If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That’s what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody’s liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. . . . [W]e have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we’re not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. . . . We would say: “This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I’m going forward. If I can help you work toward that I’d be glad to, but I don’t love you less; I don’t distance you more; I don’t say you’re unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.” . . . We really don’t want to sound smug. We don’t want to seem uncompromising and insensitive. -Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Mar. 6, 2006. (Source.)
I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this Latter-day work and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these our times until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text, teeming with literary and Semitic complexity, without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages somehow–especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers–if that’s the case then such persons, elect or otherwise, have been deceived. And if they leave this Church, they must to do so by crawling over, or under, or around the Book of Mormon to make their exit.” -Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Oct. 4, 2009. (Source.)
When Elder Holland delivered his stinging rebuke to Book of Mormon critics in his General Conference address last Sunday, reactions ranged from “woots” and “double woots” by literalist believers of the Book of Mormon, to disappointment by those who felt Elder Holland was backtracking on his prior statement that Church members who don’t believe the traditional story of its origins should not be considered “unacceptable . . . as a Latter-day Saint if [they] can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.” However, after listening carefully to Elder Holland’s address again, I think both camps might be mistaken about what Elder Holland was intending to say, particularly with regard to the “Inspired Fiction” theory of the Book of Mormon.
The Inspired Fiction Theory and Its Scriptural Precedents
For those who may not be familiar with the Inspired Fiction theory, it goes something like this: Scripture is a vehicle that teaches us divine truths through the medium of divinely-inspired stories which are oftentimes fictional. Just a few of the more obvious examples would be the parables contained in the New Testament, or the fantastic stories in the Old Testament (Noah and the Ark, Moses’ divine cursing of Egypt, Jonah living three days in the belly of a whale, etc.). These seemingly obvious examples of divinely-inspired fiction are no less important or valuable as sources of divine guidance than had they been literally true. For example, the stories of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan do not have to be based on literal historic events to have spiritual value. Moreover, the fact that Jesus openly used fictional stories to teach timeless truths establishes an example and a pattern of God teaching his children spiritual truths through stories that are not grounded in literal, historic fact.
Latter-day Saint Apostles and scholars have embraced the notion that scripture may be divinely-inspired fiction. For example, Apostle Parley P. Pratt stated that the Creation story was the equivalent of a child’s fable because humankind has not been intellectually equipped throughout the ages to understand its true origins. (See Temples of the Most High.)
Moreover, faithful LDS scholars who have examined the surviving Egyptian papyri that were in Joseph Smith’s possession (which contain the facsimiles that appear in the Book of Abraham but which date from around 100 – 250 B.C. rather than from Abraham’s much earlier era) have theorized that perhaps the Book of Abraham was not translated from Egyptian papyri even though Joseph Smith said it was, but rather, that the Book of Abraham was a divine revelation that Joseph was able to receive only after his mind was opened and prepared to receive it by examining the Egyptian papyri in his possession. (Source.) In other words, faithful LDS scholars hypothesize that despite Joseph’s claim that the Book of Abraham was “A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt—The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus,” the papyrus merely served as a “catalyst” to inspire a divine revelation that was, in fact, not contained on the Egyptian papyri in his possession. (Source.) These LDS scholars feel comfortable with this possibility because, as one LDS apologetics forum explains: “Joseph used the word ‘translation‘ to mean several things, including the process of receiving pure revelation. (Joseph Smith’s revelations call his revision of the Bible a “translation” (D&C 73:4; 76:15; 90:13; 94:10; 124), even though he didn’t use any Hebrew of Greek manuscripts. Also, D&C 7 is a revealed translation of a lost record written by the Apostle John.)” (Source.) Again, it is worth emphasizing that, according to faithful LDS apologists, Joseph Smith is known to have used the word “translation” to mean “the process of receiving pure revelation,” as opposed to literally translating words in an ancient record from one language to another. (Source.) Thus, faithful LDS scholars have no qualms with the possibility that Joseph may have thought he was producing a “translation” of an ancient record when in reality he was receiving and recording “pure revelation” that was unconnected to any ancient record, even when a physical object such as Egyptian papyri were present. The overall concept is that Joseph’s revelations were divinely inspired even if he didn’t completely understand the process through which those revelations were received.
Resistance to, and Acceptance of, the Inspired Fiction Theory
When it comes to applying this same sort of theory to the Book of Mormon, however, the resistance sometimes becomes fierce. It seems most LDS leaders and scholars are unwilling to extend this same theory to the Book of Mormon, and are deeply disturbed by any suggestion that the Book of Mormon represents anything less than an actual translation of Reformed Egyptian characters into English taken from an actual historical record written by real persons living anciently in the Middle East and on the American continent. It is worth noting that this resistance to the Inspired Fiction theory persists even though LDS scholars now believe Joseph Smith and his contemporary Latter-day Saints were mistaken when they made many statements indicating their belief that the Book of Mormon accounts had taken place over large swaths of the North American continent. (Source.)
