Feasting on the Book of Mormon

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Abstract: The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship has recently published a new study edition of the Book of Mormon. Edited by Grant Hardy, the Maxwell Institute Study Edition (MISE) incorporates important advances in Book of Mormon scholarship from the past few decades while grounding the reader’s experience in the text of the Book of Mormon. The reformatted text presented in the MISE improves the readability of the Book of Mormon, while footnotes, charts, bibliographies, and short explanatory essays highlight the strides made in recent years related to Book of Mormon scholarship. The MISE is a phenomenal edition of the Book of Mormon that is representative of the sort of close attention and care Latter-day Saints should be giving the text.

Review of Grant Hardy, ed. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Maxwell Institute Study Edition (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University / Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018). 648 pp. $35.00 (paperback).

Whether reading it as an act of piety, out of a desire to debunk its pretentions to divine revelation, or as an exercise in academic curiosity, one thing cannot be denied: the thoughtless handwaving and blithe dismissal past critics had for the Book of Mormon can no longer be seriously entertained. We are long past the days when the Book of Mormon can be feasibly deemed “a bungling and stupid production … [with] nothing to commend it to a thinking mind,”1 or [Page 144]“a yeasty fermentation, formless, aimless, and inconceivably absurd.”2 Rather, an informed, intelligent, and fair-minded evaluation of the book reveals “a remarkable text … worthy of serious study,”3 a text that “should rank among the great achievements of American literature,”4 indeed, “a fascinating tale well worth reading for a number of reasons”5 that tells a “dramatic story in a fine biblical style.”6

As such, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should avail themselves of resources that will enhance their study of the Book of Mormon in a manner befitting the book’s importance. Latter-day Saints are obliged by prophetic command to seek “out of the best books words of wisdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). If they do not, if they treat the Book of Mormon lightly or “trifle with sacred things” intellectually as well as spiritually, they are liable to bring themselves and “the whole Church under condemnation” for having squandered “this great and marvelous gift the Lord has given to us.”7

The latest publication that seeks to engage the Book of Mormon is Grant Hardy’s new Maxwell Institute Study Edition.8 The MISE, to borrow a useful acronym from Blair Hodges,9 aims to help its intended Latter-day Saint readers “learn to read this sacred text as carefully as possible, with detailed attention to language, structure, and historical context,” the desired outcome for readers that “its message of salvation [Page 145]through Jesus Christ will become more compelling and its lessons for life more clear” (xvii). Hardy is certainly well-prepared to guide readers through the Book of Mormon. “In 2003, Hardy published his Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon with the University of Illinois Press to help scholars and students of other faiths engage more closely with” the book.10 This edition has accomplished its purposes well, having become a valuable resource for Book of Mormon scholarship.11 Hardy has likewise produced an important monograph that analyzes the Book of Mormon from the perspective of literary theory and criticism.12 Himself a committed member of the Church who recognizes the need for unflinching intellectual honesty while also respecting faith,13 it would be no exaggeration to say Hardy is one of the best-prepared individuals to offer a study edition of the Book of Mormon for Latter-day Saints.

The MISE “reproduces the official 1981 (2013) text exactly, aside from the modifications in punctuation needed for the addition of quotation marks and poetic stanzas” (xvi). That Hardy was given a license by the Church to use its official text of the Book of Mormon, besides the fact that the MISE is published by a Church-sponsored academic institution, should quickly assuage any doubts readers may have about whether Church leaders feel it is appropriate to undertake a critical study of the Book of Mormon. In fact, besides offering bibliographies of scholarly resources on the Book of Mormon (xvii–xviii, 624), the MISE also directs its readers’ attention to official “[Latter-day Saint] resources on the history, transmission, and translation of the Book of Mormon” in the form of the Joseph Smith Papers website and the Gospel Topics essays (xviii). Latter-day Saint readers may therefore rest assured, knowing that the MISE represents a synthesis of some of the best institutional and independent research on the Book of Mormon available.

