I recently mentioned to an English friend that my parents don’t drink because they’re Mormons. ‘So, Dave,’ he asked sheepishly, ‘how many wives does your father have?’ I explained that the Mormon Church outlawed polygamy in 1890;
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith in
The Mormon canon also includes the Old and New Testaments, a collection of modern revelations (mostly to Joseph Smith) entitled the Doctrine and Covenants, and some other translations by Smith of ancient material collected as the Pearl of Great Price. Smith was a native of
During my second year at the
I became a student of Booth’s in large part so that I could share my faith-related struggles with the famous professor. I went to see him, and told him that I no longer believed in the Mormon gospel, but couldn’t imagine an alternative view of the world. Booth asked me if I had read ‘Sunday Morning,’ by Wallace Stevens. I hadn’t, but went straight to my room and found it in a cheap anthology bought not long before in a thrift store. ‘There is not any haunt of prophesy,’ Stevens writes, ‘nor cloudy palm/ Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured/ As April’s green endures.’ Who needed religion?
Well, my father, for one. He was disappointed when I told him of my loss of faith, and surprised by my reasons. I told him that I could not accept falsifiable claims made by the Mormon Church. The first that came to mind was that God lived on a planet called Kolob. This is one of the more obscure pieces of Mormon theology, found in the Pearl of Great Price, the least read book in the Mormon canon. Nonetheless, there it was. My father had already seen two older children stop attending church because of life-style issues: Mormons, who give a great deal of their time to the Church, do not smoke, or drink alcohol, tea, or coffee; they donate ten percent of their pre-tax income to the Church; they don’t have sex before marriage. My father told me he never thought he’d have a child who left the church because he could not accept that God lived on Kolob.
The Mormon scripture that refers to Kolob had been the subject of controversy since the late 1960s. The ‘Book of Abraham’, which Joseph Smith published in 1842, purports to be a first-person account by the Patriarch in which Jehovah appears to him and reveals the nature of the cosmos. The Lord shows Abraham the stars, including the one ‘nearest unto the throne of God,’ which is called Kolob. Smith ‘translated’ the work from Egyptian papyri purchased in 1835 from one Michael Chandler, in
Oddly, this controversy is nowhere mentioned in By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, by Terryl Givens. While the book isn’t published by a Mormon press, it has a distinctly Mormon slant. Givens is a graduate of
The Book of Mormon begins with Nephi, a Jew whose father is instructed by God to flee
And underground they remained until Joseph Smith dug them up in 1827. The area of western
Though the Book of Mormon is mostly consistent with traditional Christianity—even the idea that Native Americans are descended from Jews was not, in 1830, that unusual—in the ensuing years Smith had several revelations that broke completely with the Protestant and Catholic traditions. By the 1840s, he was preaching that devout men would become gods themselves in the afterlife, and would be married eternally to multiple wives. ‘God himself,’ Smith wrote, ‘is an exalted man, and has not existed for all eternity, but came into existence at some time, and dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ did.’ And the universe, he claimed, was created out of something, not nothing. This radical, polygamous vision incited great anti-Mormon feeling, but Smith went on working at his vision of the
As Givens argues, the contents of the Book have always been less important than its supposedly divine origin. On the other hand, the integrity of Joseph Smith is fundamental to the Mormon Church, and his identity depends upon the validity of the Book of Mormon. Mormon efforts at verification have a long and not uniformly distinguished history. When Mayan relics were discovered in Central America a few years after the Book of Mormon was published, the editor of one Mormon newspaper wrote that the newly discovered ruins ‘are among the mighty works of the Nephites—and the mystery is solved.’ Mormons later organised their own archaeological expeditions, eventually with Church funding, but Hebraic parallels have not been forthcoming.
While expeditions in the 1950s satisfied some Mormon apologists, they did not, as Givens notes, find anything so conclusive as Nephi’s tomb. (Givens provocatively describes an altar unearthed in the 1990s that bears a place-name found in the Book of Mormon as the first piece of archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon’s validity.) A more recent generation of Mormon scholars has built a cottage industry out of comparative textual analysis. The godfather of this field is Hugh Nibley, who is still writing in his nineties. After returning from service in World War Two, Nibley began comparing the cultural world presented in the Book of Mormon with what is known about the
His example has inspired a generation of Mormon scholars associated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Established in 1979, and incorporated into