A Pentecostal Reads the Book of Mormon

A Literary and Theological Introduction

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John Christopher Thomas
  • Cleveland, TN: 
    CPT Press
    , March
     2016.
     494 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781935931553.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Although structured as a comprehensive review of the religious text known as the Book of Mormon, John Christopher Thomas’s recent work feels most at home as a centerpiece for interfaith dialogue. “It is my hope,” Thomas admits, “to encourage candid, thoughtful, and irenic conversations about the book between those who hold it to be Scripture and those who do not” (448). Unlike Terryl L. Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (Oxford University Press, 2002), which focuses predominantly on the book’s place as a facet of American religious history, or Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 2010), which takes a literary approach to analyzing the book’s content, Thomas creates an introduction to the Book of Mormon brimming with topics to be discussed between interlocuters. It is a book meant to be read by a discussion group in order to discover its most potent contributions to the field of Mormon studies. For this reason, I believe the monograph is best categorized as a work of interfaith dialogue.

Thomas’s work is, however, quite broad in its purview and analysis of the Book of Mormon. Coming in at nearly five hundred pages, the book is divided into six major parts: structure, content, theology, reception history, a comparison of Pentecostalism and the Book of Mormon, and a discussion of Book of Mormon origins. True to his title, Thomas reads through the entire text, searching the book for signs of structural significance, literary purpose, and theological underpinnings. The first three parts are essentially compendiums, more focused on introducing the Book of Mormon and its main ideas to his readers. Thomas’s careful footnotes guide readers to a treasury of additional voices and arguments, but there are few pointed arguments of his own within these initial sections. Instead, he allows the Book of Mormon itself to guide the discussion by producing meticulous lists of examples from the text to illustrate guiding themes and recurring theological principles embedded in it.

Parts 4 and 5 highlight Thomas’s Pentecostal perspective on the Book of Mormon as well as his unique contributions to the academic study of the Book of Mormon. His reception history astutely examines reception of the Book of Mormon across the Mormon diaspora, as well as among non-Mormons. Instead of focusing solely on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest and most publicly recognized Mormon institution, Thomas also compares how smaller Mormon splinter groups view and understand the Book of Mormon. His analysis spreads across culture as well, discussing how the Book of Mormon has been portrayed in music, art, and even Broadway stage shows.

The reader is left wishing for more context in this discussion of cultural reception. How were artistic portrayals of the Book of Mormon received by the broader American public? What made The Book of Mormon Broadway musical so compelling to sold-out audiences across the United States? These questions remain unasked and unanswered. For Thomas, the production of such cultural elements isthe reception history of the Book of Mormon. And there is no discussion of the reception of the Book of Mormon outside of the United States, which limits the history of reception to a very small part of the world where Mormonism now resides in the 21st century. Even so, his collected examples function as insightful starters for the religious dialogue Thomas desires to produce.

The comparison between Pentecostalism and the Book of Mormon is Thomas’s most valuable and unique contribution to the study of the Book of Mormon. He points out interesting overlap between both their historical movements and their distinct theological views toward Christianity. Thomas finds in the Book of Mormon examples which are right at home in Pentecostal pneumatology. Of course, there are many differences as well, but the similarities make for fascinating speculation about their historical relationship in the broader story of American religion. Thomas also pursues questions of gender and the role of women among Pentecostals and among the characters within the Book of Mormon. Earlier in his analysis, Thomas discusses race and the Book of Mormon, but fails to discuss Pentecostalism’s complicated history with race in the United States in conversation with the Book of Mormon’s complicated portrayal of race and theology. Despite this omission, there is much to glean from the comparison of these two religious movements as they continue expanding across the globe.

Thomas purposefully waits until the very end before discussing the historical origins of the Book of Mormon. With the hope of not being “derailed from the start by the divisive issue of origins,” Thomas includes enough of the century-old debate between Mormons and their antagonists to inform the reader of the pertinent questions and concerns (445-446). At the same time, he is pointedly wary of spending too much time on the topic, for fear that the question of origins will dominate the anticipated religious dialogue. Thomas expresses the concern that “it is hoped that all readers will be able to find themselves at one point or another in what is presented” (392). So, part 6 glosses over the major sources in the Book of Mormon origin debate, adequately introducing various points of view.

With some minor exceptions, Thomas accomplishes what he sets out to do: thoroughly introduce the Book of Mormon to those outside of its traditional base of adherents in a way that facilitates more dialogue between Pentecostals and Mormons.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alan J. Clark is a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Christopher Thomas is Clarence J. Abbott professor of Biblical studies at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, TN, and director of the Centre for Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies at Bangor University, in Bangor, Wales, UK. He also serves on the Editorial Advisory Board for the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

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