Almost a year ago now, Stephen C. at the Mormon blog Times and Seasons wrote a post asking what might be an “extinction-level event” for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There’s a lot of interesting speculation in the post, but the passage that I copied down at the time was this one:
Of course, the truly fatal circumstance is if the President of the Church stopped believing in the truth claims. (I suspect this is kind of what happened to the Community of Christ). In that case, pivoting towards a more allegorical or symbolic interpretation of the Church’s truth claims would be absolutely fatal to the long-term vitality of the institution. Sorry, but the President of the Church has to believe that there were Nephites.
I respect this blogger’s writing, but I frequently disagree with him, and there is a lot that I disagree with here. For one thing, I’m not sure what he means by “what happened to the Community of Christ,” but I’d argue that whatever he means (presumably the major demographic challenges facing the denomination), it’s a lot more complicated than a president of this denomination (presumably Grant McMurray?) not “believ[ing] that there were Nephites.”
The bigger issue that I see here, though, is that an insistence on the historicity of the Book of Mormon—which is by itself a tenuous claim—also commits Latter-day Saints to a Biblical literalism that is even more tenuous. This is where the title of this blog post comes in: A lot of Mormon apologetics are focused on defending the Book of Abraham, the Book of Mormon, or other uniquely LDS scriptures or theologies. This makes sense: There are good reasons to be skeptical about these documents, and Mormon apologetics are often aimed at other conservative Christians, with both populations in agreement on major axes of Christian apologetics. Yet, as many issues as Mormon apologists have to defend with regard to the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon’s obvious dependence on the Bible means that the Mormon apologist becomes responsible for defending all of the claims of Christian apologists in addition to the arguments that they are working on.
If the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “has to believe that there were Nephites,” they presumably also need to believe in a literal Exodus, a literal Tower of Babel, Pentateuchal creation before 586 BCE, a single-authored Isaiah, the Sermon on the Mount as a verbatim recording of teachings of the historical Jesus, and a heck of a lot more. Less obviously, but just as importantly, they need to be able to account for inconsistencies among the canonical gospels, the historical implausibility of events recorded in the gospels, and many other apologetic issues in the core documents that provide a foundation for the Christian faith. Perhaps most foundationally, increased emphasis on Jesus Christ in recent Latter-day Saint teachings (which I welcome, with caveats that should be clear in this post) demonstrates that a historical resurrection is even more critical to Latter-day Saint doctrine (and even harder to prove!) than historical Nephites.
Two thoughts on the consequences of this dependency:
First, if Jesus is truly at the center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it matters more to believe and defend that he was a real person (not difficult) who worked actual miracles (more difficult) and was literally raised from the dead (most difficult). The idea that the dealbreaker is the non-existence of Nephites seems to me to stand in inherent tension to the centrality of Christ in Mormon faith. Sure, it could be a real cultural shift for the church to have a president that has a more allegorical view of the Book of Mormon, and it could even lead to mass exodus from the church in some corners. Again, though, if that’s a dealbreaker, that risks elevating “historical Nephites” to a more key position than Jesus. Maybe the historicity of Nephites shouldn’t be as important as it is made to be.
Second, I acknowledge that there’s an apologetic approach that can argue that “there were Nephites” but cede ground on some of these points. You could argue that the Nephites believed in a historical Exodus even if it didn’t really happen. You could also argue for a more slippery theory of Book of Mormon translation that sees the Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi as a product of human intervention rather than an anachronistic and repetitive sermon by Jesus. At that point, though, you have to start determining how much of the Book of Mormon is historical and how much of it is the product of translation. If the Book of Mormon’s value is in its historicity, that historicity has to be demonstrated before we can learn from it. If we can learn from it while acknowledging that there may be ahistorical elements in it, the value of the Book of Mormon becomes what it teaches us independent of its historicity. At that point, it doesn’t really matter that there were Nephites.
Some of the most helpful resources in rethinking (and keeping!) my faith have been those that were written to broader Christian populations rather than to Latter-day Saints, because the issues don’t stop once you get outside of the Book of Mormon. I’m doubtful of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but I wish that we in Community of Christ would use it more often—because the historicity isn’t the point. I’m doubtful of the historicity of much of the Bible, but that doesn’t bother me—because the historicity isn’t the point. In my mind, an insistence on any kind of historicity (but perhaps especially that of actual Nephites) misses the point of religion altogether.
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