"Shall We Not Go On in So Great a Cause?"
Assistant Professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, Brigham Young University
Raised in what was then a part-member family in southern California, I think I first felt some of the thrill of the gospel in connection with a novel by Nephi Anderson entitled Added Upon.1 I stayed home from school one day at about the age of eleven or twelve. (I cannot recall, frankly, if I was really sick.) After a few hours, as usually happens in such cases, I was deeply bored. For some reason, I picked up a copy of Added Upon that we had inherited from my maternal grandmother, and I began to read. Nephi Anderson's novel, a product of the "home literature" movement that flourished in the Church early in the twentieth century, is certainly not a great piece of writing by ordinary standards. But its scope caught my attention. In fact, I was entranced. I had thought of the gospel, up to this point, as something rather conventional, indeed as little more than a never-ending round of rather dull meetings.
Added Upon depicts a small group of characters as they move from the premortal existence through this life (where they come in contact with the gospel), into the spirit world, and beyond, into the resurrection and the millennium. I must have heard of such things before, but I had never previously had any notion of the richness, the sheer sweep and grandeur, of what we call "the plan of salvation." It was, I realized, the most exciting thing I had ever encountered, the most magnificent vision of human destiny imaginable. And this sense of excitement has never left me. Moreover, although I know that it disturbs some outside the Church, I have never felt that the idea of exaltation, properly understood, leads to arrogance or pride; it is, rather, profoundly humbling, and a very holy doctrine.
A few years later, while in high school, I attended a BYU Education Week that took place, as I recall, in West Covina. There I saw Truman Madsen pack the hall with discussions of such difficult topics as "existentialism" and "logical positivism," bringing them into dialogue with the gospel. I began to see Mormonism then, and I still do, as a "philosophy" that is easily as profound as any of its rivals. Subsequent studies and experience around the world have only confirmed that early impression. A few years ago, for example, I spent two months at a seminar in Berkeley, California, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Under the leadership of the eminent comparative religionist Huston Smith, twelve of us—including a Jesuit process theologian, a couple of Buddhists, a Nietzsche scholar, a Platonist, a Hindu, a Catholic priest-Indologist, and a Mormon Islamicist (me)—researched, discussed, and debated several central issues in the comparative philosophy of religion. The seminar was an enjoyable experience, but one of the most important things that came out of it for me was a conviction that the insights revealed through Joseph Smith hold up quite well when compared with the world's great religious systems.
I arrived at Brigham Young University as a mathematics major. With a poster of Albert Einstein mounted on my wall, I was intent on becoming a theoretical physicist, a cosmologist. Not far into my first semester, though, I realized that this was not my calling. I had already been reading Hugh Nibley, and I soon came fully under his spell. So I changed my major to classical Greek (with a minor in philosophy). I am still a fan of Nibley's. While I may not always agree with him, and while he may in fact occasionally be wrong on this or that issue, I am firmly convinced by my own reading and thinking that his overall approach has been fundamentally (and brilliantly) sound. I like to think of him as someone who has investigated a vast abandoned building, running through it, shining his flashlight into this room and that, giving us a basic overview, despite his limited time, of the rooms and their contents. It now remains for us, a more plodding but larger group, to complete the systematic inventory of the rooms. Nibley has, for many, set the basic agenda and identified the basic issues. There will be modifications in various places, perhaps even in many places, but he has established the general features of a particular kind, my kind, of Mormon studies.
Following graduation from BYU, I switched over to Arabic studies, which continue to serve as my formal academic specialty, and went to the Middle East. While in Israel for the first time, early in 1978, I ran across John Tvedtnes's work on the feast of tabernacles among the Nephites.2 Then just a typescript in a folder in the files of the Jerusalem Branch, his analysis was, for me, a dramatic discovery. At that time I conceived the idea of an organization that might serve as a kind of clearinghouse for such work, which otherwise had an unfortunate tendency to languish in undistributed obscurity. Fortunately, people with far more organizational ability and drive than I possess also saw the need and actually brought the idea to reality. Today, with its extensive publication program and its support for interesting investigations across many disciplines, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) probably exceeds anything that any one of us ever anticipated for it.
