Overlooked Literary Treasures in the Book of Mormon
by Jeff Lindsay
critics in their mocking of the Book of Mormon like to trash its
literary value. It's true that the Book of Mormon was not written by
people whose goal was to write epic poetry or great literature. It
was written to teach us, remind us, and help us repent and come to
for those very few outsiders who take the book seriously enough to read
and analyze the text with a desire to learn and explore, there are
great treasures, even treasure of literature.
the Book of Mormon has its share of problems for modern readers. There's
the KJV language with archaic structures and way too many "and
it came to pass" phrases, even more than the Bible has, but with
an abundance similar to the actual Hebrew text. Though the archaic
language has its purpose, it adds to the difficulty and even tedium
is not as tedious as reading some widely accepted great literature
like the Old Testament itself, which, while it has many moments of
great beauty, seems to get bogged down in lengthy descriptions of
decorations on the tabernacle, genealogies, and other details that
require a lot of determination to slog through.
first time reading it was a surprisingly painful chore, definitely
more challenging than what I encountered in the Book of Mormon.
literary value of the Bible is widely accepted, partly, I feel,
because it has been subject to so much analysis and discovery by
people willing to take to seriously, whether they believe its
theology or not.
looking at the Book of Mormon face a different hurdle. To take it
seriously and analyze the complex text with any degree of
intellectual effort almost implies the book might somehow be more
than what "everybody knows" it is: a ridiculous forgery by
an unschooled farmboy that somehow manages to still fool some of
those Mormons after all these years.
view it through the lens of literature and apply the same kind of
tools that are used to dissect the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare
would surely be pointless, in the minds of many, and thus many
valuable insights are never recognized.
organized a small private conference of mostly non LDS scholars that
included both historians of American religious history and other text
oriented disciplines, with certain questions of political theory as
the subject and the Book of Mormon as the text for discussion
following the three day meeting of the group in September 1997.
of the participating historians wrote the following letter to the
Indianapolis-based sponsoring foundation:
Dr. G. M Curtis III
Liberty Fund, Inc
Dear Dr. Curtis,
you so much for including me in the Liberty Fund conference on
"Personal and Political Liberty in the Book of Mormon."
The Liberty Fund is to be congratulated for having the imagination
and courage to sponsor a conference on this subject, which was fully
vindicated by the outcome.
taught the history of religion in the United States for some time
(nineteen years at UCLA and six so far at Oxford) I was of course
familiar with the Book of Mormon to some extent, and had read
a good deal of it.
I confess that it had not occurred to me that the text would bear the
kind of close analysis to which our group of philosophers, political
scientists, literary and historical specialists subjected it. My
teaching and writing in the future will benefit from the enriched
appreciation the seminar gave me for this complex and inspiring
Daniel W. Howe
Rhodes Professor of American History
Howe's observations are consistent with the verbal comments of the
other participants. Such responses indicate that historians can learn
a great deal from intensive textual analysis of the Book of Mormon
and that there might be reason to hope treatments of Mormon history
in the future will pay more attention to the book's unique and
one will want to deny that the Book of Mormon has been a book of
considerable impact and importance in America, insofar as it has
affected the lives of many millions of citizens; yet it has never
really been counted in the canon of American literature.
even the enlightened developments of the past forty years or so that
have broadened the base of literary studies to include, in addition
to belles-lettres, virtually all written and even oral
expression have altered this strange state of affairs, though they
may well prove to have set the stage for such a change.
serious or sustained treatment of the Book of Mormon has appeared in
any of our myriad literary histories, nor has any enterprising critic
undertaken to explain an omission that, once it has been noticed and
reflected upon, begins to look like a conspiracy.
studies as have appeared, in undergraduate or graduate theses or in
exclusively Mormon periodicals and books, have, perhaps inevitably,
gained no wide currency, nor have they achieved any real standing in
the scholarly world at large.
the Book of Mormon has been mentioned by a literary critic of
consequence, as in the rare, almost isolated, case of Van Wyck
Brooks, who once made it the subject of an essay. But the most
striking thing about Brooks's essay on the Book of Mormon is that it
soon becomes clear, alas, that he has not even bothered to read it.
the author of the most penetrating commentary we have had on the work
as an "American document," Thomas F. O'Dea, has pointedly
observed that "the Book of Mormon has not been universally
considered by its critics as one of those books that must be read in
order to have an opinion on it."
attributes the "literary neglect of the Book of Mormon"
largely to "both ignorance and diffidence."
