Mormons and Jews
by Steven Epperson
Jewish Identity and Destiny in the Book of Mormon
[p.19] Joseph Smith was called “an apostle of Jesus Christ,” “first elder” of the Mormon church, “a seer, a translator, a prophet,” and “brother.” The doctrinal and institutional development of his thought, worked out through his revelations, sermons, teachings, and occasional writing, established his preeminence and galvanized his followers. It also divided the loyalties and bonds of friends and families and drove away bewildered or embittered men and women unable to adjust to his restless vision. But it was Smith, Mormons believe, who laid the foundation of the earthly kingdom of God and tragically paid for his efforts through martyrdom in an obscure town in western Illinois at the age of thirty-eight.1
Though principal author of the LDS religious community, Joseph Smith left, as one scholar described it, only “scattered pieces of Mormon doctrine when he died in 1844. He had left a relatively complete theology, but it was available only in scattered talks, revelations, journal entries, editorials and in the personal records of his colleagues.”2 In these widely dispersed sources spanning his adult years, Smith’s understanding of Israel and Jewish people is disclosed. From the outset he manifests a persistent attention to Israel’s covenant and election, [p.20] its gathering and restoration. But this attention to Israel and the Jewish people has been persistently misread and overlooked for a number of reasons.
Smith’s preoccupation with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not an anomaly in the 1820s through the 1840s, an era of widespread millennial expectation.3 As understood in evangelical circles, converting the Jewish people to Christianity would irresistibly lead to the summation of mortal history and the triumph of Christ’s kingdom.4
An alternate view found in the most popular millennialist movement until 1844, led by William Miller, sidestepped the problem of converting Jews through a “figurative” reading of the scriptures.5 Miller and his followers understood “the church” and its members as constituting a “new” Israel. Miller’s “spiritual” or figurative exegesis rested on his realistic appraisal of Jewish resistance to Christianity. The coming Lord could not wait upon this “recalcitrant” people and their conversion to make his appearance. As one scholar has noted, when Miller encountered the Christian reading of scripture which insisted “that the Jews convert to Christianity and return to Israel before the Second Advent, he was able to provide an interpretation that complemented his predicted year. When the prophets used the word Jew, they were actually talking about Christians, since ‘the putting on of Christ constitut[es] them Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ All who accepted Christ, then, would be considered converted ‘Jews,’ and all the Saints [Christians] together at the Last Day would constitute the Kingdom of Israel.”6 Jewish people dropped out altogether from Miller’s picture and were to suffer the common fate of the ungodly in the coming cataclysm.
Miller’s anti-Jewish adventism, the attention given to Jewish missions by “prophetic” evangelical circles, and Christendom’s traditional claim as sole heir to Abraham’s [p.21] heritage were at odds with the position Joseph Smith formulated during his life. Smith was certainly not immune to his cultural environment, but revelatory events and the requirement of forging a new religious community compelled him to develop a singular theology. Most significantly, the Book of Mormon, a new book of scripture published by Smith in 1830, reconfirmed Israel’s covenant. However, the habits of reading and thinking which Christians brought to the Book of Mormon, even those who had converted to Mormonism, along with the complex structure of this book, long obscured this distinctive theology.
An 1823 revelation received by Joseph Smith set into motion events leading to publication of the Book of Mormon and demonstrated Smith’s enduring interest in the Jewish people and a restored Israel. The message of this revelation turned upon a reading of the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, which deals with the coming of a messianic kingdom of righteousness and peace, the gathering of the dispersed of Israel, and the ending of enmity between Judah and Ephraim.7 This revelation provided Smith and his church with the core terms and blueprint for their restoration movement.8 Covenant, election, restoration, gathering, and reconciliation between hostile families within the household of Israel and between gentiles and Jews figured prominently in the text of the Book of Mormon and were, hereafter, to be fixed preoccupations of Smith.