During the several years that I spent doing graduate work in history, language, and literature in Cairo, I had the privilege of studying for six months, one-on-one, with a Dominican priest who was one of the world's foremost authorities on Islamic philosophy. This was a fascinating and, in a number of ways, a challenging experience for me. Father Anawati represented the highly sophisticated, two-thousand-year-old intellectual tradition of Roman Catholicism, and at the same time was an eminent scholar of yet another sophisticated intellectual tradition, one that had fourteen centuries of deep thinking and a vast literature behind it. There were times, I confess, when it struck me as ridiculously improbable that a young and relatively tiny church, far off in the arid American West, could claim to be the uniquely authorized custodian of God's revealed truth. I never doubted what I had, in fact, come to know, but I became acutely aware of how our claims must seem to others. Yet this must be precisely how an early Christian would have felt, confronted with the power and glitz of Rome and the ancient sophistication of Athens. However things might appear, though, it is simply fact that God chose the Galilee, a backwater area of a rather unimportant Roman province, as the place in which his son was to be raised, and that the resurrection of Christ occurred in Jerusalem, a relatively insignificant provincial town. So, too, I am convinced that God in our own day called Joseph Smith, a common New York farmer's son with an almost comically common name, to found a church of craftsmen and farmers and laborers that would someday fill the earth.
I eventually finished a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles, writing my dissertation on an extremely obscure eleventh-century Arab Neoplatonic philosopher—obscure in every sense of the word. Along the way, too, I was offered and accepted a position teaching Arabic and Islamic studies at BYU. I have enjoyed my work at the university tremendously. I hear some critics of the Church claim that Mormonism is intellectually closed and stifling, but I have never, in even the slightest degree, found this to be the case. Quite the contrary. Mormonism has been an immensely useful lens through which to view the ancient world and Islam. It has supplied me with questions and with interesting, unusual perspectives that have greatly enriched my own scholarly life. At BYU, I have felt myself free to write not only on Islamic topics, but on Latter-day Saint topics as well. And, not infrequently, I have written in a very Latter-day Saint way on Islamic topics. I have, for instance, delivered and published papers on such topics as anthropomorphism in the Qur'an, ascension rituals and the story of Muhammad's heavenly journey (which I see as related to some of the ordinances of the temple), and the deliberate burial of sacred records. I got away with this sort of thing for years, until just a while ago, when, immediately after I had given a paper in Paris that related to the question of human deification, a friend in the audience came up to me and said, "I'll bet the leaders of your church would be interested in this sort of stuff." My friend teaches at a university in the eastern United States, and he and his wife often come out to Utah to ski. Clearly, he knows more about Mormonism than I had supposed. My cover has been blown.
While I was a graduate student in Cairo, I wrote a lengthy paper on two medieval Islamic groups: the akhi warrior organization among the early Ottoman Turks and the futuwwa guild, an organization with its own rituals that developed into what might be described as early Islamic labor movements. Much to my surprise, my professor, a notorious curmudgeon, really liked the paper. However, as we talked about the piece he demanded to know why I had chosen to devote so much time and attention to what he termed "the biggest non-subject in the history of Islam." I am afraid that I did not give him a fully adequate answer. I could not tell him of the echoes that I had found in the topic, echoes both of the Gadianton robbers of the Book of Mormon and, from another aspect, of the temple.3 And my dissertation, which won a major award from the Middle East Studies Association of North America, was a prolonged meditation on themes of human deification in the thought of an eleventh-century Arab Neoplatonic philosopher. My interests as a scholar and my religious concerns as a Latter-day Saint have never, ever, clashed.
