Hamblin’s Misreading

I should begin by noting that if anyone wants to intelligently comment on the latest issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, please read it first. It’s available here (I hope the MI will make the article under discussion available free some time soon).

Bill Hamblin has posted a critique of an article by B. Park, which has generated quite a bit of discussion on Dan Peterson’s blog. I’m going to respond to Hamblin here on FPR because Hamblin has refused to post my comments on his blog in the past (and this comment is long enough to merit its own thread). I do not know if Hamblin will actually respond to this post. He has not responded to other efforts in the past (see here, for instance). However, I am taking the time to respond to Hamblin primarily for the reason that Hamblin is misreading Park, and (more importantly) I fear that other people trust Hamblin as a good interpreter in this instance. I hope this post will be useful for those people.

As a preliminary comment, Park’s article is a book review (he reviews David Holland’s Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America and Eran Shalev’s American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War). A book review usually summarizes the argument(s) of the book, situates those arguments in a field of research, and evaluates the argument.

For the ease of reading I will put Hamblin’s comments (including his quotations of Park) in italics. My responses immediately follow. Hamblin’s post is structured with an introduction and 7 specific critiques.

Here is the introduction:

Some of my critics have claimed that I have taken Ben Park’s statements out of context, and misrepresent his real position. Rather than isolated ambiguous statements taken out of context, there are seven clear statements in Park’s essay of as many pages, which I believe only make sense with the assumption that the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth century document. There is no statement in his paper that even remotely alludes to even the possibility of an ancient Book of Mormon.

Let’s keep in mind that Park is reviewing two books about early American religion; neither of which focus solely on Mormonism; both of which only touch on the BoM. Discussing the possibility of an ancient BoM is not necessary to Park’s review. This issue is something Hamblin wants Park to address; it is not an essential part of discussing Holland and Shalev’s books. Given the goals of what Park sets out to accomplish (i.e., reviewing Holland and Shalev’s books), we should ask ourselves how reasonable it would be to see him discussing the historicity of the BoM. Notably, Hamblin does not expect a full-fledge argument for historicity, only “allusions to the possibility.”

Oddly, this is not the first time Hamblin has put Park on the spot about historicity. When Park was announced as an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review, Hamblin put up this post on his blog, including a statement that “[Park is] definitely into seeing early Mormonism as a result of 19th century influences.”

Park responded on Hamblin’s blog: “If I may, though, I would like to take issue with being described as “seeing early Mormonism as a result of 19th century influences,” because I certainly don’t. I believe in revelation, and I hold sacred the truths and scriptures revealed to Joseph Smith, which I have had the the great privilege to proudly teach the last two summers in the BYU religion department. My academic writings, though, are more interested in the cultural context in which early Latter-day Saints understood and experienced those truths; basically, you could say, I try to understand the “manner of their language” that allowed them to “come to [an] understanding” (D&C 1:24).”

This wasn’t clear enough for Hamblin, however, so he pressed Park on his view of the BoM as an ancient text. Park responded, “Thanks for the question. My own academic research has focused on the 19th century reception and interpretation of the Book of Mormon, which I think is different than studying the Book of Mormon as a 19th century book. I have not written on the Book of Mormon as an ancient text because ancient studies is not my field of expertise, though I personally believe the BoM to be ancient scripture. I do not think works that examine the Book of Mormon as an ancient text wouldn’t be considered by the journal, and am in fact excited to see submissions in that field.”

So at least in March of 2013 Park unambiguously stated his belief in the BoM as an ancient document.

Interestingly, despite Park’s clear statement, just three months later Hamblin again questioned Park’s belief in historicity here, which even after he realized Park was simply forwarding along someone else’s message, he insisted that Park clarify his view. I’m under the impression that when Hamblin now asks for “allusions to the possibility of an ancient BoM” in the article under question, there really isn’t much that Park can do to convince him otherwise.

My hunch is reaffirmed when Hamblin neglects this sentence from Park’s opening paragraph:

“But what if scholars took a page from Mormon and Moroni’s own approach and placed the narrative’s importance on a much broader scale—demographically, geographically, and chronologically?” (167)

While Park does not come out and say, “Mormon and Moroni were historical figures,” he certainly alludes to that possibility. And while it’s not uncommon to refer to fictional figures as real (e.g., Tom Sawyer teaches us that….), Park is referring to Mormon and Moroni as authors of the BoM. If he believed to BoM to be solely the creation of Joseph Smith, this would be the ideal place to say “Smith” instead of “Mormon and Moroni.”

Here are Hamblin’s 7 critiques:

1- [Park says,] “scholars of the Book of Mormon should [not] return to the parochial and exceptionalist framework that has so plagued Mormon studies in the past” (174).

If the Book of Mormon is an ancient text translated by divine revelation, should it not be studied as an “exceptional” book rather than an unexceptional one?

“Exceptionalist” modifies “framework” not the BoM. This is a critique of historiography (i.e., how history is done in Mormon studies), and is not necessarily related to the historicity of the BoM. If Hamblin is offended because he thinks Park has his approach in mind with this comment, then that’s one thing, but to make it about historicity is a whole other possibly unrelated thing.

2- [Park asks,] “what does [the Book of Mormon] reveal concerning Joseph Smith’s religious genius?” (167).

