Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

First published in 1830. Regarded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) as a volume of scripture (521 pages in English) equal in authority to the Holy Bible; source of the nickname "Mormon" for the Church.

Joseph Smith, founding Mormon prophet, claimed to have translated the text into English from an original in Hebraic Egyptian engraved on golden sheets and given him temporarily by an angel. The book recounts the religious history of Semitic peoples (ancestors of today's aborigines or Indians) who had migrated to the western hemisphere and recorded a visit to ancient America by the resurrected Christ (thus the subtitle on recent editions of the book, Another Testament of Jesus Christ ). It was first published in 1830, when Smith was only 24.

In sheer size and complexity, it is a formidable book, now translated into many languages, and not readily dismissed as the sheer fabrication of an unlettered youth. Yet, understandably, it has never been taken seriously as a work of ancient scripture by non-Mormon scholars, who have usually explained it as the product of hidden authorship or of sheer plagiarism (perhaps based on View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith, no relation to Joseph). Accordingly, no exegetical or hermeneutical treatment of the book has been undertaken by non-Mormon scholars, although in more recent years they have started to take the book more seriously as a legitimate, if rather imaginative, nineteenth-century American religious treatise (e.g., O'Dea 1957, Stendahl 1984).

For Mormons, the book provides the most convincing and palpable testimony to Smith's divine calling, and much effort has been expended to vindicate it through scientific scholarship, including Meso-American archaeological explorations and research, textual analyses searching for Hebraisms and other links with ancient Semitic literature, and statistical analyses of "word-prints" or stylistic differences among the various ancient American prophets and scribes named as authors of the various sections within the book (to refute non-Mormon claims of single authorship by Smith). Archaeological and geographic support for the book generally has been lacking, the most sophisticated effort being that of Sorenson (1985).

Despite the obvious Mormon bias in the various kinds of textual analysis, the scholarship in recent years has been formidable if not incontrovertible. The best examples have been collected and published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, beginning with the work of Hugh Nibley, a seasoned scholar of ancient languages. Other Mormon scholars have been critical of such church-sponsored research and have produced a counterliterature akin to that which might be expected from non-Mormon critics (see, e.g., Metcalf 1993, Larson 1977). Less heterodox Mormon scholars (but not church sponsored) have explored the human elements and uses of the book in ways that do not necessarily question its ultimately supernatural origins (e.g., Van Wagoner and Walker 1982, Ostler 1987, Underwood 1984).

See also Mormonism, Joseph Smith

Armand L. Mauss


S. Larson, "Textual Variants in Book of Mormon Manuscripts," Dialogue 10(1977):8-30

D. H. Ludlow (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992 [various entries on Book of Mormon])

B. L. Metcalf (ed.), New Approaches to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books1993)

H. Nibley, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley , vols. 5-8 (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1989)

T. F. O'Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957)

B. T. Ostler, "The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source," Dialogue 20(1987):66-124

B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985)

J. L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1985)

K. Stendahl, "The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi in the Book of Mormon," in Meanings , ed. K. Stendahl (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984): 99-113

G. Underwood, "Book of Mormon usage in early L.D.S. theology," Dialogue 17(1984):35-74

R. Van Wagoner and S. Walker, "Joseph Smith," Dialogue 15(1982):49-68.

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500