I first came to the Book of Mormon with the uncritical eyes and mind of a child. Some of my earliest encounters with the Book of Mormon include my dad reading me bedtime stories from Emma Marr Petersen’s Book of Mormon Stories for Young Latter-day Saints. My first direct personal encounter involved reading – and putting into practice – Moroni’s promise, at the age of seven, while preparing for baptism. From an early age, I “knew” the Book of Mormon was true.
As a young adult, I turned away from the Book of Mormon in disillusionment, partly as the product of a much larger crisis of faith, but also in dismay over what I learned of the historical and sociological challenges raised by critics of the Book of Mormon. For many years, I assumed that the Book of Mormon could not possibly be true. But as a mature adult, I returned to the Book again with an open heart – an openness to remember why the Book had once spoken to me so powerfully as a youth and as a missionary for the Church, and why it still spoke so powerfully to millions of adherents throughout the world.
Ultimately, I discovered a book that still speaks to me, or, perhaps more accurately, a book through which the Spirit speaks to me. I found myself taking – sometimes in spite of myself – a very pragmatic approach to reading and applying its teachings in my life. I could not deny that the Book of Mormon allowed me to access spiritual power in my life. But in order to access that power I had to suspend disbelief, to remain open minded (and open hearted), and to allow it to resume its role within my “sacred canopy” as “the keystone of [my] religion” and a means by which I might “get nearer to God by abiding its precepts, than by any other book.”
The Problems for Believers
It wasn’t until college that I began to be exposed to more skeptical perspectives of the Book of Mormon. As a teenager I remember watching the video Ancient America Speaks, and feeling assured that the archaeological record could only confirm the truthfulness of the book, which, in turn, would validate Joseph Smith’s divine calling and the truthfulness of the Church. At BYU, I took an ancient history course, taught by an archaeology professor. One day after class, a group of students lingered afterwards to talk to our professor. A friend of mine asked, “What archaeological evidence is there to support the Book of Mormon?”
He replied, point blank, “Unfortunately there is none. In fact, what archaeological evidence we have would seem to contradict it.”
It wasn’t until after leaving the Church in my early 20s – for reasons more related to my journey as a gay man than for reasons related to the historicity of the Book of Mormon – that I was exposed to some of the historical problems related to the Book of Mormon. These included, among other things, the absence in ancient America of horses, steel and written language; and the seeming lack of evidence of middle-eastern cultural (or genetic) lineage in the Americas that one would expect in civilizations founded (or at least influenced!) by ancient Hebrews.
There were demographic and geographical problems as well, though, admittedly, these latter were imposed more by the assumptions believers made about the Book than what is inherent in the text itself. These included the assumption that the Book of Mormon encompassed the history of the entire western hemisphere, from Chile to upstate New York; and the assumption that all native Americans were genetically pure, direct descendants of Lehite and Mulekite settlers. Even if the more grandiose assumptions about the scope of Book of Mormon history are scaled back, there is still the problem of finding a suitable geographical setting for the actual events that are described in the 268,000 or so words of modern-day English text.
The archaeological record proffers evidence of more or less continuous occupation of the entire northern and southern continents, from the Arctic to Patagonia, by diverse peoples, from at least some time around 30,000 B.C. until the present. And while there is evidence of likely transatlantic and transpacific migrations and interactions (which superficially would seem to confirm the Book of Mormon) the Book of Mormon itself is remarkably devoid of any mention of encounters with non-Israelite peoples during the periods of history supposedly covered by the Book of Mormon, especially the most detailed account of the millennium between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D.
A third category of problems centers around the fact that so many of the religious and social themes discussed in the Book of Mormon seem – to at least some observers – to correspond too closely to the religious and social context of the United States of America in the 1820s and 1830s not to have been a product of that time and place, an argument first put forth by Joseph Smith contemporary Alexander Campbell.
It was only in studying American religious history of the colonial era that I learned of the assumption inherited from the Puritans that Native Americans were the degenerate descendants of lost tribes of Israel. To more morally sensitive readers, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the text is its racist premise that God curses wicked people with dark skin and blesses righteous people with light skin. In my mind, this latter premise is far more difficult to swallow than, say, the purported miraculous elements in the story of the book’s origins (i.e., that it was translated via urim and thummim from golden plates delivered to the prophet by an angel).
The Problems for Disbelievers
At a certain point I had pretty much come to believe that the Book of Mormon must have been some kind of fabrication. The state of scholarly critique of the Book of Mormon seems to have abandoned once-popular theories of alternative authorship, such as that it was based on the so-called “Spalding Manuscript” or that it had been concocted by Oliver Cowdery or Sidney Rigdon. The alternative authorship theories always seemed to me to be grasping at straws; and they were at least indirect acknowledgments of a major problem in Book of Mormon historiography. Namely: How does a barely literate farm boy manufacture whole cloth a book of scripture that has converted and captivated literally millions of believers throughout the world?
