There are 18 thoughts on “Table Rules: A Response to Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon”.

  1. Hello Kevin,
    Thank you for your generous review in this article (and your ongoing promotion) of my “Skins as Garments” article. I’d be very interested in corresponding with you about some of my forthcoming Book of Mormon projects, but I am not sure how to contact you. You can send me a private message via the “send a message” link on my UVU professional profile. Thank you again for your insightful analysis on my article and its (lack of) place in current Mormon Studies conversations.
    Warm Regards,
    Ethan Sproat

  2. Kevin, I am curious about this claim in both your abstract and your paper:

    “By “Americanist” the editors refer to their preferred mode of contextualization: to situate the Book of Mormon as a response to various currents of nineteenth- century American thought.”

    The book itself is actually a group of Americanist scholars–academics that specialize in the history and literature of early America–that the term is meant to convey, not specifically in the “situat[ion]” of the text within early America primarily. This seems a worthy goal for Drs. Fenton and Hickman to pursue, since both of them are early Americanists and they want their colleagues to take the book more seriously as an object of academic study.

    • I agree. It’s a worthy goal and one suited to their expertise. That leaves a couple of questions. How well did they achieve their goals? With 17 essays and an introduction, and the potential for ongoing influence, that will be an open-ended question, and the answers may vary from essay to essay. The tension between Ethan Sproat’s perceptions in his JBMS essay, “Skins as Garments” and some (not all) of the contributions in Americanist Approaches is a case in point.

      Another question involves comparison with whether Americanist contextualization, or historicist contextualization sheds the most light and provides the best explanation and the most insight into the Book of Mormon. And that can only be answered through comparison that conciously employs standards that are not completely paradigm-dependent. And that too will be an open-ended question.

      Americanist approaches have the luxury of being able to ignore apologetic efforts in making their case. The table rules discourage any acknowledgement of the findings of reported in In the Footsteps of Lehi, or Mormon’s Codex that might be difficult to explain in an Americanist context. On the believing side, however, we won’t be taken seriously unless we engage critics from all sides. We have make wider comparisons. That is our worthy goal and is inherent in our table rules.

      • I had a very different reaction to Americanist Approaches to The Book of Mormon. Just as I think reading Harry Potter as encouraging Satanism, I think reading American Approaches only through the lense of how the articles related to apologetics rather misses the mark. There is some excellent thinking displayed in most of those articles, and reasons that anyone interested in the Book of Mormon should pay attention to what they say. While they can be read as discussing a secular creation, they can also be read as reading the production of the text inside the very real context into which the Book of Mormon was launched. Many of the articles caused me to do thankful reflection on their ideas.

        It clearly was not intended to be a work of Book of Mormon apologetics, and suggesting that its greatest defect is something it never wanted to do seems to dismiss the value of the good work that went in to those articles.

        • I’m going to have to agree with Brant on this one, Kevin. The demands that you are asking of the book are akin to the reviewer reviewing the book they wish had been written rather than the actual book itself. These are real scholars of early American history, literature, and religion. THEY are Americanists, and we should all be happy that they not only provided a lot of intellectual food to feast on but also that they cared enough to take the subject this seriously. Your review/response here to their wonderful book comes across as being completely disconnected from the book itself. You’re doing your own thing, and not in the most interesting or positive way either.

          • In response to Brant and Jim, may I point out that my essay begins with an overview of several of the Americanist Approaches essays, noting the range of topics and views and authors, before stating:
            “As an extended survey of our founding text from a prominent publisher, Americanist Approaches will be of interest to Latter-day Saint academics as a book to read to get to know what such an eminent and emerging group of scholars have to say about our community-defining book, its place in nineteenth-century discourse, and significance for current study.”

