Book of Mormon/Historicity
This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
Lately there has been increasing controversy among various academics regarding the veracity of the Book of Mormon's historical accounts. Several efforts have been made to "prove" that what the Book of Mormon has to say about the history of the new world cannot possibly have been the case. I even have some LDS friends whose faith seems to be shaken by the idea that the Book of Mormon may not be, in all respects, literally true.
And now my question: Does it really matter? Does the Church actually have some doctrine that requires its members to believe in the literalness of every word in the Book of Mormon? Other Christian religions, it seems to me, make room for members who see, for example, the creation story of Adam and Eve as a profound metaphor, a way of explaining the ultimate truth of the creation without requiring any definite belief in the literalness of the story as it comes down to us in Genesis.
If someone comes to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is not historical at all, is there a place for him in the Church? Probably. We cast a very broad net. That person cannot go around teaching his heterodox views on the subject, but if he is willing to keep them to himself, he can be a contributing, active member of the Church, simply bracketing the historicity issue.
There is a fundamental difference between the Bible and the Book of Mormon that influences how we look at this issue. The Bible is a religious library that comes from many different sources, many different places and times. So you might disagree with a literal understanding of the portrayal of the creation from Genesis, but you might accept other events as reported in the Bible, such as the Assyrian conquest or the Babylonian captivity. In the case of the Book of Mormon, it all funnels through Joseph Smith, so if it is simply Joseph's creation, then none of it is historical.
Beyond this, the same issues are shared between the Book of Mormon and the Bible. The Book of Mormon discusses in places the process by which it was compiled. Some parts of the text (those books found at the beginning of the published Book of Mormon) claim to have been written by their authors without editing or copying by others. Other portions claim to be compilations of earlier sources and records, often hundreds and even thousands of years after the original accounts had been written. Some of these are not just compilations, but translations of earlier records. In this fashion, the Book of Mormon is no different than the Bible, and when taken as a literary text, can be viewed and read with the same kinds of literary criticism to which the Bible is exposed. Parts of the text of the Book of Mormon can be viewed as more literally accurate than other parts. To use the example from the question, the Book of Mormon, like the Bible, discusses Adam and Eve. Members who feel that the Adam and Eve narrative is more metaphorical as it is portrayed in the Bible will probably also approach the text of the Book of Mormon in the same fashion.
Does that ultimately matter? Some people have tried to make the case that historicity doesn’t matter at all, analogizing for instance to the parables of Jesus. Of course, the parables were put forward as parables, not as actual history, so that analogy breaks down pretty quickly.
Most Latter-day Saints have taken the view that the power of the message of the Book of Mormon would be lost if it were not in fact an historical document. If it is just a long, ahistorical allegory, then its influence would be severely truncated. If the Book of Mormon isn't what it claims to be, then we may as well close up shop and go home.
The Lord went to extreme lengths to show the Book of Mormon was indeed historical. In his first written account of Moroni's visits, Joseph said as clearly as he possibly could that
- an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and...revealed unto me that in the town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by the commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them.
This is the foundation of the Restoration, important enough that the Lord called eleven witnesses of the plates, with "historicity" being a key element of their testimonies. Considering the fact that three of the standard works proclaim the Book of Mormon to be historical, this can hardly be considered a side issue. Some would argue that denying the historicity of the Book of Mormon is denying a fundamental doctrine of the Church.
LDS members may disagree in the details. Some may well believe that certain narratives are present to serve a rhetorical purpose and were not intended to portray a literal and completely accurate historical presentation. And usually, differences in opinion at this level have little impact (if any at all) on a person's membership and ability to function at any level within the Church.