To Really Read the Book of Mormon

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Review of Grant Hardy. Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xix + 346 pp., with index. $29.95.

Grant Hardy, chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, studied Chinese history at Yale and clearly has read a lot of ancient texts with the greatest care. Somewhere along the line, he learned to really read a text: to savor it, to interrogate it, to listen to every voice, to compare and contrast, to hear resonances of one voice in another, and, not least, to hear silences. We are all fortunate that he has not limited the employment of his finely honed textual skills to his academic specialty. We thought we were reading the Book of Mormon all along, but it turns out we weren’t yet really reading it—not in this full sense, not with this loving attention, this openness to possibilities, this exposed humanity.

The key to Hardy’s basic strategy is to take seriously the authorship of the Book of Mormon, not by Joseph Smith (although Hardy allows skeptics to hold on to that assumption), nor simply and immediately by God (though Hardy is in no way inclined to slight faithful readings), but by those who are the principal authors according to the book itself: Nephi, Mormon, Moroni. The result of trusting what the book says about its own composition and keeping the key authors in mind relentlessly, meticulously, and with a human sensitivity that can only come from openness to the humanity we share with the authors, is, [Page 192]well, a revelation. Hardy’s reading of the Book of Mormon is in a way more religious than any other because it is more rational—that is, by allowing natural questions to arise and to resonate, he reveals characters to us (especially the three authors) that are more miraculous because they are more human. Hardy has read the Book of Mormon with fresh eyes, as if it were just what it purports to be—a text with multiple, interrelated human authors with deeply human concerns that are partly shared and partly distinctive of each individual author. And now we too can start again in our journey of understanding the Book of Mormon, but thanks to Grant Hardy, we can start miles ahead of where we were.

Here I can give only the slightest sample of the revelatory moments and rich suggestions with which Hardy’s book is rife. Let me focus on some high points of his deft exploration of the character of Nephi, which is what I found most moving in the whole book. Hardy shows what I think I had sensed but had not clearly seen, namely, that “there is an undercurrent of grief and weariness that runs throughout his writings. Nephi certainly affirms that he was blessed by the Lord, but it may not always have been in ways he expected or desired.” To be sure, Hardy’s reflections on Nephi’s personal travails are some of the most speculative in the book, relying at critical points on puzzling silences we probably hadn’t even noticed, though he does not present them as the only possible readings. Central to Hardy’s reading is the observation that “Nephi’s blessing [under the hands of Lehi] is conspicuous for its absence, despite his admission that Lehi ‘had spoken to all his household’ and precedents in the Hebrew Bible” (p. 51). This leads Hardy to some most penetrating wondering about what might have been Nephi’s fondest hopes and dreams, a wondering that is possible only because Hardy opens his heart to Nephi’s humanity, especially Nephi’s condition as a father. Then he brings this deeply [Page 193]human Nephi back to his reception of the vision of the tree of life and to the prophecies that follow this vision.

What Hardy can then hear in the text is a Nephi who “is using these scriptural interpretations to assuage deep personal frustrations and resolve theological difficulties that he only hints at in his narrative. Clearly, there is an active mind at work here, one that is colored by his experiences, his sense of audience, and his desire for order” (p. 51). Showing a fine rhetorical gift himself, Hardy saves the clinching punch line for the end of part 1 (which deals with Nephi’s authorship). I will not give away his stirring conclusion, except to say that it turns on Nephi’s very personal answer to the Spirit’s very personal question in 1 Nephi 11:2: “What desirest thou?” To understand Nephi’s answer to this question in the light of what we can know about Nephi from what he says, and even more from what he does not say, is already to understand the Book of Mormon as never before. It is also to honor Nephi more than ever as a prophet because we can now truly love, admire, and commune with him as a human being.

You can see that this reader has found Hardy’s presentation of the soul of the first great Book of Mormon author so deep, so poignant, and so compelling that I’m sure I will never read Nephi’s voice again without hearing Hardy’s questions and suggestions. Despite its sometimes speculative character, Hardy’s reading connects so many dots at such a deep level that I do not see how he could not be on to something vitally important. And the effect is similar in the cases of Mormon and Moroni, which I will leave to the reader to discover.

Some Latter-day Saint readers may be put off by the stance of “objectivity” that Hardy adopts regarding the origins and status of the Book of Mormon. Clearly he wishes to remove all possible barriers to entry at the outset by inviting all comers—believers and nonbelievers, those moved by intellectual curiosity and professional discipline as much as those seeking divine [Page 194]guidance or the confirmation of testimony. He is content to defer (but not to suppress or forget) “questions of ultimate significance until we better understand the text and how it operates” (p. 4). He is also content to examine the book as “a human artifact” that “draws on the same narrative tools used by both novelists and historians” (p. 9). This he does without denying that the book can also be more than simply a human artifact.

