Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon NarrativesDigging in Cumorah:
Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives
Mark D. Thomas, author

on the cover:
“This inaugurates a new era of Book of Mormon studies.”

Despite being one of the most influential books of scripture since the Koran, the Book of Mormon remains largely an undiscovered text, according to Mark D. Thomas.  In this interpretive primer, he provides an eclectic framework for understanding Mormonism’s founding scripture, including textual, historical, and literary approaches.  His honest scholarship will engage all serious students of religion.

“Mark D. Thomas has rediscovered the Book of Mormon, much as Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative did for the Bible.  He shows how frequent asides to the reader (‘frame breaks’) guide them to the intended devotional significance, and applies modern narratology with great effect, using Robert Alter’s ‘type-narrative’ schema.  This inaugurates a new era of Book of Mormon studies, demonstrating that a searching scrutiny is the greatest friend, and no enemy, of a sacred work, since there can be nothing more edifying than understanding the text.” —Robert M. Price, Jesus Seminar Fellow, Westar Institute: editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism

“This astonishing book probes more deeply into the Book of Mormon’s literary and spiritual qualities than any other work I know.  Its analysis of narrative structures will provide, as Thomas hopes, ‘a means for the current reader to enter into fully informed dialogue with the text.’  His analyses may ‘sound as a faint whisper from the ground of Being.’  In short, the most influential American narrative of the nineteenth century has at last found the scholarly reader it deserves.”
—Wayne C. Booth, Pullman Professor of English, retired, University of Chicago; author, The Knowledge Most Worth Having

Mark D. Thomas has published on the Book of Mormon in Dialogue:  A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, and the Journal of Higher Criticism.  He is a contributor to The Word of God:  Essays on Mormon Scripture and New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, and co-editor of Jacob and the Angel:  Mormon Readers and the Old Testament (forthcoming).  As a founder of the Mormon Studies Seminar, he hosted the 1999 Biblical Archaeology Symposium at the University of Utah.  Currently he and his family reside in Salt Lake City, where he works in public finance.

title page:
Digging in Cumorah
Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives
by Mark D. Thomas
Signature Books
Salt Lake City

copyright page:
dedication:  [p.iii]To Chris, Jeremy, Rachel, and Ann, and the future generation of Mormons
Jacket design:  Larry Clarkson
© Signature Books, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives was printed on acid-free paper. It was manufactured in the United States of America.
Thomas, Mark D.
Digging in Cumorah : reclaiming Book of Mormon narratives /
by Mark D. Thomas. p . cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 1-56085-088-4 (pbk.)
1. Book of Mormon-Commentaries. I. Title.
BX8627.T46 1999
96-2926 CIP

Introduction [see below]

Excursus: An Example of a Cluster of Biblical Parallels
The Book of Mormon as Myth
Visionary Language in the Early Nineteenth Century
The Use of “Wilderness” in the Vocabulary of Joseph Smith
Millennialism in the Early Nineteenth Century
A Test for the Presence of the Phrase “Secret Combination” in Early Nineteenth-century Court Cases
The Refutation of Certain Claims to Allegorical Elements in Secret Combination Narratives

Scriptural Index [not included here]
General Index [not included here]


[p.vii]I will raise up a Moses; and I will give power unto him in a rod; and I will give judgment unto him in writing.

2 Nephi 3: 17

And out of weakness he shall be made strong … and the weakness of their words shall be made strong …

2 Nephi 3:13, 21

The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones.

Book of Commandments 1:4; D&C 1:19

The Book of Mormon has been, by almost any measure, one of the most influential books of scripture to appear since the revelations of Muhammad produced Islam nearly 1,400 years ago. Its worldwide influence continues to increase with the growth of the churches that honor it as the word of God-the largest being the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is published in millions of copies and dozens of languages.

