metaphorically and never literally. Such an idea would make William of Ockham’s head explode.
Oh and as for your Kuhn quote, let’s not pretend that Thomas Kuhn, were he still alive, would ever validate the explanations of Mormon apologists about Mormonism. It is disingenuous to appeal to Kuhn in defense of traditional Mormon beliefs and twisted denialist apologist arguments about dark skin not really meaning dark skin.
John W: I had to look up Gish Gallop. Very useful. Thanks for using it so I had to look it up.
Great insights. Are you mixing up Quakers and Shakers? The Shakers practiced celibacy but Shakers are still among us. Sidwell Friends is a Quaker school that US presidents’ children often attend.
Kevin, I think I understand the argument. But none of it addresses the BoM claim that “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon [the Lamanites]” or that God would set a mark upon them. For that your argument needs to admit that either (a) God made the Lamanites dress that way or made them adopt a wicked lifestyle (rather than that they did it themselves), or (b) the prophet (whether writer, abridger, editor or translator) was wrong to attribute causation to God. I think I prefer the latter, whatever the nature of the “skin of blackness”. It seems you’re saying that “God set the mark” doesn’t mean God set the mark, however many times Nephi or Alma or the Amlicites repeated it. Is that right?
MN: Yes, you are right! From Wikipedia: “They were initially known as “Shaking Quakers” because of their ecstatic behavior during worship services. … They practice a celibate and communal lifestyle, pacifism, uniform charismatic worship, and their model of equality of the sexes, which they institutionalized in their society in the 1780s.” So I guess I had the two groups mixed up.
From Gina Colvin’s take, I count five sources for the perceived racism in the Book of Mormon:
(1) linguistic racism of the American vernacular at the time of translation;
(2) colonial racism of the worldview of the time of translation;
(3) personal racism reflected in the psychology of the translators at the time of translation;
(4) literary racism from the vantage of the characters and institutions within the text;
(5) transference racism, where racism is personalized from a contemporary reader’s vantage, and interpreted into the text;
From what other sources might racism find way into the text?
There is proof texting, reading individual passages out of context, except that unconciously provided by one’s own cultural conditioning, and there is contextualing, which starts with checking one’s own eye for beams so that one can then see clearly. One approach is easy and tends to re-enforce the notions you start with, and one is hard, and leads to expansion of the mind and enlargement of the soul. Take your pick and reap your harvest.
John W. uses the two adjacent lines in Alma 3:5-6 as though they are talking about entirely different things, whereas Sproat points out that “skins girded about their loins” is an essential contextual explanation of what the term “skins” in the very next sentence has reference towards. And he points towards a great deal more context, ranging from grammatical to temple covenants and more. I pointed out that many more passages in the Book of Mormon are explicit about garments and clothing and have exactly the same context and purpose as the relatively few “skin” passages. If you want to ignore such contextual comparisons, that is a choice that leads to a particular reading. There are those who prefer to control thinking by proclaiming, “Hitherto thou shalt come, and no further,” as Joseph Smith observed. I’ve found going further, enlarging the context, preparing my mind for the morrow, to be consistently rewarding and that it frequently challenges my preconceptions.
Then there is language like ” twisted denialist apologist arguments”. Tres chique. Makes for civil discussion.
Regarding the curse of Ham and the history of intepretation and misinterpretation, I often plug Stirling Adam’s BYU Studies review of two books by Jewish Scholars on Noah’s Curse and the history of the Biblical misreading that was used to justify slavery.
Reading the essay makes it obvious that many 19th century LDS inherited such thinking. But there is the issue of the association of the curse on Ham with the black slaves and the important matter that the Indigenous peoples were not black. I was able to point to common Ancient Near Eastern Egyptian cultural idioms cited by Nibley that account for why Nephi, and no other person in the scriptures, might use the language. But no one here has accounted for why Joseph Smith, who had probably seen a few Indigenous people and seen a few free blacks would use the same mythology for both distinct peoples. The curse misreading described in Adam’s essential review doesn’t go far to explain the Jacob’s early political redefinition of Nephite and Lamanite (Jacob 1:14, and the very next verse addessing Nephite wicked practices), the presence of Samuel the Lamanite prophet, Nephites becoming Lamanites and visa versa, all manner of -ites completely disappearing for a time, and much else.
Wondering, I see God as having “his hand in all things” (see D&C 59:21), as and having arranged a creation and a probationary existence in which our actions have consequences for good and bad, for testing and trial, as well as experience a bit of joy now and then.
On Kuhn’s relevance to religious discussions, try Ian Barbour’s Myths, Models, and Paradigms: A Comparative Study of Science and Religion. It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1974. It remains one of my favorite books.
