The Book of Mormon, A Biography


Lives of Great Religious Books, Princeton University Press
March 2012, 280 pages, $24.95, small size – 4 ½ W by 7 ½ H
ISBN: 9780691144801, includes 23 halftone B/W photos
ISBN for the eBook (same price): 9781400841615
Paul C. Gutjahr, Professor of English, Indiana University

Introduction

This is a book about a book. That’s not unique but the subject of the book is very unique. The Book of Mormon launched a religious movement. It is an influential book, a controversial book, a best-selling book (150 million copies) and a well-read book. It has a lot of history (182 years), has been translated into over 100 languages and has survived intense scrutiny and criticism.

The book has inspired countless pieces of art, poetry and music and has been the subject of numerous movies and plays, most recently the successful Broadway musical of the same name. It is a part of the daily spiritual life of millions of people, considered a sacred text, holy writ comparable to the Bible or the Koran, presented to the world as evidence of modern revelation.

Every day, new readers discover it for the first time, usually after being introduced to it by a friend or by Mormon missionaries. You can check it out at the library, read it online or download it for free to your Kindle, iPhone, iPad or Android. If you want to discuss it you can find several hundred websites, blog posts, forums and online articles filled with commentary and explanation.

A Biography

Until now there has never been a definitive biography of the Book of Mormon. Paul Gutjahr’s latest offering fills that need. Although not a Latter-day Saint, Paul is well-qualified to write this biography (see About the Author below). Those not of the faith will find it scholarly and well written. Most Latter-day Saints will find it informative, interesting and surprisingly refreshing.

This book biography is part of a series from Princeton University Press entitled, Lives of Great Religious Books. Other works in the series include The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The I Ching, The Book of Revelation, The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Bhagavad Gita and many others. Just as we enjoy reading biographies of famous artists, these book biographies should prove interesting.

My review is from the viewpoint of an orthodox member of the LDS faith. I am not a scholar. I’m just a regular blogger so I’m not sure why Princeton asked me to review the book but I’m honored to do so. Besides, I’m always grateful to add good books like this to my library. My experience with reading Paul’s latest offering was enjoyable, enlightening and entertaining.

Physical Appearance

The first thing that stuck me was the photo of the angel Moroni on the cover and the size of the book. It is only a half-inch taller than today’s common blue-backed editions of the Book of Mormon. I took it to a church social the day I got it. A number of people commented on the beautiful cover and similar appearance to the Book of Mormon. I think that was intentional.

Because of the small size, this book can be read in just a few hours. The acid-free paper is much thicker than the Book of Mormon but has less than half the pages. The actual number of reading pages is 195 if you count from prologue to epilogue. The rest are appendices, notes and an index. The dust jacket is a unique, rubberized type of cover, one I have never seen on a book before.

There are almost two dozen photographs, maps and illustrations sprinkled generously throughout the book. I especially liked the chart of the various printed editions. Some of the maps were supplied courtesy of the church archives, including one that has an error, faithfully reproduced. The location of Voree, Wisconsin, once home of the Strangite movement is shown in Michigan.

Content of the Book

You won’t find a lot of information on the content of the Book or Mormon in Paul’s biography. There is little to no discussion of doctrine or theology. However, there is much of history to be found, some of which I didn’t know even though I have been a life-long member of the church. The history provides a rich background for the publishing timeline of the Book of Mormon.

For example, I was not aware previously that there were differences in the American and the English editions which caused some problems when they were brought back together for the current 1981 edition. The problem arose because the English editions were based on the 1837 edition. The American editions were based on the last one revised by Joseph Smith in 1840.

The theme of Paul’s biography is the story of how the Book of Mormon has “grown up” into what it is today. When I served my mission in 1976, we used the Book of Mormon heavily and as a central focus of our message. I later learned that it was not always so and Paul illustrated this for me with his chapter on Missionary Work. The Book of Mormon has now come full circle.

Survey of Criticism

Some members of the church don’t like to read scholarly reviews of our sacred text because of necessity they contain equal time for those who have written against the work. I think that it is wrong to not make an effort to understand what unbelievers have said. Gutjahr presents all the usual early critics, but does so in a neutral way that lets the reader reach their own conclusions.

This is what scholarly works do best and why regular members of the church should read them. It helps us keep our heads from being stuck in the sand. I found Paul’s work in this area well presented. Members should not be offended by what he has written. Paul has kept his personal opinions out of his writing. It is neutral, unbiased and straightforward. In short, it is truthful.

If you have not heard of or read about Philastus Hurlbut’s affidavits, Eber Dudley Howe’s 1834 book Mormonism Unveiled, the second Spaulding manuscript theory, or Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, then you should take the time to become familiar with them. Gutjahr presents them for us in a non-threatening manner that should allow LDS members to converse intelligently.

Modern Scholarly Approach

Millions of church members who have read the Book of Mormon rely on a divine confirmation of the veracity of the record. For most of them, this is enough. Yet many still seek for a more intellectual approach to the book that millions today accept as the word of God. If you want a good survey of recent and current scholarly analysis of the Book of Mormon, Paul offers it.