I have found Mormonism to be endlessly productive of interesting questions and hypotheses, and my only limitation is in the time to pursue all the fascinating pathways that it opens up to me. In this and other ways, one of the most intriguing features of the restored Church is temple worship. The temple has always been an important element in my testimony. From my first awareness of the temple, I have felt it to be precisely what it claims to be: a link between this world and the realm of God and angels. I have a strong sense of its holiness and power. Some of my deepest spiritual experiences have come in connection with the temple, and there have been times when I have seemed almost to see beyond it or through it into eternity. But the temple is also, in academic terms, a window upon antiquity, and one of the most powerful evidences of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling.
The Book of Mormon has similar power and is easier to talk about. The most remarkable thing to me about the Book of Mormon is that it reads like plausible history. I have read a great deal of history from a number of different cultures, including several in the ancient and medieval Near East. The Book of Mormon's account of the development and decline of several ancient peoples seems to me entirely reasonable and true to what I know.4 Yet, if the book's critics are to be believed, it should not. The Book of Mormon should have collapsed decades ago as a transparent fraud, even without the rigorous and often hostile criticism to which it has constantly been subjected. Had this book merely been the work of an unlettered upstate New York yokel and charlatan, it would have collapsed. But it has not, and it fails to show any of the telltale signs of pretense. The Book of Mormon is, for example, sober and realistic, and never strains for effect. This is no small thing. As the British-born literary scholar Arthur Henry King observed in another, but related, context:
When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith's story, I was deeply impressed. I wasn't inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn't feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.5
I, too, feel the presence of truth, of unfeigned sincerity, both in Joseph Smith and in the Book of Mormon. In a similar vein, when I first read John L. Sorenson's classic book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon,6 the thing that most impressed me was not that the Book of Mormon can believably be related to locations in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, although it can, but that it yields a coherent and consistent geographical picture at all. Again, if the book's critics were correct, it would be a mere mass of confusion. (Fawn Brodie claimed that the Book of Mormon simply gushed forth "like a spring freshet" from the "marvelously fecund imagination" of an unreflective New York farmboy who had never really had a serious thought in his head.)7
I think familiarity with the Book of Mormon has, for many of us, dulled the sheer astonishment of it. Long before we worry about details of evidence for or against its authenticity as an ancient work of scripture, we should recognize that, on any account, it is a remarkable volume. For example, I once wrote a substantial book in a little more than two months. I was quite impressed with myself until I realized that the Book of Mormon, considerably longer, significantly more complex, and infinitely more important, had been dictated in its entirety and written by hand in just about the same length of time.8 And whereas I was an academic with a doctorate, working on a sophisticated word processor by means of which I could (and frequently did) massively revise and rearrange my writing, what the semiliterate Joseph Smith dictated has had to stand with very, very few changes since Oliver Cowdery first put it on paper. (Those who think this would be easy to do simply have not tried it.) I find it far more believable that Joseph was translating an ancient document, and doing so with divine help, than that he was composing so complex a volume at so remarkable a speed.