Since its appearance in March 1830, it is clear that the book’s influence runs much deeper than even the number of its readers reveals. In meetings each month, thousands of Mormons testify that “the Book of Mormon is true.” It is a living book that has changed many lives, has created new world views, and continues to provide a source of religious authority. The voice of the text responds with answers to fundamental problems of human existence-individual and social death, sin, and guilt. In short, it presents itself as the restoration of the pure, lost gospel of Jesus Christ to modern readers.

Yet despite the story of its miraculous appearance and influence, the Book of Mormon remains buried, largely unknown. How can this be [p.viii]possible? Ask any non-Mormon biblical scholar if he or she has ever heard of the brass plates which the Book of Mormon claims as its source for an ancient, alternate reading of Isaiah. My experience is that these scholars are unaware of Mormon claims to such ancient biblical texts.  Yet they all seem fascinated when I tell them of these claims, recognizing that their scholarship could be useful in analyzing Mormon texts.

Non-Mormon historians and literary critics have been no better at uncovering and interpreting the book. They often ignore or dismiss it with a single phrase and almost always without a reading. It lies outside the mainstream of religious or literary tradition. It is, in fact, an offensive text to those in the traditions of modern theology and literature. Most historical narratives that have survived were written by members of a social elite. But the Book of Mormon speaks in the voice of outcast visionaries, wanderers in search of a home, and lone survivors of a society’s demise. To grasp the original intention of the Book of Mormon text, we must understand that it is countercultural. Furthermore, it claims no literary supremacy, no polished style. The book teaches that God is revealed through small means, by mere stones, in plain words, with inaccurate and awkward phrases, and by weak and simple people (1 Ne. 16:29, 19:6-7; 2 Ne. 3:11-13, 26:33, 33:5; Alma 37:6-7, Eth. 12:23-27; D&C 1:17-19, 64:33).

Yet the reverence with which most Mormons read the book blinds them to its countercultural challenge. They ignore its offensiveness. Their devotion smothers its prophetic voice. They do not see that the Book of Mormon takes the pages of our modern culture and rips them up in our faces. In addition, almost all serious Mormon scholarship on the book attempts to reconstruct its historical origins, making little or no effort at interpretation. If Mormons fear to read their own holy book, what can we say of the anger found among its enemies? The interpretive stakes are high enough to bury the text by consensus.

The Book of Mormon begs readers from both sides of belief to push away the debris of neglect, prejudice, over-reverence, and fear-and begin to read the text itself. That is what I intend to do.

Beneath that debris is the fascination and scandal of ultimate answers from lost stories. I know that the patient labor of really reading the text is worth the effort. My scholarly passion is rigorous Book of Mormon research. My methodology, molded by critical biblical scholarship, is eclectic and interpretive, combining various textual, historical, and  lit-[p.ix]erary-critical techniques. They help me listen carefully to the voice of the text and enter into dialogue with it. Approached in this way, the Book of Mormon becomes endlessly fascinating and provocative.

I intend my work as part of the foundation for a new tradition in Book of Mormon studies. Such study begins with rigorous, critical scholarship. The Book of Mormon’s divergent literary and religious perspectives leave it vulnerable to attack; it contains serious moral and textual shortcomings. Some Mormons may find my approach threatening. My advice is that it is better to face these difficulties honestly in the context of faith than to weaken faith by ignoring them. If we value our faith and respect the Book of Mormon, there is no substitute for honest, thorough, and serious scholarship.

I have attempted to be both objective about my task and sensitive to the sentiments of fellow believers. But for more than anyone else, I have written this book for those who have lost-or are losing-all belief. The Book of Mormon asks nonbelievers to believe impossible things: that a farm boy is God’s agent in restoring his lost gospel to the world, that the inner word of God is the infallible source of truth, that earthquakes and breathing are manifestations of God’s power, that evil powers can cause treasure to sink lower into the earth and tools to slip away in the night. It would be easier to believe that Joseph Smith’s seer stones were diamonds, that his water witching stick was a royal staff, that a religious salesman bribed God into speaking, that a hill in western New York could be magically levitated to the height of Sinai.

