Perhaps Close can Count in More than Horseshoes

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Review of Gerald E. Smith, Schooling the Prophet: How the Book of Mormon Influenced Joseph Smith and the Early Restoration (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2015). pp 305. $19.95.

Abstract: Schooling the Prophet provides a good survey of many early Latter-day Saint doctrines. It suggests that there is a causal link between the Book of Mormon and those doctrines. Sometimes it makes the case; many times it is close but doesn’t quite support the thesis of the book.

Schooling the Prophet proposes that early Latter-day Saint doctrine and some practices can be traced to themes in the Book of Mormon. Gerald Smith’s chapters look at specific sets of religious doctrines or practices which he describes and then ties to the Book of Mormon:

  • Influences on Doctrine and Theology
  • Sacred Rituals, Symbols, and Narratives of Sacrament, Baptism, and Zion
  • Influences on the Temple of the Early Restoration
  • Priesthood Restorations, Origins, and Influences

There is an introductory chapter, which lays out his thesis that the Book of Mormon was influential in the development of the topics developed in the above-listed chapters, and a concluding chapter on “The Meaning of the Book of Mormon in the Early Restoration.”

The chapters on doctrine or practice are well documented and provide a very nice introduction to early Mormon theology and ritual. For those descriptions, the book is very useful and informative. However, [Page 236]the theme of the book is not that early Saints had theology and ritual but that the development of the theology and rituals was dependent upon, or seeded by, the Book of Mormon.

In his conclusion, he suggests: “[Joseph] Smith’s relationship with the book — indeed, his vital reliance upon Book of Mormon forms and observances for religious development — recommends a more nuanced consideration of the book itself, not merely as a religious text but as a repository of ancient religious conventions such as institutions, theologies, rites, ordinances, and rituals” (207–8). That would certainly open new avenues of thought about the Book of Mormon. It flows from his defining “thesis that the Book of Mormon had a profound formative influence on Joseph Smith’s doctrinal and institutional development during the nascent days of the nineteenth-century Mormon restoration” (3).

There are times when Gerald Smith is unquestionably correct that the Book of Mormon impacted the development of theology and practice in the Restoration. Well-known is that as Joseph and Oliver worked on the translation of the Book of Mormon, they were inspired to pray about baptism. That question, rooted in the Book of Mormon, directly led to both the beginning of baptism as a rite in the early restoration and to the initiation of current baptismal theology. Smith recognizes and discusses that important tie to the Book of Mormon (107). The representation of baptism by immersion and the words of the baptismal prayer can be directly traced to the Book of Mormon (see 3 Nephi 11:22–26, cited on p. 108).

Gerald Smith also suggests another time when the Book of Mormon may have led to revelation for the early church. He suggests that a close examination of the chronology of the translation of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s revelations on Zion and the New Jerusalem indicate a probable correlation. That is, that the presence of those themes in the part of the Book of Mormon that they were translating led directly to the revelations on those topics (122–3).

Both of these examples clearly support Gerald Smith’s thesis that the Book of Mormon influenced the development of ritual and doctrine. Unfortunately, many of his other examples are not nearly as clear in connecting the Book of Mormon as instrumental and influential in the development of theology and ritual. G. Smith notes that the Book of Mormon deals with a plan of salvation, and, of course, Joseph Smith developed a theology of eternal salvation and exaltation. While the Book of Mormon certainly speaks of a plan of redemption (Jacob 6:8; [Page 237]Alma 12:25–33, 17:16, 18:39, 22:13, 34:31, 39:15, 42:11–13), it is also certain that this is not unique to the Book of Mormon. It is present in the Book of Mormon but also in other Christian religions. The unique Mormon adaptations came later. What G. Smith can say is that it is present in the Book of Mormon but not necessarily that it was influential.

For those who read the Book of Mormon as a purely modern construction, Joseph’s Christianity could easily have influenced the Book of Mormon rather than the Book of Mormon influencing Joseph. For those who believe that the Book of Mormon is a translated ancient text, the vocabulary of Christianity may more plausibly be traced to Joseph than the language of antiquity — again arguing that Joseph’s Christianity influenced the Book of Mormon rather than having the Book of Mormon be foundational to Joseph’s Christianity.

G. Smith attempts to link LDS temple theology to the Book of Mormon. He sees King Benjamin’s declaration that “Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent may seal you his, that you may be brought to Heaven, that ye may have everlasting salvation and eternal life, (Mosiah 5:15),” as foundational to later LDS sealing theology. That the word seal is there is unquestionable. Whether there is any conceptual link between King Benjamin’s intent and later LDS theology is more than questionable.

