Reading Group Guide
Since its initial publication in 1830, The Book of Mormon has stood as one of the most original and revolutionary works of faith ever written by an American. Believers, historians, scholars, and skeptics are virtually unanimous in their opinion that the church begun by Joseph Smith in upstate New York and that later flourished on the shores of the Great Salt Lake has indelibly altered the story of Christianity, both in the United States and in the world at large. Beyond such general assessments, however, there are few points regarding The Book of Mormon and the faith it has inspired on which everyone agrees. Even the simple question of authorship is a matter of ceaseless argument: did Joseph Smith conceive and write the book himself? Or was he, as he fervently claimed, led by an angel to unearth a collection of golden plates on which The Book of Mormon had been inscribed? And what of Smith's personal motivations? Did he, as he assured a questioning world, translate and publicize the contents of the sacred plates as a servant of God, entrusted with a holy mission? Or, as his detractors claimed with equal vigor, had he perpetrated an audacious hoax, calculated to fuel his self-serving rise to demagogic power? Controversy has long raged as to the fundamental premise asserted by Smith's purported plates: that centuries before the birth of Christ, a band of pious Hebrews, led by the prophet Nephi, fled the Middle East and sailed, by way of the Pacific Ocean, to the New World, where they established a sophisticated theocratic society and, eventually, received a visitation from the recently crucified Jesus. The Book of Mormon has always stood at the intersection between the impossible and the miraculous.
With this, the new Penguin Classics edition of The Book of Mormon, based on the last edition supervised by Joseph Smith before his violent and untimely death at the age of thirty-eight, readers have a renewed opportunity to revisit all of the fascinating questions that have surrounded The Book of Mormon and, indeed, to pose some new ones of their own. A work of astonishing historical scope, The Book of Mormon lends itself to a broad variety of readings. On one level, it is a sacred text that still informs the spiritual lives of millions of believers—both as a corroboration of the Christian Bible and as an indispensable supplement to the Bible's historical and moral commentaries. From a quite different perspective, one that prefers to regard its accounts as fanciful and fictitious, The Book of Mormon can be seen as the product of one of the most fertile imaginations ever to express itself in print. For yet another community of readers, The Book of Mormon is a key historical artifact of the American past, speaking eloquently of the interests and needs of American society during the time when it first appeared—an era when countless Americans were seeking either a confirmation of their faith or a radical alternative to it. At a time of great religious enthusiasm and upheaval, The Book of Mormon struck some as a profound revelation and others as a shameless blasphemy. As a document of a growing, spiritually inquisitive nation and as evidence of the restlessness and contention that pervaded American religious thought in the 1830s and 1840s, it has no equal.
Still other readers, seeking to relate the current culture of America to its nineteenth-century antecedents, will find much fuel for debate in the Book's sociological assumptions. In a time when a college education lies within the reach of most Americans and wealth is often deemed synonymous with success, it is fascinating to observe The Book of Mormon's uneasy regard of education and affluence. From the standpoint of an era in which both women and African Americans may seriously aspire to the White House, it is both remarkable and unsettling to explore Joseph Smith's assumptions about race and gender. For every reader who has a firm, unspoken sense of what it means to be American or Christian, The Book of Mormon bears destabilizing witness that Americanness and Christianity are terms forever up for grabs.
During the brief, eventful life of Joseph Smith, Americans looked upon a dazzling array of Utopian communities and alternative systems of belief. Today, however, the Shakers, the Millerites, the Brook Farmers, the Fruitlanders, the Hopedale Community, and the Oneida Perfectionists exist almost exclusively in history books. Yet The Book of Mormon and those who honor its teachings remain strong. To discover some of the reasons why is among the more fascinating journeys on which a modern reader can embark.
ABOUT JOSEPH SMITH
Born on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, Joseph Smith, Jr., grew up in western New York State, which was then experiencing a period of widespread religious awakening and enthusiasm. As an adult, Smith claimed that, when he was fourteen, God appeared to him, telling him that all the established churches of the time had departed from the true path of religion, and that Smith should join none of them. Seven years later, in 1827, Smith claimed to have discovered a collection of golden plates, buried in the ground, whose existence had been revealed to him by the angel Moroni. Smith averred that, with the aid of special stone and divine assistance, he translated the writings on the plates from a language he identified as “reformed Egyptian.” According to Smith, the writings on the plates comprised the original text of The Book of Mormon, which told of how a band of ancient Hebrews, at divine behest, fled the Middle East and sailed to North America, where they established a true prophetic Christian faith.
Smith published his translation of The Book of Mormon in 1830, claiming that it contained a pure gospel, untainted by the contaminations of the mainstream Christian churches, which The Book of Mormon describes as “the mother of abominations, whose foundation is the devil.” The same year, Smith organized a church in Fayette, New York, which he hoped to use to restore Christianity to its original footing. Community intolerance and financial difficulties compelled Smith and his growing body of followers to relocate repeatedly westward, with sojourns in Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence, Missouri. In 1839, Smith led his people to Commerce, Illinois, which he renamed Nauvoo. Converts to his teachings soon swelled the town's population to twenty thousand, making it briefly the largest city in the state.