And incidentally, I don’t invoke Kuhn to defend LDS beliefs per se, other than to note that the epistology for paradigm choice that Kuhn describes as equivalent to that described in Alma 32. Rather, I typically invoke Kuhn to make sense of debates in which the participants are clearly operating within different paradigms, generalizing from different “standard examples of scientific work” that define their different, “methods, problem fields, and standards of solution.” In which “the choice between competing paradigms regularly raises questions that cannot be resolved by the criteria of normal science. To the extent that … two scientific schools disagree about what is a problem and what is a solution, they will inevitably disagree about what is a problem and what is a solution, they will invevitably talk through each other when debating the relative merits of their respective paradigms. In the partially circular arguments that regularly result, each paradigm will be shown to satisfy more or less the criteria that is dictates for itself and fall short of a few of those dictated by its opponent.” (Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed, 109-110.)
That, I submit, is a very different thing. Very relevant to what is going on here. For such purposes, I find The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to be endlessly relevant and enlightening. It’s a great book, beautifully written, and worth close reading.
Kevin, As I see it you are ducking the question when you say, ” I see God as having ‘his hand in all things'(see D&C 59:21), as and having arranged a creation and a probationary existence in which our actions have consequences for good and bad, for testing and trial, as well as experience a bit of joy now and then.” That seems to mean that God had a hand in creation of the kind of world we have, but to stop far short of explaining how or whether God caused those Lamanites to wear dark skins around their loins or to adopt a wicked lifestyle. Creation of the world seems far distant from being a significant, necessary, or proximate cause of the dark skins, whatever they were. Do the readings you propose for “skins” deal in any way with the BoM divine causation language with respect to the dark skins? How?
“Oaks’ caution that you can’t let your love for your neighbor be more important than your love for God”
It has been helpful to me to recognize that I can decide what kind of God I will worship. If something about the God being presented to me at church feels uncomfortable, I can reject that. I choose to worship a God that is just, kind, and sensible. If any theologies or doctrines don’t fit within that framework I can reject them.
Some church leaders’ teachings on the subject don’t always seem to square with the New Testament stories of Jesus surrounding himself with the outcasts of the day, many of whom were seen to be sinners.
“One approach is easy and tends to re-enforce the notions you start with”
This describes you and other apologists to a T. You’re steeped in Mormonism. You’ve built a reputation as a Mormon believer and Mormon apologist. You can’t bring yourself to even remotely entertain the idea that the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith and will do anything and everything to avoid lending any credence to, let alone acknowledging the validity of such a hypothesis. I, on the other hand, spent years believing the traditional Mormon belief about the historicity of the Book of Mormon only to find that it doesn’t hold water. Furthermore what non-Mormon scholars in your field of research are you convincing about the historicity of the Book of Mormon? No one. Your research and writing serves only to create a smokescreen to questioning Mormons and make them get lost in a maze of words and random connections and cause them to stop questioning. It serves no larger philological purpose. It could not possibly pass any honest peer review process.
On Alma 3:5-6, my take is that Joseph Smith, in his stream of consciousness way of dictating the Book of Mormon to his scribe, starts describing the physical features of the Amlicites and the Lamanites and talks about how they have an animal skin around their loins and then the mention of the animal skin causes the thought of human skin color to pop into his head which he then talks about in the next verse, going off a recurring theme that he has built into the Book of Mormon in earlier chapters. The most parsimonious explanation for what skin is supposed to mean in verse 6 is epidermis. Sproat does anything and everything to avoid giving in to the most plausible explanation. Why? Because Mormonism is his religion since birth and the idea of the historicity of the Book of Mormon has been deeply instilled in his mind since a young age, which he has long tended to view as divine and superior to other texts. He is surrounded by believing Mormons. Derives emotional support from an social environment that validates his views only to the extent that they confirm the predominant religious biases of the important people in his community. Publishing an article that rejects the historicity of the Book of Mormon would make him enemies, cause him to be a persona non grata among family and community. However, he also grew up in an environment where the civil rights movement had ingrained in everyone’s minds the idea that saying that dark skin is a mark of a curse is racist and worthy of ostracism and social penalty. So he was placed in an awkward position of wanting to believe the Book of Mormon are God’s true words that we really shouldn’t question the validity of, and wanting to believe that all humans are equal and that racism is bad. He couldn’t have his beloved church, especially the words of scripture, appear racist, so he goes to extreme lengths to come up with an explanation of how the Book of Mormon isn’t actually racist. Nevermind that the explanation does not pass any muster among non-believers let alone non-believing scholars in his field. Nevermind that the article never went through real peer review. And yet hordes of believers who desperately want Mormonism to be true and not racist flock to these implausible explanations to calm the ever present pains of cognitive dissonance in their minds. The Sproat article really is a garbled pile of apophenia and nonsense.