If the Book of Mormon is an ancient text translated by divine revelation, how can it reveal anything about “Joseph Smith’s religious genius”?

Here’s the paragraph in full: “For a book that claims an epic scope and cosmological depth, the Book of Mormon has mostly received a rather parochial academic framework. What does the text tell us about Mormon conceptions of scripture? What does it reveal concerning Joseph Smith’s religious genius? How did Mormons use the book during the church’s first few decades? These are certainly important questions, and they have received—and will receive—the responses they deserve. But what if scholars took a page from Mormon and Moroni’s own approach and placed the narrative’s importance on a much broader scale—demographically, geographically, and chronologically?”

For starters, those series of questions belong to the “academic framework” mentioned in the first sentence; they are not necessarily Park’s questions. Further, even if we take the question Hamblin quotes as Park’s, I don’t see why historicity must equal tight control (by God) in the translation process. Additionally, even if we assume tight control of an ancient document, Joseph’s interaction with the BoM (either the plates or the translated document) surely could reveal his genius.

3- [Park says,] “the future for Book of Mormon studies [lies] within the early Americanist field,” (168)

If the Book of Mormon is an ancient text translated by divine revelation, how can its future study rest “within the early Americanist field”?

Here’s the quote in its entirety: “Together, these two books demonstrate the potential of examining Mormonism’s keystone document in light of larger historiographical concerns, as well as the future for Book of Mormon studies within the early Americanist field.”

Looking at the sentence in its entirety we see that the stress is on “the early Americanist field” not “Book of Mormon studies.” He is saying that these two books represent how Americanists (i.e., those that study America) might study the BoM. He is not necessarily saying that the future for the study of the BoM lies within those studying America. Inserting the word “lies” changes the meaning of the sentence.

4- [Park says that] the Book of Mormon is “just another voice in a rancorous chorus that had been filling the American religious amphitheater since the nation’s founding” (169)

If the Book of Mormon is an ancient text translated by divine revelation, how can it be “just another voice in a rancorous chorus that had been filling the American religious amphitheater”?

This is Park’s summary of Holland’s argument, or at least him teasing out the implications of Holland’s argument. This sentence is a part of a string of sentences that begins, “In an important sense, Holland traces the intellectual genealogy for Mormonism’s vision of the open canon….” As mentioned above, a book review summarizes the argument of the book. But even if we take this as Park’s view, this says nothing about historicity. Here’s the sentence in full: “The Book of Mormon was not the only medium decrying America’s tendency to bemoan, “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible” (2 Nephi 29:3) but rather just another voice in a rancorous chorus that had been filling the American religious amphitheater since the nation’s founding.” Its point is that the BoM is not distinctive in calling for an open canon of sorts, which is a claim about the context of the BoM not the text itself.

5- [Park] advocates “approaching the Book of Mormon as a way to examine an American problem” (171).

If the Book of Mormon is an ancient text translated by divine revelation, why should we examine as “an American problem”?

This is Park again teasing out the implications of Holland’s book. For the sake of argument, however, let’s take it as Park’s view. Here’s the sentence in full: “Indeed, approaching the Book of Mormon as a way to examine an American problem, rather than merely a Mormon problem, makes the text much more relevant to students of American religious and intellectual history.” His point is clearly to situate the coming forth of the BoM in its broader context. There is little reason to read this as a statement about historicity. Otherwise, how would one make sense of “rather than merely a Mormon problem”?

6- [Park says,] “the Book of Mormon is best seen as one of many examples that embody the same cultural strains [of pseudobiblilcal literature]” (173).

If the Book of Mormon is an ancient text translated by divine revelation, why is it “best seen” as a reflection of early American pseudobiblical literature?

Park has now begun speaking about Shalev’s book. Shalev is not a Mormon, and when summarizing him, we have no reason to expect Park to represent the BoM as an ancient text. But, again, if we do want to see this as representing Park’s personal view, here is the sentence in full: “These contemporary accounts are not meant to serve as potential sources for the Book of Mormon’s narrative—indeed, Shalev admits such an endeavor would be impossible—but they reaffirm the important lesson that the Book of Mormon is best seen as one of many examples that embody the same cultural strains and that its importance for American intellectual historians is best seen as part of a tapestry of scriptural voices that speak to a culture’s anxieties, hopes, and fears.”

If the BoM spoke to those in the 19th century, and if pseudobiblical literature also attempted to speak to those in the 19th century (even if the former is ancient and the latter is not), there’s no reason why they wouldn’t “embody the same cultural strains.” This has no necessary relation to historicity.

7- [Park says that] we should “push to contextualize the Book of Mormon within America’s revelatory heritage” (173).

If the Book of Mormon is an ancient text translated by divine revelation, what does it have to do with “America’s revelatory heritage”?

If one of the possible meanings of “America’s revelatory heritage” is “revelation that is a part of America’s past” then it seems like it has quite a bit to do with it. If Hamblin’s problem is actually with the word “contextualize,” I don’t see how this is any different than what Richard Bushman does with accounts of people seeing God in early America. Similar to the way it does not necessarily discount Joseph’s vision being true, this doesn’t discount the BoM being ancient.