In this episode, we’re diving into one of the questions from our Big Questions series: Terryl Givens invited Joseph Spencer, a philosopher and professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, to talk about the question of Book of Mormon historicity.
The claim that the Book of Mormon is a translation from ancient plates written by Hebrew people who immigrated to the American continent has been challenged from its first publication, and conclusive confirming evidence has been equally controversial. So what is at stake in either affirming or questioning the historicity of the Book of Mormon as the modern translation of an ancient record? Could it be some other form of inspired writing? Or must we accept the book as being exactly what it claims to be? How do we deal with seeming challenges to its historicity?
Joseph Spencer is prominent among a new generation of Book of Mormon and Biblical scholars. He is the editor of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and the author of eight books, including 1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction published in 2021 by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute.
You can find more from our Big Questions series by clicking on “Big Questions” from the main navigation menu — and watch out for much more Big Questions content as we move throughout the year.
Thanks as always for listening, and we really hope you enjoy this conversation with Terryl Givens and Joseph Spencer.
Tim Chaves: Hey everybody. This is Tim Chaves from Faith Matters. In this episode, we’re diving into one of the questions from our big question series, Terryl Givens invited Joseph Spencer, a philosopher and professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. To talk about the question of book of Mormon historicity. The claim that the book of Mormon is a translation from ancient plates written by Hebrew people who immigrated to the American continent has been challenged from its first publication and conclusive confirming evidence has been equally controversial.
Tim Chaves: So what is at stake in either affirming or questioning the historicity of the book of Mormon as the modern translation of an ancient record? Could it be some other form of inspired writing or must we accept the book as being exactly what it claims to be? How do we deal with seeming challenge is to its historicity? Joseph Spencer is prominent among a new generation of book of Mormon and biblical scholars. He is the editor of the Journal of book of Mormon Studies and the author of eight books, including 1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction published in 2021 by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. You can find more from our big question series by heading to Faith matters.org and clicking big questions from the main navigation menu. Watch out for much more big questions content as we move throughout the year. Thanks as always for listening, and we really hope you enjoy this conversation with Terryl Givens and Joseph Spencer.
Terryl Givens: Hello, and welcome to another installment of conversations with Terryl Givens, sponsored by Faith Matters. I have with me in the studio today, Dr. Joseph Spencer, who is assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. One of the foremost scholars of the book of Mormon in the church today, and a well-published author on that and other subjects. Joe, good to have you with us today.
Joseph Spencer: Good to be here. Thanks Terryl.
Terryl Givens: Our topic today is, broadly speaking, the book of Mormon. In a little more focused way, we want to talk about historicity in the book of Mormon. So I’d like to start off with asking if we can do a brief overview maybe, of the centrality of historicity to conversations about the book of Mormon. See where we are today on that subject, and then I think in a more focused way we want to talk about what is at stake in affirming the book of Mormon as a historical text. I guess we could start off by pointing out for example, that when the First Door approach that know of in the church was probably Samuel Smiths as he traveled with the book of Mormons in his knapsack, and would greet interested parties or uninterested parties with the query, “Would you like to have a history of the American Indians?” So how central was it then? Why? And what’s been the evolution in broad strokes in the decade since?
Joseph Spencer: There’s no question that it’s central from the beginning. This is I think throughout the 19th century is the most common way of presenting the book of Mormon to the world, by Latter Day Saints Missionaries. This is a history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Terryl Givens: In Brazil, when we proselytized, we had the old edition in the book of Mormon that had photographs of Mesoamerican ruins. So that was a common door approach even then.
Joseph Spencer: You could find the publications toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when church presses, magazines and such are starting to publish something like book of Mormon Scholarship, this is a focus among other things. But in the 20th century, I think what cements it as the question in book of Mormon studies, book of Mormon research scholarship is frankly Fawn Brodie. Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, which is 1945, ’46, raises in the most public way, the most concerning way for the church, the question of whether the book of Mormon can be traced directly to Joseph Smith in his 19th century environment. And that brings out the big guns. That’s what seems to have spurred Sydney Sperry and Hugh Nibley and Wells Jakeman as founding figures and genuinely, professionally trained version of book of Mormons studies. From there to the end of the 20th century, it’s largely the only question that’s being asked.