This, the most improbable of books, was written for seekers of both a lost world and a new world-for readers who have misplaced their world somewhere along the way. The Book of Mormon contains both nostalgia for the lost ideal and an apocalyptic hope for a new age. It makes heavy-handed claims to religious authority, but it leads with a strong hand across the desert to refreshing waters.

Before we begin this great narrative adventure, we must review the story behind the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith announced to the world that a heavenly messenger, later identified as Moroni, directed him to uncover the book buried in a hill near his father’s farm. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, dates Moroni’s original visit to 1823. After a number of visits to the hill Joseph obtained the text. He described it as written on thin pages of gold, bound together with metal rings. He de-[p.x]clared that he translated it by divine aid, dictating to scribes what he saw when he looked into stones. After the translation was complete, he returned the gold plates to Moroni. Several accounts of Moroni’s visits, Joseph’s pilgrimages to the hill, and his translation of the book have survived. Joseph dictated the most familiar of these accounts over a decade later, and his story has itself become scripture.

This is the basic story of the Book of Mormon’s appearance. But my focus is the stories within the Book of Mormon. The scandal of the book’s delivery by angelic messenger is exceeded only by the scandal of its own narratives. The heroes of this book are self-assured prophets who chastise more reasonable relatives. These outcast visionaries leave their societies to form a nation. They find life by passing through the desert. In an opening scene, the hero Nephi seeks to save his new civilization by obtaining scripture through murder and deception. And that is just the beginning of this book’s ironies. It builds new worlds out of old ones. It contains the life histories of four nations: one (treated last) beginning at the time of the tower of Babel and the other three beginning about 600 BCE. These national histories are portrayed as containing the essential life story of every nation (1 Ne. 13, 17:37-39; Jac. 5). These narratives begin with a divinely guided migration from the Near East to the promised land of America and end with final destruction due to sin. This universal cultural cycle is powered by universal mechanisms: a divine choosing of this people, a miraculously guided migration, God’s governing over and judgements upon individuals and nations, class structures as a form of social evil, the warning voice of prophets in times of spiritual decline, and, finally, “secret combinations” that destroy the civilization. The Book of Mormon portrays the final destruction of its peoples and prophesies that the reader’s own world will reach the brink of a similar upheaval and social suicide prior to the second coming of Christ. The hidden voice from the dust warns readers that they themselves stand on the verge of their own open graves and that only faith in Jesus Christ can draw them back from that fatal plunge (Eth. 2:9-11). Throughout this national drama are interwoven the personal dramas of salvation: the fatal propensity toward sin of the “natural man,” the triumph of conversion to Christ, and the loneliness of foreseeing and enduring the end of one’s civilization.

Each of these universal social mechanisms in the life of nations and individuals has its own narrative form in the Book of Mormon. In the ten [p.xi]chapters that follow, I analyze a particular literary form in this national and personal drama. Chapter 1 lays out the tools and methodology that I find useful in understanding the Book of Mormon. Although I approach the text from this particular critical method, I have tried to make the work accessible to readers from a variety of backgrounds.

Chapter 2 begins where the book begins: a journey into the wilderness. Chapter 10 ends where the book ends: the final destruction of Book of Mormon society. The chapters in between examine seven other narrative patterns or literary forms. Since form and content are connected, this approach should dramatically increase the reader’s understanding of the book and its messages as he or she engages the Book of Mormon in dialogue.

My work is particularly indebted to the late Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago Divinity School and to Coby Jones, an anthropologist with a Renaissance mind, both of whom have had a major impact on my approach to the Book of Mormon and my life. I also thank those who have offered important suggestions, including David P. Wright, Wayne Booth, Melodie Moench Charles, Kathy Snow, Dan Vogel, Stan Larson, and especially Lavina Fielding Anderson.

I hope that my work does justice to these and all other individuals to whom I am indebted, but the final form of this critical examination is my own responsibility.