The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has been in the news, or at least popping up on the edges of news coverage, since the start of the current Presidential Campaign.
Neither Republicans or Democrats have shown the intestinal fortitude required for a full frontal assault on either of the presumed candidates' religious beliefs. But there is a whisper campaign underway against Mitt Romney's LDS membership. And the ill-informed and half-baked charge that President Barrack Obama is a secret Muslim keeps being brought up by some inhabiting the lunatic fringe of our society.
Both men say they are Christians. I believe both men are sincere and honest in their self-descriptions. I'm not going to enter into the debate on what the proper definition of "Christian" may be. I'll let the professional and amateur theologians slug that one out. I'll be content to stand on the sidelines and watch the entertainment.
Why am I bringing all this up? Entertainment. There is no religious test in the Constitution to hold public office. As far as our founding fathers were concerned, a Druid could serve as President of the United States. But all the talk on the "Religious Right" of the LDS and "Mormonism" got me thinking.
I had a little run-in with a couple of Mormon missionaries as an 18-year-old. They gave me a copy of "The Book of Mormon," paid visits to my house for about six weeks and tried to convert me. Besides trying to talk me out of the 20 bottles of wine I kept in my room (it was legal to drink when I was 18,) they did me little harm. They didn't get the wine and I got a brand new book to add to my growing library.
One evening a couple months ago, while watching some TV preacher lambaste Mormons for not being Christians, I remembered my copy. It had spent years neglected, sitting in the religion section of my little library. So I thought, why not give it a go?
My copy carries a 1963 copyright date and has a pretty blue cover with a picture of a golden angel on it blowing a trumpet. From the first page of The First Book of Nephi to the last page of The Book of Moroni it numbers a mere 522 pages.
Some Mormon wag is reported somewhere to have quipped about the Broadway play (a comedy) titled "The Book of Mormon"-- "You've seen the play, now read the book." I haven't made it to Broadway but since I had the book, I read it.
Mark Twain famously described "The Book of Mormon" as "chloroform in print." Mark was far from wrong. I am not going to deal with all the theological issues raised by what LDS ads once described as "another gospel of Jesus Christ." I'm going to treat it as an early 19th century historical romance. That means I'm going to consider style and plot and not much else.
The book was first published in 1830. It didn't sell well. But that didn't stop Joseph Smith from spreading his own alternative gospel, founding a Church and upsetting Christian pastors and government officials alike.
Smith died in Illinois in 1844 after he was shot to death outside the Carthage jail by members of the Warsaw militia. The movement he started didn't die with him as, at least the governors of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa may have hoped. It continued to grow under the leadership of Brigham Young. Young led The Mormons west to The Great Salt Lake, founding what would become the state of Utah. Today, at least three of every five people living in Utah are Mormon.
Before the westward migration there was even a splinter group formed, led by one of Joseph Smith's sons. It is headquartered in Missouri and is known as The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS).
But, back to "The Book of Mormon," (copyright 1963 by David O. McKay, Trustee in Trust for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The First Book of Nephi opens in 600 BCE, just before Israel was conquered and carried off into captivity by Babylon. A prominent Jew named Lehi, his sons and their families fled Jerusalem having been warned by an angel that the Babylonians were on the way. They puttered around in the Mideast for a bit, then built a boat and sailed for what are now known as The Americas because that is what God told them to do. Their descendants establish a thriving civilization in The Americas. The resurrected Jesus pays them a visit after the crucifixion.
The storyline comes to an end in 421 CE after the Lamanites (mostly the bad guys) and the Nephites (mostly the good guys) slaughter each other in a great battle near a hill called Cumorah in what is now upstate New York. That, by the way, is where Joseph Smith said he found the "Book of Mormon" inscribed on "plates of gold" after being led to them by the "resurrected personage" Moroni. He translated them with the help of some magic rocks and that is how, according to Smith, the Book of Mormon was made available to "the gentiles."
This would have worked just fine as a short novel . As an inspired religious work it falls flat.
Most of it is cribbed from the Old and New Testaments. Several New World sermons are tossed in as padding for the storyline.
All of the characters are drawn in such a way as to appear to be made of heroic plywood. There is even one, a Jaredite king, named Moron. Coming up with character names was apparently not Smith's strong suit. There is little doubt the tale is the product of a fertile imagination. An imagination consumed by thoughts of hidden treasure and theories popular at the time holding Native Americans to be the descendants of The Lost Tribes of Israel. All of those theories were debunked in the later 19th century and were reduced to dust by discoveries in modern genetics, archeology, paleontology and history.
As the respected biographer Fawn Brodie wrote in her epilogue to "No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith": "The religion that Joseph founded was all too well adapted to the milieu from which it sprang--- the milieu of frontier America, with all its crudity as well as vigor…. Joseph had a ranging fancy, a revolutionary vigor and a genius for improvisation…. With them he crafted a book and a religion, but he could not create a truly spiritual content for that religion."
Perhaps we would all do well to remember some of the finest words Smith wrote in The Book of Mosiah 4:19, "For behold are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance that we have of every kind?" Words reminiscent of 1 Samuel 2:8 and chapter 16 of Luke.
Before you tackle the Book of Mormon on your own , I suggest you read the following:
"No Man Knows My History" Second Edition, by Fawn Brodie, Vintage Books, copyright renewed 1973
"The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844," by John L. Brooke, Cambridge University Press, copyright 1994
It also will prove handy to have a King James version of the Bible as well as a good concordance nearby. But beware! Twain was correct, the book is "chloroform in print." You may well find your mind wandering and you will doze off a few times as you work your way through Smith's Pseudo-King James English.