Terryl Givens: So talk to me a little bit, why do you think that the restoration constructs itself on this peculiar foundation of a historical claim that is unsubstantiatable? In other words, we have the parallel to the Bible. There’s nothing mysterious about the biblical texts? We don’t have any of the originals just as a function of their antiquity, but we can trace a manuscript history. What sense does it make? And we can only speculate I imagine, but what sense does it make for a prophet to proclaim to the world that he has this ancient text but he’s not going to show in a public way, except in a very, very limited fashion. But why? It seems to me to pose a whole series of faith challenges that don’t have any particular precedent in a Christian tradition.
Joseph Spencer: I’d say there is one precedent, though not a textual precedent. Because as I see it, the book of Mormon itself makes this a question, makes this a theme. I’m thinking here of second Nephi 27, where Nephi looking at the moments of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, he talks about the book and the words of the book. And he says, “The book is going to be sealed and hid from the eyes of the world, but the words of the book will be in circulation and the learned will demand to see the book but it won’t be accessible.” And so this seems to me an interesting reflection on this very question within the book of Mormon. And if there’s a why that Nephi gives there is that he says, and he says in the name of God, “I’m the same yesterday, today and forever. And I’m not going to do anything in the world except by faith.”
Joseph Spencer: If that’s the same yesterday, today and forever, it seems to suggest that there’s supposed to be a precedent. And I take it the precedent there is the scandal of the resurrection. We have a few witnesses just like we have a few witnesses of Plates, a few witnesses of the body of Christ after his resurrection. But other than that, this really is a gesture of faith. It has to be taken first on the grounds of a certain conviction without evidentiary basis.
Terryl Givens: I guess that’s true, and I’ve tried to find an analogy there as well. The one interesting difference though, is that in the case of Christ’s resurrection, there is no deliberate obscuring of the evidence. It’s just a function of history. Whereas in this case it’s like, “Well I have these but I’m not going to show them to you.” So let me see if I can add a segue into a related question here, which has to do with the nature of faith and the demands that faith is making upon us. It’s common in the schools like the New Atheists and other others to define faith as belief in the absence of evidence, which of course is a disingenuous definition of faith.
Joseph Spencer: Anemic.
Terryl Givens: But what is the principle function or purpose of this particular challenge to faith? Is it supposed to differentiate? Or who’s it supposed us to differentiate in terms of potential disciples? Because it is creating fissures even within the faith community today in terms of legitimacy of those historical claims.
Joseph Spencer: The language that, and here I’m thinking of Ether 12, the language that gets used there is humility. If you create a situation of weakness, you can’t demonstrate the book of Mormon in absolute strength, you’re thrown back into a position of weakness. But weakness is given as a gift in order to create humility, and then only those who humble themselves only for them is grace sufficient, is the language you get in Ether 12. I wonder if that’s a nice way of putting it, though we tend to read that in individual devotional terms. Am I humble with respect to my relationship to God or something like that? But intellectual humility might be a really important version of this. Does it create the possibility of distinguishing among those who relate to the book of Mormon so that there are those who relate with an intellectual humility, a recognition that, “I don’t know. I don’t know exactly how everything’s supposed to work.” And those who are just so sure of themselves that they can somehow take these scraps of evidence for or against and decide conclusively there in some scientific way.
Terryl Givens: I like that. I think that’s good. I’m wondering if we go back to the analogy with the resurrection of Christ as a scandal, if the book of Mormon doesn’t function in a similar way. It strikes me that many religions are predicated on a series of teachings that one can ascent to, one can take with varying degrees of certitude or ascent. But the resurrection of Christ is a claim that one can’t be indifferent to. One has to either find themselves in a place where they’re asking really tough questions and opening themselves to really confirmatory kinds of experiences, or just dismiss.
Terryl Givens: It seems that the book of Mormon, the gold plates function in that a way. It’s as if it’s going to thrust itself upon us with the audacity of these claims and force us to confront the possibility of confirmatory revelation. Do you think that’s right?
Joseph Spencer: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think taking scandal in the etymological sense as a stumbling block, something thrown in your path that you either trip over or see rightly. That seems to me right. It sticks in the craw of modernity. And I take it that’s what Nephi is getting at when he says, “Look, this is the deliberate provocation. God takes these plates and hides them from the world.” And in the context of modern epistemology, that can’t but be a provocation.
