The Nature of Inspiration

“Christ’s religion is essentially poetry — poetry glorified.”[1]


The Nature of Inspiration

Some are troubled at the humanity of prophets.  Perhaps it’s the Church’s explication of the origin of the priesthood ban; perhaps local leadership appears to resemble bureaucratic management instead of revelatory guidance.  Such concerns are real and natural, and cause one to feel misled.  The issue is the nature of inspiration.  If a given revelation is a direct transcript of the divine mind, then there ought not be error.  If error there be, then the authenticity of said revelation is suspect.  It would appear, continuing with this model, that revelations are either completely true or false.  I propose a different model, one that comprehends the implications of authentic, living prophets while attributing to the Restored Gospel such an expansiveness as to surpass all narrow, culturally promulgated conceptions of inspiration.

To speak plainly: all humanly perceivable inspiration, written and oral, is a creation both human and divine.  To the divine communications given to all, from prophet ‘down’[2] to rank and file member, there is a human component (therefore this component could also be called lesser, fallen, temporal, corruptible, κτλ.[3]).  Numerous are the quotes and accounts from modern day prophets bemoaning the inadequacy of human language to adequately convey eternal concepts.  To attempt to clothe an eternal verity in temporal vesture is to fail at once at capturing its infinitude.  As well might one attempt to capture a river, flowing and continuous, in a glass; yes, that’s river water in the glass, but no, it’s not a river.  It’s not moving, it’s not continuous. Thus, the difference between an eternal truth in the divine realm and one rendered into human language is the same as that between a river and river water.  Such is the nature of created things.  Consider mankind!  Are we not, each of us, an eternal being clothed, at the moment, in temporal tissue?  A human is a revelation then, the result of inspiration, which, as will be explored further down, comes from the Latin inspirare which means to breathe into. Remember that God “…יִפַּח…”[4] (he breathed) the breath of life into mere dust and the result was man.  A question: do the failures of man refute his infinitude?  Does the fact that I sin mean that I never was an eternal spirit?  Of course not.  Neither, must I add, do errors in scripture, written and oral, detract from what truthfulness they contain.  Scripture, like man, is an eternal verity clothed in momentarily organized matter.  As man is fated to die, so is scripture fated to become irrelevant, either from loss of cultural applicability, loss of language, or plain loss of manuscript through negligence or eventual decay.  Such irrelevance is no more a failure of scripture than is death for man.  Mormonism, unlike mainstream Christianity, holds that death had to come into the world.   So then scripture must pass on and away so that, as man dies in order to come again in a greater state, so, by virtue of continuing revelation, may an eternal verity again be clothed upon in raiment sterner than once it had.  As well might one question the ‘riverliness’ of that glass of river water after it has long since been drawn up and dried out or drunk; well, the glass is empty now so maybe there never was a river?  Contrariwise one should dwell on the nourishment that came, acknowledge the progress it enabled in its time, and maybe even consider searching out the source again for some river water suited to the present.  If that glass is not a failure for emptying, and man is not a failure for dying, and scripture is not to be faulted for gradual irrelevance, then, I submit, prophets are not failures when their humanity commingles with their divinely given message and mission.  Quite the contrary: as with drinking glasses, death, and revelation, it is the only way to get inspiration to us.  I repeat: all humanly perceivable inspiration, written and oral, is a creation both human and divine.  So, while looking for the divine, acknowledge the human; do not be troubled at the contours of the glass that bears you water from the river.  Be sure to not confuse the glass with the river water; recognize where one ends and the other begins.  Do not be troubled when a given drink is more glass than river water; perhaps you did not extend yourself far enough to dip fully into the river.  The glass will bear all it can, after all you can do.  Perhaps you think the glass leaky; such a potentiality is inherent in the nature of drinking glasses for which we must not fault them.  Have you noticed a chip with resulting sharp edge that hurts you when you drink?  Those things tend to feel the harshest to which we apply our harshest use, so consider your approach to drinking glasses.  And to prophets.

The Greeks had an important word for creation: ποίησις.  It comes from the verb ποιέω which means I make/do.  From this word is derived the English “poetry.”  The Greeks believed that poetry (and any intelligent pursuit in general) was the result of a deity speaking to a man or woman who would then compose, by singing or speaking or writing, having been divinely inspired.

