Loving the Book of Mormon Prophets without Accepting Their Prejudices: A Review of “The Book of Mormon for the Least of These, Volume 1”

A while back, a friend sent me an uncomfortable text. She is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but someone had given her daughter the old illustrated Book of Mormon Stories book, and her daughter came across the passage in Second Nephi when Nephi narrates that Laman and Lemuel’s descendants are cursed because of their wickedness and become a dark-skinned people. My friend texted, “We were wondering if there is some context missing that would make it seem less racist?” It’s a troubling passage for me and many other readers, but I finally had words to formulate a response, and for that, I can thank Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming’s wonderful commentary The Book of Mormon for the Least of These: 1 Nephi – Words of Mormon, which the authors dedicated to “those who seek God and work for justice.”

In this volume, Salleh and Hemming show a deep love and respect for the individuals in the Book of Mormon while also examining the challenges they experienced and how those may have colored some of their own perspectives, as in the passage referenced above. They invite us to not only consider the voices we hear and events we see but also those we do not: “Who is present but unheard? Who is suffering and why?” But they also invite us to question the perspectives of the narrators: “What are the assumptions this person is making? Is there another way to understand this story?” All of this analysis is informed by a close reading of the text together with a steady stream of powerful insights. 

Three places where this approach comes out clearly are in their discussion of Nephi’s killing of Laban (1 Nephi 4), the “invitation” to Zoram to join their party (1 Nephi 4), and in the characterization of the Lamanites’ curse and change of skin color (2 Nephi 5). After a discussion of Nephi’s dilemma with Laban, they remind us: “the reader’s role is not to judge Nephi’s choice, but rather to empathize with his suffering [remember that Nephi was beaten by his own brothers just before this] and consider how we can use God’s voice to navigate the challenging choices we make in our own lives.” With Nephi and Zoram, the authors highlight that while “Nephi tells a narrative where the conflict is resolved peacefully and Zoram willingly goes with the family into the wilderness,” it’s also true that, again returning to the words of Salleh and Hemming, “when the choice is between death and something else, it’s not a real choice.” Later, in Alma 54:23, a descendant of Zoram recites a different, less sympathetic narrative. It’s striking that we never hear Zoram’s own narrative, which invites the reflection: “Why do the perspectives of those who are present but silent matter?” (This goes for many characters in the Book of Mormon, especially women.) 

In the case of the curse on on the descendants of Laban, the authors first take apart some of Nephi’s claims, such as that the Lamanites are idle (“we will read in the following pages of the Book of Mormon that the Lamanites build a society that rivals that of the Nephites”) or that their hunting for food is an indication of their curse (“We know that Nephi used his bow to hunt for food and that God guided him in those efforts. Why is hunting for food suddenly a sign of immorality?”). They talk about the dangers of reading the judgments of God into the lives of others. So what do we do with this passage? “Nephi’s words present readers with two simultaneous challenges: offer empathy for his humanness and refuse to elevate his words to the divine status. Nephi made a mistake. We should not compound the problem by turning it into a foundation for our own theology.”

Lest you walk away thinking that this book is a catalog of trauma or of Nephi’s faults (or those of others, like Lehi or Jacob), nothing could be further from the truth. The love that Salleh and Hemming feel for the prophets of the Book of Mormon is palpable: “Nephi is an extraordinary example of faith in the face of terror, suffering, and sadness.” Regarding Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 10, Nephi “actively searches out his own experience and has truth erupt all about him.” When Jacob maligns the entire Lamanite people (2 Nephi 10), the authors reflect on his refugee status and comment that “given the history of his life, it seems like a response that readers can understand and forgive.” As Daniel Becerra writes, “the authors never adopt critical rhetoric without also allowing space for empathy and understanding of such persons’ individual circumstances.” 

I adored this book (without needing to agree with every single interpretation). I’ve read it from start to finish twice, and I’m sure I will again. In my copy, almost every page has highlights or annotations. The authors write that “the wisdom and strength of the Book of Mormon is an abundant feast, ready and waiting for us to partake.” The loving, widely embracing analysis of Salleh and Hemming has made this feast even more delicious. (Apparently volume 2 is coming out soon, so now’s your perfect chance to read volume 1!)

