I grew up in a church where leaders instilled a black-and-white worldview regarding the Latter Day Saint movement. They insisted that their narrative of Joseph Smith, the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, the priesthood, and the Latter Day Saint movement as a whole was either 100% literal history or all of it was a worthless fraud. After I found that my childhood church’s truth claims couldn’t stand up to scrutiny, I did what I was taught to do: view all of the Latter Day Saint movement, including the Book of Mormon, as an utterly useless fraud.
I spent the next several years distancing myself from The Book of Mormon. I came to believe that it was a book that was written in 1829 and fraudulently claimed to be a direct translation of a non-existent language from a non-existent civilization. I still believe these things, but my perspective on what the text is and what it means to me has continued to evolve.
J.R.R. Tolkien presented “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” as a translation of a book called “Red Book of Westmarch” which was written by characters within the novels. Edgar Rice Burroughs presented the Tarzan novels in a very similar way. This is a fairly common literary device called “Pseudepigrapha“, which is when the texts whose claimed author is not the true author. Oftentimes, the literary work’s story takes place in antiquity, but touches on contemporary issues. Despite this literary device being used, many people are able to find value in these literary works. In my opinion the Book of Mormon should appropriately be viewed as having been written by Joseph Smith, making it a pseudepigrapha, in the late 1820’s for the late 1820’s.
Many people question what Smith’s motivations were to write the book. I believe that Historian Dan Vogel put it best when he described The Book of Mormon as a “pious fraud”. Joseph Smith’s era was rife with theological contentions among the different sects. He believed that he could put an end to the contention and unite the Christian world by bringing forth a new book of scripture. The Book of Mormon touched on many, many issues that were highly relevant to the 1820’s/1830’s. Alexander Campbell, who was an influential contemporary of Joseph Smith and former spiritual leader of Sidney Rigdon, said this about The Book of Mormon in 1831:
“This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last 10 years. He decides all the great controversies – infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of freemasonry, republican government, and the rights of man … he is better skilled in the controversies in New York than in the geography or history of Judea.”
There are 4 chief ways to interpret scripture of any kind: literal/historical, tropological (figurative that stresses morality), allegorical (delivers broader messages about real-world issues), and anagogical (higher spiritual meaning; alludes to the Divine/afterlife). Once people discover that The Book of Mormon is a pseudepigrapha and it’s stories are not literally true, many tend to have very little interest in the other possible interpretations. People have told me that this book represents all the negative teachings and practices of the church that I grew up in and any moral value in the book can be found elsewhere and without the baggage.
I absolutely see why some people would want to distance themselves from that church and thus The Book of Mormon. However, to me, this book transcends that church. The Book of Mormon is something that represents my heritage’s and my ancestors’ spiritual journey. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, et cetera, all looked into this book to find themselves and to find the Divine. I feel a connection to them when I attempt to also find myself and the Divine through this text. These are real and valuable spiritual experiences to me, and I am having them in a way that feels familiar and comfortable to me.
Instead of abandoning the Book of Mormon altogether, I am choosing to breathe new life into it and interpret it in new ways. I see no reason why I can’t accept The Book of Mormon as a pseudepigraphical literary work from the 1820’s. Doing so allows me to explore scripture to find the Divine through an allegorical, tropological, and/or anagogical lens, without needing it to double as a history book; it allows me to connect to my ancestors who also treasured it; It allows me to explore what I believe is useful, truthful, and moral today in a familiar and comfortable way. It is refreshing to be able to have a relationship with my heritage, ancestors, and traditions on my own terms.