The Universality of Inspiration

“The religions of all nations are derived from each nation’s different reception of the poetic genius, which is everywhere called the spirit of prophecy.”[5]

תנ״ך. ἡ καινή διαθήκη. القرآن.  The Book of Mormon.  God communicates through inspired writings.

Inspiration, as already mentioned, comes from the Latin inspirare which means to breathe into.  Within a religious (which means institutional) context inspiration is often called revelation.  But inspiration is not exclusive to institutional religion.  Neither is writing.  Inspiration instigates and permeates all that is good, true, and beautiful.  Its fruit is creation or a thing created.  Inspiration is a mode, a way or manner of being, a capability, which fills and moves men and women in the creative act (like a river!).  The accomplishments of such creatores as scientists, artists, mathematicians, musicians, poets and prophets each signify small springs fed by tributaries shot off from the wellspring that is this mode.  In order to better understand inspiration, we will discuss the last two of the above listed creatores.

The word prophet comes from the Greek προφήτης, which is a compound of the preposition πρό which means before (spatially, not chronologically; like, in front of) and the verb φημί which means I tell.  Plainly a prophet is one who speaks before (in front of) someone.  More precisely a prophet occupies an intermediate position.  In ancient Greek literature, the term is assigned to divinely appointed envoys, messengers, and emissaries.  These figures stood betwixt their divine source and their audience yet comprehended both.  When the deity spake to the prophet the prophet was the audience; he represented mankind to the deity.  When the prophet spake to mankind the prophet was the deity and represented the deity to mankind.  On the other hand, he was (and is) neither: the prophet is neither a deity nor mankind.[6]  He cannot be identified with the deity by virtue of his association with mankind; he cannot be identified with mankind (completely) because of his association with the deity.  Consider the observation of Emerson,
“There was this perception in him which makes the poet or seer an object of awe and terror, namely that the same man or society of men may wear one aspect to themselves and their companions, and a different aspect to higher intelligences.”[7] In keeping with this exclusivity what the prophet hears from the deity will not be what the audience or mankind hear from the prophet.  There are individuals, along with entire religious traditions, who hold that divine communication can be (and is) received verbatim.  One hears terms like “mouthpiece” applied to prophets.  Let’s consider that likening.  The role of a mouthpiece (the type used by musicians, not football players) is to channel the musician’s air into an instrument.  One will agree that the shape of the mouthpiece, its inner and outer contours, alters that air in terms of its tone, timbre, and potential for resonance.  The air received by the instrument, while still the same in substance as that first breathed into the mouthpiece, has been substantially affected by its having passed through the cup, throat, and backbore of a mouthpiece.  The effect produced by these components is in turn determined by the width, contour, and edge of the rim as well as by the shank along the backbore, which characteristics all together constitute what may be called the personality of the mouthpiece.   What is hopefully apparent at this point is that one who persists in identifying prophets with mouthpieces is yielding (probably unintentionally and maybe ironically) their claim on verbatim divine communication.  This realization does not lessen the reality of prophets and their importance. It does no more to diminish the divine authenticity of a prophet’s message than does knowing that the sound coming out of the mouthpiece (and eventually the instrument) is different than the one that came out of the musician.  A prophet’s personality certainly does not affect the deliverance of a divine message but it does change it, shape it in accordance with his own qualities, consciously and unconsciously.  One who accepts the reality of prophets and the divine veracity of their messages is not here discomfited.  How often do believers in prophets (mindlessly) observe that a given prophet was raised up for a particular time to handle a particular set of circumstances?  Yet this observation, which I do accept, refutes the notion of verbatim divine communication!  If there is such a thing as a particular man for a particular time and circumstance, then there is no such thing as verbatim divine communication; if there was then any man in particular could be used to face any particular time and circumstance because divine communication is verbatim received and delivered.  The need for a particular man implies the need for the particularities of that man, namely his personality, his unique intellectual qualities, his cultural outlook.  All this is to say that a prophet is an interpreter. Consider how often divine communication at the (hierarchical) level of a prophet is described as a feeling in the heart or the mind, an impression, an indescribable sensation.  In such instances of non-verbal divine communication, a prophet simply must interpret or else remain silent, in hopes of non-verbally communicating to the hearts and minds of mankind via impressions, as though he were himself a Holy Ghost.  The identification of a prophet with a mouthpiece is especially appropriate in light of the fact that both are inspired or “breathed into”.