The Book of Mormon featured narrative and doctrinal elaboration of these themes. However, the status of the book itself has often obscured attention to such themes. The Book of Mormon presents itself as an ancient priestly record, a sacred annal written and preserved by a succession of pious sectaries first transplanted to the western hemisphere from Jerusalem around 600 B.C. Joseph Smith “translated” this record, engraved on golden plates, through the power of God. [p.22] The nature of this translation has been an issue of perennial dispute among students, apologists, and detractors. To the untroubled core of the faithful, the Book of Mormon is a literal history of ancient Americans. To guardians of evangelical and biblicist assumptions, it is a work of blasphemy, a religious imposture foisted upon an unwary public. Pundits have termed it “chloroform in print” (Mark Twain) and the “Book of Pukei…attributed to that spindle shanked ignoramous Jo Smith” (Abner Cole)9 Historians and social scientists seeking naturalist explanations for its appearance in the spring of 1850 have speculated on cerebral bicamerality, trance writing, shamanistic possession, religious “genius,” childhood trauma, and adult neurosis. Archaeologists, philologists, juris doctorae, Egyptologists, and ecclesiastics have all added theories explaining its genesis. What is certain is that Joseph Smith confidently announced his proprietorship over the 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon turned out by E. B. Grandin’s press in March 1830 and in the editions which followed during Smith’s lifetime. He asserted his commitment to the text and was in turn throughout his life claimed by its narratives and doctrines.
Unfortunately, the dispute over authorship obscures attention to what one scholar has called “the fascinating question of the content and meaning.”10 Whatever a reader believes about the origin of the Book of Mormon, the text itself can be considered as a self-contained literary unit, as a world in its own right.
The book presents a complicated frame for its contents, which is the first obstacle for attention to the book’s emphasis on Israel. The book claims to be a highly abridged redaction of a host of source materials. The task of editing secular and holy records from a thousand years of history is said to have depended primarily on two men, Mormon and his son and successor Moroni, who winnowed and distilled the contents of [p.23] the source collections inherited from their predecessors. These they grouped into a final edition by book and author. The literary forms of the text range from historical narratives to private spiritual meditations, from prophetic to apocalyptic declamation. The many styles and voices which make up the book reflect the concerns of a religious, priestly/prophetic elite who wrote and maintained the records.
Fidelity to context in interpretation means considering the Book of Mormon’s consistent focus on Jesus Christ. Mormon and Moroni portray themselves as disciples of the risen Jesus Christ, who is said to have ministered in the Western Hemisphere after his resurrection. As editor of the book, Mormon has abundantly marbled into the text, both in its ante-and post-Christian chapters, veins of his own post-resurrection belief. The purpose of his redaction is to witness to the remnants of his people in future eras that the risen Lord, of whom he is a disciple, is the “messenger of covenant” and the “Holy One of Israel.” The unwary reader may be jarred by resulting anachronisms, including placing explicitly christological details and formulations in pre-Christian settings. Like the pseudepigraphical writings with which it shares certain similarities, the Book of Mormon contains, according to one scholar, “lengthy sections that look very Jewish and others that look peculiarly Christian. The Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon preserve some passages that prophecy the future coming of an ambiguously described messiah, and others that describe his advent in a singularly descriptive and particularistic way.”11
Mormon is untroubled by anachronism and never disguises his literary and theological purposes. Narratives are arranged and earlier texts emended according to his doctrinal aim. Bruce Jorgensen, a professor of English at Brigham Young University, in a study on the typological unity of the Book of Mormon has pointed [p.24] out the systematic structure and “unity of purpose” of the text.12 Mormon, Jorgensen suggests, has deftly created a narrative whole aiming at spiritual and corporate transformation by weaving the evocative imagery of apocalyptic visions into indigenous accounts of the post-resurrection ministry of the glorified Christ.
The explicit messianism of the text, the stated time frame of its production, and its intended, distant audience are obviously crucial elements of the Book of Mormon. Jesus’ post-resurrectional activity is portrayed similarly to apocryphal renditions of the “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum” (the forty-day period of the resurrected Christ’s ministry to his disciples in Palestine [cf. Acts 1:3]).13 Sorting out the world of the text thus requires first considering the stories of earlier generations included in the Book of Mormon and then considering the explicitly Christian commitments of the books’ editors which frame them. The Book of Mormon initially presents itself as the product of devout sectaries who fled from Jerusalem into the wilderness prior to its destruction in 588 B.C. Their order as a community and the principal hermeneutical criteria of their devotion were provided by anticipating the coming of an eschatological prophet, “even a Messiah,” “their Lord and their Redeemer.” This figure, the leaders, prophets, and priests steadfastly affirm, will help realize Israel’s redemption by presiding over and acting through the terms of covenantal promise made by God with Abraham (1 Ne. 22:9-10, 12, 14; 3 Ne. 20). The messiah would vouchsafe Israel’s territorial inheritance and affirm that through Abraham’s seed all the “kindreds of the earth” would indeed be blessed.