Lastly, you mention Kuhn because you desperately want Mormon apologetics to appear to have merit in real academia. So you invoke a real academic with widespread acceptance and appeal. Yeah right. This is a total joke. I find it ridiculous that so many apologists invoke anti-positivists to defend what really is one of the most positivist religions on the planet. So much of traditional Mormon belief and thought is beyond question, beyond debate, and you either accept it as true or you don’t. There is nothing relative about Mormon belief. It is absolutist about truth and its central truth claims. Anti-positivism and relativism won’t save Mormonism. In fact, relativism has done more to destroy traditional religious thought. We might as well start appealing to Marxism to save capitalism.
“Then there is language like ” twisted denialist apologist arguments”. Tres chique. Makes for civil discussion.”
Another fake appeal to victimhood. I have never engaged in ad hominem, although I have harshly critiqued arguments and ideas. But alas, this is a typical apologist tactic. When your ideas can’t gain merit in a non-believing crowd, then claim you’re a victim. Act as uncivilly as you please toward non-believers and non-believing arguments and then when someone comes around and dismisses an imparsimonious believer argument as dumb then flop like Lebron James on the basketball court and call foul.
The LDS Race and the Priesthood essay does a lot of explaining: that racist thinking was common in the 19th century, that such thinking pervaded all of society, including religion, and that this extended to include the Church and LDS leadership thinking, as follows:
“In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”
So plainly, the leadership recognizes it has to address this racist thinking, which for the Church was a 20th-century problem, even a 21st-century problem, not just a 19th-century problem. Nowhere does the essay make the (according to Kevin) obvious explanation or at least observation that this was all a big misunderstanding based on a misreading of Book of Mormon passages as dealing with human skin color rather than the color of clothing. The essay does cite the Book of Mormon for “all are alike unto God,” while somehow remaining silent on the many Book of Mormon passages that show that some are more alike than others (based on skin color). As if Book of Mormon statements somehow had nothing to do with the parallel views of early LDS leaders.
Perhaps the leadership is trying to avoid the natural conclusion some readers would draw that if, as suggested in the essay, the racial views and beliefs of LDS leaders were a function of 19th-century views, then the similar racial views and beliefs in the Book of Mormon were likewise a function of 19th-century views. Where else would these ideas find their way into the text? The Book of Mormon is certainly a lot more concerned with race and divine action related to race than the Bible or other ancient texts. In the ancient world, slavery was an institution, but it was not a racial institution. That’s a modern thing, as are the modern (but now discredited, even within the Church) secular and religious race-based explanations associated with slavery or second-class status for racially disfavored groups.
Hear! Hear! John W. That gauntlet blew a hole in the floor – & thank you for mentioning peer review in the context of Mormon studies. There is after all some distance between truth & truthiness.
I find the idea of the race issues being clothing to be both clever and totally unconvincing. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
I remember the first time I noticed the “skin becoming darker” phenomenon in the Book of Mormon, because it reminded me of what Caroline Bingley says about rival Elizabeth Bennett in that most famous 19th century story Pride and Prejudice. She says Elizabeth has grown so coarse and brown she should hardly have known her. People in that era were pretty obsessed with being white as a sign of wealth and privilege.
Dave B.: “if, as suggested in the essay, the racial views and beliefs of LDS leaders were a function of 19th-century views, then the similar racial views and beliefs in the Book of Mormon were likewise a function of 19th-century views.”
It ain’t necessarily so. See “The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity” by Benjamin Isaac, Princeton University Press, 2004
“There was racism in the ancient world, after all. This groundbreaking book refutes the common belief that the ancient Greeks and Romans harbored “ethnic and cultural,” but not racial, prejudice.”
I’m no scholar to evaluate competing views of racism in the ancient world. But it would seem it is not an open and shut case. Why could not ancient Nephites invent racism (or bring it with them from Jerusalem) just as well as 19th century humans?
“33 For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
From 2 Nephi.
Worth reflecting on.
The idea of 19th century influences on the BoM was explored over 20 years ago by Grant Palmer, a retired CES employee. For his efforts, he was hounded by FARMS and eventually disfellowshipped. To avoid a second church court (the first one lasted 7 hours), he gave up his membership. Ironically, despite his feelings about the BoM, he maintained a generally positive attitude about the Church (not FARMS). Grant worked for CES for 35 years. When he died the sltrib ask the PR department of the Church if they had a comment, they demurred. No thanks for 35 years of service.
Wondering, the issue isn’t whether racism has always been with us, it is whether the 19th century racist variety is consistent with what’s in the BoM.
roger, That may be your issue, but it is not “the” issue. As I read Dave B, he claimed that “the similar racial views and beliefs in the Book of Mormon were likewise A FUNCTION OF 19th-century views. Where else would these ideas find their way into the text?” [emphasis added] —- apparently because of the similarity and a belief that there was no racism in the ancient world. Similarity of ideas does not prove origin. Depending upon cultural connections it raises a question about origin. Similarity alone is not enough. There are, however, plenty of cultural connections between the BoM and 19th century, so it’s a legitimate question. But the assumption that there was no racism in the ancient world appears is necessary to reaching Dave B.’s apparent conclusion. That common assumption amounts to assuming the 19th-century origin of the racism of some of the BoM writers. Benjamin Isaac’s book challenges the common assumption.
Wondering, Isaac’s book has received attention because it goes against prior recognized scholarship to the contrary. The relative absence of racism in the ancient world is not “the common assumption,” it’s the position established by good scholarship. So Isaac’s work challenges existing and established scholarship on the question. It nudges open the issue, perhaps, but it does not settle the question.
Furthermore, I did not make the straightforward claim you are saying I made (that Book of Mormon racist views were a product of 19th-century racist views). What I said was (1) that the Race and the Priesthood essay clearly suggests the racist views of 19th-century LDS leaders was indeed a product of 19th-century racist views in general, and (2) that the absence of discussion of Book of Mormon racist views in the essay might reflect the fear of LDS leaders that readers might make the not unreasonable connection and conclude that Book of Mormon racist views likewise derive from 19th-century views.
That’s a bit complex, I admit, but the focus of my point is why the essay on Race and the Priesthood avoids the elephant in the room (Book of Mormon racist statements, which pervade the book). As if somehow the views of 19th-century LDS leaders (and 20th-century LDS leaders, and even 21st-century LDS leaders) were a separate and distinct problem from the Book of Mormon statements. To me it seems they are all of a piece, so if you explain the LDS leadership views by reference to their cultural and social context in the 19th-century, why does that not apply to the Book of Mormon as well?
Consider this problem: If you bring Book of Mormon racist statements into the essay, you can either: (1) accept and support them, which leadership does not want to do, as they have recently but directly repudiated those views; or (2) reject them, which raises the larger question of the reliability of Book of Mormon statements. Leadership doesn’t like either option, so they just ignore the Book of Mormon statements.
Yes, Dave, Isaac merely nudges open the question. Your latest post is not open to the reading I saw in your prior post. Thanks.
It is possible, however, to raise the question of the reliability of racist statements included in the Book of Mormon without concluding that they were a product of 19th century views. The Book of Mormon itself includes the counter-statement quoted by Stephen yesterday. That’s one of the reasons to consider whether the racist statements should be attributed to the Book or instead to the particular authors/abridger/editor(s) (whether real or fictional characters) within the Book. That is, of course, still something that would clearly call into question the reliability of those various prophets (or fictional characters, if you wish), just as the essay on Race and the Priesthood at least calls into question, and in my view directly contradicts, statements of some prophets of the Restored Church. It would move the Book of Mormon much closer to the view of the Bible as a collection of fallibly edited, compiled, or revised writings rather than a book of answers that can be taken out of their context and relied upon as entirely God’s word. I don’t think Leadership or the Church curriculum writers or a majority of members I’m acquainted with would like that.
BTW, Chad Nielsen’s post today at Times & Seasons quotes a number of 19th century views, including JS’, that are not consistent with 19th century racist views. While he speculates about JS’ understanding of the Book of Abraham on race and priesthood, a parallel argument might be made about JS’ understanding of the apparently racist comments of characters in the Book of Mormon. I don’t know, however, of JS ever directly engaging with those comments and their apparent inconsistency with 2 Nephi 26:33.
As someone who has studied ancient civilizations quite a bit, I agree with Benjamin Isaac that racism, or better put collective prejudices against groups of people because of perceived patterns of genetic differences that manifested themselves in the skin, hair, and facial features, is an age-old phenomenon that has always been present in human cultures for millennia. Now, of course, racism played out differently according to culture. And the patterns of 19th-century American racism were different from patterns of racism in different time periods and cultures.
So as to the question of whether Nephites could have been racist against the Lamanites, yes, of course. Here is a big problem, though. The Book of Mormon is talking about skins of Lamanites having darker skin as early as 2 Nephi 5, not long after Lehi and his party reached the Americas. So people of the same nuclear family as Nephi all of a sudden got darker skin? We’re talking about a maybe 10-20 people here. It couldn’t be that many. This has Curse of Ham theory written all over it and in many ways appears to copy the Biblical account. My take is that Joseph Smith believed that humanity in the Americas was like humanity since Noah. Noah and his family are the only ones to survive the Flood. And humanity as we know it all comes from Noah. Ham, the son of Noah, is cursed with dark skin and is the father of sub-Saharan Africans. American Indians are a bit different in skin color from Africans, but still darker. And so this is how Joseph Smith explains it. Indians are Lamanites, who were cursed as early as Laman and Lemuel with dark skin as a mark of the wickedness of their fathers, much as Ham was cursed with dark skin.