Here are a few thoughts from other reviewers:

  • How readable is it? “I consider myself smart but have walked away from a few scriptural companions because they were just too esoteric. But let me say that I teach Primary to the ten-year-olds and have incorporated ideas and even read bits to them. Salleh and Hemming as authors, and guides really, have artfully taken complicated ideas and insights and found ways to make them accessible and relatable.” (Heather, Exponent II

 

  • The loving God of the Book of Mormon: “In my experience, traditional readings of the Book of Mormon focus on connecting stories to the worst stereotypes of a demanding Old Testament God who insists upon unquestioning obedience. In this book, Fatimah and Margaret connect the stories to a loving God who can handle our questions and our own struggles with faith and doubt. They model curiosity about the text and hold the narrators accountable for their own bad decisions and bigotry, calling out violence, sexism, racism, anti-semitism, prosperity gospel, ideas about land possession, homophobia, classism, and abuses of power.” (Nancy Ross, By Common Consent)

 

  • Will I agree with everything in this book? “Thoroughly insightful, respectfully reverent, and challenging, there is no end to the value of insight that can be gained from taking this journey. Everyone will not agree with everything in this book, but the conversations and thoughts this book starts will cause readers to reevaluate how they are caring for ‘the least of these.’” (Denice Mouncé, Association of Mormon Letters)

6 comments for “Loving the Book of Mormon Prophets without Accepting Their Prejudices: A Review of “The Book of Mormon for the Least of These, Volume 1”

  1. Sounds interesting. Maybe their perspective will also help us to love the BoM prophets without reading *our* prejudices into their stories.

  2. Thirty years ago, Anthony Hutchinson famously advocated reading the Book of Mormon as fiction in his essay “The Word of God is Enough”. That Anthony eventually decided to leave the Church and be ordained an Episcopalian priest seems to indicate that he decided that a fictional Book of Mormon really *wasn’t* enough to make him want to stay on the LDS Church’s covenant path.

    Is the theory of a Book of Mormon jam-packed with unreliable narrators any more likely to make people want to stay on that path? It doesn’t seem to have had that effect on Reverend Salleh, who left the Church to be ordained a Baptist minister.

    Conversely, it’s easy for me to read, say, the Quran the way that Salleh wants me to read the Book of Mormon, but that practice isn’t making me want to perform the Hajj.

  3. Thanks, Nathan. I see your point. I think some people are more likely to stay on the path with a Book of Mormon where prophets are human, with their own prejudices, than with a Book of Mormon filled with divinely sanctioned prejudices. I’m not sure what the net effect is.

  4. Jack: Thanks. Letting go of my own prejudices when I read is even harder! Nicely said. Room for grace on all sides.

  5. I recently rediscovered an article by a black convert to the Church (one I had shared on social media a few years ago) who has spent a lot of time exploring some of the “trigger” verses in the Book of Mormon. I’m not sure if a link would come through so, if interested, you can look up Marvin Perkins on LDS Living; an article sharing his perspectives on misunderstandings about language in the Book of Mormon is a worthwhile read…and his thoughts run broader than just the verses that sometimes trip people up.

    I appreciated his perspective and it mirrors some of my own experience taking questions about -isms to the scriptures. e.g., looking for patterns connected to words like “skin” or “white” or “dark” or “mark” and looking for instances of inclusive language in the Book of Mormon in particular (words like “all” or phrases like “children of God” or “all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people” or “multitude” etc.). This kind of study has enlarged my view on issues such as racism or sexism in the scriptures.

    I’m not saying our ancient forebears were faultless; that would be both silly and tragic to claim, since we are all beggars and the scriptures are there to remind us how much we all need Christ. But by the same token, I do think that it’s all too easy to read our own modern sensitivities onto scripture. And especially with the Book of Mormon, I hope we encourage people to experiment on the word as the experiment was designed — to engage directly with God about the book, and to seek to test its stated purpose as another testament of Christ for all of God’s children. If we hold it primariliy against a modern social sensitivity test, I think we do ourselves and the book a great disservice.

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