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Defending the Faith: The Book of Mormon wasn't what they expected

Published: Thursday, Feb. 11 2016 5:00 a.m. MST

Updated: Tuesday, March 29 2016 3:04 p.m. MDT

A first edition of the Book of Mormon on display at the Crandall Printing Museum Saturday, March 26, 2005. The museum hosted an open house marking the 175th anniversary of the first printing of the LDS scripture.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

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Even before publication of the Book of Mormon in March 1830, most people knew what to expect from “that spindle shanked ignoramus Jo Smith,” as Abner Cole would shortly describe him. And opinions didn’t change after it actually appeared.

When Samuel Smith placed a copy with him in the summer of 1830, the Methodist preacher John P. Greene quickly dismissed it as a “nonsensical fable.” It was a “miserable production,” sniffed the Ashtabula (Ohio) Journal in 1831.

On The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ first birthday — April 6, 1831 — the editors of the Brockport (New York) Free Press pronounced the Book of Mormon “a fiction of hobgoblins and bugbears.” The volume is “a bungling and stupid production,” said the Religious Herald in 1840. And, in their 1841 "Historical Collections of the State of New York," John W. Barber and Henry Howe described it as “mostly a blind mass of words … without much of a leading plan or design. It is in fact such a production as might be expected from a person of Smith’s abilities and turn of mind.”

In 1842, Daniel Kidder found it “nothing but a medley of incoherent absurdities,” and J.B. Turner called it “a bundle of gibberish.” In 1930, the literary critic Bernard DeVoto declared it “a yeasty fermentation, formless, aimless and inconceivably absurd.”

Most, though not all, of the early reactions to the book cited above are discussed in Jeremy J. Chatelain’s “The Early Reception of the Book of Mormon in Nineteenth-Century America,” in “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder," based on presentations at the 2015 Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium.

From the beginning, however, others responded differently, and the Book of Mormon has been ranked among the most influential books in American history (see "Bible, Book of Mormon make list of top 50 influential books"). Merely hearing the term “Gold Bible,” said the early 19th-century religious seeker Solomon Chamberlain, “there was a power like electricity (that) went from the top of my head to the end of my toes. The Lord revealed to me by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost that this was the work I had been looking for.”

“As I read,” Parley Pratt wrote of his own experience, “the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows that he exists.”

John Greene’s wife, Rhoda, convinced him to give the book another chance, and, between his 1832 baptism and his death in 1844, he served 11 missions for the restored church. That same copy of the Book of Mormon brought Heber C. Kimball, a future apostle and counselor in the First Presidency, into Mormonism, along with the Young brothers — Phineas, Lorenzo, Joseph and Brigham. After two years of careful examination, Brigham recalled, “I knew it was true, as well as I knew that I could see with my eyes, or feel by the touch of my fingers, or be sensible of the demonstration of any sense.”

For the Book of Mormon is demonstrably neither “gibberish” nor “aimless.” (Grant Hardy’s Oxford volume “Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide” has recently destroyed that claim once again.) Many critics have, in fact, faulted the Book of Mormon not for what it actually is but for what they assume it must inevitably be.

As the Catholic sociologist Thomas O’Dea quipped in 1957, “the Book of Mormon has not been universally considered by its critics as one of those books that must be read in order to have an opinion of it.”

“It is a surprisingly big book,” remarked Hugh Nibley, “supplying quite enough rope for a charlatan to hang himself a hundred times. As the work of an imposter, it must unavoidably bear all the marks of fraud. It should be poorly organized, shallow, artificial, patchy and unoriginal. It should display a pretentious vocabulary (the Book of Mormon uses only 3,000 words), overdrawn stock characters, melodramatic situations, gaudy and overdone descriptions, and bombastic diction.” However, Nibley continues, “Whether one believes its story or not, the severest critic of the Book of Mormon, if he reads it with care at all, must admit that it is the exact opposite. … It is carefully organized, specific, sober, factual and perfectly consistent.”

While they’ll discount his obvious assumption that it was composed in the 19th century, believing Latter-day Saints should appreciate the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe’s judgment that “the Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature.”

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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