The most prominent and underappreciated feature of the book as a human artifact is that “its basic structure is derived from the three narrators” (p. 10). But Hardy also notices (how could one not?), though he doesn’t insist, that “this is a book designed to polarize readers, and subtlety about its central message is not among its virtues” (p. 9). Indeed, the great question by the Book of Mormon (in its very last verse, for example) finally interpellates each of us is how we will be doing when we meet Moroni and, presumably, the book’s other primary authors “before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead” (Moroni 10:34). Just where the eventual “polarization” on this great question stands in relation to the various interests and incentives that different readers bring to Grant Hardy’s book is a question Professor Hardy is content to let arise by its own force.

In his afterword, Hardy shows himself to be the same master of understatement he has been throughout the whole book, at least concerning the implications of his reading for the unavoidable religious and existential question it raises. Turning Mark Twain’s joke about Wagner’s music against Twain’s own clueless dismissal of the Book of Mormon, he writes: “It is better than it sounds.” I’ll say it is. And for me, after reading Hardy, it will never sound the same again.

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About Ralph C. Hancock

Ralph C. Hancock holds degrees from BYU and Harvard, and has taught political philosophy at Brigham Young University since 1987; he is also President of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs, an independent educational foundation ( His most recent book is The Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age (Rowman & Littlefield), and a new edition of his Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics has recently been published by Saint Augustine’s Press; he has also translated numerous works from French. His chapter, “Mormon Apologetics and Mormon Studies: Truth, Relativism and the New Mormon Love-In,” is forthcoming in Van Dyke & Ericson, eds., Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics. Dr. Hancock is also a contributing editor of the quarterly Perspectives on Political Science, an editor at the online scholarly journal, which addresses public affairs for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a regular columnist for the Deseret News. Ralph and his wife, Julie, are parents of five and grandparents of thirteen.

11 thoughts on “To Really Read the Book of Mormon

  1. I am about 2/3 through reading Br. Hardy’s book, and am finding it very interesting and quite enlightening. My love for the “Book of Mormon” is stronger than ever.

    I do have a couple of thoughts I would like to share. Br. Hardy points out that we do not know how long after His resurrection that Christ came to the Nephites. A lot of people feel like the Nephites ran to the temple as soon as it was light. This does not make sense to me. Thinking of what it must have been like after the destruction and 3 days of darkness. The people would have been hungry and thirsty, as the only food and water they would have had would have been what was in their homes. They would not have stumbled around in the pitch darkness looking for food and water; therefore, they would have had basically a 3 day fast. They would not have hauled hungry and thirsty chidren to the temple. Also, just because the righteous were spared does not mean that there were no injuries. I can’t imagine people ignoring a neighbor or family member groaning in blood and pain to go to the temple. There were probably dead to be buried and repairs to structure to be made to make them habitable. That would have taken some time from a few days, weeks, or months. During this time, I am sure they talked with each other regarding the geographical changes and the people that had been lost. The first verse of III Nephi 11 talks about the people gathering at the temple and talking about the “great and marvelous change” (note change is singular, and not plural as would be expected if they were discussing geographical changes). To me, the great CHANGE (singular) was Christ’s announcement of the end of the Mosaic Law. That is the reason they would need to go to the temple and question their prophet Nephi. I can picture them asking Nephi and each other questions like: How are we supposed to worship now, since He doesn’t want our burnt offerings and sacrifices? What does it mean about the end of the Law of Moses? What about the 10 Commandments? What does “a broken heart and contrite spirit” mean. etc.

    This is rather lengthy, but it includes thoughts I wished to express to you, Br. Hardy, and maybe hear what your thoughts are in regards to these.

    • You are correct in thinking that some time passed, much recovery needed to be accomplished. In 3 Ne 8, after attesting to the accuracy of their dates, Nephi says that the great storm started in the 34 year, first month, fourth day (vs 5). Later, he says that he will show that great blessing were granted in the “ending” of the 34th year and that Christ “did truly manifest himself unto them” (3 Ne 10:18) promising that an account “shall be given hereafter” (vs 19). Though it is not clear how much time is between the first month and the “ending” of the year, it is probably safe to say between 8 to less than 12 months between the great storm and three days of darkness and the appearance of Christ.

  2. I enjoyed Bro. Hardy’s book immensely; there were many insights I had not considered before. I wish the book review discussed the tension I at least see in analyzing a book of sacred scripture in a secularized way. I do not mean that negatively or to suggest inappropriateness here. But there is a tension, is there not, in viewing scripture as literature, or psychoanalyzing prophets described therein? At what point do we do cross the line of disrespecting the sacred? Again, I don’t suggest that to be the case here, but acknowledging and exploring that tension would be helpful and healthy.