Terryl Givens: I like at word. I think that’s really apt here. So there was a time when The Travels in the Yucatan by Katherine Wood and Stevens came out, when that came out around 1840, ’42. And there was this brief window of euphoria like Joseph Smith and early saints. They thought, “We’ve got it. Here’s all the evidence we could possibly want.” And of course those arguments will wax and wane over the years, but there seems to be another high point of LDS confidence in historical corroboration when we get into the ’50s and ’60s with the work of Hugh Nibley and the Neal. A FARMS Foundation. You have the celebration of chiasmus and Lehigh’s journey recapitulated. Do you think that those kinds of approaches were healthy and helpful?
Joseph Spencer: That’s a really good question. Nibley is a super complicated figure intellectually. His project is much more complicated than I think it often appears on the surface. And so I wonder looking back even now what he would say if he were with us, about exactly what he was up to and what at stakes were. But it did certainly match the spirit of the age. The post-war era for Latter Day Saints is a time of immense growth and a certain confidence certainly in the American scene, but also globally. And there’s a certain sense in which that intellectual confidence matches well the general vibe of the church. What’s complicated is the long term way that’s played out. In the moment, I think it does lend in a productive way a certain intellectual confidence, but it was that confidence was in part because it felt like there was an unending stream I think, of evidences.
Joseph Spencer: The next year, there was going to be another article in the church and magazines by Nibley or whomever, that was going to show that there’s still more and still more and still more evidence. And there came a point where the evidences seem to stop flowing. We’ve got these past ones, and there’s something about the slow down that has a cultural effect I think. So I’m not sure if it was a bad thing at the time, but I wonder if the long term it’s got a much more complex role it plays
Terryl Givens: Well this evokes the image of history as a two-edged sword when it comes to religious belief. I recall that around the year 2000, in the Mormon History Association Annual, the featured speaker was Grant McMurray. I think that’s his name, the president of the RLDS. And I’ll never forget, he opened his keynote with this thunderous claim, “History as theology is perilous and we have to move away from this.” There’s certain reasons why you could see why that argument would be appealing to the RLDS in the aftermath of Joseph Smith’s polygamy and all that. But that basic claim to tie theology to history is perilous, there’s certainly a truth to that. And the general direction of liberal Protestantism especially in the aftermath of the modernist crisis of course, was to de-anchor religion from history. At least that was a fundamentalist.
Terryl Givens: That was a fundamentalist response, was to argue for a transcendental truth that isn’t pegged to history. But there are limits to how far we can disassociate the book of Mormon from historical claims. Just as if you take the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection out of the picture, you really don’t have Christianity. So how crucial is the capacity to affirm the historicity of the book of Mormon? How much leeway do we have? What are the stakes for the believer today?
Joseph Spencer: I will say, I’ll have students come into my office now and again and they’ve been shaken somehow with respect to the historicity of the book of Mormon. They’ve read whatever Isaiah problem or something.
Terryl Givens: And there are legitimate problems.
Joseph Spencer: Yeah. There are things that we need to think about. And so they’ve been shaken and they come in and say, “Is it possible for me to remain a believing member of the church but scrap the historicity of the book of Mormon, take this as a divine book that nonetheless has nothing to do with ancient history?” And the first thing I often tell them is, “I can see theoretically how one might construct that position. I can see that intellectually but practically, I don’t know how often I’ve ever seen it actually work. It tends to be a position one assumes as part of a journey that’s got a much more complicated set of… A more complicated bearing you might say.”
Terryl Givens: Let me ask you to elaborate here. When you say does it work, do you mean it doesn’t work because there’s something internally unsustainable about that position or just as a practical matter it doesn’t end up working?
Joseph Spencer: I don’t know if I’ve decided. Because I think theoretically I could see how one could do that. It’s a weird faith, from where I’m sitting. It’s a certain faith that I haven’t experienced and so I don’t know… But I can theoretically envision it. But practically I haven’t seen it work out, which makes me suspicious that there might be something deeper than just a practical matter given our conditions, given our setting and so on. But I’m unsure.
Terryl Givens: It seems to me that there are a couple of internal problems endemic to that position. One is, I call it the Moroni problem, which is absent in the Christian paradigm generally. One doesn’t have to believe that Moses appeared to anybody and revealed the Torah. But Latter Day Saints do affirm that Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith. If there weren’t gold plates, then the story of Moroni implodes and Josephs Smith wasn’t being visited by Moroni or presumably any other angelic beings. So the way in which Moroni bridges the history that he represents and the foundational stories of the restoration seems to me hard to get around. So it seems to me that’s one problem.