            I don’t think that my saying that is in any way a dismissal of their book for not being one I would, or could write, nor for it not being an apologetic work.
            I accept it for what it offers, and even cited some useful observations from a couple of the most skeptical commentators. For instance, I quote this from R. John Williams: “He also discusses stories from the Book of Mormon in which angels, prophets, and Jesus are supplemented by books, and books by angels, prophets, and Jesus, showing that neither the immediacy of oral witness and preaching nor “the plain meaning of the text” is ever enough. He also discusses nineteenth-century contextual issues against which to situate Joseph Smith, such as Emanuel Swedenborg,3 interest in and speculation about hieroglyphics, Masonic legends of Enoch, and the practice of using stereotype plates to simplify the printing of Bibles in Joseph Smith’s day as a meaningful parallel to the story of the Golden Plates.” My intent in such quotes and notices was to whet the appetite of my readers who might then want to get the book and read further.

            It happens that I then directly quoted six different authors on the theme of the Book of Mormon and nineteenth century racism. And I quoted Fenton and Hickman on the notion of anachronism. I respect their positions, quote them directly to let them speak, invite readers to get their book for themselves to delve deeper. Since they raised those issues, I offer my own response on those two themes, in the context of paradigm debate and post-colonial theory, for what it is worth to anyone who reads my essay. I realize that different readers with different backgrounds will value my comments in very different ways.

          • “The demands that you are asking of the book are akin to the reviewer reviewing the book they wish had been written rather than the actual book itself. These are real scholars . . . “

            Larry, we vary; we disagree a wee. The essence of a book review is to describe the book the reviewer wish had been written. I am not into scholar-worship; I have seen scholar-deities write remarkable ignorance.

            Every writer is an apologist. They are conveying viewpoint. They do that by creating an intellectual tapestry that establishes their thesis. They gather blather that fits their chosen proposals. Kevin is ‘guilty’ of suggesting that there exists scholarship—and possibility—neglected by the books enclave of writers and their hewn creation. It’s fair for someone to long for truly circumspect scholarship. He is not expecting them to be Hugh Nibley protégés, nor to be Latter-day Saint “apologists.” (I’ve always detested the dang term because I see it as pompously dismissive, which it is.) I also fail to see how the theme of the book itself has any value at all, except to see an exposition on what could be said against the source claims made by the Book of Mormon.

  3. Thanks for the comments on Table Rules and others. You are most welcome. It’s nice to be in a position, now and then, to pass forward my own appreciation of those LDS and other scholars whose work expands my mind, and enlarges my soul.

  4. Thank you Br. Christensen. You continue to help me navigate the many alternate voices on BoM topics. I love your articles. You’ve helped me in the past navigate the Dan Vogel mind-reading confusions in his various publications about Jos. Smith, Jun. and his family members. You’ve also helped me gain a greater appreciation for Margaret Barker’s writings and her central thesis regarding King Josiah’s reforms. Thank you.

    Now you’ve added to my appreciation of the “skin of blackness” topic in the BoM. During my mission (1972-74) I remember reading a book on Meso-American archeology… the section on “skin of blackness” showed pictures of murals where some of those depicted in the murals were black. The conclusion was that there were black skinned & white skinned people in BoM lands. That seemed to satisfy my basic initial understanding. I thought, “OK, there must have been some people with an actual skin of blackness.” Then when in college I remember reading in a Hugh Nibley publication something to the effect that “there are no racial issues in the BoM … black versus fair/white & delightsome, is always a character issue.”

    You’ve strengthened my ability to help my family members and friends understand this challenging black vs. white BoM subject…

    A comment about the current “Book of Mormon Studies” publication. I’ve moved completely away from reading it. I miss the FARMS approach. Thank you Interpreter Foundation. I’m a daily user of the BoM. I’m not a scholar, but I love reading scholarly papers. Most of the “BoM Studies” articles seem too bland, now I know why, “… a deliberate turn to serve the agenda of the universities at the expense of the major users of the texts.” Though, the Sproat article suggests I shouldn’t ignore the publication completely. Thank you for your contribution directed towards daily consumers of the BoM text, like me!