Too many of the examples of suggested influence show only that one can find concepts in the Book of Mormon if one looks for them. That is very different from the suggestion that the Book of Mormon was influential. Too many examples begin with the later theology and then find some word or kernel of an idea that is in the Book of Mormon. Finding them by searching backwards is not an indication that the presence of those words or concepts in the Book of Mormon were influential in the development of LDS theology and ritual.

G. Smith is certainly correct that there are times when the Book of Mormon was influential, and his suggestion of the timing of the Zion and New Jerusalem revelations is one I had not seen before. His discussions of the doctrines are certainly useful, but the overall thesis of the foundational importance of the Book of Mormon for ritual and theology is not as well demonstrated as it would need to be for him to support that thesis. This is not to say there isn’t a lot of very good information in the text. There clearly is. The objection is that the book is designed to support a particular thesis, and while it does other things well, it does not really demonstrate that thesis.[Page 238]

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About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

3 thoughts on “Perhaps Close can Count in More than Horseshoes

  1. It’s clear that the Book of Mormon contains, as is evident in the Introduction to the book, the Fullness of the Gospel: I.e. faith, repentance, baptism, and enduring to the end. From the Book of Mormon, we can trace our salvation ordinances directly: Baptism and the sacrament. These are how we gain forgiveness of sins; and it’s straight from the Book of Mormon.

    The doctrine of faith is most fully explained in the Book of Mormon as well, in all our scriptures. The great sermons included in the Book of Mormon are meant to demonstrate faith, justice and mercy and how to live.

    In short, it’s practical religion, and the basics; the foundation of the gospel. It is the minimum necessary to get to heaven. Mormon explicitly notes he’s forbidden from putting down the more advanced doctrines; and the same with the Brother of Jared’s accounts. We don’t get those.

    Yes, we can see vestiges and hints of more of the full teachings, but honestly: the Book of Mormon is not the well from which the Temple springs; or eternal marriage; the plan of salvation as fully revealed, etc.

    So I take issue with the book that’s reviewed. In a way, he’s right in that the very foundational doctrines and ordinances are very clearly straight from the Book of Mormon (indeed, the book of Moroni is in many ways the Handbook of Instructions of their church). But the development of further doctrines is concealed. And to be honest, this is to be expected: the vast majority of the Book of Mormon is from before Christ, when the Law of Moses–a preparatory law; focused on the minimum saving ordinances as administered by the Aaronic priesthood — was in full effect. And then after Christ came, we only get the very first part of Christ’s message before the Lord cuts off Mormon. After that, we get a world full of wickedness and Mormon and Moroni struggling to keep the flickering fire of faith alive; not discourse on the “meat” of the doctrine, as it were.

    Kind of like how todays church leaders never seem to speak of the “advanced” stuff — it’s all faith, repentance and keeping our covenants. Probably because we are fighting a rearguard action against Satan. Just like Mormon and Moroni.

  2. The book author’s thesis is that “the Book of Mormon had a profound formative influence on Joseph Smith’s doctrinal and institutional development during the nascent days of the nineteenth-century Mormon restoration.” The thrust of this statement makes me somewhat uncomfortable. While the Book of Mormon is the Book of Books, to suggest that it is the basis for Joseph’s doctrinal development puts too much to the side for me the guidance of the Holy Ghost and revelation. It has been my belief and understanding that the doctrines of the Church are the result of revelation, modern day and direct, to living prophets. I think rooting Joseph’s “doctrinal development” in that revelatory process and not the Book of Mormon is the better way to understand what unfolded. That Joseph revealed doctrines in line with the Book of Mormon is not surprising. The Book is the word of God after all. Further, rooting our doctrine in revelation and not the Book of Mormon does not take away from that Book. In the end perhaps my concern is a mere quibble for some, but I think centering the foundations of the Church, doctrinally at least, in revelation is a better more powerful and understandable explanation of the Restoration than the doctrines and influence of the Book of Mormon.

    • While I think you are right, I also think it is important to remember that revelation begets revelation. James 1:5 led to the first vision. That revelation led to visit by Moroni and the giving of the Book of Mormon. The translation work on the Book of Mormon led to baptism. The translation work on the Bible led to other revelation such as D&C 76. And the lists goes on. Even within the Book of Mormon itself we examples such as Nephi pondering on the revelation to his father Lehi which leads to his receiving a revelation that takes up much of the end of 1 Nephi. There are so many other instances that could be cited like D&C 138 where a prophet receives new revelation because of previous revelation. I’ve found this to be true in my own life. The majority of revelation that I have received was begotten as I prayed and pondered upon previous revelation. It seems to me that the amount of revelation that is based on previous revelation is in the majority.

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