Some, hearing that then-Utah Sen. Bob Bennett had written a book on the Book of Mormon, suspected that it was a politically motivated attempt to curry favor with Utah’s Mormon voters just prior to a hotly contested nominating process that — to the shock of many across the country — he eventually lost. (It was, perhaps, an early foreshadowing of the anti-incumbency mood that has defined this year’s presidential campaign in both major American political parties.)
Having read the manuscript well before it was published, however, and long before the senator’s renomination seemed in jeopardy, I knew that it wasn’t. It was plainly the product of sustained, careful reflection, not a hasty political ploy.
In my own turn, to be perfectly candid, when I first heard that Bennett had written such a manuscript, I doubted that it would be of much value. He was, after all, not a specialist, and I was certain that a busy senator had little time to keep up with the explosion of scholarship on the Book of Mormon that has occurred over the past several decades. What, beyond a shallow rehash, could it possibly offer?
The answer, I quickly found out, was plenty. “Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon” (Deseret Book), which eventually appeared in 2009, is a surprisingly good book. In it, an obviously very intelligent mind considers whether the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century forgery — and shares those reflections clearly, in a highly readable, conversational style.
The book’s approach is original. Knowing that he isn’t a scholar of ancient languages, Bennett doesn’t pretend to be one and doesn’t offer us a second-rate derivative pastiche of the opinions of such scholars. Instead, he draws on his own unique background and strengths. He reads the Book of Mormon acutely as someone who, having formerly been an executive with the Howard Hughes organization, has given a great deal of thought to the common characteristics of forgeries — first because of Clifford Irving’s fraudulent biography of the reclusive billionaire, and then on account of the apparently spurious so-called “Mormon will” attributed to Hughes. (He also draws lessons from Mark Hoffman’s infamous document frauds.)
Temporarily dividing the narrative framework of the Book of Mormon from its doctrinal content (the “plot” from the “music,” in his words) for purposes of analysis, he first examines what he calls the three “stories” presented by the book — essentially the first-person “small plates” of Nephi, Mormon’s abridgement of most of Nephite history, and Moroni’s concluding chapters (including the book of Ether’s tale of the Jaredites). He scrutinizes each with insightful care, sometimes concentrating on what he calls “core samples,” and is willing to say forthrightly when something points toward forgery rather than to authenticity.
On balance, he judges, the Book of Mormon is “much more complex than its casual readers, believers and critics alike, think it is.” He cites the 1839 comments of a hostile newspaper editor who described it as “evidently the production of a cultivated mind, yet found in the hands of an exceedingly ignorant illiterate person,” and declares that “I believe we can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Joseph Smith did not produce the Book of Mormon without outside help.”
He then examines representative doctrines of the Book of Mormon (e.g., agency, faith, the fall, atonement, sin and the messianic identity of Jesus), evaluating their coherency and, finally, their relevance. His verdict is positive, and I strongly agree with his assertion that the Book of Mormon’s testimony that God lives and acts, and that Jesus is God’s divine son, is even more pertinent today than it was in 1830, when the book first appeared.
Both belief in the Book of Mormon and rejection of it require a leap of faith, he says. Hence his book’s title. “I believe it,” he announces in his closing words. “I have made the leap of faith.”
This very helpful book is “addressed to an audience who knows little or nothing about either the Book of Mormon or the church that is commonly called by its name. It is a sincere effort to be fair to all sides of the controversies.” And, in fact, it’s a book that I would happily present to many investigators and to curious nonmembers. But Bennett was, perhaps, being a bit too modest. This is a book from which believing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, too, can significantly benefit.
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.