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By The Hand Of Mormon

August 18, 2002

'By the Hand of Mormon': The Gospel According to Joseph Smith


"Certum est quia impossibile est'' (''It is certain because it is impossible''). In that higher paradox, the early Christian thinker Tertullian found repose for the yearnings of his faith. But the line between faith and credulity can be a fine one -- honed fine and razor-sharp -- and in the religious life of America the Book of Mormon has often sought to prove itself against its tempered edge.

Almost from the beginning the Book of Mormon was met with scorn and disbelief. Part of this had to do with the circumstances of its advent, part with the controversial life of Joseph Smith, the founder and first modern prophet of the sect. For better or worse, as two new books affirm, Smith and the Book of Mormon are joined at the hip.

Born in 1805 to frontier drifters on a hardscrabble farm in Sharon, Vt., Smith was raised in a revivalist culture (the family had settled in Palmyra, N.Y.) and claimed the first of several religious visions at 14. In 1823, three and a half years later, he had a far more momentous illumination, when an angel or resurrected being called Moroni appeared to him and told him of a hidden gospel, inscribed on golden plates, which had been buried 1,400 years before in a mound called Cumorah in nearby Manchester. Joseph dug them up, and found that they were inscribed with ancient characters or hieroglyphics (later called ''Reformed Egyptian''), which he was able to translate with the help of two supernatural stones (or magic spectacles) called Urim and Thummim, set ''in silver bows.'' The result was the Book of Mormon, first published in 1830, which purports to contain a history of America from its colonization at the time of the confusion of tongues to the fifth century A.D., during which Christ is said to have planted his church in the New World. Its narrative (ascribed to an ancient American prophet by the name of Mormon) links the native Indians to the lost tribes of Israel, foretells the rebuilding of Zion and, in the fullness of time, the reign of Christ on earth.

Based on its teachings, Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Fayette, N.Y., rapidly gained converts and soon went in search of a homeland for his growing community. Hostility and persecution pursued them, and after attempts to put down roots in Ohio and Missouri, they came to Illinois, where in 1839 Smith founded the city of Nauvoo as a new Zion, and where the gathering of the faithful made it the second-largest city in the state. The Illinois legislature granted the city a liberal charter, as well as semi-independent status to a large militia (known as the Nauvoo Legion), which the prophet led. As the military leader of a theocratic church, Smith eventually defied the secular authorities, and after adjacent communities rebelled against his rule, he and his brother Hyrum were arrested for treason and thrust into a jail in Carthage, Ill. On June 27, 1844, masked men attacked the jail and killed them both. The ranks of the faithful (already split from within) now formally divided, with the majority following Brigham Young across the Great Plains to Utah's Salt Lake Valley, where the heart of the church has remained.

Was Smith a true prophet and a martyr, or a fanatic, an impostor and a libertine? Was his translation of the Book of Mormon a deft amalgam of Scripture, Indian legends, anthropological theory, frontier Protestant doctrine and other lore? Or was it a divinely inspired and dictated authentic ancient text? These questions (as well as Smith's possible involvement in wildcat banking and his embrace of polygamy, based on a revelation of 1843, and so on) have haunted his reputation and the popular view of the Book of Mormon since.

In ''By the Hand of Mormon,'' Terryl L. Givens, a professor of English at the University of Richmond in Virginia and the author of another book on the Mormons, entitled ''Viper on the Hearth,'' ably attempts to grapple with most of these issues in a compact and scholarly way.

He has his work cut out for him. From the start, Smith and his contemporaries had ''looked to establish concrete connections between their revealed text and physical remains of the ancients,'' even as problems of anachronism, Biblical plagiarism and general implausibilities crimped their case. Critics were quick to point out, for example, that the Book of Mormon contained references to such things as a seven-day week, gold and silver coinage, and written laws that seemed alien to ''anything known of ancient America''; and that it mentioned the horse (not introduced until after the Spanish conquest) and bows of steel (before such a metal was known to the Jews).

In his defense of the Book of Mormon as an inspired text, Givens sifts the scholarship for grains of gold. He points to philological progress in verifying names in the text as of ancient Near Eastern origin and to the archaeological discoveries of complex ancient civilizations in Central and South America as corroborating its descriptions of an imposing past; he reminds us that horses ''were present in the hemisphere in the late glacial age'' and that some archaeologists ''believe it possible that pockets of the animal survived until the second, third, or fourth millennium B.C.''

He also sets out to challenge the notion that the Book of Mormon is a pastiche of other texts. The most famous (or notorious) of its supposed borrowings are from the King James Version of the Bible (running to many thousands of words) and sundry material from James Adair's ''History of the American Indians'' (1775); Alexander von Humboldt's report about his expedition to Central and South America in 1799-1804; and Ethan Smith's ''View of the Hebrews'' (1823). In ''Roughing It,'' Mark Twain harshly described the apparent result as ''a tedious plagiarism'' and Edmund Wilson in ''The Dead Sea Scrolls'' called it a ''farrago of balderdash.''

Givens disagrees. He argues, to begin with, that surviving examples of the mysterious script that adorned the unearthed plates resemble demotic Egyptian; that the language of the Book of Mormon itself contains uniquely Hebraic verse forms and turns of phrase; and that the Book of Mormon's own variant readings in its supposed plagiarism from Isaiah, when analyzed alongside the variants that turn up in Isaiah scrolls from Qumran and early Aramaic and Syriac translations, ''lend evidence'' to the Book of Mormon's ''authenticity as a translation'' from a scroll more ancient than the text of Isaiah on which the King James version was based. If that sounds tendentious, it is not unlike the claim of some Roman Catholics that St. Jerome's Vulgate is superior to all other Bible translations because it is based on lost but better manuscripts.

Such claims are unprovable, of course, however tantalizing to debate. All in all, this is a closely written, thoughtful (if polemical) book by a devoted scholar. It is certainly provocative reading, whether you happen to be a Mormon or not.

Robert V. Remini's forthcoming ''Joseph Smith'' (Lipper/Viking, September) is a simpler book by far -- less interested in the prophet as a man of truth than as a product of his time. The author of a three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson and an authority on the Jacksonian age, Remini looks for context. He detects in the Book of Mormon a contemporary melange of distinctly American beliefs; believes the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening accounts for Smith's visionary world; draws a parallel between Jacksonian democracy and the democratic base of the Mormon Church (which ordained ''every worthy male''); and ascribes the subservient role of women in the church to the ''gender revolution'' brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

These and other speculations are lightly scattered through a text that otherwise follows its Mormon guides so closely as to resemble an official life. In his preface, Remini remarks that he decided to present Smith's religious experiences ''just as he described them in his writings and let readers decide for themselves to what extent they would give credence to them. I am not out to prove or disprove any of his claims.'' In practice, however, his narrative tends to include, accept and enlarge upon them in the way it flows along. For example: ''It is interesting to note that so much of Joseph's life, as reported by Mormon sources, has parallels in the Gospels. Since he believed -- he always believed -- that he had been chosen by God to restore the true church, he must have known that, like Christ, he might be expected to sacrifice his life in order to validate his mission. When the moment came for a final decision, he willingly consented to it.'' Not really. Smith tried to escape his fate in a shootout in a jail, and his last conscious act, before attempting to jump out a window, was to punch a man in the neck. That makes him human; it doesn't make him much like Christ.

Benson Bobrick is the author of ''Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired.''

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