The word poet comes (through Latin and then French) from the Greek ποιητής which itself comes from the verb ποιέω which means I make or do.  From that we can infer that ποιητής means doer or maker, rather than the simple transliteration (as first made by the Romans) “poet”, which, like most transliterations, offers nothing like a definition but in time creates and promulgates its own meaning independent of the original (which, in Mormonism, is functional apostasy).  The attempts by man to define poetry and poets are many and unceasing, spanning quite nearly the entirety of the Western literary tradition.  This has direct pertinence to Mormonism in light of sundry injunctions by the Lord given to Joseph Smith (and all Mormons) to read the best books.[8]  Thus our purpose is served by resorting to the two men whose works constitute much of the foundation of critical intellectual inquiry—Plato and Aristotle.  Without straying too far from the intention of this essay let’s take note of an inescapable observation made by the Stagirite[9] concerning poetry: it is mimetic, or imitative.[10]  Plato, his teacher, wrote that poets compose and speak under divine inspiration (occasionally divine compulsion).[11]  Grappling with these statements has defined the Western interpretation of poetry which, in keeping with the aforementioned divine mandate to read the best books, must inform the rounded Mormon.  Plato, in his Ion, contends that poetry is entirely a divine product; the relative skill of the poet is not a contributing factor.  Yet in his Republic, a dialogue concerned with outlining the ideal city and the responsibilities and characteristics of its inhabitants, he would largely ban poetry; this is on account of the poet’s inability to truthfully imitate the divine model.  So, in the Ion the poet is consumed by divine inspiration; in the Republic, his avocation is most distant of all from divine truth, hence its exclusion from society.  There is a potential middle ground in another of his dialogues, the Phaedrus, in which he explains that only the work of a divinely inspired poet will last; the work of an uninspired poet will not.[12]  In this last example we see inspired poetry as the product of poet and deity.[13]  There is an ideal, heavenly model which inspires the aspiring poet.  He is contacted by the deity in his poetic pursuit but there remains in his product the imprint of man.  The divine realm is eternal and unchanging, that of man is fleeting; thus, it falls to man to interpret, to imprint upon the divine light in his mind the stamp and seal of his age and perhaps of previous ages.  The poet, like the prophet, is an interpreter of divine inspiration.

There always has been a tension between the inspired writings of any given literary epoch and those of an earlier one.  Harold Bloom identifies this tension as an anxiety which he believes explains the almost genetic relationship, or similarities, of the inspired literature of one age with that of another.  Essentially inspired writers write with the achievements of their literary predecessors in mind but not to the point that it obscures their own message; fully realized inspiration is, if anything, the seamless incorporation of the written monuments of yesteryear into the cultural landscape of modernity.  This is a contemporary analogue to the ancient (Greek) concept of inspired writing and illustrates a phenomenon perhaps as old and continuous as writing itself: imitation by man in concert with universally present, or divine, ideals resulting in inspired literature.  As a mode of expression, as a means for producing inspired literature, it is common to the prophet and the poet.

The ἀγών of the inspired writer is how to comprehensibly synthesize the present with the ever-present; how to unify the eternal with the temporal; how to unite the universal with the contemporary; how to be both conservative and liberal.  All inspired literature has (and will have) achieved this harmony.  All inspired literature is a synthesis of existing culture and divine impetus.  Consider the creation story as it stands in the first two chapters of Genesis.   Although reflecting the interpolations of two different Israelite scribal traditions,[14] it is essentially a recapitulation of the Mesopotamian creation myth transmuted by admixture with Israelite revelation so as to express the principles of Israel’s God.  The product is (or was) new inspired literature, an Israelite revelation conveyed in Mesopotamian mythological terms.  Now consider the Theogony, an epic poem in dactylic hexameter written circa the 8th century BC by Hesiod.  It recounts what came to be the popular formulation of the ancient Greek creation myth.  It, like Genesis and all inspired literature, combines revelation with human culture.[15]  The cultural component is easily deducible.  The presence of sentient abstractions and self-aware geographical features (Chaos and Gaia), titans and monsters (Cronus, Atlas, Rhea, Cyclopes, Hecatoncheires, κτλ…[16]), and Olympians (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, κτλ…) make plain the Hellenic cultural context.  Plus, it’s in ancient Greek.  The presence of revelation is indicated when near the opening of the poem we learn that the Muses, “αἵ νύ ποθ᾽ Ἡσίοδον καλὴν ἐδίδαξαν ἀοιδήν…”[17] (They [the muses] taught Hesiod a beautiful song…).[18]  Each of these examples, the biblical and Hellenic, is a divinely transmitted impulse translated into the cultural idiom of the times and place in which it was delivered.  Revelations resemble their intended audience because they partly derive from them.  The deity moves upon an individual, sheds forth an incommunicable sensation that saturates the mind, and the prophet or poet strives for language sufficiently imitative of the original revelatory experience so as to potentially propel desirous readers and listeners to seek after their own original inspiration.

