The Book of Mormon is a foundational text for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The earliest related research produced reference works, and there have been decades of investigation into its historicity, leading to today’s “golden age” of scholarship. In this interview, Joe Spencer and Nick Frederick discuss the future of Book of Mormon studies, such as emerging emphases on reception history and theology.
Read more about Book of Mormon studies in Book of Mormon Studies: An Introduction and Guide.
Table of Contents
- Golden age
- Areas of research
- Reception history
- Biblical texts
- Rich and complex
- Promising topics
In what ways are we in a golden age of Book of Mormon scholarship?
For the longest time Book of Mormon studies was largely dedicated to either proving or disproving the historicity of the text. Those on the side of historicity focused on cultural or linguistic elements that would point toward an ancient origin of the book. Those on the side of disproving historicity worked to identify themes or ideas from the 19th century that would point to Joseph Smith as the primary source.
Beginning in early years of the 21st century scholars both inside and outside the Latter-day Saint tradition began to study the book as a book, focusing more on what the Book of Mormon has to say to its audience than on the question of whether or not its historicity can be proven or disproven.
Obviously for many believers the issue of the Book of Mormon’s divine origins is a significant one, and we should strive to reinforce that principle in our own study of text, but we can also be open to bringing different lenses to bear in our reading of the Book of Mormon as well.
What’s most promising, in our view, is simply that the styles of and approaches to Book of Mormon scholarship are multiplying and diversifying. The kinds of things that predominated in, say, the twentieth century continue apace. But there are all kinds of new things going on that are of interest to other kinds of readers of the Book of Mormon: intertextuality, theology, literary reading, reception history, ethical engagement, and so on.
What are the major areas of research in Book of Mormon studies today?
- Probably the literary study of the Book of Mormon as well as its reception over the past two centuries or so.
- We’re still in the early phases of doing serious theological work on the Book of Mormon (see the recent Brief Theological Introductions published by the Maxwell Institute).
- The Book of Mormon’s relationship with the Bible, the way the Book of Mormon sort of deconstructs and reconstructs biblical language and narrative is an important one for us personally.
- Studies of the Book of Mormon from the perspective of gender or ethics have been picking up steam in recent years.
Part of what’s lovely about current Book of Mormon studies is that the major areas of research overlap in productive ways. The growing field of literary work on the Book of Mormon can’t help drawing on research into the ways that the Book of Mormon interacts with the Bible.
Both of these kinds of research raise helpful questions that theologians working on the Book of Mormon like to ask. Reception history informs all kinds of interpretive work. And all good work on the Book of Mormon depends heavily on textual critical work that’s been going on for decades, let alone on historical work that’s been going for longer still.
Why is reception history such a promising area of research for Book of Mormon studies?
The study of a text—especially of a well-loved text—is built on the challenging work of trying to see something familiar in new ways. Reception history helps to reveal just how differently certain passages have been read in the past, often in startling and deeply interesting ways.
Further, though, doing reception history helps amplify quieter voices in the Restoration’s history, those who have read and thought about the text of the Book of Mormon in contexts that seldom receive a great deal of attention.
We get a clearer picture of the Saints as we look at how they’ve read their beloved scriptures.
How do Book of Mormon studies methods resemble the field prior to the 1950s?
The earliest work on the Book of Mormon (between 1875 and 1925) was often aimed at producing reference works: study tools, student’s editions, concordances, summary treatments. And we’re seeing a lot of that kind of work today, ranging from critical and student’s editions of the Book of Mormon to study tools of all kinds.
But then, from about 1925 until Hugh Nibley and his contemporaries came on the scene in the 1940s and 1950s, the focus was usually on literature and theology (albeit without a lot of relevant academic training or much professionalization).
These are the kinds of approaches we’re seeing a lot of today.
Why is caution a cardinal virtue for future Book of Mormon study?
It’s very easy for scholars to over-claim, to act as if they’ve said all that needs to be said about something. And because we’re dealing with something that’s foundational for Latter-day Saint faith, over-claiming in Book of Mormon scholarship can lead people to think that the truth or the value of the book rests on the viability of some scholarly claim or position.
That’s a dangerous place to go.
Scholarship shouldn’t dictate the boundaries of orthodoxy at all. It in fact isn’t the scholar’s job to decide those kinds of questions. Their professional responsibility is to be rigorous and self-aware about the fact that they’re only making arguments about the likelihood of certain possible conclusions, given the available data.
Why is a call for scholastic charity so important?
Because so many scholars who go into Book of Mormon studies do so out of a deep and devotional love for the book, it’s easy for feelings to run high. And where feelings run high, there’s an inevitable temptation to caricature the arguments and claims of those who disagree with you.
