The Book of Mormon is a book of scripture used by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or RLDS), and all other denominations that look to Joseph Smith (1805-1844) as their founding prophet. Published in Palmyra, New York, in the spring of 1830, it is the foundational text of the LDS Church and is the source of its nickname, the Mormon Church.
Joseph Smith, named according to copyright laws as author and proprietor of the book, claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon from ancient metal plates whose location was revealed to him in 1823 by an angel named Moroni. The narrative begins in Jerusalem in 600 BC with the prophet Lehi, who sailed with his family to the Americas. There they established a civilization that split into two antagonistic groups—those who believed in the "tradition of their fathers" and those who dissented—known respectively as the Nephites and the Lamanites. A tradition of recordkeeping was passed down through successive generations among the Nephites, and these records were compiled and abridged by Mormon, one of the last of the prophets. The narrative covers a thousand-year history of conflict between these groups, as well as a brief history of an earlier group, known as the Jaredites, whose members migrated to the New World at the time of the Tower of Babel. After the Nephites were destroyed by the Lamanites around AD 400, Mormon's son Moroni concluded the record and buried it. It was this same Moroni who appeared to Joseph Smith as an angel in 1823 to reveal the location of the record.
Though much of the narrative covers the pre-Christian era, the Book of Mormon is a Christian book. Prophets as early as 600 BC refer to Jesus Christ by name and prophesy his coming. The culminating event in the book is the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the Nephites shortly after his crucifixion in Jerusalem. A major theme running throughout the book is a self-supporting promise that the Book of Mormon would come forth in the latter days "by way of the Gentile" for the conversion of the descendants of the Lamanites to the Christian faith. As such, it has been used by Mormons as a companion volume to the Bible, being described as "another testament of Jesus Christ" (the official subtitle of the LDS version after 1982). Other major themes include covenants, prophecy, revelation, providence, the latter-day restoration of the House of Israel, and the idea of the Americas as a promised land for believers in Christ.
Joseph Smith declined to explain the details of his method for translating the plates, other than stating that it was done by the "gift and power of God" and through the instrumentality of "interpreters" (later dubbed Urim and Thummim) that were included with the plates. Other early witnesses describe the use of a seerstone placed in a hat as a medium of translation. The text, comprising 588 published pages, was dictated to scribes primarily during a three-month period in the spring of 1829.
Critics were quick to offer alternative explanations. Restorationist preacher Alexander Campbell, implying that Smith was the author, pointed out a similarity between Book of Mormon themes and contemporary religious and theological issues in the American Northeast. Eber D. Howe and Philastus Hurlbut, who opposed the Mormons, suggested that the book had been plagiarized from the stolen manuscript of one Solomon Spaulding. This so-called Spaulding theory was the leading naturalistic explanation during most of the 19th century until comparisons of the two texts seemed to nullify it.
As historian Richard Bushman explained, most scholarly explanations for the Book of Mormon fall into two broad categories he identifies as composition—the naturalistic view positing Smith as author and assigning a 19th-century provenance—and transcription, the view held by most Mormons that accepts the text as an ancient document translated by Smith via divine revelation. A minority of Mormons, particularly among the Community of Christ intelligentsia, consider the Book of Mormon a 19th-century production, yet still view it as inspired scripture.
During the second half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th, efforts to defend the Book of Mormon's historicity were undertaken by Church leaders in both the LDS and the RLDS Churches. In the Reorganization, Joseph Smith III organized Zion's Religio-Literary Society in 1893, which included Book of Mormon readings, and amateur archaeological efforts were undertaken to determine Book of Mormon locations. Chief among LDS defenders at the turn of the century was B. H. Roberts, who published several volumes responding to criticisms posed against the book. By the late 20th century, the Community of Christ leadership veered toward a more liberal view of the text; among them Church Secretary Bruce Lindgren, who believed it to be a 19th-century parable witnessing of Jesus, rather than an ancient American history. Defenders of the Book of Mormon's historicity have increasingly become marginalized within the Community of Christ's hierarchy and educational institutions. The official LDS position, on the other hand, has become ever more conservative with regard to historicity. LDS scholar Hugh Nibley was preeminent among the book's defenders, and his legacy has continued with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, which is dedicated to amassing evidences of historicity through historical, linguistic, literary, and textual scholarship.
While the Book of Mormon was a foundational text to the early Mormon Church, the Bible was the major source in early Mormon preaching. The Book of Mormon seems to have functioned more as a symbol of modern revelation than as a volume of instruction to early Mormon converts, signaling the restoration of the primitive Christian Church and its attendant "gifts of the spirit." Eventually, the content of the book received greater emphasis in Mormon preaching and curriculum, and it continues to play a major role in LDS missionary work as a symbol of restoration and as a tool for conversion. It is an integral part of LDS worship, acting, as Joseph Smith described it, as the "keystone" of Latter-day Saint belief. Within the Community of Christ, the Book of Mormon's canonical status has in all practicality become localized. While the text is still part of the Community of Christ's official canon, African and Haitian members have elected not to use the Book of Mormon. In other geographical areas, Community of Christ members use the Book of Mormon in varying proportions.
The Book of Mormon is currently available in several editions. The most widely distributed is the current, official LDS version, published in 1981 and crossreferenced with the Bible and other standard works in the LDS canon. The Community of Christ published an official edition in 1908 and a modern-language Revised Authorized Version in 1966. University of Illinois Press published a reader's edition in 2003, and Doubleday published a trade edition (with the LDS text) in 2004. As of 2009, the Book of Mormon has been translated into more than 105 languages, and more than 130 million copies have been printed.
See also: Benson, Ezra Taft; Divergent Churches; Mormon Scripture; Nibley, Hugh; Smith, Joseph Jr.; Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.
- A Very Short Introduction to the Book of Mormon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. , ed.
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