Dave B. is quite right that the church leaders will only go as far as saying that earlier leaders were wrong about race. Scriptures, on the other hand, especially the Book of Mormon which leaders have long called the most correct book on earth, are considered divine words and not subject to imperfection, but the source of truth. The leaders are reluctant to say anything about the racism of the Book of Mormon.
Regarding, “Furthermore what non-Mormon scholars in your field of research are you convincing about the historicity of the Book of Mormon? No one.”
There was this 2005 talk at the Joseph Smith Conference in Washington DC by a notable non-LDS scholar that I first contacted in 1999, as her first knowing contact with any LDS person.
She began by saying:
“What I offer can only be the reactions of an Old Testament scholar: are the revelations to Joseph Smith consistent with the situation in Jerusalem in
about 600 bce? Do the revelations to Joseph Smith fit in that context, the reign of King Zedekiah, who is mentioned at the beginning of
the First Book of Nephi, which begins in the “first year of the reign of Zedekiah” ( Nephi :4)? ”
On a personal level, before giving that talk, she had read my “Paradigms Regained” in early 2002, emailing back what she thought the day she read it (she thanked for writing it), and later, after she read my essay from the 2004 book, Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, she told me that she sat down and read the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price in one day, and reported, “I was amazed at how much I recognized.” And if you read her talk carefully, you will see that she give times refers to “the revelation to Joseph Smith.” We had no idea what she would say before hand, before she read it there to a large and very appreciative audience.
As to whether my writing on LDS topics could past any “honest peer review process”, over the past 30 years I have published around 28 essays in a range of peer-reviewed journals and presses, for around eight different editors, all with various Ph.Ds that I do not have, including one essay at Oxford University Press in collaboration with Margaret Barker. (It’s in Joseph Smith Jr. :Reappraisals after Two Centuries, edited by Reid L. Nielson and Terryl Givens.) It’s happened often enough and over so many years and in so many different places and editors that I personally think editorial “dishonesty” a shakey hypothesis to account for it. And how would you test the hypothesis? If “honest” means “in accordance with my ideology” then perhaps you have a point. If “honest” means no thinking person could possibly disagree with me because, “It stands to reason, me obviously being reasonable, that anyone who disagrees in any way is not” then perhaps you have a point and a very healthy ego. Francis Bacon, the father of the modern scientific method famously dismissed sun centric astronomy on because the overwheming “evidence of the senses was that it was the Sun that moved, and not the earth.” He too, had a point, and was not unreasonable in making it based on the evidence that he accepted as most telling. But of course, he didn’t stop to imagine how things would appear to an observer on the earth with a rotating earth moving around a sun. So it’s not just reason, and science and method, but imagination that can make a difference. Kepler’s more obscure and esoteric observations and conclusions (mental gymnastics?) and reasoning differed, and over time, attracted more adherents. However, Thomas Kuhn is very very good at describing how and why reasonable people, top scientists thoughout history and into the present have disagreed and continue to do so, and importantly, in sorting through what are the most important kinds of arguments used to settle the ongoing questions of “Which paradigm is better? Which problems are more significant to have solved? What criteria can we use that is not ideologically determined and paradigmatically self-referential? How can we best answer the ongoing question of “Why us?” instead of defaulting to ideological-weighted and socially rewarding dismissals of others as “Not us.” For any who are at all curious, the “Why us?” answer involves appeals to puzzle definition and testability, accuracy of key predictions (where it turns out that an unavoidable part of what makes an issue key involves the door you want to open), comprehensiveness and coherence (breath, depth, interconnection and consistency), fruitfulness (what you find in trying it out that you’d never have seen otherwise) and future promise.
Measured against those values, and the information a great many books on my shelves, arguing both for and against, I don’t agree that “stream of consciousness dictation to a scribe” provides better explanation of the Book of Mormon than the one I accept and continually explore and extend. I have my reasons, just as you have yours. Discussion and debate will continue.
Sproat’s article did go through peer review. It was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies in 2015 after Joe Spencer had become the editor, three years after Daniel Peterson and company were shuffled aside infavor of a team that decided to ignore the LDS audience and publish for the academic community. (In an editorial published in JBMS, Spencer Fluhman reported on his Maxwell Institute leadership decision to ” Don’t worry about the LDS audience, I said. Other journals have that covered. Speak instead to scholars, period.…”)
But I do appreciate the demonstration of mind reading about Sproat’s inner process in writing his essay. Not everyone can do that. It cannot be taught at Universities.
For Wondering, On the language of causation and God and marks that in some way distinguish different social groups, I think the general principle is sound and works for me. You disagree. Life goes on. I notice that here, in this society, I’ve been marked as an “apologist” with all the privileges and rights respect that the mark entails. One of the things that prepared me to accept Sproat’s argument about Alma 3:5-5 in particular is the much more frequent references to white and filthy garments used for the same way by the same Alma and other prophets to express the same notions. For me, that part of the way I frame the issue and is integral to the question. “One perceptive historian, viewing a classic case of a scientist’s reorientation by paradigm change, recently described it as ‘picking up the other end of the stick,’ a process that involves ‘handling the same bundle of data as before, but placing them in a new system of relations with one another by giving them a different framework.” (Kuhn, 85). Kuhn makes the point that a paradigm change is “a conversion experience that cannot be forced.” I dropped in on this occasion, not because I expected everyone to accept the argument (I’ve learned from previous experiences here that I’m not in sync with most posters here), but because I think the voice is important and deserves consideration, and that some people who may not have yet heard, might be glad to hear.
John W., It doesn’t make much difference to your argument, but the notion of Ham being cursed with a dark skin is new to me. In the received record, it was Canaan, Ham’s son, who was cursed as a result of Ham’s action with respect to his father Noah. That curse by Noah (not God) was a curse of servitude, not skin color. The skin color curse was believed by some to be the “mark” God is said to have put on Cain after he killed his brother Abel. The skin pigmentation connection to Ham’s descendants was believed by some to have come through Ham’s wife, some theorizing that she was a descendant of Cain. None of that has anything to do with Ham’s skin pigmentation or a change in it. And the connection to Cain through Ham’s wife Egyptus is rather tenuous. (Chad’s post today at Times & Seasons includes a good summary of reasons why that’s tenuous.)
Some have proposed to theorize around the problem you point out differently than the Sproat approach. They suggest that in the earlier generation (Laman and Lemuel and their children) if there was a darkening of skin color, it was merely tanning as a result of their choice to dress with only an animal skin around their loins. While tanning may not be “all of a sudden” it is certainly quick enough to happen in a few days. That’s close enough for that generation. The proponents of that theory have also suggested that in later generations, where it was not simply a matter of tanning through exposure to sunlight, it was a result of intermarriage with darker peoples who were not descendants of Lehi and Ishmael. None of those suggestions, however, deal effectively with the claim that God caused the dark skin.
I’ve also heard it suggested that the early attribution of dark skin was a result of Nephi’s own confusion, writing the record of the small plates (1st & 2d Nephi) decades later. Maybe he was also just wrong about causation. On the other hand, maybe your theory is right.
As to the “most correct book” claim, it was attributed to JS as follows: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church, 4:461.) I don’t know the extent to which BH Roberts may have tinkered with that history attributed to JS. But, in any event, there is nothing in the quotation that suggests that the “most correct” language must be read to apply to anything other than the book’s precepts for getting nearer to God. Reading it as an affirmation of historical or theological accuracy and completeness is a gloss commonly put on it by readers but not required by the text. The Book of Mormon introduction (attributed to Mormon) acknowledges mistakes. Mormon 8:12 (attributed to Mormoni) does so even more explicitly by referring to “the imperfections which are in it.” There would seem to be room for a great many human mistakes, whether or not one reads the Book as an ancient history of Nephites and Lamanites or as 19th century fiction, inspired or not..
This conversion is getting a little too crazy. Are we pretending that Noah, Ham, and Canaan were real people? Are Mormons really that committed to biblical literalism? The Church needs to deal with the allegorical aspects of Genesis. They have already disavowed the curse of Cain/Ham/Canaan. Other curses (like those in the BoM) need clarification. One explanation is animal skins; I’m not buying that one. Instead of apologetics, the Church needs a realistic way forward. I know this is tough, but that’s why we have inspired leaders. The time for action is now.
Kevin, Margaret Barker has no serious standing among Old Testament scholars. She has published only in religious Christian presses. (She is also a proponent of a number of ideas based on hokum and bad methodology). Did she go as far as saying that the Book of Mormon characters are real? No. And I highly doubt she would. I tell you what, I will try to contact her saying that you mentioned how she gave credit to traditional Mormon truth claims. I will ask if she really does. I bet you anything she is going to say that she doesn’t believe this nonsense. She was being nice at the time. She doesn’t really believe what you believe and is not willing to go as far as you want to make me think that she has. Please.
“Sproat’s article did go through peer review.”
Haha. Having an article reviewed by other believing Mormon scholars is not real peer review. The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies has no credibility or standing outside Mormonism.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
While it’s not my post and thread, I’ll nevertheless note, as a W&T perm, that a wide variety of viewpoints makes for a more interesting discussion — and furthermore, that W&T tries to be open to and welcome comments from across the LDS spectrum (and outside it as well). Cites to various scholarly publications or one’s own prior work, are welcome. But let’s not play “my scholar is a true scholar, your scholar is a hack.” You can disagree with a commenter, but don’t get nasty. You can go read the articles or books and maybe they are convincing, maybe they aren’t. You can read a comment and maybe it’s persuasive, maybe it’s not. Hopefully everyone comes away from the discussion a little better informed and a little smarter. That’s certainly the case for those of us who write the posts.
