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Does the Historicity of the Book of Mormon Matter?

The “historicity wars” of the bloggernacle have died down, and I am reticent to start them back up again. Since I am generally ignored by the bloggernacle, however, that is unlikely to happen. I have long pondered over the relevance of historicity for the Book of Mormon—if it matters, and if so, why it matters. As I have been reading about the experiences of Joseph Smith and others with the plates and other artifacts in the newly released From Darkness unto Light: The Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat, I have once again begun to ponder the question of historicity.

For me, I think it helps to realize that what we are talking about when we discuss history and historicity is the experiences of other people, and whether they existed or not. When I share personal experiences with other people, it matters to me that the things I experienced really happened. It matters that these are not just stories I am making up, but that they reflect real things that I have personally been through and witnessed. I glean things from real experiences that I don’t gain from “fishing stories.”

Likewise, it matters to me if you believe my experiences are real when I share them with you. I’m assuming I am not the only one who would feel hurt if someone told me, after I shared a deeply personal experience, “That is a nice story. And I think there is a lot we all can learn from it. But I just don’t believe that really happened to you.” Express skepticism that things are not exactly as I perceive them? OK (maybe the all the people driving 3 under the speed limit when I am in a hurry aren’t actually out to get me after all). Believe that there might be other perspectives to consider? Sure. But think I am just making my own life experiences up? Ouch. That hurts just to imagine someone discounting the very things that have made me who I am.

The reverse is, I think, also true. It matters to me if the experiences you claim as your own are real. It matters if the things you tell me happened to you actually happened. I would feel betrayed if, in fact, I found out you were lying to me about them. Granted I might be a little more sympathetic if I knew you were a habitual liar, or had some kind of mental instability, or for some other reason really believe your stories to be your real experiences, but my sympathy would not necessarily mitigate the feeling that I can’t really trust you when you claim to be talking about your own personal experiences. The sense of betrayal would be magnified if the stories you told as if they were your own personal experiences had galvanized me to provide you with monetary support, or in some other way make sacrifices on your behalf. And, again, I am guessing I am not alone in any of this. Most others would feel the same way. It is human nature.

So getting back to the question about whether historicity of the Book of Mormon matters, I would like to ask, matters to whom? Perhaps we should think about that.

Do you think it matters to say, Emma, Joseph’s wife, if the object wrapped in the linen cloth that sat on the table as she transcribed Joseph’s dictation, was really a set of metal plates containing a record of ancient prophets, whose words Joseph was dictating in translated form? Emma suffered estrangement from her parents and family over Joseph’s refusal to show this object to any of them. She saw her house torn apart by a crazed Lucy Harris, wife of Martin, who was determined to find and see that object. And she generally endured all kinds of hardships due to the events that unfolded from the translation of that record. Yet through it all, she dutifully chose not to look under the linen cloth. Tell me, do you think it matters to her, if her husband’s claims about angels and plates and ancient peoples are true? I think the historicity of the Book of Mormon matters to Emma.

Speaking of Martin Harris, let’s talk about him for a minute. Do you think the historicity of the Book of Mormon matters to him? This is the man who took copies of ‘caractors’, ostensibly from the plates, to scholars back east in New York City (and, probably, Philadelphia), at great personal expense, to see if the writings could be verified. The man who experience severe strain on, and the eventual failure of, his marriage due to his efforts to assist in the work of getting the record translated and published, who mortgaged the bulk of his farm to that end. The man who carefully investigated the members of the Smith family upon first hearing the stories of the angel and plates, who cautiously hefted the box containing the plates, until he was satisfied that the object within was either lead or gold, and who practically begged to be one of the witnesses when word got out that a select few would get to see the plates. Do you think it matters to that man—Martin Harris—if Joseph’s stories about angels and plates and ancient peoples are true? Do you think it matters to him if his own experience seeing an angel holding the plates, and hearing a voice declaring that the translation of those plates is correct really happened? That is wasn’t something just in his head, or some kind of deception on Joseph Smith’s part (or, worse, of God’s part)? I think the historicity of the Book of Mormon matters to Martin.

How about Mary Whitmer? The women who carried the brunt of the burden of having long term house guests stay with her family as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery finished the translation there. The women who at one point was so exhausted by the extra labor and sacrifice required of her at this time that she was granted—or believed she was—a view of the plates, shown to her by some stranger who then miraculously disappeared; an experience that gave her the strength endure the hardship until the translation was complete. Do you think it matters to her if she really saw a man with the plates that day? That is matters that those really were the same plates that contained a record that Joseph was translating from? I think the historicity of the Book of Mormon matters to Mary Whitmer.
 
What about the many others close to Joseph Smith? His father, mother, and siblings, whose lives were put at risk assisting Joseph in hiding and protecting this object that he told them was an ancient record engraved on gold plates. Whose very lives were disrupted and uprooted time and time again for the sake of the movement that started after the text was published. Do you think it matters to them if Joseph was just spinning old money diggers yarns or telling fanciful stories? Or if he himself was somehow convinced of these stories, but they nonetheless were not really happening? No real angel, no real plates, no real Nephites or Lamanites? I think the historicity of the Book of Mormon matters to them.

Let’s even consider Joseph Smith himself. Everything the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon set in motion ultimately cost him his life. Do you think it matters to him if the plates were objectively real? And if those plates really contained an ancient text? And if the words he was dictating to his scribes really were a translation of that record? He endured mobs trying to take the object he kept in that box. Lucy Harris ransacking his home. The enmity of his in-laws. And widespread mockery for the text he published and stories he told about its origins. In his 1838 history he poignantly told about the ridicule he endured for visions he claimed to have. Do you think it matters to him if the revelations he had were more than merely the product of his own mind? If the history he believed he was revealing actually is history? I think the historicity of the Book of Mormon matters to Joseph Smith.

