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.”