Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Place of the Book of Mormon in Today’s LDS Faith (Response to Adam Gopnik’s “I, Nephi,” Part 2

[Note: One may find the table of contents for this series in this earlier post.]

In his recent New Yorker article on Mormonism, Adam Gopnik has a lot to say about the Book of Mormon. However, what he has to say about this LDS scripture is deeply flawed. Gopnik repeats several timeworn fallacies about the Book of Mormon, and introduces one or two that even I had never heard of before; I plan to address several of these fallacies in future posts in this series.

However, in this post, I wish to address a broader issue: Gopnik’s sense of the place of the Book of Mormon in today’s LDS faith. Gopnik makes some claims about how both early and modern Mormonism have viewed the Book of Mormon, claims that sound learned and insightful—and that are yet wildly off-base. Gopnik’s facts are often inaccurate, and his analysis, being on a very shaky foundation, winds up producing as false a thesis as one could possibly produce, regarding the place that the Book of Mormon has in the LDS faith.

Misperceptions about the Book of Mormon are important to correct, for a couple of reasons. The doctrinal teachings of the Book of Mormon are central to the LDS faith; not for nothing did the first LDS prophet, Joseph Smith, call the Book of Mormon “the keystone of our religion.” Beyond that, the Book of Mormon is often involved in the conversion journeys of individual converts (as it certainly was in mine); if people do not understand how the LDS faith really looks at the Book of Mormon, it is possible that this could interfere with people’s acceptance of the LDS faith.

Gopnik takes the position that the Saints look upon the Book of Mormon as some kind of revered, almost totemic object, rather than as a source of teaching. Writing of the early Mormon converts, Gopnik claims this:

The powers that possession of the Book of Mormon conferred mattered more than the doctrines that it contained. “Rarely did missionaries draw on the verses and stories of the Book of Mormon in sermons,” [Matthew] Bowman explains [in his recent book, The Mormon People]. “Rather, they brandished the book as tangible proof of Joseph Smith’s divine calling.” Some holy texts, the Gospels, for instance, are evangelical instruments meant to convert people who read them; others are sacred objects meant to be venerated. The Book of Mormon is a book of the second sort. As the French religious historian Jean-Christophe Attias points out, in traditional Judaism the physical presence of the Scripture is at least as important as its content: when the Torah is unrolled during the service, it’s meant to be admired, not apprehended. That the Mormons had a book of their own counted for almost as much as what the Book of Mormon said.  (p. 80)

Gopnik makes similar claims elsewhere in his article, regarding the supposed degree to which Mormon teachings are simply not what make the Mormon people. Early in his article, comparing the LDS minions of the late Howard Hughes to the Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors, Gopnik claims that “the details of their religious viewws had nothing to do with the social role they played” (p. 78). Of the autobiography of Joanna Brooks, titled The Book of Mormon Girl, Gopnik writes:

Yet how much do specifically Mormon beliefs matter to contemporary Mormons? Brooks’s story, give or take a Nephite or two, could unfold in any fundamentalist community that provides comfort and meaning if you’re prepared to park your critical intelligence in the lot outside the church door. She writes, often quite movingly, of the persistent ambivalence of her feelings about her natal faith, but any strayed member of a tight community of believers feels this way about it. Nephi, the Lamanites, the approaching apocalypse in Missouri—these things hardly come up [i.e., in Brooks’ narrative--MEKR]. What resonates for her is the Mormon elder who said that heavy-metal music had secret satanic codes—the same preacher you find in any fundamentalist camp. These stories of attachment and repulsion are being played out in or around Hasidic communities in Brooklyn every day, and surely, for that matter, among Sikhs and Jains in Queens, too. This is the story of faith, not of Joseph Smith’s faith. The allegiance is to the community that nurtured you, and it is bolstered by the community’s history of persecution, which makes you understandably inclined to defend its good name against all comers. It isn’t the truth of the Book, or the legends of Nephi, that undergird Mormon solidarity even among lapsed or wavering believers; it’s the memories of what other people were prepared to do in order to prevent your parents from believing. A critique of the creed, even a rational one, feels like an assault on the community. (pp. 84-85)

There is much to be said about these passages (including Gopnik’s gratuitous swipe at the Mormon intellect, his confusion regarding what ‘fundamentalism’ means, and his inability to distinguish folk religious beliefs from ‘real’ religion), but for now let us concern ourselves with this question of Gopnik’s: “How much do specifically Mormon beliefs matter to contemporary Mormons?” In particular, how much do specific beliefs from the Book of Mormon matter to contemporary Mormons?