Joseph Spencer: I’ll riff on that for a moment. I think that’s really sharp. And it seems to me that what I’ve often seen when someone wants to say, “Well what if I just affirm the book of Mormon pure and simple without having to attach it to history,” they tend to take the book of Mormon as if it were a unmediated gift from God. And that’s precisely to bracket Moroni. That would seem to be the only way one can try to make that move is by scrapping the actual story.
Terryl Givens: The other problem that seems internal to the question is simply the literary organicity of the book itself. There’s a seamless quality to it. It doesn’t sound to me like it’s a hodgepodge popery of historical kinds of claims and contemporary issues. Although, there seems to be 19th century language at times emerges, 19th century themes. But there’s an internal consistency to it. And thematically from the very opening pages, Nephi uses the word made I think six times, “I made these plates. I made them for this purpose.” It’s as if whoever authored the book of Mormon is trying to make it impossible to deny the providence.
Terryl Givens: Then just as a third example of this problem, I’d cite the small books themselves, which have always been a weird thing. What is it with these guys who say, “Well I got these plates and I don’t have anything to say but I’m going to give them to my son.” Why? But what we find the result of those small intrapositions is, is an absolutely unbreakable chain from Nephi to Moroni, to Joseph Smith. And so it’s as if we’re looking at a Mona Lisa and we can actually document the history of transmission right back to Da Vinci. So it seems to me those problems are difficult ones. Although on the other hand, it does seem that there are challenges to affirming this text as a pure historical artifact pre-Columbian times.
Joseph Spencer: I think that’s exactly right. The totality of the book of Mormon, the wholeness I think is the biggest challenge from at least where I’m sitting. Is that it really seems to be a completely coherent project. And I think that’s been hard to see and in part because the focus of book of Mormon studies for so long was just historicity. So we’re looking for little bits and pieces of the text we can tie in some way to the ancient world. But with more literary work that’s gone on recently and theological work that’s been done recently, it’s become clear just how cohesive and coherent the book is as a whole, which makes it very hard to just take bits and pieces of it and take that as a spiritual message and bracket the way this thing’s supposed to sit in the world.
Terryl Givens: So let me ask this from another angle. Christians are confronted with the historical scandal of the resurrection and yet historians of Christianity and apologies for Christianity, don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to substantiate the historicity of the resurrection. People like NT Wright may incidentally to a general apologetic work. But I think it’s true to say, and this has been true since the first apologist in the first centuries. I think of Irenaeus in particular who said, “All arguments are really futile in the face of the transformative power of the message.” And so the emphasis in Christianity has been there ever since, that the reality of Christ is manifest in how he makes God present to you. Should we find that the case is parallel with the book of Mormon?
Joseph Spencer: I think the formula I’ve come to as I’ve thought about this is something like using the phrase in the last analysis or in the last instance or something like that. The historicity of the book of Mormon is absolutely essential to the book of Mormon in the last instance or in the last analysis. It has to be in some sense. It’s essential. I don’t think it can be got around for all the reasons we’ve been talking about. But if it’s the entry fee for the book of Mormon, I think we lose the book of Mormon. So there’s some sense in which that move that traditional Christianity is made with respect to the resurrection is one we make, but we make with the understanding that it’s only postponing the question of historicity or something like that.
Joseph Spencer: We can’t make historicity city the opening question but it does have to be a question. So there’s a sense in which I think I’d want to say with Christian apologists or translating Christian apologists into this context, the power of the book of Mormon, its spiritual force and so forth, that’s the entry fee. That’s the first question. But that question doesn’t trump, or dismiss, or dispense with the question of historicity.
Terryl Givens: Well let’s talk about prophets for a minute. The book of Mormon is like, in my experience, it’s rather like what Churchill said about Russia. It’s a mystery wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma. I got that order wrong. There’s something infinitely perplexing. It’s as if one can never definitively makes sense of the totality of this text that we have. Because one seems to hear, as I said, traces of the 19th century or as Royal Skousen has pointed out traces of 16th century English. There’s phenomena of these incredible chiastic structures, all the Nibley resonances that we find with the ancient world. Are these disjunctions? What seems to me the absolutely undeniable reality of something that is profound and divine about its origins inspiration on the one hand. And all of these kinds of fingerprints of mortal interventions on the other. Do you think that that’s a problem or do you think that to some extent that’s the point?