    You referenced Nick Frederick. The subjects of EME in the BoM… the BoM Critical Text Project… Stan Carmack’s articles … KJV language in the BoM…. are so fascinating to me. I can hardly contain my excitement as I try to participate in the unfolding of these rich topics. The topics are directed towards major users of the BoM. Also, I purchased a copy of Nick Frederick’s Doctoral Dissertation about John’s Prolougue and other KJV language that shows up in the BoM. As a daily “user of the text” these open questions about our foundational text continue to enlighten, enlarge and expand my understanding. The BoM continues to be delicious to me. Thank you for your continuing contributions directed towards “daily users.”

    I agree, the new wine tastes just as good as “wines on the lees well refined!”


  5. Thank you for your succinct review, Kevin. I got a chuckle from John Williams’ notion that Hugh Nibley was the “alpha male” at FARMS. Hugh only visited FARMS once, and that was because I asked him to drop by to go over one of his essays which lacked sources (I was editing it for his Collected Works).

    I thought you dealt with the apriori racializing of the Book of Mormon adequately. I would only add that God himself is constantly blamed for causing “a skin of blackness” (2 Ne 5:21), and is quoted saying that “I will set a mark on them/him” (Alma 3:14-16, even though the Amlicites actually “set the mark upon themselves” (3:13), thus making the metaphorical action of God far more clear. Moreover, no one ever saw a “black” Amerind. So the meaning cannot have been literal.

    What you did not point out was the glaring, crucial, and anachronistic problem faced by the authors/editors — their abject failure to deal with the Early Modern English text of the Book of Mormon. Their commitment to dealing exclusively with the 19th century prevented their focus on the reality that the text was generated in the 16th century, thus leaving nearly all of their assumptions empty and meaningless.

    • My gosh, Robert F. Smith, brother of stout statement! The translation of the Book of Mormon was ‘generated’ by the Lord and transmitted to His prophet by means He chose in the language He chose. That the Supreme Being chose 16th century word-art for the Book of Mormon is really no one’s business but His. Flinging intellectual spit balls at Him and His choices using cheep shots and smug secularist assumptions that He had nothing to do with the text and the book’s looks is old bold, and reeks of sewer-sludge arrogance. Belief is not a thief of sound thinking; it is a defense against thought rot. Brother, in this time of the Violent Virus, suggest you avoid terms with germs.

  6. Much enjoyed this article, Kevin. I’m now eager to read Sproat’s essay, the book by Kuhn, and the pieces referenced in your latter footnotes. Once again, you’ve done a great job of thinking carefully in defense of a book which others must discredit to maintain credibility among their peers in the academy.

  7. I have read Sproat’s essay as well, and I’m surprised the essayists do not engage in it. Perhaps the assumptions they have got in the way? Again, thank you. You have given me much more to ponder.

  8. Thank you for your review and, more importantly, calling to light the problems any of us, from scholar to student, will have if we do not understand the assumptions and preformed judgments we bring to the table in analyzing a matter of import like the Book of Mormon. Putting aside the snark, ignorance, and disrespect some of the essayists display in their offerings in the book you review, the more relevant point might be that even in good faith, even with best intents, our understandings may be distorted by the assumptions we have already made and bring to the project at hand. It is something that should humble us all. Again thank you for your review and insights.

  9. I paused in reading the abstract where Kevin says, “The approach [used in the book] is legitimate.” But I can reconcile it by admitting that any writer addresses their theme by creating … a theme — plucking selectively to make their own bouquet of flowers. Yet as an observer, I have the option of liking it or not. Very thankful for Br. Christensen’s look at the book. I think there is a pattern in what disciple-thinkers write; that is where my liking is.

  10. Thank you for the link to the Sproat essay. Honestly I’ve considered anything coming out of the Maxwell Institute suspect since 2013 and have avoided reading anything from them since then. But the Sproat essay looks well worth reading.

    • You are welcome. One of the pleasures of writing the essay/review was that is offered such an apt occasion to point to and promote Sproat’s important “Skins as Garments” essay.

    • John, that is unfortunate that you feel this way. As a sometime reader of theological and scriptural treatments I have personally found the Maxwell Institute’s publications since before and after 2013 to be spiritually fruitful.

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