The most serious advocates of and believers in the Book of Mormon – those who have remained committed to it as a serious religious text despite being fully aware of the historical problems – have always pointed to the text itself, a text that is theologically complex and powerful while also being a great work of literature, and that is highly internally consistent despite its epic scope. Also, for what it’s worth, there appear to be demonstrable and significant differences between Book of Mormon theological and historical teachings, and theological and historical teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
At some point in my journey with the Book of Mormon I had read a couple of anthologies published by Signature Press: Brent Lee Metcalfe’s New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (1993) and Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe’s American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (2002). These texts, while remaining broadly skeptical about the Book of Mormon’s origins, at least took it seriously as a book of scripture. American Apocrypha conceded that it was scripture, perhaps even great scripture by comparing it to other “pseudepigraphic” texts (texts written by somebody other than the person they claimed to have been written by) in the Bible, such as Deuteronomy, or so-called “Third Isaiah” or certain Pauline texts. They presented Joseph Smith as a religious reformer who believed that reform could only be successfully carried off by manufacturing religious texts that could definitively resolve some of the great religious debates of his day. (Of course, you have to figure out how a barely literate farm boy comes to style himself a “religious reformer.” But, OK.) These books did give me an excuse, as a skeptic, to read the Book of Mormon.
I started reading the Book of Mormon again in January 2006, this time fully aware of the problems, challenges, and critiques. It was in the reading the Book of Mormon again with eyes wide open that I became a believer in it again, in spite of myself.
The Book of Mormon, American Christianity, and the Gay Mormon Predicament
It has been pointed out that the Book of Mormon says nothing explicit about homosexuality. (The Book of Mormon also – for what it’s worth – harshly condemns polygamy!) The “Topical Guide” published with the current, official standard works of the LDS Church lists one Book of Mormon reference in the section under “Homosexuality” (2 Nephi 13: 9), but the reference listed is actually a quotation of Isaiah 3: 9, which merely references, without elaboration, “their sin as Sodom.” As I will show when I get to a fuller discussion of Isaiah, according to Isaiah the sin of Sodom was arrogance and lack of concern for the poor. There’s no evidence that what is actually being discussed in the passage cited in 2 Nephi has anything at all to do with homosexuality.
If that 2 Nephi citation of Isaiah is in fact a warning against pride and greed, it would be consistent with a central, recurring theme in the Book of Mormon, which could in some ways be seen as an extended treatment of pride as the preeminent human sin, the main stumbling block in the relationship between God and his children. This might actually be of comfort to gay men and lesbians who so frequently have been the victims of harsh, unfair judgments, and who have – in modern times especially – been frequently “cast out of our synagogues” (Alma 32: 9).
Of greater comfort and significance to me as a gay man is the Book of Mormon’s witness regarding the active role God plays in the lives of his children. The publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830 anticipated a new era in religious history where Americans, increasingly, looked directly to the Heavens for divine guidance, unmediated by earthly institutions that might or might not well implement God’s intentions for the salvation and uplift of his children. Pentecostal historian H. Vinson Synan has labeled the Latter Day Saint movement “proto-pentecostal” (see The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997). Of course, from a traditional Latter-day Saint perspective, the Restoration of the Gospel through the Prophet Joseph could equally well be seen as unlocking the Heavens, making “latter rains” of all sorts possible, including, perhaps, the rain that took place in Pentecostal churches a hundred years after the birth of Joseph Smith.
A central theme of the Book of Mormon – from its opening verse, where Nephi writes of “having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God” (1 Nephi 1:1) to the closing verses, where Moroni promises the reader that God “will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10: 4) – is the theme of personal revelation. The God of the Book of Mormon is a God who unstintingly speaks to, ministers to, and directly and personally guides any and all of his children who – no matter how imperfect – turn to him “with a sincere heart, with real intent.”
To me, this meant that no matter how misunderstood I was by my fellow Saints, no matter how harshly or unfairly judged I might be by them, God loved me with a pure and tender and merciful love, and he would open the “windows of Heaven” to me if I would only trust in him.
Book of Mormon peoples were literally led into the wilderness by God, away from entrenched cultural, political and religious establishments – literally out of Babylon – to a place where he would guide them, making a peculiar people of them. If God could teach and lead Nephi, even through situations where the moral framework he had always used to make his way through the world was put to extreme tests, maybe God could lead and guide me.
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