Joseph Spencer: I think that’s the point. This is how I hear the language of weakness in something like Ether 12 if it’s applied to the book of Mormon itself. It has to be grace held in an earth and vessel, treasure held in an earthen vessel. That the thing is just saturated with the divine and yet we can trace the moments of its construction. Nephi is telling us how many years it is after they’ve left the promised land that he actually starts to write the thing, he tells us how long he spends on it. You can find structures that organize the text that don’t seem to be beyond the authors. They seem to be putting it together in very deliberate ways. You have interruptions and the voices of certain authors, let alone things we can trace to this or that culture, whether ancient or a dimension of the translation in the 19th century or whatever. We have human fingerprints all over the thing, but it seems to me that that’s theologically exactly the model that Latter Day Saints theology gives us. Divinity only is born in and developed out of very deeply human circumstances.
Terryl Givens: Although we have a language, a rhetoric of certainty and closure and fullness in our tradition that works against that. And so I think we condition ourselves as Latter Day Saints to think in absolute categories, in black and white categories.
Joseph Spencer: The book of Mormon should have taught us in the first place not to do that. Here’s a book that’s missing 116 pages that has a sealed portion we have no access to. Even if you’re just buying wholesale historicity and so on, the book is still a fragment, fractured, incomplete by design and historical acts.
Terryl Givens: That’s a really good point. I’m always reminded in these instances of Paul’s own account of his own visionary experience, strikes me as a really remarkable admission when he says, “Whether in the body or out of the body, I couldn’t tell.” He seems to be saying, there are these moments of epiphany and these moments when we penetrate the veil and we enter a dimension of experience that isn’t susceptible to the categories we’re used to working with. It seems to me that one of the most remarkable documents in the history of the church is, well it’s a series of documents, it’s the facsimile edition of the Joseph Smith papers, where we see Joseph Smith submitting his revelations to the editorial hand of half a dozen colleagues.
Terryl Givens: It seems to me that this is an astounding window into the fluidity and imperfection and malleability of the prophetic voice. Where Joseph Smith and the official church is acknowledging, it’s not about a Dictaphone that we transcribe from God, but there is this imperfection to this process of revelation that is always striving toward a fuller, an ampler capture of the divine voice. Let’s see if we can turn to a more personal note for a few minutes here. So tell me a little bit about your faith journey relative to the book of Mormon itself.
Joseph Spencer: That’s a good question. I have to confess and maybe this is a terrible context to do it, I’ve never had the faith crisis everyone seems to have to have. I never had a dark journey of the soul when it comes to the book of Mormon. I developed a conviction regarding it very young, in my teens and from there just began studying it intensely. So my faith in the book of Mormon has grown out of just continuous study, that early conviction, spiritual experience. But from there just the harder I’ve pushed on it, the more it’s pushed back.
Joseph Spencer: Early on, that relatively every day experience with the book of Mormon, I didn’t know what I was doing studying. I wasn’t doing it in academic way and so on. But over time, as I’ve learned the tools of scholarship and that thing and pushed harder and harder on it, it always gives me more to think about, gets deeper and richer rather than flimsier and shakier. So that’s the general trajectory of my experience. So in some sense for me, all along the way, though I’ve read all of the arguments back and forth about historicity, all along the way the question of historicity has always been more of a curiosity on the side than the central issue, because the book seems so profound simply in terms of what it’s saying and what it’s doing and this thing.
Terryl Givens: I’ve written in my own work how it’s my impression that the book of Mormon functioned far more prominently as a sign than as a signified. In other words, it seems to have been employed by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries as an evidence of God’s action in the world, rather than as a repository of doctrine. I remember Brigham Young reads it and he says that it comported with a New Testament in every significant way. So then why did we need it, becomes the question. And I remember that Grant Hardy, another outstanding scholar of the book of Mormon, said in response to that claim of mine, he said, “Well there may be some truth in that, but if it was just going to be a sign, God could have used a pamphlet. Why 500 pages?” So looking back upon your life to date as a scholar of the book of Mormon but also as a believing disciple, what do you think is its signal contribution? Or just name one or two that stand out to you.