In terms of structure, the MISE foregoes the traditional versified double columns Latter-day Saints are familiar with and opts for a reformatted layout that includes “original chapter divisions (since these were apparently on the gold plates and thus were intended by the ancient authors), modern paragraphing, superscripted verse numbers, [Page 146]indentation of embedded documents, a hypothetical map based on internal references, and multi-chapter and section headings that highlight the narrative context and structure” (xvi–xvii). Accompanying “footnotes point out textual variants, direct quotations, references to specific events, chronological markers, alternative punctuation, and a few explanations of language, literary forms, and transmission” (xvii). While “these explanations represent only a sampling of the kinds of features that could be observed from close readings of the text,” they nevertheless highlight “the narrative complexity and coherence of the Book of Mormon,” which in turn “offer[s] some of the strongest evidences of its historicity and miraculous translation” (xvii).14 For this reason alone, Latter-day Saints should be very interested in picking up a copy of the MISE.

Another key component to the MISE is the incorporation of Royal Skousen’s fundamentally important Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. Skousen, “a professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University, is the central figure in the academic analysis of the Book of Mormon text, including its origins, transmission, variants, and grammar” (xvi). Any reliable study edition of the Book of Mormon must utilize Skousen’s work, which Hardy of course recognizes:

The footnotes [in the MISE] highlight instances in which earlier readings of the original and printer’s manuscripts may be more accurate, clearer, or more felicitous. All of the textual notes in this edition are derived from Skousen’s work, as are many of the suggestions for alternative punctuation and word order. The notes here, however, are simplified, dispensing with Skousen’s indications of variants within a source, original and corrected readings in the manuscripts, spelling anomalies, and types of manuscript changes. (xvi)

This acknowledgement serves nicely in giving general readers some exposure to Skousen’s voluminous work without overwhelming them with the finer technical points of his scholarship. The MISE thus balances well the need to make the Book of Mormon readable while also providing useful critical notes.

The maps and charts provided as appendices in the MISE are helpful study aids that should help readers better visualize the Book of Mormon, keep straight its underlying sources and transmission process, and [Page 147]remain grounded in both its internal chronology and the chronology of its translation and publication in the nineteenth century (599–610). The reproduction of primary sources from Joseph Smith and others involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (including Emma Smith, Martin Harris, Lucy Mack Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Mary Musselman Whitmer, and Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery) is likewise helpful and may give readers a glimpse into the rich documentary record connected to the same (611–19).

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the MISE and Hardy’s 2003 Reader’s Edition is the “general notes” that appear toward the end of the book (620–624). Topics discussed include “anachronisms,” “chronology,” “coherence,” “demographics,” “geography,” “language,” “translation,” and “witnesses.” In each case Hardy summarizes the issue and provides a plausible answer provided by Latter-day Saint apologists. For example, after listing the most commonly mentioned anachronisms in the Book of Mormon (“horses, elephants, cattle, sheep, goats, swine, barley, wheat, steel, silk, swords, and chariots”), Hardy writes,

Several of these [anachronistic] items are mentioned only in passing, and it may be that the attention of the translator was focused on other, more significant matters. The King James Bible similarly includes anachronistic references to silk, steel, brass, and candles, and the Book of Mormon follows that translation in many respects. Or familiar terms may have been used to represent things unknown to the early Nephite settlers or to readers in Joseph Smith’s day, as happened when the Spaniards first encountered New World animals, plants, and artifacts. For instance, many of the “swords” in the Book of Mormon could have been macuahuitl — wooden clubs embedded with obsidian blades (such weapons, unlike metal swords, could be stained with blood, as at Alma 24:12-15). Some of the anachronistic items may have had very limited production, though it is possible future discoveries will validate at least a few. References to cement at Helaman 11 were long thought to be anachronistic but have since been amply documented in Mesoamerica of the first century BC, and a New World species of barley was confirmed in the 1980s (though not yet in Mesoamerica). Perhaps the most troublesome of the commonly mentioned anachronisms is horses, which Joseph Smith certainly had experience with, yet there may be more to the story. The Nephite scripture mentions [Page 148]horses in ten verses (aside from biblical quotations), but no one in the Book of Mormon is ever said to have ridden a horse. This is odd from a nineteenth-century American perspective. In any case, lists of apparent anachronisms should be considered alongside lists of correspondences with the ancient Americas such as roads, large cities, seasonal warfare, earthwork and timber fortifications, and sophisticated writing systems as well as cultural connections to the ancient Near East recognized only after the publication of the Book of Mormon, including prophetic commission and covenant patterns (1 Nephi 1, Mos 2–6), literary devices (e.g., 2 Nephi 4, Alma 6), a few Hebrew and Egyptian names (e.g., Nephi, Sariah, Mosiah, Alma, Jershon, Paanchi), and details regarding ancient olive cultivation (Jacob). (620)