  3. Since Mark poses a question that only I can answer, perhaps I should do so. I believe that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document written by Nephite prophets and translated by the gift and power of God. However, I’m interested in talking not just to my fellow Latter-day Saints, but to anyone who might be curious about scripture, Joseph Smith, or American religious history. I ask outsiders to imagine how believers might read the text, but in turn, I try to consider how all this might look to non-Mormons, and how they might make sense of the Book of Mormon from their own perspectives. The point of an academic publication is not to try to convert people, but rather to help everyone better understand a topic. In some places, Mormons can make strong claims. Elsewhere, for example with Mesoamerican archaeology, our arguments are not particularly persuasive to people outside the faith. I try to be fair to the evidence, and respectful of those who come to the topic from different backgrounds. It doesn’t threaten my testimony to acknowledge that non-Mormons also have good reasons to believe what they believe.

    • I would like to express my gratitude to Brother Hardy for his outstanding scholarship on the Book of Mormon. I own both “The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition”, which is my go-to Book of Mormon edition, as well as “Understanding the Book of Mormon”, and both have immensely enriched my study of the Book of Mormon. I highly recommend both of them to anyone really interested in Book of Mormon studies.

      I also appreciate that Brother Hardy isn’t afraid to ask the “tough questions” of the Book of Mormon, like how to understand instances where the Book of Mormon relies on New Testament terminology or passages. I may not entirely agree with all of Brother Hardy’s answers, but I appreciate that he is conscious of these issues and willing to address them.

    • I would like to thank Brother Hardy for taking the time to respond to my comments. It is rare thing to have an author respond directly to a comment and I appreciate his clarification. When I read both of his books, I wondered as I did when I read “Rough Stone Rolling”, if some of the information included was an attempt to expand the audience for “things Mormon” beyond the faithful few. Thanks again Brother Hardy for setting the record straight. I appreciate it.

  4. After reading both Mr. Hardys’ publications (“Understanding the Book of Mormon”, and “A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon” I am struck with how well he can write when he seems to be rather skeptical of the origins of the BOM. On pages 255 through 260 of “Understanding The Book of Mormon” he discusses the parallels between Ether 12 and Hebrews 6 and 11. He states on page 260 “Paradoxically, though, with Ether 12’s clear and thorough dependence on Hebrews 6 and 11, Moroni has simultaneously supplied some of the most compelling evidence that the book has its origins in the nineteenth century”. In the Readers Edition of The Book of Mormon, he makes reference to the lack of archeological evidence for the BOM among other issues. Now whether this is an attempt to appeal to all audiences instead of just the faithful only he could answer. In any case I came away from the reading of both books with much less appreciation for them than others have evidenced.

    • Hardy himself replies. I wanted to add my observation.

      I met Hardy briefly and he signed my copy. I asked him about this and his view is that he is writing for both Mormons and non-Mormons, and he owes it to his readers to clarify the issues. That’s not to say he isn’t deeply convinced and committed. I found him to be so. It is just that he respects the reader and surfaces issues.

      As a reader of Giliadi, I completely disagree on his Deutro-Isaiah comment, for example, which is what brought up the brief discussion of his academic-like presentation. This is just how people in the academy tend to write.

      Hardy clearly views Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni et al. as real people struggling with real issues. His implication is that it is absurd to view them as shadow puppets of Joseph’s imagination.

  5. I first came across this book shortly after it was published and devoured it. I, too, noticed that it contained such penetrating insight into the souls of the main Book of Mormon authors that I can never see them the same way again. It treated them not as characters or well-known religious figures, but primarily as human beings who struggled with their own imperfections and disappointments. In my view, nobody can read Hardy’s book and not come away with a deepened respect for the Book of Mormon as literature, regardless of how they view its origins. Hardy masterfully brings to the surface nearly every literary and rhetorical device in the Book of Mormon. These are so artfully woven into the narrative (for example, the instances where Mormon quotes a person who quotes yet another person) that the reader registers a momentary shock of recognition, then wonders how he/she could have missed something so obvious. And Hardy’s mention of the genealogy which is presented twice in the Book of Ether (first from most recent to oldest, then in exact reverse order) more or less more or less cements the Book of Mormon as a tour de force, all the more remarkable for having been dictated. Hardy’s book ranks among Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert and Since Cumorah as one of the most important studies ever published on the Book or Mormon.

  6. I think this way of reading applies not only to the Book of Mormon but to all scripture and to all the prophets. We see the brethren during conference or at stake conferences yet we really don’t know what is taking place in their lives and the lives of their family. I rub shoulders with the leaders of my own stake and see their public face and know of their privite struggles as well. Everyone has a trial of faith and courage. We have some idea of the human nature of Peter when he questions or doubts or denies and then comes running to the tomb.

    • Warren,
      I really want to stand with you on this, we’ve all been raised to look at scriptural heroes/church leaders as demi-gods (if i may use that), but i want to believe if we can change that perspective and appreciate their humanity, we’ll appreciate their message even better.

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