A decidedly apocalyptic thrust emerges in the visions and prophecies of these sectaries who come to be known as Nephites.14 Their first patriarch Lehi responds to the unsettling proclamations of eleventh-hour prophets in Jerusalem by joining in preaching repentance, [p.25] announcing the imminent destruction of the city, and emphasizing his faith in the coming messiah who will judge and redeem. The Book of Jeremiah and the contemporary Lachish Letters confirm how ill-received such prophets were.15 Lehi’s criticism of the Jerusalemites was vehemently rejected, and certain parties sought his life. This persecution and rejection precipitated Lehi’s flight into the wilderness and his search for a new inheritance.
This initial story of opposition, estrangement, and coerced flight establishes an important theme in the Book of Mormon. Preserving this story fostered a sense of identity and mission. Eventually the Nephites weighed the Jerusalemites from whom they had “broken off” and found them wanting. Themselves passing through trials, humiliation, and rejection and finally being delivered and bestowed with a new home, they elaborated their own belief in a “Holy Messiah” as “suffering servant” of the Lord: scorned, driven off, yet ultimately exalted.16
The trials, martyrdom, and vindication of their “Holy One” in Jerusalem made intelligible and acceptable the Nephites’ exile as “a lonesome and a solemn people … born in tribulation, in a wilderness” (Jac. 7:26). Just as they were rejected in Jerusalem, so too would their Holy One be rejected, and his life taken (2 Ne. 6:9-11; 10:3; 25:9-18; Moro. 3:12). When Jerusalem repudiated prophets sent to her in perilous times, the Lord revisited them in judgment and exiled them from their covenant house and home (2 Ne. 25:14-15). This affirmed the Lord’s promise that he “shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations” (1 Ne. 22:10). But they were assured they would be redeemed in and through a “Holy Messiah” (2 Ne. 2:6; 1 Ne. 22:12).
Anticipation of this redeemer became the crux of belief and the focus of preaching and practice among the Nephites (2 Ne. 25:23-26, 28-29; 30:2). Their belief in [p.26] the coming prophet was at once the constitutive core of their community and the major cause for their provisional estrangement from those left behind in Jerusalem. This explicit messianism of the Nephites conspicuously affected their attitude toward the institutions of temple and law and their beliefs about the covenant. Once physically removed to the New World, they took great pains to build a temple “after the manner of the temple of Solomon” (2 Ne. 5:16).17 An order of priests and an office of high priest were associated with this temple. The temple became the frequent site for public instruction (Jac. 1:17; 2:2, 11; A1. 16:13; 3 Ne. 11:1) and the structural symbol legitimizing the leaders of the community (Mos. 1:18). Still this temple plays a shadowy and rather inconsequential role in the Book of Mormon narrative. Members of the priesthood teach the law of Moses (Jar. 1:11) and administer the affairs of the religious community (Mos. 23:16-18; 26-28; A1.4:18-19). The cultic function of the temple is mentioned just once in passing (Mos. 2:3). As house of the Lord, it figures only symbolically in prophetic indictments against the sins of the people: “the Lord dwells not in unholy temples” (Mos. 2:37).
It is the eschatological temple to be built in Jerusalem with the advent of a restored Israel which figures prominently in the Book of Mormon. After the mountains are made low and the valleys exalted, the “mountain of the Lord’s house” would be established “in the top of the mountains … exalted above the hills” to which “all nations shall flow” (2 Ne. 12:2; compare Is. 2:2). There the “purified” sons of Levi, purged “as gold and silver,” shall “offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” (3 Ne. 23:3; compare Mal. 3:1). To it “the Lord whom ye seek … even the messenger of covenant, whom ye delight in … shall suddenly come” (3 Ne. 24:1; compare Mal. 3:1). In contrast the provisional, incomplete nature of the sectaries’ fugitive temple is made [p.27] clear in the text both by silence regarding its structure and cultus and by stress on its contingent relation to the prophetic office filled by Nephite religious leaders.
