Americanist Approaches to The Book of Mormon

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Editor(s): 
Elizabeth Fenton, Jared Hickman
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2019.
     456 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190221935.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

By all accounts, Mark Twain found the Book of Mormon to be rather soporific. “It is chloroform in print” he once quipped in a well-known (and oft-overused) chestnut. Little redeeming value—academic, literary, or spiritual—could be found in the five-hundred-plus page book. Modern scholars of religion have spent much of the preceding decade combating just such sentiments, and Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman’s recent anthology Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon is a welcome (and never sleep-inducing) addition to what is shaping up to be a minor renaissance of scholarship concerning the record that the self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Smith brought to light in 19th-century New York.

Each of the seventeen essays in the volume begins from the same overarching assumption: The Book of Mormon deserves to be and is capable of being analyzed as a historical document that both sheds light upon and was influenced by the milieu of its era. The various prophetic authors found within the book Smith claimed to translate—Fenton and Hickman assert—made clear that they wrote for a 19th-century audience, despite living in a pre-Columbian western hemisphere. From this insight, the volume’s editors assert that readings of such scripture with a professed desire to validateor invalidate the book’s supposed “antiquity” are largely misplaced (9). A recognition of this one simple fact allows the volume to be placed in a modern context without wading into the heated polemics surrounding the text’s origins.

Such assertions are a breath of fresh air in a historiographical tradition wherein much of the literature has confined itself to apologetics in favor of the work’s antiquity or full-throated denials of such claims. And the resulting essays found in this volume often bear out the value of taking it for granted that the Book of Mormon can be fruitfully placed into conversation with the trends of its age. Though some essays play too much insider baseball when it comes to arguments surrounding current scholarly debates in literary criticism or parochial Latter-day Saint historical concerns, its value far outweighs the jargon and narrow conversations of such moments.

Eran Shalev’s entry is particularly effective at bearing out Fenton and Hickman’s theoretical assertions. In “An American Book of Chronicles: Pseudo-Biblicism and the Cultural Origins of the Book of Mormon,” Shalev notes that by the time the Book of Mormon was published, “Americans had been producing and consuming faux biblical texts for close to a century” (137). Such texts often helped sanctify American experience by self-consciously biblicizing it. When analyzed as yet another production within this genre of US letters, it is easy to see why many Americans easily accepted the Book of Mormon as yet another divine scriptural witness. As Shalev hypothesizes: “By conditioning contemporaries to applying biblical language to American content, and thus to perceive their history and construct their national experience in scriptural categories, the pseudo-biblical language may have helped to ameliorate readers’ reactions to and digestion of the Mormon Bible” (149).

Shalev’s article is only one—among many—illuminating essays within the anthology. Others find within the Book of Mormon narratives concerning the rise of modern secularity in early America at odds with Charles Taylor’s telling, or see surprising resonances between its prescriptions surrounding acceptable masculinity and early American “conduct books” (365). Readers may or may not agree with every point drawn from such essays, but there is little denying the importance of the larger impression that each essay leaves when read as part of an interlocking whole. Upon completion the reader should leave fully convinced that the record that Smith claimed to unearth yet has many things to reveal regarding its own complexity as a literary text, as well as insights into the culture of 19th-century America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer Wells is Adjunct Lecturer at Southern Utah University.

Date of Review: 
October 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth Fenton is Associate Professor of English at the University of Vermont.

Jared Hickman is Associate Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University.

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