The Nauvoo community prospered until February 1844, when Smith, now mayor of Nauvoo, announced his candidacy for president of the United States. Disaffected by his ambitions and his acts of polygamy, a minority group in Smith's flock denounced him in a newly created newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. Smith declared the paper a public nuisance, ordered the paper's press destroyed, and declared a state of martial law. Illinois governor Thomas Ford charged Smith with treason against the state of Illinois and had Smith imprisoned in nearby Carthage. On June 27, 1844, a mob of about two hundred men stormed the jail and shot Smith multiple times, killing him. After Smith's death, his followers divided. The larger portion, led by Brigham Young, migrated to the Great Salt Lake in the Utah Territory and founded the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which now claims more than 13 million adherents worldwide.
- Readers of The Book of Mormon are often skeptical of the ability of a band of ancient Hebrews to sail all the way from the Arabian Peninsula to the Americas. The problem is not helped by the fact that geneticists have found no trace of Hebrew DNA in any Native American population and that archaeologists have discovered no evidence of any of the ancient Mormon cities mentioned in The Book of Mormon. A variety of other objections have also been raised. Do you have questions concerning the authenticity of The Book of Mormon? If so, how might someone go about persuading you that the book is authentic? If, on the other hand, you do accept the authenticity of The Book of Mormon, what leads you to do so?
- To what extent should factual questions be used to question the spiritual relevance or usefulness of a book of faith? Might not a scripture that is mistaken as to historical or scientific fact still have value as a source of moral and spiritual guidance?
- The Second Book of Nephi, chapter IV, asserts that white skin is “exceeding fair and delightsome” but that God, in order to punish Nephi's enemies, “did cause a skin of blackness to come upon” them, leading them, in turn, to become “an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety.” God is later said to have rewarded Lamanite converts to the Nephite cause by turning them white again (the Third Book of Nephi, chapter I). What effect on The Book of Mormonas a whole is created by its inclusion of statements like this?
- In the Book of Jacob, chapter II, God declares that the keeping of more than one wife is “abominable” and commands, “There shall not be any man among you have save it be one wife.” Nevertheless, Joseph Smith, Jr., the discoverer and translator of The Book of Mormon, was inspired by a later revelation to take multiple wives and encourage his followers to do likewise. Is there any way to resolve this apparent contradiction?
- First-time readers of The Book of Mormon are sometimes surprised to discover that many of the best-known practices of current Mormons, including abstention from tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine, are not addressed anywhere in the text. Based solely on the text, does the way of life encouraged in The Book of Mormon differ from the proper life of a practicing mainstream Christian? Are there practical, as opposed to historical, ways in which Mormonism and other forms of Christianity appear to differ?
- What do you think is the meaning of the parable of the olive trees in the Book of Jacob, chapter III?
- Chapter I of the Book of Alma tells of a preacher, Nehor, who teaches that all men will be redeemed and will have eternal life. Nehor is denounced for propagating a false doctrine, is made to recant this teaching, and is put to “an ignominious death.” Why do you think The Book of Mormon is averse to the concept of universal salvation? Why do you think it extends salvation only to those who repent their sins and express belief in The Book of Mormon's teachings?
- The Book of Mormon in general places much emphasis on the importance of social equality. When divisions between rich and poor assert themselves, the entire Nephite society appears to suffer. Why do you think that the minimizing of class differences is so central to The Book of Mormon's doctrines?
- What views are taken regarding women in The Book of Mormon? How does the patriarchal flavor of the scriptural history of Mormonism compare with ideas of gender described in the traditional Christian Bible or other sacred texts you may have read?
- Some passages in The Book of Mormon express uneasiness about people with superior educations. The book also emphasizes that a person who does not “become as a little child” with regard to matters of belief cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Does The Book of Mormon appear to erect barriers against would-be believers who tend to rely on their heads more than their hearts? How, if at all, might these barriers be overcome?
- The Book of Mormon has undergone numerous textual revisions since its discovery in the 1820s, both before and after the death of Joseph Smith. Why might it be necessary to revise a sacred text? What are some of the potential dangers of doing so?
- Conventional Christianity teaches that Jesus died as an act of supreme mercy for the forgiveness of sins. In The Book of Mormon, the appearance of Christ in the New World is directly preceded by the cataclysmic destruction by fire, flood, and earthquake of at least sixteen Mormon cities, resulting in the deaths of countless thousands of people. Jesus himself claims responsibility for these deaths, which he has meted out as punishments for sin. How can one reconcile the meek, forgiving Jesus of traditional Christianity with The Book of Mormon's account of Jesus's punitive violence?
- Reading a religious text from a standpoint of analysis is a very different experience from reading it from a standpoint of belief. Which position more closely describes your own approach to The Book of Mormon? How might your appreciation of The Book of Mormon change if you read it from another perspective?
- What do you find to be the particular pleasures of reading The Book of Mormon? What are the greatest difficulties in trying to appreciate this text?
- Has reading The Book of Mormon changed your attitude toward Mormonism or toward religious belief in general? In what ways?