In summary, most LDS scholars are comfortable stating that Joseph Smith did not actually “translate” the Book of Abraham and the Bible as that word is commonly understood, and that he was mistaken in thinking that the Book of Mormon accounts took place over large swaths of the North American continent (rather than a relatively small area in Guatemala and southern Mexico), but they are unwilling to allow for the possibility that Joseph Smith also mistakenly believed the Book of Mormon was a translation of an actual ancient record.
Some may ask: Why resist applying the Inspired Fiction theory to the Book of Mormon? Why resist the idea that God inspired Joseph Smith to dictate the Book of Mormon to teach us divine truths through the medium of divinely-inspired stories that are equally fictional but no less valuable than the parables of Jesus? Why resist the idea that Lehi, Nephi and others were divinely-inspired characters in a grand divine novel rather than real persons who actually lived in the ancient Americas? Why resist the idea that Joseph mistakenly thought the Book of Mormon was a “translation” of an ancient record written by actual ancient prophets, similar to his mistakenly thinking he was translating the Egyptian papyri in his possession when he received the revelation that is the Book of Abraham? In a prior interview, Elder Holland explained why he has difficulty embracing the Inspired Fiction theory:
Now, in terms of more modern theories, there are those who say it’s more mythical literature and spiritual, and not literal. That doesn’t work for me. I don’t understand that, and I can’t go very far with that, because Joseph Smith said there were plates, and he said there was an angel. And if there weren’t plates and there wasn’t an angel, I have a bigger problem than whether the Book of Mormon is rich literature. . . . I have to go with what the prophet said about the book, about its origins, about the literalness of the plates, the literalness of the vision — and then the product speaks for itself.
I don’t think we’re through examining the depth, the richness, the profundity, the complexity, all of the literary and historical and religious issues that go into that book. I think we’re still young at doing that. But the origins for me are the origins that the prophet Joseph said: a set of plates, given by an angel, translated by the gift and power of God. . . . (Source.)
However, some LDS scholars, usually those whose conclusions fall outside the “mainstream” of what Church leaders and Church-funded scholars are comfortable accepting, view the Inspired Fiction theory as a favorable “middle ground” position where Latter-day Saints can continue to reverence the Book of Mormon as divinely-inspired scripture without having to believe it is an actual translation of an actual ancient record written by real people, and thereby avoiding the numerous challenges to the Book of Mormon’s historicity that currently keep a team of Church-funded scholars employed to research and respond to. However, as LDS scholar Louis Midgley has explained, such a “middle ground” position is harmful to the Church’s tradition and interests:
Some may ask: why not find a way to reduce the controversy over the Book of Mormon? What harm can such an accommodation do? The reasons for rejecting such compromises seem obvious to me. For one thing, the Book of Mormon is, more than anything else, what keeps the Church of Jesus Christ from becoming just another Protestant sect or social welfare agency. Its existence makes of Joseph Smith something other than a mere quaint or colorful example in a line of Christian primitivists or restorationists. In addition, the Book of Mormon was what witnessed to those who first became members of the fledgling Church of Christ that Joseph Smith wore the mantle of a genuine prophet, as it does to those who are currently believing and practicing Latter-day Saints. And its existence has, more than any other single thing, right from the beginning, distinguished the Latter-day Saints from various brands of Protestant sectarian religiosity. (Source.)
Did Elder Holland Denounce or Carefully Avoid the Inspired Fiction Theory?
Though it is clear that Elder Holland’s recent Conference address denounced all theories that portray Joseph Smith as having knowingly fabricated a book that he knew was not divinely-inspired, it is less clear to me after carefully listening to Elder Holland’s talk whether he was likewise intending to denounce the Inspired Fiction theory that portrays Joseph as receiving and dictating a divinely-inspired but fictional history of Israelites emigrating to and settling in ancient America as a medium for conveying spiritual truths and doctrines that promote the happiness, peace, and spiritual well-being of humankind. As you read the portions of Elder Holland’s address quoted below, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between what Elder Holland personally believes about the Book of Mormon, and what he is comfortable allowing other faithful Latter-day Saints to believe about its origins (as we see reflected in the very first Holland quote above). Although it is clear that Elder Holland personally believes the Book of Mormon is an actual translation of an actual ancient historical record, and although it is likewise clear he finds it utterly unacceptable for any Latter-day Saint to believe that Joseph Smith knowingly, and therefore deceptively, fabricated the Book of Mormon, ask yourself as you read Elder Holland’s remarks whether he allows for faithful Latter-day Saints to believe that the Book of Mormon was divinely-inspired, but that Joseph was simply mistaken in saying it was a translation of an actual physical historical record (as LDS scholars are willing to accept when it comes to the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian papyri Joseph Smith believed he was “translating”). For example, when Elder Holland states that Latter-day Saints are “deceived” unless they believe in the “divinity” of the Book of Mormon, does that mean he feels Latter-day Saints are deceived if they believe it is divinely-inspired fiction?