The status of the law of Moses is similarly affected by the messianism of the Nephites. Its eminence in the life of the community is frequently underlined. Both prophet and priest admonish the people to remember the law, to keep its commandments and performances. It was given to Moses from heavenly hands (3 Ne. 15:5). It was bestowed because of the faith of heaven, the patriarch Moses, and of Israel assembled at Sinai (Eth. 12:11). A measure of Nephite esteem for the law can be gauged by the extreme measure employed to obtain a copy of the “record of the Jews” and its “genealogy of [their] forefathers” (1 Ne. 3:3; 1 Ne. 4). The leaders and prophets of the Nephite people acknowledge its essential role in preserving their language, institutions, religious belief, and practice (Om. 1:17; Mos. 12:25-29). Its “performances and ordinances … keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him” (Mos. 13:30). As they affirm: “salvation did come by the law of Moses” (Mos. 12:31-33).
However, the Nephites’ fervent expectation of a new “deuteronomic” prophet (2 Ne. 22:20-21; 3 Ne. 20:23) and the messianic kingdom which would be inaugurated with his coming always qualified their allegiance to Mosaic legislation (2 Ne. 11:4, 25:25-30; Al. 24:15, 34:4). Though instructed to keep the law “because of the commandments” (2 Ne. 25:25), they maintained that one day it would be replaced with a messianic Torah (Al. 34:13, 14; 3 Ne. 1:25).18 Antinomian enthusiasts, claiming that the Law was null and void, occasionally arose from and plagued the Nephite religious community attempting to keep law and messiah in balance (Al. 1:3-4; 30:14-28; 3 Ne. 1:24-25). Such premature and unsanctioned efforts to loose ties of loyalty to Mosaic law were universally condemned by Nephite prophets and leaders. Yet the [p.28] established apocalypticism of the community dictated the anticipated completion and perfection of Mosaic legislation.19
At the same time, the Nephites continued to remember their rejection at Jerusalem. They engraved on their metal plates, the imperishable medium of their scripture, an angry backward glance at those who refused their apocalyptic messianism. Certainly this messianism heightened their ambivalence toward cultus and law, but the Nephite authors also expressed in their writings a fervent faith in God’s covenant with Abraham and the restoration of Jacob’s whole house—a message which nineteenth-century Mormons could not mistake.20
So great was the Nephite reverence for this covenant that they affirmed that the very Jews who had rejected them were still the Lord’s “covenant people” (2 Ne. 29:4-5). It is the Jews who kept a record of the “covenants of the Lord, which he hath made with Israel,” a genealogy of their forebearers (1 Ne. 1:3, 12), and “many of the prophecies of the holy prophets” (1 Ne. 13:23). This stewardship over the sacred text of covenant would result in its “proceeding forth from the mouth of a Jew” in “fulness” and “purity” unto the nations of the world and would be the means of “bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles” (2 Ne. 29:4). The sacred text’s insistence upon accountability by all under the covenant would preserve a nation from “dwindl[ing] and perish[ing] in unbelief” (1 Ne. 4:13) and would furnish it with a vocabulary of creation and redemption if it would respond in faith and fidelity to its covenants with the Lord.
The Nephites were not only concerned about the Lord’s covenant with Israel and the Jews but also the gentiles’ relation to this covenant. Nephi, Lehi’s son, turns to those gentiles who would be endowed with knowledge of Israel’s covenant and pointedly asks: [p.29] “What do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me…? O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them … But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people…” (2 Ne. 29:4-50). Fulfilling the terms of the covenant made with Abraham that “In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed” (1 Ne. 15:18) is the recurring theme of the Book of Mormon. Israel had been scattered abroad, “broken off and … driven out because of the wickedness of the pastors of my people” (1 Ne. 21:1), as well as smitten by gentiles who in their arrogance should esteem the remnants of Jacob “as naught among them.” Still the Lord affirms, in contrast to the anti-Jewish, displacement theologies of historical Christianity, in a passage from Isaiah quoted prominently by Nephi, “Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (1 Ne. 21:3).
The Lord would be glorified first, these pious sectaries believed, when they added their writings to those of their predecessors “unto the confounding of false doctrines” and the bringing of their posterity “to the knowledge of the fathers” (2 Ne. 3:12). Also gentiles would come to a knowledge of the Lord and the terms of his covenant with those who call themselves Israel, thus making Abraham the “father of many nations.” It was the Nephites’ belief that God who made covenant with Abraham would not “suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of blindness” (1 Ne. 13:32).
