Three Cheers for Old Joe and his Indian Bible

Because I can’t wait for August (I’m already on episode 11 of The Mysterious Cities of Gold, folks!) …

The other month in a Huffington blog post mentioning Larry Echo Hawk, Tim Giago asks some tough questions:

Is the Mormon Church stuck with an embarrassing book it cannot historically support? Will the Book of Mormon one day be rationalized as simply an allegory conceived and used by Joseph Smith, the founder, to inspire his followers? In the final analysis it all comes down to whether faith will triumph over fiction.

And I will continue to ask myself why any sensible Native American would belong to a Church that will not fully accept them until they become white.

Tough questions, as I say, and I leave it to others to try to answer them. What I would like to do in this post is read some fiction to get at the Book of Mormon from another angle.

Historical fiction dealing with the experience of graduate school in biblical studies and the like is hard to come by. I can’t say that I recommend The Flight of Peter Fromm by Martin Gardner (even though I have at least once), but it is such a novel. The protagonist is a sometime fundamentalist Christian who decided to study at the University of Chicago during the 1930s and 40s. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that he experiences a mental breakdown at the end of the book. His advisor is a Unitarian minister leading his congregation and his students to atheism. At one point in the novel before Peter’s breakdown, his advisor delivers an invited lecture to the New Testament Club. This is how it ends, as narrated from the advisor’s perspective:

“I don’t know,” I said, stealing a glance at the gold watch in my vest, “whether anybody reads James Fenimore Cooper any more these days. I remember that as a boy, when I first read The Deerslayer for a high school class, there was a scene in the novel that made a strong impression on me. It may have a lot to do with the direction my thinking took later when I was a young theological student here at Meadville. One of the characters in The Deerslayer is a pious girl named Hetty. She tries to convert an Indian to Christianity by showing him the Bible and telling him that every chapter in it comes straight from the throne of God. I’ve never forgotten the simple question the Indian asked. I think it says all the need be said about the notion that the Bible is a unified, unique repository of spiritual truth.”

I paused a moment to build suspense. Then I said: “The Indian asked—and I quote exactly—‘Why Great Spirit no send book to Injin, too?’”

James Fenimore Cooper is of course the author of The Last of the Mohicans as well as The Deerslayer (published 1841), set in upstate New York. There is no reason to comment on the liberties with which The Deerslayer has been paraphrased in The Flight of Peter Fromm. Should you need to see it with your own eyes, here is the scene from Cooper:

“This is right,” continued Hetty, “and my duty will now be light. This Great Spirit, as you call our God, has caused a book to be written, that we call a Bible, and in this book have been set down all his commandments, and his holy will and pleasure, and the rules by which all men are to live, and directions how to govern the thoughts even, and the wishes, and the will. Here, this is one of these holy books, and you must tell the chiefs what I am about to read to them from its sacred pages.”

As Hetty concluded, she reverently unrolled a small English Bible from its envelope of coarse calico, treating the volume with the sort of external respect that a Romanist would be apt to show to a religious relic. As she slowly proceeded in her task the grim warriors watched each movement with riveted eyes, and when they saw the little volume appear a slight expression of surprise escaped one or two of them. But Hetty held it out towards them in triumph, as if she expected the sight would produce a visible miracle, and then, without betraying either surprise or mortification at the Stoicism of the Indian, she turned eagerly to her new friend, in order to renew the discourse.

“This is the sacred volume, Hist,” she said—”and these words, and lines, and verses, and chapters, all came from God.”

“Why Great Spirit no send book to Injin, too?” demanded Hist, with the directness of a mind that was totally unsophisticated.

“Why?” answered Hetty, a little bewildered by a question so unexpected. “Why?—Ah! you know the Indians don’t know how to read.”

In this scene Cooper employs the character of Hetty to get Christians of the nineteenth century to reflect on their claims to universal truth and their mistreatment of Native Americans. When asked why God would not send a bible to them, the best explanation Hetty can offer is a knee-jerk one about their illiteracy. And yet as the scene continues Cooper has an illiterate chief point out that Christians may read the Bible and even cause Native Americans to learn to read it, but in their mistreatment of Native Americans they ‘forget all the Bible says:’

“If he [pale face] is ordered to give double to him that asks only for one thing, why does he take double from the poor Indian who ask for no thing. He comes from beyond the rising sun, with this book in his hand, and he teaches the red man to read it, but why does he forget himself all it says? When the Indian gives, he is never satisfied; and now he offers gold for the scalps of our women and children, though he calls us beasts if we take the scalp of a warrior killed in open war. My name is Rivenoak.”

As if the contemporary 1840s message of the chief’s words was not clear enough, Cooper himself breaks in with some editorializing:

When Hetty had got this formidable question fairly presented to her mind in the translation, and Hist [the interpreter] did her duty with more than usual readiness on this occasion, it scarcely need be said that she was sorely perplexed. Abler heads than that of this poor girl have frequently been puzzled by questions of a similar drift, and it is not surprising that with all her own earnestness and sincerity she did not know what answer to make.

It is perhaps impossible to imagine what it would have been like to be a Christian living in nineteenth century America when the Book of Mormon was first published. But I think Cooper’s fiction gives us an idea. Why indeed did the Christian God not send a bible to Native Americans? Today, the answer to that question may seem obvious (or the question obviously wrong-headed). But it was not obvious to everyone in the early 1800s.

This is what Patrick Killough, a retired US diplomat and occasional visiting and adjunct professor of political science and human relations, says about James Fenimore Cooper and Joseph Smith in an online book review of Fawn Brodie (Brodie having done her graduate work at the University of Chicago in the 1930s and might have crossed paths with Peter Fromm had he existed):

What strikes me is that Joseph Smith liked and admired Indians at a time when all too few other Americans did. His were the years of Georgians grabbing Cherokee land after gold was discovered on it. This was the era of Andrew Jackson and the Indians’ “Trail of Tears.” These were also the years of war, uprooting or trouble for Creeks, Choctaws, Seminoles and other “redskins” — years in which another writer of the frontier, James Fenimore Cooper, wrote religion-flavored frontier fiction and clearly loved and admired American Indians. Not many Americans had anything good to say about those “merciless savages.”

So I say three cheers for that fun-loving wrestler, Old Joe Smith and also for dour, serious, at times ponderous James Fenimore Cooper! If there had been a million more articulate Americans who were pro-Indian, then America today might be a more just nation.

Such praise is not at all to say that Joseph Smith and subsequent Mormon history are beyond criticism. But it does allow us to get at the Book of Mormon from another angle. ‘The whiter the skin, the closer to God’ is certainly there to be found in the book. At the same time, there are also chapters such as 2 Nephi 29, where the kind of Christians that James Fenimore Cooper would write about are referred to as Gentiles(!), in contrast to the covenant Jews and Nephites. For their resistance to the publication of another bible, the Gentiles are reprimanded. They are said to repeat sola scriptura while cursing and hating the Jews from whom they received the Bible (verses 3-6). As for the publication of a Nephite and even Lamanite bible:

Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another (verse 7).

This is not the Unitarianism on its way to atheism that might have pleased a historically fictional doctorate advisor like Peter Fromm’s. Neither is it going to answer tough questions of the type more and more commonly asked as the LDS church comes under increasing media scrutiny. Yet it is something. Here we have scripture written in Judeo-Christian tradition but from a vantage point of Jews and literate Nephites, instead of Christians in Jacksonian America who are rather shockingly called Gentiles. To be sure, the vantage point is of Christianized Jews and Nephites and Lamanites. But if it is not a native vantage point, that makes it all the more remarkable.

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