But the Book of Mormon stands up amazingly well in the details, too. In recent years, to choose just a pair of examples, I have been deeply impressed by the research of Lynn and Hope Hilton and, more recently, by that of Warren and Michaela Aston, on Lehi's Arabian journey, and by the identification of likely modern sites for ancient Nahom and Old World Bountiful.9 And my friend William Hamblin has been able to show that the widespread use of inscribed metal plates in antiquity, frequently mocked and denied by critics of the Book of Mormon, seems first to have occurred in the general area from which Lehi came, at precisely the right time.10
Not infrequently, even seeming liabilities or weaknesses in the Book of Mormon have turned out to be strengths. Certain anti-Mormons, for instance, have loudly mocked the name "Alma" as it occurs in the Book of Mormon. It is, they point out, a modern, Latin-based, woman's name, one hardly appropriate for an ancient Semitic man. But, in fact, as we have learned only in the second half of this century, "Alma" is an authentic ancient Semitic masculine name.11 Joseph Smith could not have known this fact by any natural means, yet he knew it. Similarly, the prophetic declaration of Alma 7:10 that Christ would be born "at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers" has occasioned a great deal of laughter from opponents of the Church. "Every schoolchild," they point out, "knows that Jesus was born in Bethlehem." Just so. And Joseph Smith presumably knew it, too. Yet the Book of Mormon, we have learned only in the past few decades, includes Bethlehem within "the land of Jerusalem" in a way that is entirely, authentically ancient.12
The gospel as a whole has passed the test, even where I had not expected it to do so. For instance, for many years I thought that the doctrine of human deification was unlikely to receive much support from ancient Christian sources. Yes, there were some relatively ambiguous and scattered passages in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, that seemed to support our position. But, although critics of the Church have found this notion especially irritating—we are the "God Makers," after all—I imagined that there was little we could do to support our position. This all changed, though, when I came across a fascinating doctoral dissertation written at Duke University by a Latter-day Saint graduate student.13 Since then, I have learned that the doctrine of theosis or theopoeisis, as it is known, was widespread, in some form or another, throughout ancient Christianity. Again, what I had once thought to be something of a weakness has turned out to be a strength.
In fact, I have grown so accustomed to this sort of thing that I have come to expect it. Whenever I encounter a question that I cannot answer, I have learned to suspend judgment for a while, in the confidence, which has been rewarded many times, that an answer will eventually appear. I recommend this approach to any who may be troubled by attacks on the Church. Every field has unanswered questions. Students of Shakespeare and of Homer face unsolved riddles, as do scholars of Islam, and Mormon studies are no exception to the rule. But objections virtually always disappear with time and deeper knowledge, and my testimony, based on considerable experience, is that answers are always forthcoming.
I have always, also, been deeply impressed by the testimony of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon and by the failure of critics to deal with them. (Usually they simply ignore them or wave them aside with some witticism from Mark Twain.) The work of Richard Lloyd Anderson and others has established an extraordinarily strong case for the reliability of the witnesses' testimonies.14 And the problems this creates for those who would dismiss the Book of Mormon as a product of the nineteenth century are huge: If Joseph Smith really had sixty pounds or so of engraved gold plates, and if there were no historical Nephites, where did he get them? Who made them? But if there were plates—and I think that the case for their existence is overwhelming—then it becomes very likely indeed that there were Nephites and that Joseph was actually visited by a real Moroni. I know from conversations with critics of the Book of Mormon that the physical reality of the plates constitutes a serious problem for them, one that many of them would prefer to ignore. But they can't.
Historical and other evidence for the truth of the scriptures and the authenticity of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling has its place. In more than a few cases, such information actually sheds light on the interpretation of the scriptures. (A prime example of this is the lengthy chiasm found in Alma 36, which represents a clear instance of the Christ-centeredness of the Book of Mormon.)15 Yet ultimately, although there is, in my judgment, more than enough evidence to justify a decision to put faith and trust in the Lord as he has manifested himself through the prophets and scriptures of the Restoration, our testimonies must go beyond the shifting sands of academic fashions and the uncertainties of scholarly arguments. We must seek confirmation from God himself.
I can believe in prophecy and revelation because I have, on my own small scale, experienced them. I have known things about the future that I could not possibly have known from any natural reading of the situation. I have felt the Lord speak through me and pronounce things (including a remarkable healing) that I, a cautious fellow, would never have said on my own. Indeed, I have been astonished and more than a little bit shocked to hear the words of the Lord come out of my mouth. Yet they have been fulfilled. I have, on one or two occasions, found myself seeming to see the things that I was reading about in scripture. I have felt the power of the ordinances of the temple. I have enjoyed, in the various wards and branches on four continents in which I have participated, the same fellowship of the Saints that I read about in scripture. This strengthens my faith both in the contemporary Church and in the plausibility of the ancient books. It has been revealed to me, in ways that I can neither deny nor forget, that we are indeed led by prophets and apostles, authorized of God.