This essentially boils down the apologetic answer given by believing Latter-day Saint scholars on the issue of Book of Mormon anachronisms since at least the early work of Hugh Nibley and John L. Sorenson. Hardy’s purpose with the MISE, however, is not to get bogged down in polemics, so he keeps his discussion of apologetic issues to a minimum (enough to raise the points being debated and spark readers’ interest by giving a concise summary) and instead directs interested readers’ attention to a bibliography and online sites that offer “valuable resources for Book of Mormon scholarship” (624).15 That Hardy included this material in the MISE seems to clearly indicate that his intended audience is not the same as that for his Reader’s Edition. Since it is at times both overtly pastoral and overtly apologetic, the MISE is geared toward a mainline Latter-day Saint readership, as opposed to the inter-faith and academic readership intended with the Reader’s Edition.

The design quality and look of the MISE is nothing short of superb. The type is crisp, the layout clean, and the notes and critical apparatus nonintrusive. This minimalism ensures that the reader is not distracted from what should be the main focus: the text. The original woodcuts by noted Latter-day Saint artist Brian Kershisnik that illustrate the MISE amplify its aesthetic appeal. In short, the MISE looks good; an obvious care for aesthetic detail has gone into its production.

Lest I am misunderstood by my earlier comments, let me be clear that I by no means suggest that those who do not pick up a copy of [Page 149]the MISE will suffer divine punishment. Rather, I am saying that the sort of serious, close, careful, and thoughtful analysis and presentation Hardy gives the Book of Mormon with his new study edition is precisely the sort of engagement with the book that Latter-day Saints are obliged to undertake; both for their own sake as well as for ensuring that the Book of Mormon is received positively by non-Latter-day Saints. We Latter-day Saints do ourselves no favors in presenting the Book of Mormon to the world in a sloppy, amateurish, or uncritical manner that is likely to turn the book into a stumbling block rather than a foundation for admiration and testimony.

So, while one does not necessarily have to read the MISE to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon (or even just a basic appreciation for it), reading it certainly wouldn’t hurt. In fact, I cannot imagine how anyone (except perhaps the most doggedly cynical) could engage the MISE without having their opinion of the Book of Mormon elevated. For members of the Church who already have a testimony, I likewise cannot imagine how any who took the time to become familiar with the MISE would not have their testimony strengthened. I can therefore unreservedly recommend the MISE to anyone wishing to gain more from their study of the Book of Mormon.

1. “The Mormons,” The Episcopal Recorder 18, no. 7 (Philadelphia, April 9, 1840).
2. Bernard DeVoto, “The Centennial of Mormonism,” American Mercury 19, no. 73 (January 1930), 5.
3. Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 273.
4. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848, The Oxford History of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 314.
5. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, “Introduction,” in The Book of Mormon, trans. Joseph Smith, Jr. (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), viii.
6. “Freeman Dyson: By the Book,” New York Times (April 16, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/books/review/19bkr-bythebook_dyson.t.html.
7. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon — Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign (November 1986), 6, https://churchofjesuschrist.org/ensign/1986/11/the-book-of-mormon-keystone-of-our-religion.
8. Grant Hardy, ed. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Maxwell Institute Study Edition (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2018). Citations of this volume appear in the body of this review.
9. Blair Dee Hodges, “A Marvelous New Book of Mormon Study Edition,” BYU Religious Education Review (Fall 2018), 12–15, 33, https://rsc.byu.edu/review/fall-2018/marvelous-new-book-mormon-study-edition.
10. Hodges, “A Marvelous New Book of Mormon Study Edition,” 12.
11. Kevin L. Barney, “An Elegant Presentation,” FARMS Review 16, no. 1 (2004), 1–10. The 25th volume of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (2016) is devoted entirely to evaluating Hardy’s impact with his Reader’s Edition and other publications.
12. See Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon.
13. Hardy’s testimony can be read online at https://www.fairmormon.org/testimonies/scholars/grant-hardy.
14. On this point, see Daniel C. Peterson, “An Apologetically Important Nonapologetic Book,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 25 (2016): 52–75.
15. Hardy recommends in particular the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, the Religious Studies Center at BYU, the Interpreter Foundation, and Book of Mormon Central.

