Book of Mormon historicity is not a unitary entity or a binary concept. It has at least three primary components, each of which offers a spectrum of possibilities. The first concerns the Golden Plates and their manner of existence; are they ancient and tangible, a nineteenth-century artifact, or purely fictive? The second involves the English text and the process of its composition; is it a close transcription of an ancient text, a fanciful English composition, or something in between? The third is the relationship between the text and the history that it claims to represent; were the authors objective and omniscient annalists, American fantasts, or something else?
I’ve tried to summarize the possibilities in the table below. The vertical axis represents a scale where fictitiousness, nineteenth-century origins, naturalistic explanations, and greater divergence from modern church teachings are at the bottom, while ancient origins, close agreement between the English and ancient text, identity of the text with historical events, a high degree of supernatural intervention, and complete agreement with the church’s teachings lie towards the top.
The value of a multivariate spectrum of historicity is not to determine the historicity of the Book of Mormon once and for all – there are faithful church members who will pick every point on the scale, and there is no overwhelming case for any particular point. Rather, the dual questions that the scale above raises are: What is one’s personal estimation of the historicity of the Book of Mormon? And, just as importantly, what is the minimal level of historicity that justifies one’s continued allegiance to the church and its teachings? The difference between placid acquisition of historical knowledge and a history-based spiritual crisis may lie in the divergence between the level of belief about historicity one holds at a particular moment, and the minimum level of historicity that one requires to justify church participation. The higher one’s estimation of historicity rises above one’s minimal expectations, the more that institutional allegiance is reinforced, but when the estimation drops and the minimal demand rises above it, a history-driven crisis may result. It’s in the best interest of the church as an institution to keep the gap between them as wide as possible by treating the historicity of the Book of Mormon as a given, while keeping the minimum level of essential historicity quite low, for example by founding the Book of Mormon’s value as scripture on a personal spiritual witness of the book’s inspired truth. On the other hand, demanding an exaggerated level of historicity (“Nowhere does the Book of Mormon mention guava cultivation in Central America; the Book of Mormon FAILS AGAIN!”) is a strategy for maximizing the number of people for whom allegiance to the church is untenable.
This model of historicity has some implications. It suggests that there are two paths to spiritual crisis, a left exit and a right exit so to speak: in some cases, the level of credence in the Book of Mormon as a historical document is simply too low, but in other cases, the degree of historicity required is pegged too high. One way to alleviate a crisis – call it the FARMS elixir – is to raise the level of belief in the Book of Mormon’s historicity. Another way – the Sunstone tonic – is to lower the degree of historicity that one demands of the text.
Yet the notion of a historicity window suggests that accepting the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction may not be a stable long-term solution. While the demands it places on historicity are minimal, approaching the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction leaves a very narrow window between the level of belief and the minimum required. As beliefs shift about, there may not be much of a buffer zone, and a dance upon a knife edge is difficult to maintain in perpetuity. Perhaps a low estimation of historicity combined with minimal demands for the same is a long-term solution, but I am not aware of many Mormons who maintain a robust commitment to the church and its teachings while accepting the Book of Mormon only as inspired fiction. It would be helpful to have more examples of church members who fall into that category, if it is in fact a stable solution rather than a way station on the path to disaffection.
When it comes to Book of Mormon historicity, the church offers a big tent, but there can be friction between church members with different understandings of history. We are not nearly so skilled as we think at saying: This is what I believe and what I gain from the text, without at the same time saying: Other ways to read the text are embarrassingly unsophisticated or incorrigibly apostate. We don’t know where other people have established their minimal level of historicity, and it’s possible to say spiritually threatening things unintentionally. One intends to say, “Let’s look at the symbolic possibilities,” one actually says instead, “Treating this as history all the time is boring and simplistic,” and one is understood to have said, “The foundation of your testimony is false.”
As for myself, I prefer the sharp corners and hard edges of solid historicity to the squishiness of inspired fiction, but I am also in favor of reading scripture creatively and flexibly. I would not call my view of Book of Mormon historicity my professional opinion. I don’t know if it’s possible to have a purely professional view of the Book of Mormon; I certainly can’t. On the other hand, I do spend a certain amount of time in a professional capacity thinking and writing about older texts and their transmission, and that professional experience (along with all the other aspects of my experience) necessarily informs my views. One thing that has surprised me in reading about Joseph Smith’s life is how tangible, how heavy and thing-like the plates are. It seems to me that the most likely explanation for that is that Joseph Smith had something heavy and solid in his possession whose physical characteristics closely matched the published descriptions of the Nephite records. I have few reference points to judge translation by divine inspiration; a dictionary and a good reference grammar are more my style, and even then translation is a slippery process. And yet the text of the Book of Mormon feels complicated and textured to me, like something with a convoluted history behind it or something that different people have labored over for many years, not like something that a young man pulled out of his hat one day. There are many paths by which a text can take on its current form, only one of which is the origin story offered by the text itself, and it’s very difficult to reconstruct its actual path with only one textual witness. Usually the simplest explanation is the correct one: the narration of historical events is that which seemed true in the writer’s perspective at the moment it was written down, even as writers (including prophets) are constrained by the limits of their knowledge. Those limits and constraints do not diminish my acceptance of the Book of Mormon as scripture.