Dave B., I sense that your comment is aimed largely at me. A couple of things.
1) My comments on this post clearly resonate more with W&T readership than Kevin’s as indicated by the upvotes.
2) I’m speaking to deeper problems with Mormon apologetics that the readership here mostly senses are real and that Kevin is in absolute denial about. To reiterate:
It makes straw-grasping claims to muddy the waters such as how all references to skin mean clothing.
It is written entirely by scholars who are deeply socialized in Mormonism and who could suffer severe social penalties for saying something that can be construed as out of line with established traditional beliefs.
It starts with a conclusion in mind and works backwards.
It has not gained acceptance in mainstream scholarship in spite of decades of being an academic subject, millions and millions of dollars spent on research, and dozens and dozens of scholars graduated with PhDs from top-tier universities who have made tireless efforts at outreach to non-members colleagues in their fields.
It has not recruited non-Mormon academic allies that vouch for it. Kevin says this isn’t true and cites a highly controversial and discredited scholar (more so Christian apologist) Margaret Barker. But this really nothing more than grasping at straws.
Its publications (ones that claim that the Book of Mormon is historical) are not subject to any peer review on a scale that is beyond scholars who are already believing Mormons (not legitimate peer review). It is highly doubtful that any article written by a believing scholar that claimed that the Book of Mormon is historical would ever pass review to be published in a nationally or globally acclaimed academic journal or printing press.
Kevin’s comments at this point are nothing more than a smoke and mirrors show.
Best review of Margaret Barker: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2007/11/my-margaret-barker-experience/amp/
John W., Interesting review of Barker. Who actually wrote it? Its tone is a little more restrained than that of some of your blog comments. As to its detail, I’m in no position to guess, let alone evaluate the reviewer’s credibility. The reviewer could be making stuff up as well as Barker does for all I know. Something about that reviewer’s background and credentials would be at least somewhat helpful. It could even be helpful if there were a “legitimate peer review” of the review. 🙂
I’ve never read Barker. What little I’ve heard of her work always struck me as speculative. I had once thought its speculative nature clear enough that the LDS apologetic enthusiasm for her that I’ve occasionally encountered seemed merely pleased to discover similarities to Mormon thought that had an origin, whatever it was, outside Mormonism.
Maybe I’ll read Sproat. I’m curious whether his cited article actually purports that the Book of Mormon is historical or whether its argument about “skins” merely purports to be a reading of the text. A belief in BoM historicity does not necessarily infect textual analysis. And, of course, doesn’t mean that every statement in it is historically accurate. I think your 12:35am penultimate paragraph means to assert that a claim of BoM historicity would not “ever pass review to be published in a nationally or globally acclaimed academic journal or printing press.” And not that other sorts of work by scholars who believe in its historicity would not pass such review. Is that right?
Thanks to you and Kevin for the ideas you both included in the discussion here. I’m a little better informed on competing readings of the BoM. But despite Dave B.’s hope, I’m not sure that I’m even a “little smarter.” 🙂
I’ve always been interested in the common characteristics between BoM historical literalness and eyewitness accounts of Marian apparitions (amongst our Catholic brethren). Both constitute a kind of secret knowledge reserved for the True Believer, though completely opaque to rational inquiry. Both are fully endorsed by their respective institutions, and seen as an indicator of faith if not righteousness. This is territory explored in The Golden Bough and Varieties of Religious Experience, two volumes still radically current to our debates & deliberations.
Kevin’s gymnastics have nothing to do with Barker’s scholarship. You need to read more than “google search” for this stuff.
The review you linked about Barker is amateurish. It reads like it was written by an angry, half-educated, temple-begrudging evangelical troll. Nothing scholarly there.
Margaret Barker’s scholarship is cited and recognized by peers in the field, and she has been formally recognized by the Orthodox Patriarch. She’s legit by any definition.
Not that anyone here cares, but I did read Sprout. Nothing in his article depends upon historicity. It is an examination of the text itself, with some parallel references to the KJV which obviously at least influenced the translation (or the writing, if you prefer). His conclusion is that the references to skin color are ambiguous and that there is a possible reading that does not depend upon the influence of 19th century racism. While he doesn’t deal significantly with the divine causation issue I’ve apparently been hung up on, his conclusion is quite academically respectable:
“… passages in the Book of Mormon that have traditionally appeared to lend themselves to racial interpretations need not be read that way. If the textual observations I have laid out in this article are sound, it may in fact be preferable to find in such passages rather different possibilities. … if we look directly to the text of the Book of Mormon for indications of flesh pigmentation, the only passages we find that overtly refer to skins of different colors are the six passages, ultimately ambiguous, that I believe can be responsibly (and richly) read as referring to a type of garment instead. As far as internal textual evidences go, the Lamanites and Nephites could be understood to have had any possible flesh pigmentation, or both groups might have had wide ranges of flesh pigmentation among their populations. The text need not be read as addressing these questions.”