In my view, Elder Holland selected his words very carefully, I suspect for the purpose of allowing faithful Latter-day Saints to hold a position that he personally does not share: that the Book of Mormon was divinely-inspired, but that Joseph did not recognize its stories as being fictional (again, similar to LDS apologists’ theory that Joseph mistakenly believed the Book of Abraham was an actual translation of an actual historical record, rather than knowingly lying about it, and similar to LDS apologists’ assertion that Joseph was mistaken in believing that the Book of Mormon actually took place over large swaths of North America, rather than knowingly lying about it). And now, without further ado, the relevant portions of Elder Holland’s talk (as transcribed by me from the audio recording):
There is one kind of latter-day destruction that has always sounded to me more personal than public, more individual than collective, a warning perhaps more applicable inside the Church than outside it. The Savior warned in the last days, even those of the covenant, the very elect, could be deceived by the enemy of truth. . . . [Elder Holland then identifies the Book of Mormon as a source of divine guidance in the Latter-days, summarizes Lehi’s dream, focusing on the rod of iron and the mists of darkness, and relates a story of Hyrum reading a Book of Mormon passage to bring comfort to the party on their way to Carthage jail.]
Later, when actually incarcerated in the jail, Joseph the Prophet turned to the guards that held him captive and bore a powerful testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Shortly thereafter, pistol and ball would take the lives of these two testators. As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest and last hour of need, I ask you, would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book, and by implication a church and a ministry, they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?! . . . [A]nd tell me, whether in this hour of death, these two men would enter the presence of their eternal judge, quoting from, and finding solace in, a book which if not the very word of God would brand them as impostors and charlatans until the end of time. They would not do that! They were willing to die, rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
Elder Holland’s choice of words above is interesting. A Latter-day Saint who believes the Book of Mormon represents divinely-inspired fiction would whole-heartedly agree with his remarks about the Book of Mormon’s “divine authenticity,” “divinity,” “truthfulness,” “divine origin,” and “eternal truthfulness,” in the same way he or she would embrace the “divine authenticity” and “divine origin” and “eternal truthfulness” of Jesus’ parables or any number of the fantastic stories in the Old Testatment. Moreover, when Elder Holland uses the word “fictitiously” above, it’s seems he almost certainly means that Joseph would not have knowingly fictitiously created the Book of Mormon, as opposed to his receiving a divine revelation that he did not recognize as being a fictional spiritual history (again, in the same way LDS apologists hypothesize with regard to the Book of Abraham). This line of thought continues in the next paragraph, where he denounces the various theories that portray Joseph as knowingly plagiarizing from other works to create the Book of Mormon, or knowingly fabricating it out of whole cloth:
Failed theories about its origins have been born, parroted, and died. From Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding, to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young, unlearned translator. . . . “No wicked man could write such a book as this, and no good man would write it, unless it were true, and he were commanded of God to do so.” I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this Latter-day work and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these our times until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text, teeming with literary and Semitic complexity, without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages somehow–especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers–if that’s the case then such persons, elect or otherwise, have been deceived. And if they leave this Church, they must to do so by crawling over, or under, or around the Book of Mormon to make their exit.
Again, I do not see anything here that should cause Latter-day Saints who ascribe to the Inspired Fiction theory of the Book of Mormon’s origins to feel as if they’ve been pronounced “deceived” by Elder Holland. While he obviously sees “Semitic complexity” in the Book of Mormon, which he plainly relies upon to support his personal view that it represents literal history, he does so in the context of denouncing those those who deny the Book of Mormon’s divinity. Of course, those who ascribe to the Inspired Fiction are in full agreement with Elder Holland about the divinity of the Book of Mormon, and could further believe that any genuine “Semitic complexity” within its pages was divinely-inspired as well.
Elder Holland then cited as support for his position that witnesses to the Gold Plates, some of whom were later sometimes hostile to Joseph, testified to their death that they had seen an angel and had handled the Gold Plates by the power of God and not the power of man. Thus, Elder Holland plainly believes in the literal existence of Gold Plates, and views them as being the source material for the Book of Mormon, along with “gift and power of God” to translate them. However, there is no plain denunciation of those who believe the Gold Plates could have been an angelically-provided object that served as a catalyst to open and prepare Joseph’s mind to receive the Book of Mormon through revelation, in the same way that LDS apologists posit Joseph received the “pure revelation” of the Book of Abraham after examining the catalyst to that revelation, namely, the Egyptian papyri in his possession. Moreover, this would explain the accounts where Joseph “translated” the Book of Mormon while he gazed into a seer stone placed in his hat, rather than by reading from the characters on the Gold Plates. (Source.)
