Terryl Givens' By the Hand of Mormon (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002) is an up-to-date summary of scholarly Book of Mormon commentary and criticism. The book emphasizes the last forty years of scholarship and also provides, almost in passing, a short history of the ever-growing Mormon apologetics industry. That in itself is likely to help some readers place long-running debates in a useful institutional context that might help explain why, for example, a discussion about Signature Books or FARMS is likely to be far more contentious than a discussion about Nephite geography or the Isaiah problem. Givens himself does an admirable job of giving fair summaries and footnote citations to both sides of disputed issues, and he shows some sympathy for the admittedly problematic search for middle ground (see a long discussion at p. 165-84).
Givens groups his discussion under four themes, considering the Book of Mormon alternatively (1) as a sacred sign of Joseph Smith's divine calling; (2) as a record of ancient history; (3) as a cultural product of the 19th century; and (4) as a source of new theology or "plain and precious truths."
A Sacred Sign
In early Mormon preaching and teaching, the significance of the Book of Mormon derived from the mere fact that new scripture was delivered to the world by way of Joseph Smith rather than from any new or restored doctrines taught in the book. In an odd way, the Book of Mormon was (and often is) presented as testifying of Joseph Smith and his work rather than Joseph testifying of the Book of Mormon and its teachings. It's as if, once translated, the book itself should stand or fall on its own. Givens states:
[L]ooking at the Book of Mormon in terms of its early uses and reception, it becomes clear that this American scripture has exerted influence within the church and reaction outside the church not primarily by virtue of its substance, but rather its manner of appearing, not on the merits of what it says, but what it enacts. . . . The Book of Mormon is preeminently a concrete manifestation of sacred utterance, and thus an evidence of divine presence, before it is a repository of theological claims (p. 63-64).
Givens quotes Klaus Hansen's opinion that those who accepted the message of the Book of Mormon found it easy to accept the account of its origins, but points out that "in a very essential way . . . the 'message' of the Book of Mormon was its manner of origin" (p. 84). Intiguingly, he notes that even Joseph himself rarely used the Book of Mormon as a source of doctrine: "During the seven years of the church's Nauvoo period, when Joseph was preaching in public on a regular basis, the hundreds of recorded pages of his sermons contain only a handful of brief allusions to the Book of Mormon---and none of them involve sustained discussion of doctrine or any other content" (p. 85). One gets the impression that Joseph read from the book rather infrequently. It seems somewhat ironic that, while a good deal of contemporarly Mormon criticism and apologetics swirls around the Book of Mormon, Joseph himself hardly seems to have given it a second thought after 1830.
An Ancient History
If the Book of Mormon documents actual historical events, diligent investigation should be able to link the text to real-world sites and artifacts. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? After all, Joseph was not shy about identifying places linked to the Book of Mormon and other scriptural sources. Givens notes several articles from early LDS periodicals highlighting emerging archaeological discoveries in the Americas first coming to light in the 1830s and 1840s. The ruins of Central America were first widely publicized by Stephens' 1841 book, which included stunning illustrations by Frederick Catherwood (p. 99-100). Joseph and his fellow Mormons were impressed and justifiably encouraged by these discoveries, which quickly refocused LDS attention on Central America as a site for many Book of Mormon events (p. 104). Orson Pratt's 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon, which set the text in the chapter and verse format we know today, went so far as to include "some 75 geographical comments and identifications into the footnotes" (p. 106). These were dropped in the 1920 edition (p. 109).
The difficulty in matching up Nephite narrative with American archaeology is illustrated in the summary of B. H. Roberts' work on the topic. Roberts, "the truly dominant Mormon intellectual of the era" (p. 106), published the 3-volume New Witnesses for God between 1895 and 1911 based on his study of American archaeology. But a short letter written by a curious young member 1921 (asking about languages, horses, steel, cimiters, and silk) plunged Roberts back into the whole issue, ultimately leading to a detailed presentation by Roberts to the leadership of the Church in January 1922. His findings were detailed in a 141-page report entitled "Book of Mormon Difficulties" (p. 110). That report, along with other material and a biographical essay, is included in Studies of the Book of Mormon, edited by Brigham Madsen (Signature, 1992). Roberts' candor in presenting criticisms has engendered some debate over the final state of his personal convictions, but he continued to affirm the book's veracity in public and apparently in private until his death (p. 111).
Coming in Part 2: The Rise of FARMS.