Gopnik quotes Matthew Bowman correctly. However, Gopnik misunderstands the meaning of these words. Bowman’s words regarding Mormon missionary work in the 1830s are as follows:

Indeed, rarely did missionaries draw on the verses and stories of the Book of Mormon in sermons: it was not to them a source of doctrine. Rather, they brandished the book as tangible proof of Joseph Smith’s divine calling, the reopening of the heavens, and the inauguration of the dispensation in the fullness of time. (Bowman, 2012, p. 40)

Bowman’s point is that missionaries preaching to potential converts did not use specific verses in the Book of Mormon to convince people of the truth of the Mormon faith; Mormon missionaries did not use Book of Mormon verses to establish doctrine to potential converts.
Indeed, a moment’s thought shows that it would have been monumentally stupid for Mormon missionaries to attempt to preach most Book of Mormon teachings for the sake of facilitating conversion: for most potential converts, the Book of Mormon was hardly common ground between the two parties to this discourse—the missionaries, on the one hand, and the potential convert, on the other—which is a prerequisite for any kind of discourse. Rather, the Mormon missionaries of this era, who were basically preaching to other Christians, appealed to the Bible to establish the truth of Mormonism’s doctrines, because the Bible is a scripture that Mormonism holds in common with other forms of Christianity.

Early missionaries, like LDS missionaries today, used the Book of Mormon as evidence that God speaks to prophets in modern times, specifically to Joseph Smith; the missionaries then challenged their potential converts to follow the procedure set out in the promise of Moroni in the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:3-5) to gain personal revelation from God that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. So much is demonstrated by the historical research of such scholars as Steven C. Harper (2000, pp. 104-106), whom Bowman references in his book. Harper notes the following about some of the earliest Mormon converts (omitting all his footnotes):
The Murdocks and other converts relied heavily on scriptural precedent [i.e., precedent from the Christian Bible] as proof. Those who became Mormons were almost always first contemplative Bible believers who were skeptical of false prophets. They considered it reasonable that signs would follow true believers, and they held out for empirical confirmation. Dozens of primary accounts of early Mormon conversions emphasize this pattern. (Harper, 2000, p. 104)
The missionaries taught potential converts that God's everlasting covenant had been taught by God to Adam and handed down via the prophets throughout the Old Testament until its terms were fulfilled through the atonement of Christ. It had been taught in purity among the first Christians but lost in centuries of apostasy that followed. It appeared both reasonable and biblical that God would restore the ancient order of things by sending new scripture, calling new prophets, and sending new signs to believers. It was from within this intellectual framework that John Greene wrote from his missionary assignment in Canada:

I... showed the gospel as it was in the beginning: also in the days of the apostles, and in the present day: being careful to compare the Jews’ religion with the apostles’, and also the religion of the many sects of this day with the [ancient] Corinthian and Ephesian churches; and then giving them the testimony of the New and Everlasting Covenant, as established in these last days: being confirmed by many infallible proofs, both human and divine— the Lord himself speaking from the heavens unto men who were now living!

This blend of infallible proofs, both human and divine, that Greene thought should convert Canadians, included, as we have seen, appeals to the rational coupled with accounts of miracles and gifts received by Mormons as in the ancient church. This argument satisfied the revelatory and empirical longings of converts at once, convincing them that Joseph Smith and his followers possessed the same attributes as the first Christians by a deductive process that was simultaneously analytical and faithful.