Joseph Spencer: That’s a great, really big question. I think Grant’s right about that, that if the sacred sign hypothesis were sufficient, then we could have had a pamphlet or a miracle or an event or something. So there’s something in these hundreds of pages that really makes a contribution. For me, in some sense I’m still just in the thick of deciding what that is as I work on the text. But a few overarching things. I think the book of Mormon’s theology of grace is incredible, and I think it develops well beyond what we have sketched in the letters of Paul, and in a way that that is more explicitly attuned you could say, or more obviously compatible with the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and that kind of thing. The book of Mormon has a much more nuanced and complex conception of grace.
Joseph Spencer: That’s one thing I see scattered across its pages. Certainly it seems to me that it’s, for all the reasons we’ve been talking about in terms of historicity, it’s got a much more rich and complex conception of the relationship between God and history than we tend to read into it. In Mormon’s writings, Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, 3 Nephi especially, there’s a tangle of the way that politics and history unfolds and the rise of a church that has a complicated relationship to that. This gets worked out in ways that people have pointed out in some ways, but I think we’ve only just begun to explore.
Joseph Spencer: But the biggest thing, the thing that I spend the most time on myself and that I think just puts the book of Mormon in maybe a fundamentally unique place in the 19th century context when it drops on the world, is its conception of covenant, of Abrahamic covenant and what Israel’s destiny looks like, about emphasis on the remnant of Israel rather than a certain notion of the replacement of Israel by Gentiles, by the way that it’s interacting with Isaiah and doing all remarkable things with what’s happening across the book of Mormon with Isaiah and so on. It seems to me that it has a systematic project of reopening and then re-investigating the question of what it means for there to be a covenant people at all in the first place.
Terryl Givens: And that language of covenant theology would’ve been foremost in the minds of 19th century readers because there was an elaborate doctrine of covenant theology that the book of Mormon contests and reconstitutes.
Joseph Spencer: The book of Mormon is in no way Calvinist, but that’s the picture. The Calvinist picture is the picture on offer.
Terryl Givens: I’ll just share what I think is my primary takeaway from the book of Mormon and it would be this. That it sets up the problem that we discussed at the beginning. It’s this rock in the middle of this smooth flowing stream, and we can’t paddle around it. We have to confront head on the absurdity and impossibility of these claims. And then the book of Mormon gives us a map for how to do that. To my mind, the most significant moment in the book of Mormon has always been that 1 Nephi 10 and 11 transition where Nephi has heard his father relay the vision and then he asks the angel or he prays right for a confirmatory experience. Then he gets what I think is the most profound earth shaking question in the book of Mormon when he says, “Well don’t you believe your father?”
Terryl Givens: It seems to me that at that moment, the history of revelation as a concept takes a new direction. Because you’ve got any number of Old Testament scholars who when they talk about Revelation, they will say, “Well Revelation is the providence of the prophets. The revelators are the prophets.” And it’s as if the angel is giving Nephi that precedent and asking him a leading question, “Well don’t you believe your father? He’s the prophet and patriarch.” And Nephi says, “Well yes I do but I want to know for myself,” at which point the angel breaks into a hallelujah show.
Terryl Givens: So that seems to me that we are all supposed to see ourselves in that moment that, “I don’t have to be a prophet and this confirmatory experience is open to me.” And then we see that thread persist all the way through Moroni, where to his mind, the most depressing sign of modernity will be disbelief and possibility of that individual revelatory experience. So I think that’s a deliberate it seems to me, a deliberate and dramatic departure from what the Bible offers us as a pattern of revelation, where we don’t see it individuated in that way.
Joseph Spencer: It’s worth saying that the promise in Moroni, the very famous promise about finding the truth of the book of Mormon, one thing I find deeply interesting about the way Moroni words it as he’s setting up the promise itself, he says, “I want you to reflect on this book having read it, and reflect on how merciful the Lord hath been under the children of men from the creation of Adam down until the time that you shall receive these things.” And it strikes me so interesting that the way he casts all of history there, it begins with the creation itself but it comes to its end not at the second coming of Christ, or at the gathering of Israel, or at the end of the world. But its culminating moment is the moment you, reader, pick up this book. All of history is shaped in an individuated way.