Now what claim does this have upon the rounded Mormon?  Mormonism has all good things as its heritage.  By virtue of its nature as a restoration of lost truth it validates what good, true, and beautiful has already come to pass.  By virtue of modern revelation, it embraces new iterations of the eternal world as mankind progresses along.  The rounded Mormon acknowledges, because Mormonism comprehends, every point of human/divine interaction that civilization has attained while (theoretically) remaining unfettered by the purely man-made pitfalls and tangents that have hindered its spiritual health.[19]

The Burden of the Prophets

“Prophets, in the modern sense of the word, have never existed.”[20]

The intent of the previous section of this essay was to illustrate the similarities of poets and prophets.  Each weaves the unspeakable waves of revelation into a tapestry using their respective cultures as thread, thereby producing inspired literature. What differences they have do not involve content so much as reception.  This is to say that the inspired literature of prophets has a form of institutional sanction whereas that of poets does not.  Both prophets and poets have followers and impose requirements upon their adherents with only a little variation; while both seek the hearts of their respective devotees, poets additionally require the mind whilst prophets require the body.  Lest one thinks this difference in requirement an unbridgeable gulf and evidence of irreconcilable poetic/prophetic dissimilarity, recall that the Master designated bridging that gulf as the first commandment.[21]    It is incumbent then upon the rounded Mormon, knowing whence cometh “…all things which are good…”[22] to embrace all inspiration.

There is a consequential difference though, that pertains not to the seeker of inspired literature but to the producer(s).  This essay has endeavored to illustrate the similarities between poets and prophets by drawing attention to their common modes of expressing inspiration.  These modes are similar but not identical and their dissimilarity rests in the constraints imposed by their respective missions.  Whereas the poet would call us toward the divine, the prophet must.  In light of this duty the prophet is left a more narrow palette with which to convey what Joseph Smith called, “…the visions that roll like an overflowing surge…”[23]

A prophet, especially (and maybe ironically) a Mormon prophet, must negotiate orthodoxy.  By the very nature of his calling, the prophet is something of a radical; the need for continuing revelation implies the eventuality of change.[24]  It also, maybe paradoxically, implies that that change is to be assimilated into the existing cultural paradigm.  Unlike the poet, the prophet operates within a preexisting framework, a community, with established norms and expectations to which not even the prophet is an exception.  This conformity is a condition of his office, which is to shepherd said community.  His duty to lead them obligates him to color his language in such shades as to elicit the greatest response from them: he must speak in terms they’ll understand.  Think of Keats’ lines, “Mortal, that thou may’st understand aright/I humanize my sayings to thine ear/Making comparisons of earthly things.”[25]  This circumstance requires the prophet to take what is often described as feelings, unspoken impressions from the eternal worlds, and couch them in the vernacular of a single moment in time.  He must describe a movie that never ends using a few stills that he drew himself—and this is if all goes as well as possible.  What tools he has in this process of conveying eternity are the features of his environment, the tropes of expression available in his culture, and whatever natural proclivities with which he was born and chose to cultivate.  Such is the burden of the prophets.  Thus, the Hebrew scripture resembles Mesopotamian mythology, employs its literary formulae, and addresses events anachronistically; thus, the Book of Mormon resembles American mythology, employs its literary formulae, and addresses events anachronistically.  However, within the blatantly temporal coloring of each of these inspired collections lies an eternal core unmistakable to the rounded Mormon.