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
So says Edward Fitzgerald's rendering of the verse of the medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam. But I find the gospel wholly fulfilling in the here and now, and I do not dream only of the world to come, glorious as I believe that will be. And the dream of Zion, of which I have had some foretaste, ignites my imagination:
The building up of Zion is a cause that has interested the people of God in every age; it is a theme upon which prophets, priests and kings have dwelt with peculiar delight; they have looked forward with joyful anticipation to the day in which we live; and fired with heavenly and joyful anticipations they have sung and written and prophesied of this our day; but they died without the sight; we are the favored people that God has made choice of to bring about the Latter-day glory; it is left for us to see, participate in and help to roll forward the Latter-day glory. . . . And whilst we are thus united in the one common cause, to roll forth the kingdom of God, the heavenly Priesthood are not idle spectators, the Spirit of God will be showered down from above, and it will dwell in our midst. The blessings of the Most High will rest upon our tabernacles, and our name will be handed down to future ages; our children will rise up and call us blessed; and generations yet unborn will dwell with peculiar delight upon the scenes that we have passed through, the privations that we have endured; the untiring zeal that we have manifested; the all but insurmountable difficulties that we have overcome in laying the foundation of a work that brought about the glory and blessing which they will realize; a work that God and angels have contemplated with delight for generations past; that fired the souls of the ancient patriarchs and prophets; a work that is destined to bring about the destruction of the powers of darkness, the renovation of the earth, the glory of God, and the salvation of the human family.16
And so, with Joseph Smith, I ask myself and others, "Brethren [and sisters], shall we not go on in so great a cause?" (D&C 128:22). I testify that the promises we have received are true. I cannot conceive of anything more worthy of our utmost efforts and loyalty.
1. Nephi Anderson, Added Upon: A Story (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1939).
2. Now easily accessible as John A. Tvedtnes, "King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles," in By Study and Also by Faith, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:197–237.
3. I hope, someday, to expand upon and to publish some of those early findings.
4. I have set out one of my reasons for this judgment in my article "The Gadianton Robbers as Guerrilla Warriors," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 146–73.
5. Arthur Henry King, The Abundance of the Heart (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986), 200–201. This remarkable collection of essays, by the way, deserves a much wider readership than it has evidently received.
6. John L. Sorenson, An American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985).
7. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knowns My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2d ed. (New York: Knopf, 1971), 27, 44. Incidentally, Brodie's portrayal of Joseph Smith as a charming con artist utterly devoid of serious ideas cannot be made to square with the demonstrable magnitude of his achievement. This is increasingly recognized even by skeptics. See, for instance, Heikki Räisänen, "Joseph Smith und die Bibel: Die Leistung des mormonischen Propheten in neuer Beleuchtung," Theologische Literaturzeitung 109 (February 1984): 81–92.
8. See John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, "The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Basic Historical Information" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1986).
9. See Lynn M. Hilton and Hope Hilton, In Search of Lehi's Trail (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976); and Warren P. Aston and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi's Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994).
10. William J. Hamblin, "Sacred Writings on Bronze Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1994).
11. See Yigael Yadin, Bark-Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (New York: Random House, 1971), 176.
12. See the treatment of this issue in my review of John Ankerberg and John Weldon's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Mormonism, in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5 (1993): 62–78. But new evidence continues to appear, so my discussion should now be supplemented with a brief article in the FARMS newsletter, "Revisiting the Land of Jerusalem via the Dead Sea Scrols," Insights (March 1994), 2.
13. Keith E. Norman, "Deification: The Content of Athanasian Soteriology" (Ph.D. dissertation, Duke University, 1980).
14. See particularly Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, corrected reprint (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989); and Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1991).
15. See the discussion of this and other passages in John W. Welch, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," in Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis, ed. John W. Welch (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981), 198–201; and in John W. Welch, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 33–52.
16. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 4:609–10.