Paradoxically, light unto the gentiles and further glory unto the Lord of covenant were contingent on transgression by Jerusalemites and Nephites. The latter entertained no illusions about the outcome of their religious experiment in the wilderness. Strewn through[p.30]out the text are poignant and bitter predictions of the demise of their society and of their failure to maintain a life of covenant before the Lord. Similarly they predict the rejection of their Holy One and Redeemer by Jerusalem. In a maneuver reminiscent of their rather unconventional interpretation of the transgression of the first parents, Book of Mormon authors see this “transgression” as a means for blessings to be extended to the gentiles.21
It was expected that the gentiles would fare poorly in their stewardship—”They shall sin against my gospel … and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations” (3 Ne. 16:10). But a remnant among them, “who have care for the house of Israel, that realize and know from whence their blessings come” (Mor. 5:10), would assist the “remnant of Jacob” to gather to the “land [of] their inheritance” (3 Ne. 21:23; 1 Ne. 22:6). The Lord would be glorified through his servant Israel in this act of gathering, in which the gentiles would play an assisting role.
In the penultimate days leading to the messianic kingdom, two great gatherings of scattered Israel were to occur. First, the “remnants” or “seed” of the families of the Nephites would gather to Zion, the “New Jerusalem,” to be reared in the Americas. Then Judah along with those of Israel long since scattered in the “north countries” (Eth. 13:11) would again be established and restored in Israel with Jerusalem as their capital. The Book of Mormon repeatedly asserts that Israel’s restoration depends on realizing the territorial terms of the covenant not in its conversion to, or identity with, the church.
With this emphasis on what early Saints called the restoration of Israel,22 the Book of Mormon, published in 1830, amounted in effect to an elaborate recapitulation of Joseph Smith’s 1823 vision. The text from Isaiah 11 and Malachi 3 quoted to Smith in this early revelation [p.31] reappeared in crucial sections of the Book of Mormon. Indeed the book’s authors emphasize their thematic preoccupation and doctrinal intent by quoting sixteen chapters from Isaiah in the early chapters of the book (1 Ne. 20, 21/Is. 48, 49; 2 Ne. 7, 8/Is. 50, 52; 2 Ne. 12-24/Is. 2-14). These chapters from Isaiah, which include editorial glosses inserted by Nephi, affirm Israel’s covenant (1 Ne. 20:1, 9-11; 21:5; 2 Ne. 8:6). Though scattered for the sake of transgressions (1 Ne. 20:1; 2 Ne. 8:17-22; 2 Ne. 13; 15:7, 13; 19:8-21), Israel yet would be gathered and restored to the Lord’s favor (2 Ne. 8:11; 2 Ne. 14). Meanwhile judgment would befall Israel’s oppressors. A holy messiah would arise to establish justice and peace and reign from his Zion, his Jerusalem (2 Ne. 21:1-4).
Significantly for those gentiles who were to read these passages attesting to the authority of Isaiah’s prophecies, Israel would be a “light to the Gentiles, that thou [Israel] mayst be my salvation unto the ends of the earth” (1 Ne. 20:6). Gentile nations would “flow unto” the “mountain of the Lord’s house” to be taught the law and the word of the Lord (2 Ne. 12:2, 3); they would aid in Israel’s gathering (1 Ne. 21:22-23). And finally because of their faithfulness, they would join with and “cleave to the house of Jacob” (2 Ne. 24:1).
The beliefs and overriding concerns of the Nephites arose from the context of Israel’s covenant with the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is clearly underlined by the book’s affirmation of Israel’s life of covenant and its confident hope in Israel’s vindication and restoration. In the Book of Mormon, gentiles are enjoined to “cleave” to Israel not to convert Israel. It is the gentiles who are being brought into and made beneficiaries of Israel’s covenantal household not the other way around.