The antithesis of the view espoused by the rounded Mormon is provincialism which increases the burden of the prophets by requiring an abundance of originality in Restoration scripture.  This view interprets the ‘most-correctness’ of The Book of Mormon as indicative of uniqueness.  It fails to consider that the ‘most correctness’ of The Book of Mormon is predicated upon its containing the fullness of a Gospel defined as a restoration of all truth gone before; its truthfulness does not therefore result from uniqueness but from universality.  One then ought not be troubled at resemblances between Restoration scripture and other literature; on the contrary, as the most correct book, The Book of Mormon should resemble the most truths gone before.  Inasmuch as members allow themselves edification when modern prophets, whose words in the proper context are essentially scriptural,[26] appropriate Wordsworth, Dickens, C. S. Lewis, and Victor Hugo in their sermons, so much should they when in The Book of Mormon, they encounter a Shakespearian (or Dickensian or Jobian) destination whence no traveler returns.[27]

History and Poetry

Pronaque cum spectent animalia cetera terram,

os homini sublime dedit, caelumque videre

iussit et erectos ad sidera tollere vultus.”[28]

One might object to the comparison of something like The Book of Mormon with Conference talks.  This objector could point out that the authenticity of a Conference talk is not at stake when found to contain trace amounts of secular literature, whereas the antiquity of The Book of Mormon precludes any resemblance to necessarily later English and American sources.  The objector clearly places a premium on historicity as an indicator of truth.  At this junction, we must disabuse the Mormon mind by distinguishing between truth and accuracy.  Truth is a universal objectivity that can only be perceived subjectively while accuracy is an imagined objectivity that subjective minds falsely think completely recoverable.  To be plain: truth is a quantity and accuracy is a quality.  Truth exists independent of man and his judgment whereas accuracy flows from him and is (at times, unconsciously) determined by him.  Accuracy is the province of history; truth is that of poetry (by which one must understand all inspired literature).   It is important to understand that history is relative, inasmuch as it is no more than man reflecting himself into a narrative.  Poetry is man reflecting nature back to itself which process empowers him to self-perpetuate ad infinitum.  Matthew Arnold so says, “The world but feels the present’s spell/The poet feels the past as well/Whatever men have done, might do/Whatever thought, might think it too.”[29]  Participation in this creative venture elevates one to the company of the noble and great, which bespeaks man’s divine heritage.  History reduces him to cataloguing the minutia and vacillations of his lesser nature.

To be plain: history is entirely a human construction and poetry, like all inspiration, is human and divine.  History is entirely dependent upon the human perspective.  Poetry, being a mode of inspiration, is an interactive process.  Consider Aristotle’s evaluation of poetry and history.

φανερὸν δὲ ἐκ τῶν εἰρημένων καὶ ὅτι οὐ τὸ τὰ γενόμενα λέγειν, τοῦτο ποιητοῦ ἔργον ἐστίν, ἀλλ᾽ οἷα ἂν γένοιτο καὶ τὰ δυνατὰ κατὰ τὸ εἰκὸς ἢ τὸ ἀναγκαῖον…ἀλλὰ τούτῳ διαφέρει, τῷ τὸν μὲν τὰ γενόμενα λέγειν, τὸν δὲ οἷα ἂν γένοιτο. διὸ καὶ φιλοσοφώτερον καὶ σπουδαιότερον ποίησις ἱστορίας ἐστίν: ἡ μὲν γὰρ ποίησις μᾶλλον τὰ καθόλου, ἡ δ᾽ ἱστορία τὰ καθ᾽ ἕκαστον λέγει.[30]

(It is clear from what has already been said that the work of the poet is not to speak what things have happened but what would and the possibilities with regard to likelihood or necessity… ‘Tis in this they differ: history says what has happened and poetry what ought to happen.  Wherefore, poetry is more scientific and weightier than history: it [poetry] speaks more of universalities, and history of specificity.)

Historical accuracy is limited by man’s inability to comprehend every contributory factor in the evolution of human circumstance.  To be attained it requires an omnipresent perception unavailable in man.  It is, therefore, an illusion to hunt after historical accuracy, especially in inspired texts.  Rather than slavish devotion to what one thinks has happened, poetry strives to articulate eternity in a temporal medium, which is the nature of prophetic inspiration, and the conundrum facing all prophets.

I am here calling for the reader to approach The Book of Mormon from a poetic—inspired—perspective rather than historical.  I am not advocating an allegorical interpretation of The Book of Mormon.  I do not say that the people mentioned in the text are fiction; my argument presumes their existence.  They were real, whence comes the problem with looking to The Book of Mormon for “historical accuracy.”  There are circumstances the reader must always have in mind when approaching The Book of Mormon.

History and Restoration Scripture

“A prophet is a seer, not an arbitrary dictator.”[31]

The reader must always remember that the message of The Book of Mormon in its present state has passed through (at least) two sets of imperfect filters which are separated by years, miles, and cultures.  These two sets are, respectively, the ancient and the modern.