Joseph Spencer: Then that’s the question, that’s the moment on which this question of the book of Mormon’s truth hinges. That seems to me to jive very well with what you’re saying. That you can take what seems to be this big abstract history that’s out there and the prophets are these big, huge figures are controlling. But here Moroni says, “No, the whole history funnels into the question of, will you find out?”
Terryl Givens: That moment, yeah. That’s beautiful. Let me ask you one final question, Joe, where would you like to see… It’s a two part question I guess. Where would you like to see us go as a culture relative to the place of the book of Mormon in our lives? And where would you like to see the book of Mormons scholarship go?
Joseph Spencer: That’s a great double question. As a culture, those kinds of questions I always feel are above my pay grade. I’m a scholar but I do wish we would simply as a people, get to the point where we fuse our devotional reading, which I want to affirm 10 million times over, but I want to see us fuse our devotional reading with some serious scholarship. And I don’t know that that means everyone reading actual works of scholarship so much as a slowness and a care with the text. I’d love to see that happening in Sunday schools and in seminary classrooms and that kind of thing. Even maybe just an ability to ask questions about the text so that it can start to show us its complexity and depth. We just have such a strong tendency to read a line at a time or reverse at a time and then immediately run off with an application nugget or something like that.
Joseph Spencer: But it seems to me that even our applications and our devotions would be so much the richer with slow and careful reading. I think that’s what I’d say about culture. As far as the book of Mormon studies, I guess I want to say I want to see what’s happening keep happening.
Terryl Givens: Do you think we’re in a good place now, that we’re richer?
Joseph Spencer: I think we’re in a very interesting place. I’m always hesitant to decide that it’s good. What has happened I think over the last 20 years is that, we’ve seen emerge two very different, three I should say, three very different styles of interpreting the book of Mormon that have antecedents but have never been dominant or in the limelight. And these have arisen alongside traditional apologetics and things like that. So one is a literary project that is primarily being done by people outside of the faith, people like Elizabeth Fenton or Peter Coviello and so on, who are looking at the book of Mormon to put it in conversation with post-secularism and so on. All of that I want to keep going on just because I want to read it, and I want to see what they learn and think about there, even if they’re not coming at it in a perspective of faith at all.
Joseph Spencer: There’s also what I think Grant Hardy has ultimately been pushing for, which is to read the book of Mormon as a volume of scripture in the context of world scripture. And that I think is really rich and he has shown just how much can be dug out of the book of Mormon that way. I want to see that go forward and I’d love to see others do that as I believe he does. But the thing that I’m most invested in, the third development here is theology in the book of Mormon. Reading the text, which is a confessional discipline. It’s to begin from the position that this religion is true and to then ask, “So what? What does the thing actually say?”
Joseph Spencer: That’s begun I think, to happen in earnest in a few different contexts, and it seems to me that the kinds of insights that are coming out of the book of Mormon there are just spectacular. It’s because good theology depends on really good reading, it’s made for a much more robust, careful analysis of the text as a whole, and individual books as a whole, but also just really good theological reflection has come out of it. I’d like to see that grow and develop and become a much more robust conversation.
Joseph Spencer: And in part, these are my two answers to your two parts of the question are connected because I think it’s in doing theology with the book of Mormon that something in the scholarly world might connect back to the average Latter Day Saints interests. Historicity questions matter to average Latter Day Saints, but you get too far down the archeological road and they’re just lost, unsure what of we’re talking about, for good reasons. And reading it as world scripture and so on will yield some insights for the average Latter Day Saint. But theology starts to touch on questions like, what does it mean to repent? Or what is the nature of Christ? And those kinds of questions being dug out of the book of Mormon I think have some cultural cache as well as scholarly.
Terryl Givens: Well thank you, Joe. And thank you for your work modeling, close reading and taking this miraculous book of scripture seriously.
Joseph Spencer: Thanks, Terryl.
Terryl Givens: Thanks for joining us today and-
Joseph Spencer: Happy to be here.
Terryl Givens: … Thank you, and we’ll see you all next time for another episode.
Joseph Spencer: Bye.
Tim Chaves: Thanks so much for listening and we really hope you enjoyed this conversation between Terryl Givens and Joseph Spencer. And as always, if Faith Matters content is resonating with you and you get a chance we’d love for you to leave review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. It definitely helps get the word out about Faith Matters and we really appreciate the support. Thanks again for listening, and as always you can check out more at Faithmatters.org.