According to the records received and edited by Mormon and Moroni, Christ confirmed the covenantal faith and aspirations of the early writers when he visited the Americas. Thus the final editors reaffirmed this [p.32] inherited messianic tradition and devotion to covenant and wed it textually to the words and deeds of the exalted Lord. They record that their Holy One promises an end to Israel’s exile and bondage. The Messiah affirms Israel’s future gathering to territorial patrimonies (3 Ne. 20:22, 29). Restored to lands of inheritance set aside by divine covenant, Israel’s whole house would enjoy the fruits of liberation, peace, knowledge, and security from “oppression … and from terror” (3 Ne. 22:3-17). The terms of Abraham’s covenant would be acknowledged “in the eyes of all nations.” Israel had been and remained the peculiar vessel of covenant. The record of Israel’s witness would be presented to the gentiles by the extraordinary restoration of these scriptures.
Specifically the gentiles would receive the blessings of Israel’s God through the work and witness of Israel’s deuteronomic prophet. Though sent first to his own people to turn “everyone of you from his iniquities” (3 Ne. 20:26), his call to repentance and fidelity to the Lord God of Israel would go out unto all nations. In the events of gathering, restoration, and in the extension of covenantal responsibility to the righteous among the nations, the “Father shall bare his holy arm … and the earth shall see the salvation of the Father” (3 Ne. 20:30-31, 35, 39).
The climax is one of reconciliation. Israel will see through its gathering and restoration the fidelity and mercy of the Lord. Gentiles will assist and cleave unto the house of Jacob rather than be its scourge (3 Ne. 21:23). Reconciled to Israel’s God through repentance and solidarity with his people, the righteous among the nations will be accounted Abraham’s seed and find “glorious rest.”
Finally it was the fervent faith of the Book of Mormon writers that with Israel’s salvation manifested through these momentous events, Israel would see that [p.33] the cause of their God and of his messianic prophet, this son of Israel, had always been the same: “and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of the Father; and [that] the Father and I are one” (3 Ne. 20:35). Thus in Abraham’s seed all the people of the earth would be blessed (3 Ne. 20:25, 27).
Such were the views on Israel, its covenant and future, as expressed in a book coming off a modest printing press in a small Erie Canal town in the spring of 1830. At first reading there is no mistaking the intense christocentrism of the Book of Mormon.23 Given this emphasis on Christ in the structuring of the Book of Mormon, it is not so surprising that gentiles reading the book since 1830 generally missed its distinctive theology of Israel and Judaism. Christian readers bring other expectations to the book which obscure important distinctions. First, they bring to the text the bitter split between “synagogue” and “church” which dates back to the “New” Testament or Apostolic Writings. Gentile readers bring and have brought to Israel’s scripture the impress of Christian triumphalism, anti-Judaic theology, and all of the rhetoric and reality of historically polarized religious traditions and communities. This agenda licenses a habit of christologizing Israel’s prophetic literary corpus. In the case of traditional Christian apologetics, the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, became a vast storehouse of proof-texts not only for Christian claims about Jesus of Nazareth but also the rationale for Israel’s displacement in the covenantal scheme of salvation by a gentile church intent upon claiming exclusive rights to Israel’s heritage.
Thus when gentiles read the debate between factions of Israel’s contentious families on the pages of the Book of Mormon, further doctrinal justification is mistakenly provided to the long conceptual assault on the election and integrity of Israel. Nephite criticism of cultus and law and of the Jerusalemites from whom they [p.34] parted has been interpreted as rejecting Jewish election, Torah, and cult altogether. The agenda of Christendom and its mission was misunderstood as a complete replacement for all that is criticized on the pages of the Nephite record.
However, the consciously orchestrated text of the Book of Mormon is for all its christocentrism peculiarly pitched toward the realization of God’s covenant with Israel. Israel’s covenant dominates the text the way a “main theme” presides through the exposition, development, and recapitulation of a sonata. The introduction of secondary themes, modulations among one or several keys and “architectural” divisions into movements, serve to develop and underline rather than emasculate the central idea introduced in the design’s exposition. God’s covenant with Israel as it is worked out through the text of the Book of Mormon is an ever valid, living reality between Israel’s God and Israel’s whole family. The authenticity of this covenant will be manifest to all nations when Israel gathers to its territorial patrimonies, is restored as a people and nation, and thus will become a light unto the gentiles. The publication of the text of the Book of Mormon in 1830 also was understood by its readers as heralding the imminent end of the “fulness of the gentiles.” In Smith’s eyes it was important that gentile readers heed its call to repent and gather to a refuge designated by the Lord.