we have many new tools since Wilson's day and even since Reynolds’
experiment that ought to stimulate further interest in the Book of
Mormon as fascinating literature worth taking seriously. These tools
begin with the
work of Royal Skousen in establishing a critical text of the Book of
Mormon, giving us the best approximation of the originally intended text
dictated by Joseph Smith.
of the firepower of the Book of Mormon is still there just using the
1981 edition, but in some cases there are fine details that arise and
strengthen out appreciation of the unity and literary value of the
Book of Mormon.
example is the recognition that the mysterious Amalekites that are
mentioned without explanation in the text probably were dictated as
the Amlicites, only becoming the Amalekites through an easily
explained scribal error from the longhand penmanship of Oliver
Amlicites are carefully introduced early in Alma with clear
foreshadowing, only to disappear shortly thereafter. Using evidence
on the original manuscript to recognize that the Amalekites were
probably the Amlicites adds significantly to the unity of the text
and solves one of the little mysteries in the record, as
I discuss on a post at Mormanity.
critics mock the Book of Mormon as "wooden" and just a
bunch of cheap theology without touching upon the human condition and
the realities of life, devoid of tales that have literary value. I
think this reflects more about the opaque lens they use in evaluating
the book than it does the complex details of the actual text.
we look at the Book of Mormon without the blinders or opaque
sunglasses that some seem to favor, we find a rich mix of many
important elements of literature. This ranges from Nephi's psalm and
other Hebraic poetical forms such as chiasmus,
sometimes intricate and powerful, to extensive and deliberate
allusions to great events of the past including the Exodus
and other Old Testament events, as well as careful internal
consistency in references to events and statements in previous
portions of the text (e.g., the beautiful way the sacrament prayers
at the end of the text make use of Christ's words in 3 Nephi).
can marvel at the epic stories that are told, such as the migrations
of groups from the Old World to the New, the rise and fall of
empires, detailed and realistic tales of victory and defeat in
complex wars, and the spiritual revolution and apostasy of the
addition to these big themes, we have intricate, complex tales of
adventure, danger, and deliverance filling the Book of Mosiah, for
example, whose very name is a Hebrew wordplay on a word meaning
deliverance. Much can also be said of the symbols (e.g., in visions
reported in First Nephi or used elsewhere in the text) and their
importance in the text.
for the things of the individual soul, we have deeply personal
struggles such as Nephi struggling to deal with the anger he feels
from years of abuse and derision at the hands of his brothers, and
the tender, sensitive struggles of Jacob who has faced abuse and has
risen from it with great gentleness and sensitivity toward the
feelings of others.
see the struggles of parents whose children disappoint them,
reflected in the stories of Lehi and his two rebellious son, of Alma
the Elder and his rebellious son Alma the Younger, and Alma the
Younger with Corianton.
see the yearning of parents for their children expressed simply and
subtly through the faithful teachings rehearsed by the 2,000
stripling warriors who did not doubt their mothers.
also see the depths of darkness in the human soul as power-hungry
elitists conspire and acquire seats of power at any cost, ultimately
resulting in the destruction of entire kingdoms. The peril posed by
some megalomaniacs and their allies may be surprising to "normal
people" but is reinforced by tragic lessons of history since the
Book of Mormon came out.
of the literary value of the Book of Mormon remains hidden, though
until it is brought out through study and faith. This is true of
chiasmus, which was only recently recognized as one of several
different classic Hebraic poetical structures found cleverly woven
into the text of the Book of Mormon.
is also true of the abundant Hebraic word plays in the text, some of
which were only first published and discussed in the last few weeks
(e.g., see the Mormon Interpreters's 2015 articles on the word plays
mentioned in the Book of Mormon, and also the
female name Abish).
example worthy of detailed study is the literary
value of King Benjamin's speech, which included many once hidden elements. One of the most interesting
aspects to me is the way in which King Benjamin leads his people in a
covenant making ceremony that reflects the major steps of ancient
Middle Eastern covenant patterns that were not recognized until
roughly a century after the Book of Mormon came out.
Book of Mormon not only uses many classic literary tools and
concepts, but, like much of what we call great literature, has much
to teach us about the human condition and the human soul, with value
that transcends its ancient origins and still speaks to us today.
more importantly, the Book of Mormon tells us not just how to
understand some aspects of the human soul, but how to transform the
human soul into the soul of a son or daughter of God, a saint,
committed to Christ, on an epic journey of our own that will bring us
close to Christ.
real value and truly great sacred literature, making the highly
ignored Book of Mormon a great and marvelous work indeed. Please,
give it a chance.
Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his
LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on
the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton,
Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra.
He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.
He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent
Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.
Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering
Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).
Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US
patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications.
Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.