The modern set consists of Joseph Smith and everyone after him who has had some type of stewardship over the text of The Book of Mormon.  Most who constitute the modern set of filters have had little more than a grammatical or organizational impact upon the English editions of the text.[32]  Joseph Smith himself and his scribes had potentially the greatest impact.  Before the text was written it was spoken.  Before it was spoken it was seen.  In these oral and visual states the text would have been most susceptible to unconscious reformulation by Joseph and his scribes.

The ancient set of filters consists of Mormon, Moroni, and everyone before them who had some type of stewardship over the text that would become The Book of Mormon.  Mormon was the principal compiler: 1 Nephi to Mormon 7 is the result of his industry.  Everything read in those portions of the book are read through his eyes.  Remember: Mormon is over 200 years removed from the advent of Christ to the Americas, over 300 years removed from the events recorded in the Book of Alma, and nearly 900 years removed from the lifetime of Nephi.  His knowledge of these figures was restricted to what written records survived and whatever stories he heard growing up—practically legends to him, especially Nephi, who would have already been ancient by the time of Mormon.  The first six books of Mormon’s record (as we have it today) derive from the Small Plates of Nephi.  These plates, in the words of their original creator, do not contain, “a full account of the history of my people.”[33]  Their second steward maintained as much: “…I should not touch, save it were lightly, concerning the history of this people.”[34]   The Small Plates gloss ca. 399 B.C. to ca. 130 B.C. in about seven pages because Mormon “chose those things” that reinforced the traditions with which he had been raised.[35]  The rest of Mormon’s contribution (Mosiah to Mormon 7) was an abridgment, which is to say that it also maintains his version of the “history” of his civilization.  Moroni assumed the role of compiler upon receiving the plates from Mormon.  Considering our current objective to have done with historicity, it is noteworthy that Moroni commences his record by acknowledging the imperfections and faults thereof.[36]  His largest contribution, the Book of Ether, was taken from the Jaredite record.  Between Moroni and that record was an unknown language and potentially 2,500 years.  Around 400 years before Moroni was born the language barrier had necessitated seeric means similar to those employed by Joseph Smith.[37]  We must assume that he had these same means at his disposal when, as he reports, he took his abridgment straight from the Jaredite record (and not from a translation).[38]  His final contribution, which bears his name, closes the plates.

What of these filters?  From them are to be understood the barriers between the reader and even the smallest notion of historicity.  For instance, when we read about Lehi, Nephi, Laman, and Lemuel we’re reading Mormon’s 900-year-old semi-mythic version.  Perhaps that would account for the incurable waywardness of Laman and the invincible righteousness of Nephi.  Such starkness diminishes with the progress of the narrative which is to say that as the events are closer chronologically to the two ancient compilers, the grey area that is humanity begins to emerge.  Compare the almost supernatural heroics of Nephi with the demoralized, almost dystopian outlook of Mormon and Moroni: “…a continual scene of wickedness and abominations has been before mine eyes ever since I have been sufficient to behold the ways of man.”[39]  The idealization of ancient Nephite ancestors into a mythic, golden age is achingly visible in such laments as that of a later Nephi:

“Oh, that I could have had my days in the days when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem, that I could have joyed with him in the promised land; then were his people easy to be entreated, firm to keep the commandments of God, and slow to be led to do iniquity; and they were quick to hearken unto the words of the Lord…”[40]

Clearly, certain portions of The Book of Mormon are more distant, chronologically, linguistically, and conceptually from the modern reader of the current English edition than others.  Consider the books of Ether and Moroni: although situated right next to each other they could not be further apart in terms of historical accuracy, or relative closeness, to the reader.  Ether is an abridgment that has twice passed through a seeric medium (once by Moroni using the interpreters in the 5th century A.D. and again by Joseph Smith using his seer stone in the 19th century A.D.) and took place over 4,000 years apart from the modern reader.  In the book of Moroni, the modern reader encounters an unabridged, original composition only 1,600 years from the present day.  Additionally, the historical accuracy in the English rendering of the book of Moroni is potentially reinforced by Joseph Smith’s acquaintance with the author; they had had several interviews preceding the production of The Book of Mormon.  Based on this analysis, the book of Moroni is the most historically authentic portion of The Book of Mormon and Ether the least.  The rest of The Book of Mormon is somewhere in between.