Judged by the written evidence which Joseph Smith left behind, such was the Book of Mormon’s principal message to the Latter-day Saints.24 Four years after the book was published, he emphatically underlined the centrality of his visions and of the Book of Mormon in providing the agenda and the goal for the work of the Latter-day Saints: “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations, and where is our religion? We have none; for without Zion, and the place of deliverance, we must fall … For God will gather out his Saints from the [p.35] Gentiles, and then comes desolation and destruction, and none can escape save the pure in heart who are gathered.”25
The Book of Mormon designated the geographical sites for this great gathering of Israel 1 Ne. 22:6) and indicated to whom exactly the land would be “deeded” by the Lord (Eth. 13:1-12).26 In a country poised at the edge of a decade of intense nationalism and possessed with a grandiose vision of America’s “manifest destiny,” Joseph Smith published a book in which rights to the land being settled by men and women of European descent were granted by a solemn covenant of the Almighty to “our western tribes of Indians.”27 It is only through complying “with the requisitions of the new covenant,” Smith wrote, that gentiles have any hope at all to claim this “promised land” as their heritage as well. But clearly Smith understood that the land’s rightful inhabitants were the Israelite remnants of the people of the Book of Mormon of whom Smith believed the American Indians to be a part.28 And in the Book of Mormon, a harrowing fate is promised to those who usurp this right and fight against the Lord’s covenant people: “He that shall breathe out wrath and strifes… against the covenant people of the Lord who are of the house of Israel, and shall say: We will destroy the work of the Lord, and the Lord will not remember his covenant which he hath made unto the house of Israel—the same is in danger to be hewn down and cast into the fire; For the eternal purposes of the Lord shall roll on, until all his promises shall be fulfilled” (Morm. 8:21-23).
Nevertheless in the months preceding and following the publication of the Book of Mormon, Smith’s immediate understanding of the document over which he claimed proprietorship was captivated by its theme of transformation, of repentance and conversion. Two of Smith’s revelations from the same year attest to this particular reading of the text. In one, dated March 1830, [p.36] a description of the document was given to Martin Harris, one of Smith’s earliest disciples and a financial backer of the book’s first edition. He was told that the Book of Mormon was the Lord’s word “to the Gentiles, that soon it may go to the Jews, of whom the Lamanites [American Indians] are a remnant.”
A month later in a revelation coinciding with the organization of the “Church of Christ” in New York, Smith underlined that the “editorial intent” affixed to the Book of Mormon’s title page included imparting the gospel “to the Gentiles and the Jews also.” Such statements indicated one of the ways in which the text of the Book of Mormon can be and has been read. However, statements by leading figures in the first decades of the LDS church explicitly linking Book of Mormon passages to calls for the evangelizing and converting of Jews are scarce. Jewish missions were explicitly rejected by most leaders of the LDS church and were never part of the church’s program in the nineteenth century.
The repudiation of missions on the one hand or the feeble and scattered advocacy of conversion on the other can be seen as a product of the Book of Mormon itself. The conversion of the Jewish people to the church is never mentioned nor advocated in the Book of Mormon. Indeed according to the Book of Mormon, it is the Gentiles who are to convert “through [the] preaching of Jews” (3 Ne. 15:22). At the same time the book’s editors hoped that events would transpire in such a way as to show Jesus as “one with the Father” in Israel’s salvation. But nowhere is this hope then linked to conversion to the gentile church.
After 1830 Joseph Smith no longer interpreted or preached that the Book of Mormon was an elaborate proselyting tract for “Gentiles and Jews alike.” Instead themes connected with God’s covenant to Israel and the complex of events which confirmed and would yet authenticate that covenant predominated Smith’s exegesis[p.37] of the text. It is remarkable that a church at once as sectarian-minded and mission-oriented as was Smith’s was so reticent to carry out a Jewish mission. The absence of a Mormon mission to the Jewish people, when combined with Smith’s contempt for Christian missions to Jews, is a striking deviation from the nearly universal enthusiasm accorded Jewish missions in the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed when Mormons finally commissioned one of the church’s twelve apostles to take a mission to Jews in western Europe and the “Holy Land,” he was sent with a manifestly non-evangelistic, non-proselyting commission and agenda.
