In recent years, Church leaders seem to have placed a tremendous burden of proof on the Book of Mormon. Gordon Hinckley said repeatedly that the Book of Mormon is “either true or false.” In an interview, he continues (see the full quote, here),
If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true.
If you’ve read anything that I’ve written on this blog over the last few weeks, you might guess that I don’t find this kind of black-and-white approach helpful.
All Mormons are familiar with Joseph’s description of the Book of Mormon as the “keystone of our religion” and the “most correct” book. It is easy to see how one could get from Joseph’s quotes about the book to Hinckley’s position, but I think we risk turning faith into something rigid and fragile by not admitting some of the obvious shortcomings of the book.
Racism in the Book of Mormon: A case study
The question of race in the Book of Mormon is a fraught one, and the way that we cope with it (and I believe it can be a traumatizing experience) reveals a lot about what we believe about scripture.
Mormons have a problem with race. We should admit it, apologize for it, and move forward. Certain readings of the Book of Mormon do not help us in this collective repentance process. While it is not as straightforwardly racist as some have portrayed it, the intimate connection between the skin color of the Lamanites (the on-again, off-again villains of the narrative) and their righteousness, feeds into age old stereotypes.
As I see it, there are a few possibilities.
1) God is a racist
After reading the Book of Mormon’s descriptions of the “skin of blackness” and people becoming “white and delightsome,” we might conclude that God uses skin color as a marker of obedience and faithfulness. Nevermind that this view is contradicted by other parts of the book:
he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
The Mormon view of God at least opens up the possibility that he can “cease to be God.” We aren’t forced into the position that just because an act was committed by God it is definitionally good. By any standard of morality that I can endorse, the kind of racism that seems to be in the Book of Mormon would cross the line.
Since a racist god would thereby disqualify himself from being worthy of our worship, we can safely dismiss this possibility.
2) Nephi was a racist
Assuming for the moment that the scriptural Nephi corresponds to a (an?) historical person, it is possible that in writing the narrative, he inserted his own racist ideas. Dan Wotherspoon develops this idea in a recent discussion of racism in the Book of Mormon. (The Wotherspoon podcast helped me work through some of the more troublesome racial passages in the book, and a lot of what I will say below is derived from it.) For Wotherspoon, this explanation depends on at least three factors:
First, we have to assume that the people discussed in the text were not alone when they got here. The church has softened its position on this in recent years. Notably, they changed the wording of the introduction of the Book of Mormon to say that the Nephites and Lamanites described in the text are among the ancestors of the Native Americans rather than their principal ancestors. (This seems to ignore some of the discussion in the book about “this land” — presumably the Americas — being reserved for a righteous people and the fact that almost all modern prophets refer to Native Americans, Mexicans, South Americans, and Polynesians as ‘Lamanites,’ but it is what it is).
Second, we have to assume that the Lamanites — having abandoned the faith — began intermixing with the native population and adopting their customs.
Finally, if we take for granted the various allusions to dates in the book of Nephi, he seems to be writing it many years after the separation of the people into two warring factions. Given that Nephi had been socialized as an Israelite, he would have had strong ideas about ‘marrying outside of the covenant,’ and may have had ethnocentric stereotypes about the native people. Wotherspoon’s position is that Nephi may have seen the effects of the Lamanites’ intermarriage with the perhaps darker skinned native people and concluded that the natural changes in skin color were a curse from God.
I had not considered this, but it is at least possible. This explanation is interesting as it factors in the fallibility of the authors of the Book of Mormon, and it takes them seriously as three-dimensional people rather than the shallow caricatures we are sometimes told they are. As I’ve mentioned before, Latter-day Saints should be in a good position to accept limitations in ancient prophets given our experience with modern ones.
3) Joseph Smith was a racist
A more plausible explanation, in my mind, is to consider the ways Joseph might have inserted racism into the Book of Mormon. One theory of Book of Mormon origins (the expansion theory), holds that the process of translation was much closer to inspiration than what we typically think of translation (converting from one language to another). Expansion theorists (Blake Ostler and others) remind us that Joseph rarely used the plates in the translation, and received most of the book by looking into his ‘peep stone.’ The idea that the native Americans had their origins in Israel was floating around in Joseph’s time, and it is possible that a lot of Joseph’s own assumptions about how the world works made their way into the text.
Where are we now?
The Book of Mormon is a remarkable work. I am not completely sold on its historicity, but it seems to contain something deep and beautiful. I find myself unable to write it off as a hoax, but its origins are obviously more complicated (and in my mind, so much more interesting) than we teach our primary children.