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About Stephen O. Smoot

Stephen O. Smoot graduated from the University of Toronto with a master’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. He previously graduated cum laude from Brigham Young University with bachelor’s degrees in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and German Studies. His areas of academic interest include the Hebrew Bible, ancient Egypt, and Mormon studies. He is an editorial consultant with Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship and blogs on Latter-day Saint topics at www.plonialmonimormon.com.

11 thoughts on “Feasting on the Book of Mormon

  1. A great review for a worthwhile publication.

    I have always enjoyed reading the Book of Mormon as it was presented when first published. It is easy to read and, at least for me, highlights aspects about the text that I may tend to overlook. It also suggests elements of the text such as the Chiasmus in Alma 36 were so deeply hidden within the paragraphs, that it is completely unreasonable to suggest these structures were included as part of a masterful forgery.

    No matter which way you go with an honest reading of the Book of Mormon, all roads lead to the divine.

  2. Stephen Smoot has effectively presented the positive qualities of the new MISE, but I would like to mention a few of the disappointments I have with it — despite my initial great hopes, based on Grant Hardy’s previous 2003 Reader’s Edition.

    I would have much preferred Grant’s 17-page Introduction to the Reader’s Edition in place of the less helpful 1981/2013 Introduction to the official LDS edition (which is not part of the Book of Mormon text).

    I appreciate the boldness Grant showed in improving the text at Alma 11:18-19, where he reverses the mistaken verse sequence. This is something which should have been done in the official LDS edition. However, at the same time, Grant was too timid to make the requisite change at Alma 12:13-16 (in which verse 16 should immediately follow verse 13 — a discovery which Grant himself made).

    He ought also to have corrected the wrong homonym for “Sun” at 2 Nephi 26:9, 3 Nephi 25:2, and Ether 9:22 (a misspelling also present in LDS Hymn #209), since he is well aware of all of them.

    His Index of Names (634-643) contains a number of errors: Ammonites should be cited for Alma 56:67; Amnor at Alma 2:22; Amulonites at Alma 21:3; he left out Cush; Hamath at 2 Nephi 20:9, Jeberechiah at 2 Nephi 18:2; etc.

    Still, this edition is useful as the next step to such improvements, some of which could be made on computer for the next printing. Hopefully, the Scriptures Publication Committee is also watching and taking note.

    • Bob, I very much appreciate your critical eye for details. I’m currently putting together a list of fixes for the next printing, and it would be great if you could send me your notes. (I was especially intrigued by the “etc” in your comments on the Index of Names). That way we can get started on improvements right away.

  3. Stephen, could you comment on whether there are elements of this MISE that would clash with the Church’s new BofM Geography essay if it were used in Church settings?

    • One can find on pp. 600-601 what is called “Mormon’s Map.” This is borrowed from a publication by John L. Sorenson, and it is supported by the revised version of John E. Clark’s earlier effort to draw from the Book of Mormon an internal map from the host of geographical clues found in the Book of Mormon. Hardy cites Clark’s revision of his original essay from the Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 13-43.