He does not insist that the book must be read his way — merely that the ambiguous text can be responsibly read that way. I expect to take a closer look at his citations and argument. In the end, his thoroughness, style and conclusion are far more persuasive than the pontificating encountered from some in blog comments.
“The book is an apologetic for war.”
Wow, how could anyone (regardless of whether they read it as historical or fiction) come aways with this conclusion.
Roger, how can you take Palmer seriously when he made claims like that upon calls to try 12 apostles are to the Church isn’t true, but are paid $1M to keep quiet. 👀
Kevin, appreciate your insights and willingness to engage.
Your work is deeply meaningful.
“Nothing in his article depends upon historicity.”
Ok why does his article dwell extensively on the KJV for comparison? Because Sproat wants to seek for clues in ancient Hebrew culture as to metaphor about skins in order to suggest the same in the Book of Mormon. If it was really all about “internal evidence” in the Book of Mormon, then he should have stuck to the Book of Mormon text.
No one who didn’t believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon and wasn’ trying to defend it would ever write this article. You’re just unaware of the new-fangled apologist defense tactic, which is, you can’t prove it isn’t historical, therefore we get to believe it to be. You can’t prove that it’s racist because I used seedy defense-lawyer tactics to cloud something so obvious to any reader, therefore I get to say it isn’t. And Sproat can’t prove that his mind wasn’t high on cognitive dissonance when he wrote the article, so I’ll just go ahead and believe that it is.
Actually, John, Sproat’s argument is in part and only in part from the KJV — as I understand it not from the Hebrew. But I’ll check again. The portion of the argument seemed to work just as well if the BoM was a fiction created by JS with influence (cribbing? etc.) from the KJV. I’m surprised at your testimony of what no one who didn’t believe in the historicity of the BoM… would do. It’s easy to believe in a negative that you like, but a bit harder to establish it convincingly.
So you’re saying that Sproat could be read as someone who believes the BOM is fiction. Not buying it. For one, the article never could have been published in the Journal of Book of Mormon studies had there been any indication that he was claiming it was fiction or had he noted that Joseph Smith was the author. Secondly, Sproat is searching deep and hard for “internal evidence” within the Book of Mormon to claim that we could interpret it as saying that “skin” is metaphorical or means clothing. He goes out of his way to extrapolate about Nephite culture. At some point, his method suggests historicity and becomes a writing about history, not just the text. A good textual analysis would consider authorship and influences on the author(s). Conspicuously absent from Sproat’s article is mention of any author of the Book of Mormon, an indication that he is well aware of the controversy and does not want to let on his affinities. Paradoxically, his attempt to be objective actually renders him subjective. People should be able to say who they think wrote the BOM and analyze the text based on that. Third, by merely entertaining a hypothesis that there is ambiguity about what is meant by “skin,” Sproat gives himself away as a believer in historicity. If Sproat were merely partial to the idea that Joseph Smith was the author and not the translator of the BOM, historical context based on such an assumption would render the hypothesis of skins as garments completely moot. For we know what the church turned into. We know how it viewed dark skin for decades. Implicit in Sproat’s article is the idea that he believes that ancients wrote the Book of Mormon, that JS translated it, and for that reason the meaning of “skin” is ambiguous. There is zero room for ambiguity once JS is seen as the author. Heck, there is maybe slightly more room for ambiguity if you see the BOM as historical, but not much, really. Sproat’s article truly is mental gymnastics that defies a simpler and more obvious explanation.
“I’m surprised at your testimony of what no one who didn’t believe in the historicity of the BoM… would do”
Oh wow. What a world we’ve come to where I’m insulting someone for saying that they believe the Book of Mormon to be historical. Sproat was born in the church. He went out of his way to write a 29-page article for the freaking Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. And I’m out of line for saying that he believes the Book of Mormon to be historical. Of course he does!! You say we can’t question motivation. Please. Once we point out obvious motivations the whole field of Mormon apologetics falls apart. For we all know it’s not objective. We all know it cannot be and never will be accepted into mainstream academic fields. Why? Because the motivations are as obvious as day to anyone who isn’t Mormon and doesn’t experience Mormon environment-imposed cognitive dissonance. From the get-go, we know that it was an agenda to defend a religious organization at all costs.
Sorry, John, I didn’t realize that when you wrote “no one” you meant “Sproat” rather than “no one.” It’s a common failing of mine to fail to imagine what people mean when they say something other than what they mean. Perhaps you’re imagining an accusation of insult where no such accusation was intended.