I think it is clear that to all of these people, the historicity of the Book of Mormon most certainly matters. And I think it matters to all of them—but especially Joseph—if we believe their stories. Just like it would to you and me if we shared our personal experiences with someone else. We can see how much it mattered to them in the many tellings and retellings of their experiences that we have on record. The historicity of the Book of Mormon mattered to them, and it mattered to them if others believed in it too. I think it matters to them if we believe it now. Likewise, just as it would matter to us if someone today told us bogus stories as personal experiences, it should matter to us if these stories are historically true. We are, after all, giving our lives to those stories.

Those are the people who are indisputably real, and others (like David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, etc.) could be added to that list. But what if we take this a little further? Do think the historicity of the Book of Mormon matters to say, Mormon? To the man who so very carefully sifted through a thousand years of history and meticulously engraved his well crafted narrative history onto metallic sheets. Do you think the veracity of that history matters to him? Do you think he cares if we believe that he is a real person who actually went through that painstaking effort? Or what about Moroni, who promised to see us before the bar of God on judgment day? The man who diligently finished what his father started. And then spent 35 lonely years protecting that record as he wondered. And who came back from the dead to see to it that we would have the record today. Do you really think it wouldn’t matter to him if you believe he is real? That he just shrugs his shoulders and thinks, “Well, at least you still think its inspired.” What about Nephi, the man who started the record (who also promises to see us at the judgment bar)? The man who endured 8 years of hardship in the Arabian desert, who not only spent years laboring to build a sea worthy vessel, but also had to navigate it across thousands of miles of oceans, who had to lead and organize a new colony. A man who spilt blood for the sake of providing records to his own people. Do you think it matters to him if we believe the stories he told about his family’s journey and hardships?

How about the multitude who saw and felt the risen Lord, Jesus Christ? Who deemed the event of utmost importance to bear witness of it collectively? Do you think it matters to them if you or I believe their witness? If we really believe that event happened, as they testified? While we are on the topic, how about the Savior himself? Do you really think he does not care what we believe about the things he said and did in front of that multitude? That as he carefully and lovingly ministered to the sick and infirm among them, and blessed their children, he simply didn’t care if others would believe those things happened? I think historicity of the Book of Mormon matters to the Savior. I am sure there are things that matter more to him than that, but I nonetheless suspect this is not something he feels is completely irrelevant.

So, does the historicity of the Book of Mormon matter? It certainly mattered to the people—both ancient and modern—who contributed to our having it today, as is evident in the sacrifices they endured to make that possible. It should matter us, too. 

Comments

  1. It is also important to note that the text itself is very concerned with whether we believe it is true. For instance, Alma was formally commanded by the angel to always remember the captivity of his fathers. This was a major theme that he dwelt upon during his instruction to his sons. It wasn't just the captivity that was important, but especially the reality of their divine deliverance.

    And as you alluded to, Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, and Jesus Christ himself were all very insistent that our belief in their words would be crucial to our Salvation. I think that to have faith in Christ is much more than believing that he exists. It is believing and recognizing the reality of his works and his words. When we deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon, we are denying the works and words of Jesus Christ. We are denying the miracles that he wrought among generations of his children, and we are denying that he really communicated with their prophets and apostles and inspired their teachings. One simply cannot have adequate faith in Jesus Christ while rejecting the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

    Furthermore, the D&C actually commands us to remember the Book of Mormon and warns that those who are unbelieving and treat the book lightly will be under condemnation. I am deeply saddened by those who find it mostly irrelevant. I have a feeling they will find it much more relevant when they meet Moroni and Nephi and others face to face at the judgment bar of God. May they repent and believe before that day is upon them.

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  2. Somewhere along the line I learned that the Bible can be called a "family" or "tribal" history (I don't remember the exact term at the moment), in that it primarily concerned with the history of Abraham's descendants, and only touches on the history of surrounding groups when they came into contact with the Hebrews. This would be an apt description of the Book of Mormon. It could be said that the historicity of the Book of Mormon is secondary to its overarching message, which parallels and clarifies the teachings of the Bible, but we cannot blithely pass off its historicity. That aspect of the Book of Mormon makes up the mortar that holds the account together.

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  3. History matters. The interpretation of that history is what often leads to contention. Historically the Book of Mormon can not be fully proved (as are most books whose existence deals with the development of faith). There is too much, however, that is gleaned from the Book of Mormon to be some mere exercise in fantasy to casually dismiss it as merely a philosophical text or exercise. Those who detract from its history will continue to do so, but as more seems to come to light, the echoes of the detractors seem to will become background noise to the many truths, historical and religious that the book holds.

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  4. I love this article. However I think that historicity has to remain secondary to the message. We would not discourage someone who doubts the historicity from applying the teachings to their life or suggest that a lack of belief in cureloms would nullify the benefits of being in "service of their fellow beings."
    I think that for many who do not have sufficent faith to believe the historical claims or those who cannot quite abide the scorn from the intellectuals in the large building, viewing scripture as allegory may provide the nourishing milk they need until they have grown roots deep enough to make the full leap into complete belief.
    I would reference Alma's discussion of faith as a seed or the Lord's statements of teaching line upon line. If someone can read the scriptures in any context and gain benefit I think it is a good thing and I welcome them adding their voice to the discussion even if I hold different conclusions.
    My own views of historicity have deepened and changed over the years from Freiberg painting inspired views to a more complex view of possible cultures and political realities that might harmonize what what we know about the ancient settings of scripture (note this has happened for all volumes of scripture for me, Bible, Book of Mormon, and even D&C and PGP). So if I can grow and change in my view of historicity I must allow others to do the same and not criticize if they do not accept simple historical views that I also have outgrown.

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