Institute scholars discuss the state of Book of Mormon scholarship at annual BoMSA conference

10.13.2020 | Blair Hodges

Unsurprisingly, the annual conference of the Book of Mormon Studies Association (BoMSA) had to go virtual this year. Over the weekend several dozen scholars—including four from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute—gathered online to discuss presentations about the keystone scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

BoMSA is an independent organization fostering rigorous academic study of the Book of Mormon by scholars from within the Latter-day Saint tradition and beyond. Their conference, co-sponsored by the Institute, gives young scholars, graduate students, and senior scholars opportunities to workshop projects before they’re ready for publication to academic or more general audiences.

Dr. Janiece Johnson offered updates about her path-breaking work about how early Latter-day Saints understood and used the Book of Mormon. Church apostle William McLellin’s extensively annotated and indexed personal copy of the Book of Mormon is a fascinating window. Consider: if you had to index the Book of Mormon yourself, what entries would you make? Your decisions might say a lot about what you look for in the text and what you believe the text asks of you.

Steven Peck’s presentation (yes, it included insects) argued that the Book of Mormon can be fruitfully interpreted as “minor literature” in the ironic sense of philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Ironic because rather than “minor” as in small, it’s minor in the sense of being both crucial and often overlooked. It resists the mainstream flow of the era, it is “political” in the sense of speaking about how society is structured, it addresses moral questions about the justice of such structure. In other words, the Book of Mormon is not just a nice story; it crucially pertains to life in the present.

Dr. Christopher Blythe discussed his ongoing research into folklore about the Three Nephites, figures in the Book of Mormon who are said to transcend the constraints of death in order to do the work of salvation on earth. According to Dr. Blythe, folklore—that is, community narratives, not necessarily “false”— are ubiquitous among Latter-day Saints. What are their names? Where are they? What are they doing? Blythe says the lack of definitive answers to questions like these encourages more stories to spread.

Finally, Institute executive director Spencer Fluhman was interviewed by Dr. Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon Studies at Utah State University, about the Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series. Fluhman said the series, written by devoted Latter-day Saint scholars, is intended to send a clear signal: “The Book of Mormon meaningfully engages our world today.”

“Shouldn’t scripture be capable of asking questions of readers time and time again, in different times and places,” Fluhman asked. “We believe the Book of Mormon sustains a new wave of scholarly exegesis, rooted in time and place, producing pressing insights for our day. We hope that’s what this series shows.”

To learn more about the Book of Mormon Studies Association and its mission, go to https://bomsa.org.