      It pleases me that I was the one who urged Professor Clark to make this revision available. And it also pleases me that we were able to publish it in what was previously known as the FARMS Review before the abrupt change of name, and then cancelling of the second issue of the Mormon Studies Review when Professor Peterson was fired, and a “new direction” was then adopted. Page 600 is the Legend to what is the Clark (and Sorenson) internal map, which is found on page 601.

      I really do not see how this conflicts with the essay on Book of Mormon geography currently available of LDS.org. It does, however, obviously does not fit at all the rubbish being sold by Rodney Meldrum about the real world location for the events depicted in American for the Book of Mormon.

      • While I don’t agree with Meldrum, I don’t see this publication providing an outright rejection of his (and others) theory of the Heartland model. In fact it recognizes his theory.

        The Book specifically states:

        “Most Latter-day Saint scholars believe that Mesoamerica is the most likely location, though some Mormons hold to a North American setting that draws on the statements of nineteenth-century leaders. The Church itself has not taken an official position. The hypothetical map included in this volume is based on internal geographical references.”

        I was a little disappointed to see Sorenson’s map include – I have seen other ‘internal maps’ that I find superior.

        I am watching with great interest the work involved with the recent Lidar Mapping in Guatemala and expect to see many more correspondences to the Book of Mormon text. How unusual to find deep in the jungle thousands of previously unknown ancient structures, cities that could hold populations in the millions, were fortified, and which were connected with highways that were ‘cast up’ – how strange.

        • John Clark, who Grant Hardy cites from the MSR 23/1 (2011): 13-43, has 8 figures, one of which is, I believe, a single “internal map,” and seven other more time and place specific “maps” that provide more geographical information from the text of the Book of Mormon.

  4. Good review. I love any efforts to bring the Book of Mormon to more people.

    For me, I guess I have just been spoiled by reading Royal Skousen’s 2009 Yale edition for so many years. As far as the format of the printed page, it’s still the least cluttered, cleanest, and most beautifully typeset edition.

    It’s all because of the sense lines. After finishing the Yale edition again last year, I decided to try to read the replica 1830 edition for my next time through. I thought the change of formatting – paragraphs – would help me notice new things or see the text differently. After only a few days, I went back to the Yale edition. I found paragraphs to be much more difficult to read (like the double column format) requiring an unnecessary amount of concentration to keep my train of thought throughout a coherent phrase. If I didn’t concentrate hard enough, the text would just wash over my mind without really standing out at all.

    So it turns out I’m hooked on the Yale edition. I feel like I get so much more out of my time reading the Book of Mormon if I’m reading it in sense lines. Not only do they showcase the text, there is almost a rhythm to reading them – a subtle sequence of pauses that give your mind a fraction of time to process what your are reading.

    Grant Hardy’s Maxwell Institute edition doesn’t use sense lines. And it’s not just a paragraph format, (I don’t mean to be critical) but there are some other things I find difficult to read. The poetic structures feel arbitrary and subjective. The verse numbers as superscripts and the footnotes themselves – all the superscripts and subscripts within the text are distracting. I also think the randomly bolded text is very distracting. The Yale is so much less cluttered, with verse numbers out to the sides and so much open space to showcase the text. I’m glad he cited Professor Skousen’s critical text work, but I think the real reader’s edition, study edition, scholarly edition, and more, all rolled into one, is still the Yale edition.

    • Skousen’s Yale Edition is indeed wonderful and I recommend it highly. But most readers could benefit from some assistance in identifying literary subunits and how they are related to each other, as well as shifts in narrators, genres, speakers, and source material. These are the sorts of details I tried to highlight in the Study Edition. The Book of Mormon is a marvelously sophisticated work of narrative, with multiple components that connect with each other in complex ways, yet this internal structure can be difficult to perceive in most other editions, including Skousen’s. Different editions bring out different aspects of the text, and just as it is useful to reread the Book of Mormon multiple times, it can also be helpful to read it in multiple editions.

      • Thank you for not taking my comments personally. We all benefit from reading the Book of Mormon in any format, at any time. I congratulate you on your work and hope your edition easily finds it’s way into as many hands as would benefit from reading it. Also, it’s impressive that you will donate the royalties to the Humanitarian Aid Fund of the Church.

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