In fifteen pages of chapter six, Paul whets our appetite for some of the academic research being done on the Book of Mormon. If you are not already familiar with FARMS, now part of the BYU Neal A. Maxwell Institute, you should be. We are also introduced to Terryl Givens (By the Hand of Mormon) and Grant Hardy’s work (Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide).

This is a chapter that I think could have been expanded a great deal. In fact, I would venture to say that someone should take this basic survey and expand it into a doctoral thesis. We need Mormon scholars who understand intellectual and theological history well enough to offer the academic world a defining work of rigorous scholarship deserving of the Book of Mormon.

Artistic Interpretations

The most delightful parts of the book for me were the chapters on Illustrating the Book and The Book on Stage and Screen. I knew about Arnold Friberg and Minerva Teichert because their works are hanging in temples and church buildings throughout the world. Although I had heard about George Reynolds The Story of The Book of Mormon, I had never seen a printed copy.

Thanks to the modern miracle of Internet technology, you can read it online, and view all the wonderful illustrations that accompanied it. The copy I linked to is autographed by Wilford Woodruff. Reynolds book was the first attempt to create an illustrated version of the Book of Mormon told in story fashion for young readers. His work has a romantic look and feel to it.

Until I read Gutjahr’s book, I had no idea about some of the early history of the Book of Mormon in the theater. For some reason, I assumed the recent Broadway musical was the first time the book had been used for a production. If you have not already, you must read about Corianton, the Story of Unholy Love. If not from Paul, then read about it here and here from Ardis Parshall.

Summary and Conclusion

The Book of Mormon has become a part of American culture, indeed worldwide culture. It has a life of its own, beyond the control of the Church that publishes it and expends so much time, effort and energy to get it into the hands of as many people as possible throughout the world. The “Mormon Moment” we are experiencing is made possible by this now venerable old book.

Paul Gutjahr has given us a fresh look at a book that so many millions revere as proof of modern revelation and of God’s love for his children in our day and age. The book offers a few unique new insights, much information not well-known, and a balanced approach to the current state of scholarly research on the Book of Mormon. I enjoyed reading and believe it worth your time.

The Book is respectful, thoughtful, and enjoyable to read. It is entertaining yet intellectual. It traces the history of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in 1830 into what it is today. You may see the Book of Mormon in a new light after reading Paul’s biography. If nothing else, you will better appreciate the fact that the Book of Mormon is here to stay and is worth studying.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – Joseph’s Gold Bible
Chapter 2 – Holy Writ or Humbug?
Chapter 3 – Multiplying Prophets
Chapter 4 – Great Basin Saints and the Book
Chapter 5 – Missionary Work and the Book
Chapter 6 – Scholars and the Book
Chapter 7 – Illustrating the Book
Chapter 8 – The Book on Stage and Screen
Appendix 1 – Notable Book of Mormon Editions in English
Appendix 2 – Book of Mormon Translations

About the Author

Dr. Gutjahr received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1996. His specialized field of research is the history of publishing and literacy in the United States or as he calls it, “History of the Book Studies” in North America. He has written extensively on the production of the English Bible in North America. He lends that analytical expertise to The Book of Mormon, A Biography.

Paul’s research interests are American religious and intellectual thought, religious publishing and American literature and culture 1640-1860. I think I would have enjoyed taking some classes from Dr. Gutjahr. One graduate course is entitled, “The Most Turbulent Decade: America in the 1840s.” His biography of Charles Hodge was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

Other Reviews

Princeton University Press      Indiana University
Amazon           Google Books             Goodreads
Pacific Standard, Wade Clark Roof   Booklist
Library Journal (Scroll down – third review)
Meridian Magazine, Grant Hardy       Dialogue, Blair Hodges
(Also found on By Common Consent)
Deseret News, Ryan Morgenegg        Standard Examiner, Doug Gibson
The Juvenile Instructor – a fascinating Q&A with Paul
Washington Post, Justin Moyer – short but highly quoted
(Breitbart and Ex-Mo Forums – Reviews of the WaPo review)
Mormon Letters Forum, Matthew R. Lee
Modern Mormon Men, Scott Hales
National Post, Canada – Excerpt, not a review (pages 61-70)

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3 Responses

  1. Sounds to me like another book that has missed the mark. When are we going to stop talking about if the Book of Mormon is true and really study what these ancient prophets are trying to tell us.

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    • Indeed. Your point has merit and hits the mark for us who know the book and yet need to know it better. This review was written to fulfill a promise. Since the book was written by one not of our faith, it does a remarkably good job of presenting the book in different light. As he said, this is about “The surprising career of Joseph Smith’s famous book.” He did not miss the mark there. I suspect my next essay will be more about the doctrinal content found in the pages of the book we have ignored for too long.

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  2. hold to the rod: I disagree re: missing the mark. The Princeton series is biographies about books–that is to say, it looks at important religious books as though they have a life, and tells their life story. The more technical term for this sort of exercise is “reception history,” which focuses more on how a work is received more than exactly what it says. This book talks about the birth of the Bom (translation and publication) and the life of the book (who read it, how it was received) and its later life (new editions, publishing, etc.). I wish more members of the Church would become familiar with these aspects of the Book of Mormon just as they should the actual contents of the book.

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