That can too easily lead—it in fact has too often led—to bad feelings and bad faith scholarship, all of which does damage to the scholars involved, and can do damage to average readers who are following scholarship. This is a context where good feeling and good faith can go an especially long way.
Is it oversimplified to say Isaiah’s writings are anachronistic because scholars don’t believe in prophecy?
Yes. At the simplest level, it’s because many scholars (who of course aren’t Latter-day Saints) that hold to the idea that Isaiah was the product of multiple authors and a complex editorial process do believe in prophecy. And of course, there’s a host of other reasons scholars have brought forward for making the case of multiple authorship.
That’s in no way to say that believing Latter-day Saint scholars shouldn’t respond with arguments in defense of Book of Mormon historicity, or that they shouldn’t other come up with faithful explanations of Isaiah’s inclusion in the book.
But it is to say that those who have the training to respond to the concern about anachronism need to avoid caricaturing the scholarship they’re critiquing. Real answers to real arguments are needed.
What are the benefits to looking at the role of biblical texts in the Book of Mormon?
If readers approach the presence of biblical language in the Book of Mormon simply in terms of “Does it belong” we will lose sight of the meaning. Language from Isaiah and John the Beloved are a clear part of the translated record–that language is in the text of the Book of Mormon for a reason.
If we as students of the Book of Mormon are to take it seriously, we need to be asking “Why is it there” just as much as we’re asking “How is it there.”
For example, Let’s say we’d finally settled, to everyone’s satisfaction, that there’s no reason for anyone to be concerned about the presence of all the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon. Would we then be done responding to what the Book of Mormon itself claims was said by the resurrected Jesus—namely, that Isaiah needs to be studied? It seems to us that we’d finally be ready to start to fulfill that injunction.
Some recent scholarship has essentially said, “Well, the historians will be fighting about this for a long time to come, but I want to move on to that other set of questions: What are we to learn from Isaiah in the book?”
There’s a lot of good work that hasn’t yet been done in trying to answer that kind of question.
What findings indicate the Book of Mormon is more rich and complex than we’ve known?
There are three kinds of things that get us particularly excited:
- First, there’s a lot of new structural analysis of the text—of passages, of whole books, of whole larger contributions from this or that author or editor. That kind of work keeps showing that the Book of Mormon has a lot more going on it than has often been recognized.
- Second, there’s incredible theological work that’s being done on the tiniest nuances of the text, and that work keeps showing that the Book of Mormon is theologically and philosophically sophisticated, right down in the tiniest details of the text.
- Third, the kinds of explanations given in recent years to worries about potential misogyny or potential racism in the text bolster our faith in the volume.
Scholars are showing that the Book of Mormon can be read not only as avoiding certain criticisms, but as having something to contribute directly to the kinds of things people are wrestling with today. That’s a marvel.
What are some of the promising topics that are yet to be studied?
You never know just what might come along and surprise us, so it’s a little difficult to predict what’s coming next in Book of Mormon studies. There’s of course so much that’s as yet not studied or that’s understudied.
In so many ways, a good Book of Mormon scholar can turn to nearly any verse or passage and start working, finding a field that’s white and ready to harvest.
What’s needed, above all, is more people to get involved and to bring their resources and insights, so that the field can grow all kinds of good fruit.
Did you enjoy this article?
Subscribe to receive an email each time we publish new content!
About the interview participant
Joseph Spencer is a visiting assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He is the editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and the associate director of the Mormon Theology Seminar. He is the author of three books, most recently The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, published in 2016 by Greg Kofford Books
Nick Frederick is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. His research focuses primarily on the intertextual relationship between the text of the Bible and Mormon scripture. He enjoys teaching courses on the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, particularly the writings of Paul and the book of Revelation. Frederick has also spoken to From the Desk about Brandon Sanderson and the Book of Mormon.
- What Else Do We Know About the Book of Mormon?
- What Is the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon?
- What Was the Purpose of Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates?
- How Does the Book of Mormon Help Us Interpret Isaiah?
- What Are the Book of Mormon: Brief Theological Introductions?
Book of Mormon studies resources
- Book of Mormon Studies: An Introduction and Guide (BYU RSC)
- “Moving Beyond the Historicity Question, or a Manifesto for Future Book of Mormon Research” (Interpreter Foundation)
- “The Book of Mormon and the Academy” (BYU RSC)
- “The Prophets’ Remnant Theology: A Latter-day Saint Perspective” (BYU RSC)
- The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (Maxwell Institute)
- How the Book of Mormon Reads the Bible: A Theory of Types (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies)