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The Greatest Book of Mormon Scholars


The 26th of this month will mark the 183rd anniversary of the publication of the Book of Mormon. Since the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, Latter-day Saints have been producing studies about it. For the first 100-plus years, much of those studies were done by amateurs who lacked any sort of professional training; even for those who did have professional training, many of the scholarly disciplines during that time were too underdeveloped to help lead to any useful, long-standing conclusions. But over the last 70 years or so, Book of Mormon scholarship has been making some huge strides, and there are promising signs for the future of such work.

In celebration of the progress that has been made, I would like to highlight here the Book of Mormon scholars who have been most significant over that time period. This is, of course, a very subjective exercise, and I by no means see myself as creating the definitive list. Others (who may very well be better versed in Book of Mormon scholarship than I am) may disagree with the five I have chosen for the top spots, or feel that some have been snubbed. I would love to hear the opinions of others in terms of who should have been on the list, and who shouldn’t have been on the list, or any different order they should have ranked.


Top Five

1. Huge Nibley: The father of Book of Mormon scholarship, Hugh Nibley pioneered and laid the groundwork for much of the scholarship on the Book of Mormon that has since come forth. While much of his work has now been superseded or fallen out of date, some of it remains relevant. Many of his more lasting contributions were nicely complied and highlighted in a condensed format in the 2002 volume Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, among which are observations about Lehi’s poetics and Nephi’s oath. The full breadth of his work on the Book of Mormon spans four volumes of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Vols. 5, 6, 7, 8). Despite its datedness, due to its continuing influence, the student or aspiring scholar of the Book of Mormon would do well to be familiar with Nibley’s work.

2. John W. Welch: The founder of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) back in the late 1970s, an organization originally intended to focus on producing scholarly perspectives on the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, few have done as much as John W. Welch (or “Jack” as he is sometimes called by his friends) to build on the work of Nibley and push Book of Mormon scholarship to new heights. He has been an editor (or co-editor) and compiler of several volumes pertaining to Book of Mormon scholarship, including (but not limited to): Reexploring the Book of Mormon, Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, King’s Benjamin’s Speech, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, Charting the Book of Mormon, and The Allegory of the Olive Tree. More than simply facilitate Book of Mormon research, through the founding of an organization and the editing of volumes, Welch has produce an endless array of substantial contributions in his own right. It was Welch who made the groundbreaking discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon just about 45 years ago. He has continued to contribute and advance the study of literary structures in the Book of Mormon, as well in other fields of Book of Mormon study. Welch has also done pioneering work on the Sermon at the Temple (the Book of Mormon version of the Sermon on the Mount), and on Hebrew law in the Book of Mormon. These are only a few highlights – Welch has truly proved to be a “Jack of all Trades” in terms of Book of Mormon studies. And on many subjects, including chiasmus, Hebrew law, and the Sermon on the Mount, Welch has published in prestigious non-LDS venues for non-LDS scholars. All this, and Welch is far from finished. He continues to be active in Book of Mormon studies today.

3. John L. Sorenson: Latter-day Saints have long been fascinated by American archeology and what it might tell us about the peoples in the Book of Mormon. Few, however, have taken the time to seriously investigate the matter like John L. Sorenson has. With many LDS scholars following Nibley’s pioneering footsteps into the Old World to study the Book of Mormon, Sorenson blazed a new trail in the New World understanding of the text. First published in 1985, his An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon has long since been the benchmark for any and all Book of Mormon geographies that follow, and is only to be surpassed by Sorenson’s magnum opus titled Mormon’s Codex, due out later this year. As an anthropologist, Sorenson did more than just try to physically situation the lands of the Book of Mormon on the map; he strived to understand the text within both the geographical and the cultural context of ancient Mesoamerica. His Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life helps bring the text to life, while his Mormon’s Map lays out the methodology that should be followed by all those interested in working on Book of Mormon geography. Sorenson also put out The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book, which provides a synopsis of Book of Mormon geography work up to that point, thus proving to be a must have resource for any student of Book of Mormon geography. Along with those volumes are a number of articles Sorenson has published on Book of Mormon life and culture. In non-LDS venues, Sorenson has published numerous articles related to pre-Columbian Old World/New World contact, and the eminent Dr. Michael D. Coe has even acknowledged Sorenson as a pioneer on the subject.

4. Royal Skousen: For my entire lifetime, basically, Royal Skousen has been working on the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. Meticulously scouring the Original and Printer’s Manuscript and over a dozen printed editions of the Book of Mormon, Skousen has examined every single variant in the text, analyzed them, and determined, as best as possible, what was probably the original reading. The ultimate fruit of this labor was The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, published by Yale University Press in 2009. The full analysis of every variant is in Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, which spreads across 6 volumes. Skousen has also published photos and transcripts of the original and printer’s manuscript, and there remains a forth coming volume on the Book of Mormon’s textual history. Skousen has also published other articles on the coming forth, translation, and publishing history of the Book of Mormon text. While his contributions are focused specifically on textual analysis, few other scholars have done work that will have such a long-lasting and wide-spread impact. The exact reading of the text is crucial to many studies of the Book of Mormon. All other Book of Mormon scholarship, of any kind, will need to take Skousen’s work seriously, and will likely even be dependent on it. Some may argue that Skousen ought to be at the top of this list, and they may very well be right.

5. Brant A. Gardner: John L. Sorenson laid the ground work for understanding the Book of Mormon in an ancient Mesoamerican context. Brant Gardner has become its new torch-bearer. Although he has only be publishing on the Book of Mormon for about a decade, Gardner has produced the best and most comprehensive scholarly commentary on the text, his 6 volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon. Therein, Gardner adopts Sorenson’s geography model (with some adaptations here and there) and then proceeds to see how that informs his reading of the text. What Gardner finds is that the Mesoamerican setting is remarkably productive in explaining the various oddities of the text. Gardner has also produced a pioneering work on the translation of the Book of Mormon, and has published a handful of articles and book reviews. His forth coming book on the Book of Mormon as and in history will no doubt prove that he has a lot more great insights on the way.    

Other Great Book of Mormon Scholars

In addition to my top five, I’ve added this list of “honorable mentions” to give some due respect to others who have made important contributions. These will be only roughly or generically in any sort of order (from greater to lesser), but not necessarily given definite ranks (i.e., the first person listed will not necessarily be, in my view, a greater scholar than the second, or third, or even fourth and fifth persons listed, but the first five will generally be those whom I view as being greater than the last five, etc.). Even that loose ordering shouldn’t be taken too seriously, since I was faced with numerous challenges.

Honorable Mentions

S. Kent Brown: Brown has produced a string of studies on Book of Mormon insights, with particular focus on the Arabian journey of Lehi and company. One of his most important contributions is the suggestion that Lehi and his family endured bondage in thelast leg of their trek, just before reaching Bountiful.

Warren P. Aston: Though an amateur, Aston has done ground breaking work on Lehi’s trial, being the first to discover was remains the best candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful, and doing the some of the earliest and by far the most thorough research on Nahom (NHM). Aston even presented on the NHM tribal territory in non-LDS scholarly venues.  

Matthew Roper: A researcher for the Maxwell Institute, Roper has made various contributions to both Old and New World studies of the Book of Mormon. His most substantial work, however, has been on nineteenth century understandings of the text. Roper has traced the geographic and population conceptions of the Book of Mormon back through to Joseph Smith’s day, finding precedent for the Limited Geography Theory and presence of others (during Book of Mormon times) going back to the 1840s. Roper has also complied every nineteenth century reference to the Book of Mormon.

John E. Clark: A Mesoamerican archaeologist, Clark has published on the broader trends of archaeology and the Book of Mormon, noting that while there are still a number of problems, the trend is moving a favorable direction. Clark has also frequently provided critical reviews of Book of Mormon geographies, and worked out one of the best and most detailed internal maps to be used an a comparative tool when studying Book of Mormon geography proposals.  

William J. Hamblin: Has contributed various studies on the Old World setting of the Book of Mormon, has identified the methodological problems of comparing Old World and New World studies relative to the Book of Mormon, and as a historian of ancient warfare his most important work has been on Warfare in the Book of Mormon.

Randall Spackman: Spackman is currently engaged in some groundbreaking work on the chronology of the Book of Mormon. His preliminary work on the Nephite calendar was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

John A. Tvedtnes: A Hebrew scholar, Tvedtnes has produced a seemingly endless array of short studies highlight various tidbits about the Book of Mormon. Tvedtnes was a pioneer on Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. He also has some impressive studies on how the coming forth of the Book of Mormon fits ancient patterns.

Stephen D. Ricks: Ricks has contributed a variety of studies on the Old World culture and linguistics reflected in the Book of Mormon.  Some of his best work is on coronations in the Book of Mormon, and Book of Mormon names.

Terryl L. Givens: Givens By the Hand of Mormon, an intellectual history of the Book of Mormon published by Oxford University Press, was the first to start to bring the Book of Mormon scholarship into the mainstream. Givens has also made an important contribution to understanding the Book of Mormon as “dialogic revelation.”

Grant Hardy: Moving beyond historicity, Hardy has done some great work on Book of Mormon literary qualities, and has helped bring Book of Mormon scholarship into the mainstream with his Understand the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.

Joseph M. Spencer: Like Hardy, Spencer is moving past historicity to make some impressive strides in Book of Mormon theology, a much neglected field of study.

Sydney B. Sperry: Influential scholar contemporary to Hugh Nibley’s heyday (hence he tends to live in Nibley’s shadow), Sperry did some of the earliest work on Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. Some of Sperry’s more lasting work was complied and republished in a special honorary issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

Paul Y. Hoskisson: Current editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture and head of the Book of Mormon names project, Hoskisson has made and continues to make some great contributions to the field of Book of Mormon names.  

Jeffrey R. Chadwick: Archaeologist Jeff Chadwick has published some interesting studies on the names Lehi and Sariah, makes some interesting proposals about Lehi’s house and land ofinheritance, and has offered his insights into the travels of Lehi and his family in 1 Nephi.

Donald W. Perry: A professor of Hebrew, Perry has taken Welch’s work on literary structures in the Book of Mormon to a whole new level by reproducing the entire Book of Mormon text in poetic parallelisms.

Noel B. Reynolds: One time director of FARMS, Reynolds has published numerous articles on the Book of Mormon.

Daniel C. Peterson: As editor of the FARMS Review and now the Interpreter, Peterson has provided a platform for Book of Mormon scholarship for more than two decades. Peterson has also been a popular apologists, and in that role he has served as conveyer or popularizer of much of the work others have done on this list. In addition to that, Peterson has published a few of his own contributions to the field, particularly his study of Nephi and his Asherah, and his research on the Gaddianton Robbers.

David E. Bokovoy: An up-and-coming scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Bokovoy has already offered a handful of insights into the Book of Mormon using his expertise in ancient Israelite theology. This fall, Bokovoy will be teaching a class on the Book of Mormon as literature at University of Utah, the first class of its kind.

Mark Alan Wright: Wright is a newly minted PhD in Mesoamerian Studies, and though he has not yet contributed a lot yet, what he has written and presented is full of several brilliant insights on how Mesoamerican culture influenced Book of Mormon authors.

Kevin Christensen: Christensen has written some important essays on paradigms and the Book of Mormon, but his most significant contribution was drawing the connection to the scholarship of Margaret Barker and the early setting of the Book of Mormon. While the fact that his hallmark is to draw on the scholarship of someone else might seem to lessen his contribution, that fact is this connection has truly marked a paradigm shift in Book of Mormon studies. It ought not be under estimated. 

George D. Potter: Potter is an amateur, and some of his work, especially that trying to tie the Book of Mormon to South America, is of questionable quality, but Potter has made important contributions to Lehi’s trial, including finding the best candidatefor the Valley of Lemuel and doing some groundbreaking work on the challenges of building and navigating a ship like the one Nephi and his brothers built to sail to the promised land.

Conclusion

There are, of course, many others who could be listed who have also made some important contributions. No list could ever be comprehensive, and as I already pointed out, this is hopelessly subjective. But, if you are new to Book of Mormon studies, then this gives you a list of good scholars to look up and start getting familiar with. If you are already familiar with Book of Mormon studies, I would love to have your thoughts on my list: who is missing that should be here (either in the Top 5, or the honorable mentions)? Who is on either of my lists that doesn’t deserve to be? Who should be higher or lower on my lists? As research into the Book of Mormon continues to roll forth, I look forward to the contributions that these and others will be making to advance and improve our understanding of this important keystone scripture. 

Comments

  1. Off the subject, where do you fit in the Rappleye line? My wife's mother was Lillian Rappleye, daughter of Ezra Tunis Rappleye and Jane Ludinda Black. ET's father was Tunis Rappleye.

    Thank you.

    Lynn Johnson

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi there Lynn.

      I would have to double check with my Dad, but I believe Tunis Rappleye has a son named David, and we come through his line. My grandfather was a Foster Drew Rappleye, and I believe his father (or possibly grandfather) was a Edwin Rappleye. I know, I should know my family history better than than that. I talk a little about my roots in an introduction to this blog:

      http://ldsreasonandrevelation.blogspot.com/2010/05/about-me.html

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Delete
  2. I would include Kirk Magelby and Richard Huack somewhere on the list

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