For a vindication of an inspired reading of The Book of Mormon over historical, we turn to its most historically authentic portion and persona: Moroni.  His colloquially termed promise[41] puts no stock in historical accuracy; he advocates inspiration.  Inspiration is means for knowing Christ; historical accuracy for merely knowing of Him.  To be absolutely unmistakable: the people recorded in The Book of Mormon actually lived.  With that said: Joseph Smith’s prophethood is neither enhanced nor even confirmed by their having lived or by the Lord’s visit to the Western Hemisphere.  It was an error to consider this book a mere history of the American Indian; the proper perspective is as another testament of Jesus Christ.  Its testimony is not merely of Christ’s visit to the Americas; it testifies of Him universally, and of His ability and willingness to contact man in the present day in a replicable manner, which is how it ought to be read.  How does one achieve inspiration relative to The Book of Mormon?  The key lies in understanding the significance of how it was transmitted to Joseph.

The Book of Mormon as a Ritual

“…so shalt thou see and hear

The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible

Of that eternal language which thy God


Inspiration is the result of contact made by one in this temporal life with the continuity of eternity, of interface with that realm where yesterday, today, and tomorrow are as one day.  Such a connection is facilitated by the Holy Ghost, Moroni says.[43]  What does that mean?  More importantly, what does that mean one ought to do?  Moroni also says: “read these things.”[44]  Understand reader, this is more than another insipid exhortation to just read your scriptures.  Recall the manner in which Joseph Smith received The Book of Mormon; not the plates, but the words.  He saw them.  He saw them.  Reader, Joseph Smith saw those words.  That was it.  Despite his assumption of the title, he was no common translator, not by any earthly standard.  He was more.  He was the first reader of The Book of Mormon.  It was delivered to him.  That was the gift and power of God, receiving a divinely transmitted text while the historically verifiable plates sat inert and unutilized on a table.  Joseph Smith was interacting directly with the Divine Mind.  Why deliver The Book of Mormon in this way?  To open the way for you and I, reader, to enjoy the same divine interaction.  The very God-given words Joseph penetrated eternity to see have been preserved for all the world to encounter.  This is how we contact eternity, by replicating Joseph’s singular experience, by seeing in print the very words he saw shining out of the darkness!  As Muhammed the Prophet heard al-Quran sung to him so do Muslims the world over replicate and thereby partake in that original divine experience whenever they listen to its Surahs sung. We lay aside the bonds of time and participate with Joseph in (re)experiencing the Divine Mind every time we read: reading The Book of Mormon is essentially an ordinance.

In Conclusion

The interest of this essay has been to define a pliable revelatory model for application to written and spoken scripture.  Such a model considers inspiration, personal and institutional, to be a type of prophetic creativity, neither completely man-made nor completely God-given, but comprised of components both human and divine and shaped by the personalities and conditioning of each.  Hence the importance of broadening one’s conception of inspired literature to include essentially anything that orients back to the divine.  It is hindered by a provincial perspective which prefers unnatural originality to the prophetic innovation that characterizes much of the great scripture of the world, the oeuvre of Joseph Smith included.  Such provincialism constricts the mind into a misguided quest, pursued by too many believers, for an imagined objectivity it deems historical accuracy.

This essay has also endeavored to delineate what considerations the reader ought to maintain when approaching The Book of Mormon from an historical perspective.  Requiring historical accuracy means demanding objectivity from a text that has passed through two thoroughly subjective modes of transmission.  Such figures as the historical Lehi, Nephi, and Alma the Younger are only available to the modern reader with the characteristics and personalities that Mormon’s traditions and Joseph Smith’s English imputed to them.  Let the seeker of factual history also remember that both Mormon and Joseph were at least centuries removed from such persons of interest.  In light of these considerations it is hoped the paucity of authentic spiritual nourishment available through an historical perspective is evident.

At the close I would (rather annoyingly) leave the reader with a question.  Which of two revelatory feats bespeaks greater prophetic power: relaying an history of the American Indian or producing another testament of Jesus Christ in a divine manner replicable by all?

[1] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, BC (5:220)

[2] For all their responsibilities, I do not believe prophets think themselves better than us.

[3] κτλ= και τα λοιπά=”and the rest”; Greek version of the Latin et cetera.

[4] Gen. 2:7

[5] William Blake, from “All Religions are One” etched about 1788

[6] I do not here assert that a prophet is more than a man.  A prophet is a man (and a prophetess a woman) with all concomitant failings, weaknesses, and lower inclinations that plague mankind.  This is forgotten to the detriment of too many a believer.