Elder Holland continues:
Now, I did not sail with the brother of Jared . . . . I did not hear King Benjamin speak his angelically-delivered sermon. I did not proselyte with Alma and Amulek . . . . I was not among the Nephite crowd who touched the wounds of the resurrected Lord, nor did I weep with Mormon and Moroni over the destruction of an entire civilization. But my testimony of this record and the peace it brings to the human heart is as binding and unequivocal as was theirs. Like them, I give my name unto the world to witness unto the world of that which I have seen, and like them, I lie not, God bearing witness of it.
I suppose one could read the quote above cynically to mean that Elder Holland said he didn’t do any of these things because they never actually happened, but I don’t believe for a second that was his intended meaning. It seems this passage again demonstrates Elder Holland’s belief that these were actual historic events. But is that the equivalent of saying that those Latter-day Saints who do not share that belief are “deceived”? I personally don’t think so, because when he referred to Latter-day Saints being “deceived” about the Book of Mormon earlier in his remarks, he did so in the context of identifying those who deny the Book of Mormon’s divinity. Moreover, if at any point in his talk Elder Holland intended to say that faithful Latter-day Saints must believe the Book of Mormon is a literal historical account of real people, he could easily have just said so. For example, he could have easily testified to the Book of Mormon’s “historical truthfulness” or “historical authenticity” but instead, he chose to testify of its “divinity” and “eternal truthfulness.”
Elder Holland concluded with his personal testimony of the Book of Mormon:
I want it absolutely clear when I stand before the judgment bar of God that I declared to the world in the most straightforward language I can summon, that the Book of Mormon is true, that it came forth the way Joseph said it came forth, and was given to bring happiness and hope to the faithful in the travail of the last days. My witness echoes that of Nephi, who wrote part of the book in his last days, “hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, . . . and they teach all men that they should do good. And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day.
Remember this declaration by Jesus himself: “Whoso treasureth up my word shall not be decieved.” And in the last days, neither your heart nor faith will fail you. Of this I earnestly testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen
Once again, a Latter-day Saint who ascribes to the Inspired Fiction theory would have no problem echoing Elder Holland’s testimony that the Book of Mormon is “true” any more than the average LDS apologist would bristle at the suggestion that that the parables of Jesus, or the Book of Abraham or the Joseph Smith”translation” of the Bible, are “true”–even though those are all recognized by LDS apologists as potentially being divinely-inspired fiction and not literal translations of actual historical records in Joseph’s possession.
Finally, I can’t help noting what I feel must have been carefully chosen wording by Elder Holland in saying that the Book of Mormon “came forth the way Joseph said it came forth.” This language struck me because it reminded me of a passage in an official Church text book used in CES Institute and BYU Religion classes, Church History in the Fullness of Times:
Little is known about the actual process of translating the record, primarily because those who knew the most about the translation, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, said the least about it. Moreover, Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith, who assisted Joseph, left no contemporary descriptions. The sketchy accounts they recorded much later in life were often contradictory.
The Prophet was reluctant to give the details about the translation. In a Church conference held 25-26 October 1831 in Orange, Ohio, Hyrum requested that a firsthand account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon be given. But the Prophet said, “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.” Joseph explained in an open letter to a newspaper editor in 1833 the heart of the matter, but he gave few particulars, stating that the Book of Mormon was “found through the ministration of an holy angel, and translated into our own language by the gift and power of God.” (Church History in the Fullness of Times, p. 58, Church Education System, 1993.)
This passage raises some interesting questions: Why did Joseph and Oliver say so little about the method of translation of the Book of Mormon? Why was Joseph Smith “reluctant to give the details about the translation”? When Joseph Smith’s own brother Hyrum, who obviously believed in the Book of Mormon, asked Joseph to give a firsthand account of its coming forth to a Church conference, why did Joseph answer that “[i]t was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon”? Why did Joseph stick to generalities about the Book of Mormon being translated “by the gift and power of God”?
Elder Holland’s fervent testimony that the Book of Mormon “came forth in the way Joseph said it came forth” takes on an interesting meaning when examined in the context of these statements. It seems he too was testifying, in general terms, that the Book of Mormon came forth “by the gift and power of God,” which is a statement that adherents to the Inspired Fiction theory can fully agree with.
So what do you think? Did Elder Holland intend to denounce the Inspired Fiction theory along with all other non-traditional theories about its orgins, or did he, consistent with his words in the first quote above, intentionally and carefully avoid it to provide room within the Church for those for whom the Inspired Fiction theory serves as a lifeline that keeps them tethered to the Church?