Harper continues, regarding the role of the Book of Mormon in this process:

The greatest aid in this effort, and the component that most distinguished Joseph Smith from the many other would-be prophets of his day, was the Book of Mormon, which Smith offered to the world as evidence that the primitive Christian gospel had been authoritatively restored and that he was the instrument of its reestablishment. Klaus Hansen has written of early convert Brigham Young “and all those who were not converted by the personal magnetism of Joseph, it was the Book of Mormon, more than any other vehicle, that convinced him of the truthfulness of Smith’s claims.” (Harper, 2000, pp. 105-106)

            For people who have become members of the LDS Church, the Book of Mormon then takes on an added significance, as a source of doctrinal teaching. The evidence of this is found in hundreds of sermons emerging from the early years of Mormonism, and it certainly is true today. (See, for example, President Henry B. Eyring’s First Presidency Message in the September 2010 issue of the Ensign magazine: “The Book of Mormon as a Personal Guide.”)

            By odd coincidence, the day before I received my copy of The New Yorker with Gopnik’s article, I taught a session of the Gospel Doctrine class in my ward’s Sunday School (as a substitute for the regular teacher). As many readers of this post will know, the Gospel Doctrine class is the class that most observant adult members of the LDS Church attend weekly, in LDS congregations around the world; in addition, many readers will know that the focus of the 2012 curricular year worldwide happens to be—surprise!—the Book of Mormon. So it was that I led a discussion last Sunday at the Manhattan First Ward regarding, within the Book of Mormon, the Book of Alma, chapters 40-42. We considered Book of Mormon teachings on the atonement of Jesus Christ, the spirit world to which we shall go after death, the nature of the future resurrection, the basis of the final judgment, and our subsequent assignments to different types of reward.

            These same topics were discussed in LDS adult Gospel Doctrine Sunday School classes in thousands upon thousands of LDS congregations across the face of the Earth. (Just a reminder: next week we all discuss Alma, chapters 43-52.) If evidence like this, Elder Eyring’s message, and sermons in each semi-annual LDS General Conference, do not demonstrate that specifically Mormon teachings—and, specifically Book of Mormon teachings—are important to today’s Saints, I don’t know what could.
            But wait—there’s more. The adult Gospel Doctrine Sunday School curriculum proceeds on a four-year cycle. During the first year, the Saints study the Old Testament—but enhanced by material revealed through Joseph Smith and found in the scriptural book, the Pearl of Great Price. During the second year, the Saints study the New Testament—again, enhanced by material found in the Pearl of Great Price and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. During the third year (2012, this time around), the Saints study the Book of Mormon. During the fourth year, the Saints study modern revelation in the Doctrine & Covenants. Thus, in each year, at least some specifically Mormon content is studied by the adults of the Church, and during two years, specifically Mormon content is the major focus of study.

            In sum, as I have demonstrated, Gopnik is simply wrong on this subject. Specifically Mormon beliefs are very important to today’s Saints, including in particular such beliefs as they are found in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is not merely some sort of totemic object of reverence among the Saints; Mormons look to it for meaty doctrine, as well. (Pace vegetarians.)


Bowman, Matthew. (2012). The Mormon people: The making of an American faith. New York, NY: Random House.

Eyring Henry B. (2010, September). The Book of Mormon as a personal guide. Ensign, pp. 4-5. Online at

Gopnik, Adam. (2012, August 13 & 20). I, Nephi: Mormonism and its meanings. The New Yorker, pp. 78-86. Online at

Harper, Steven C. (2000, Winter). Infallible proofs, both human and divine: The persuasiveness of Mormonism for early converts. Religion and American Culture, 10, 99-118.

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Copyright © 2012 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
[The image of the Book of Mormon was retrieved from Wikipedia. It is reputedly in the public domain.]


  1. Thanks for all the work in responding to the article. I too share your opinion about it. I havent replied to the editor but feel compelled to do so. I dont believe the author could be any more wrong about that portion of his comments speaking to how Mormons relate to the Book of Mormon.

  2. @Anonymous: Thank you for your remarks. I agree completely: the author of the article in The New Yorker could not be more wrong on this issue! Be well.


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