Perhaps the most appropriate subject for this last column of 2016, a year when the adult curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been devoted to the Book of Mormon, is the truth and significance of that book.
The most amazing fact about it is its very existence. That it was dictated at remarkable speed by an impoverished and poorly educated young farmer is both impressive and difficult to explain in secular terms. Its demonstrable complexity is also striking in that light. (For an introduction to this topic, see Melvin Thorne’s 1997 “Complexity, Consistency, Ignorance, and Probabilities” on publications.mi.byu.edu).
The testimonies of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon also cannot be simply brushed off. (For brief treatments, please see my previous columns “Book of Mormon witness testimonies,” “Did Book of Mormon witnesses simply see the golden plates with their 'spiritual eyes'?” and “Mary Whitmer, 12th witness to the Book of Mormon” .) They ensure that Moroni and the golden plates cannot be dismissed as merely the product of the personal imagination of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who received the plates from the Angel Moroni and translated them.
And then there’s the price paid by some of these witnesses. I turn here to Joseph's brother Hyrum Smith, and to Joseph Smith himself. Shortly before being murdered by a mob, Hyrum sought comfort in Ether 12:37-38 and Joseph testified to his captors of the Book of Mormon’s divine origin. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s 2009 commentary is precisely on point:
“In this their greatest — and last — hour of need, I ask you: Would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?” asked Elder Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“Never mind,” Elder Holland continued, “that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be ‘houseless, friendless and homeless’ and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this Earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the church which espouses it to be true.
"Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.”
And then there are the sometimes astonishing parallels and affinities between the Book of Mormon and its claimed environment in the ancient Middle East and pre-Columbian America. The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, known as FARMS, and its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, identified and shared such features for many years. Today, that work continues through the Interpreter Foundation online at www.mormoninterpreter.com (of which I am chairman), Book of Mormon Central online at bookofmormoncentral.org and similar efforts.
Recently, I’ve been amazed at the quite unexpected evidence, turned up by Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack, for the presence of early modern English in the Book of Mormon dictated by Joseph Smith. The book’s truth claims certainly don’t demand such surprising linguistic features, but, again, a naturalistic explanation for the appearance in the text of linguistic elements from generations before Joseph Smith was born and absent from the King James Bible is hard to imagine.
From another linguistic angle, Brian Stubbs’s identification of apparent ancient Semitic and Egyptian influence on Uto-Aztecan languages — see a recent review of his recent major scholarly book on the topic at byustudies.byu.edu; find his new, shorter, more popular, LDS-oriented treatment in "Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now" — intrigues me. We wouldn’t necessarily expect such findings and, even if they prove genuine, they wouldn’t actually prove the Book of Mormon true. But solid evidence of ancient Middle Eastern influences on Amerindian languages would dramatically weaken a main skeptical argument against the book’s claim.
Why does any of this matter? Because the Book of Mormon testifies — and, if it’s true, it demonstrates — that there is a God who cares about us, who still speaks, who sent his son to pay for our sins and open the doors of eternal life to us. There’s no better knowledge to take with us into 2017.