As interpreted by Joseph Smith and his associates, the immediate and abiding worth of the Book of Mormon lay elsewhere. While it is true that the April 1830 “Revelation on Church Organization and Government” referred to the Book of Mormon as a gospel “to the Gentiles and the Jews also,” the revelation also affirmed the sacred text in ways which eclipse “conversionist” interpretations. “The Book of Mormon,” it was grandly announced, “was given by inspiration, and … confirmed to others by the ministering of angels.” The document issuing from Grandin’s press was both timely and timeless in its import, “Proving to the world that holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation … Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today and forever. Amen” (D&C 20:10-12).
All of “God’s promises would be fulfilled.” That was the book’s testimony to the earnest seekers for light and knowledge who expectantly took up the texts of the book’s first edition. Foremost among the Lord’s promises were his covenants with Israel. To this the words of Mormon attest: “Ye need not any longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel; for behold, the Lord remembereth [p.38] his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn” (3 Ne. 29:8).
1. For the best treatment of Joseph Smith, see Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984). See also Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977); Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2d ed., rev. and enlarged (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971); and Smith’ s narrative history written with the help of scribes and church historians, Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1927-32); hereafter cited as HC.
3. David L. Rowe, Thunder and Trumpets: Millerites and Dissenting Religion in Upstate New York, 1800-1850, American Academy of Religion, Studies in Religion (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985). In this excellent study of the Millerite movement, Rowe pointed out that “any religious journal of the day included commentaries on the prophesies from one theological position or another as part of their regular fare” (54).
8. See Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 127-29; Laurel B. Andrew, The Early Temples of the Mormons: The Architecture of the Millennial Kingdom in the American West (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978), 8-9; Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Religious Studies Monograph Series, vol. 6 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 48n4; Gordon Irving, “The Mormons and the Bible in the 1830s,” Brigham Young University Studies 13 Summer 1973): 284-87.
11. James H. Charlesworth, “Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen, The Religious Studies Monograph Series, vol. 4 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 124.
12. Bruce W. Jorgensen, “The Dark Way of the Tree: Typological Unity of the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert, Religious Studies Monograph Series, vol. 5 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 219-20.
14. According to the Book of Mormon text, what we know of the ministry and life of Lehi comes to us second-hand through writings of his son Nephi. For an article on Lehi and the character of his record as redacted by his son, see S. Kent Brown, “Lehi’s Personal Record: Quest for a Missing Source,” Brigham Young University Studies 24 (Winter 1984): 1942.
16. Compare Gershom Scholam, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676, Bolingen Series XCIII (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 55-57, 795-96, 804-805. See also Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism: And Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (NewYork: Schocken Books, 1971), 32-33, 50-52.
17. Another community of Israelites established far from the precincts of the Holy City, the Jewish military colony at Elephantine on the Nile, with whom Lehi and his descendants were contemporaries, also reared a temple in exile as a center for faith and worship. The Elephantine garrison “saw nothing wrong in having their own temple even though a temple to the God of Israel existed in Jerusalem.” See Abraham Schalit, “Elephantine,” in Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 6 (Jerusalem: Macmillan Co., 1971), 608.
18. Ambivalence toward the law and its ultimate authority was not unique to this particular group of Israelites. This very Deuteronomic tradition (Deut. 18:15-22) was employed by the Qumran sectaries to validate their “restatement of scriptural rules.” See Bernard Jackson, “Law,” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, ed. Paul Achtemeier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 550. Gershom Scholem has pointed out the “anarchic element in the very nature of Messianic utopianism: the dissolution of old ties which lose their meaning in the new context of Messianic freedom.” The Messianic Idea in Judaism, 19. On the antinomian component to messianic movements of David Alroy in Kurdistan, the Yemeni “Messiah,” and Sabbatal Sevi, see 22, 50-52.
21. In Lehi’s view of the garden story, Adam and Eve transgress in order for a much greater good to be realized: first, the knowledge of good and evil necessary for experiencing joy in this world (which he claims is the whole intent of the divine creation of humanity); and second, the knowledge which makes possible “even the family of all the earth.” “Behold,” Lehi reasons, “all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.” See 2 Ne. 2.
23. Further impetus in ascribing messianic titles to the risen Lord can be found in the narratives describing the community set up by Christ in ancient America and the near two-hundred-year period of peace, equity, and justice sustained by his disciples. Compare 4 Ne. 1-22.