[7] Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “The Poet”

[8] Doctrine & Covenants 88:118, 90:15, 109:7, 14.

[9] Aristotle.  He was born in Stagira.

[10] Aristot. Poet. 1447a

[11] Plato, Ion 534b-d.  Plato (as Socrates) elsewhere elaborates on the nature of poetic inspiration (the Phaedrus) and its alleged unsuitability in (his definition of) a moral society (the Republic).

[12] Phaedr. 245a

[13] Despite however short-lived may be the poetry of the uninspired, Plato admits that man can poetize without divine inspiration.  Thus, in this example from the Phaedrus we see inspired literature as a tandem creation, a product both human and divine.

[14] The Priestly writer, whose purpose was to emphasize sacerdotal authority, and the Jahwist, so called for his focus on the anthropomorphic Yahweh and the Judahite tradition.  Though differing in agenda these two sources (along with two other hypothetical sources, the Elohist and the Deuteronomist) are unified as a theological reaction against the larger, more ancient Mesopotamian culture in which it found itself submerged following the 6th century BC razing of Jerusalem by Babylon.  David Bokovoy wrote an excellent introduction to these issues for the Latter-day Saints: “Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy”, 2014

[15] Also like Genesis it contains parallels to older near eastern creation dramas. See Bokovoy, 2014 in previous footnote.

[16] κτλ= και τα λοιπά=”and the rest”; Greek version of the Latin et cetera.

[17] Theog. 1.22. All translations are my own.

[18] Now, perhaps one may object that Hesiod’s admission of inspiration is inadmissible because Hesiod is (was) not of the same religious tradition as said objector; basically, Hesiod’s inspiration is not ‘true’ because he is (was) not a Mormon.  Firstly, I would direct such objectors to the 91st section of the Doctrine & Covenants.  Secondly, I would ask these (presumably Mormon) objectors what is so hard to believe about a young man who produces a book after being visited by gods in a pastoral setting.  Thirdly I would remind them that anyone outside Mormonism could object to Joseph Smith’s revelatory claims on the very same ground; it’s the ‘he’s wrong ‘cuz he’s not like me/us’ argument.  If these objectors persist and say that rejecting Joseph Smith is different because his claims are ‘true’, I would agree that they (also) are but then direct the persistent objectors to Doctrine & Covenants 88:118, 90:15, and 109:7, 14.

[19] As well the rounded Mormon anticipates, as Mormonism precipitates, the inevitable cultural (and otherwise) evolution of humanity while avoiding the unfruitful developments born out of purely human short sightedness.

[20] William Blake, from “Annotations to Watson” pg. 14

[21] Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27

[22] Omni 1:25, Moroni 7:12, 24

[23] History of the Church 5:362

[24] If innovation was contrary to Mormonism there would be no need for prophets beyond Joseph Smith; the early Mormons were presented with just such a proposition by and in Sidney Rigdon, who saw himself as called to serve as a guardian of the house that Joseph built.  The majority chose Brigham Young, whose alternative was a continuous flow of inspiration (rather than a static body of doctrine).

[25] John Keats, The Fall of Hyperion, canto II, vv.1-3

[26] D&C 68:4

[27] 2Ne1:14; Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1; Job 10:20-21, 16:22; Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, (1838-1839).

[28] “While other stooped brutes looked upon the earth, the face of man bore aloft, commanded to view heaven and to bear a face starward turned.” Ovid, Met. 1.84-86

[29] Matthew Arnold, “Bacchanalia; or the New Age” II, vv. 65-68

[30] Aristot. Poet. 1451a-b

[31] William Blake, from “Annotations to Watson” pg. 14

[32]See Royal Skousen “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text,” 2009, pp. xxix-xxxv.

[33] 1Ne.9:2

[34] Jacob 1:2

[35] WoM4-5; One thinks of Will Durant: “…for most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice…” The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, pg. 12

[36] Mormon 8:12, 17; 9:31.  Perhaps readers quietly disregard these disclaimers because they think them a reference to the doctrines rather than to the more secular elements having to do with flora, fauna, and geography?

[37] Mosiah 28:13-16

[38] Ether 1:2

[39] Mormon 2:18

[40] Hel. 7:7; for the pitfalls of such myth-making see Hel. 13:25-6.

[41] Moroni 10:3-5

[42] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frost at Midnight, vv. 58-61

[43] Moroni 10:4-5

[44] Moroni 10:3