In the case of the Book of Mormon, only in 1986 did a prophet, Ezra Taft Benson, order that Mormons study the book closely. “The drama of authorship, of the book’s discovery and its translation,” Steinberg writes, “was for many years the story, the thing that bewitched readers, the thing that made people’s blood boil.” The fact of its existence—an original American scripture—mattered more to its early audience than the narrative it contained. As it happens, that narrative takes place largely in Mesoamerica, and for some current-day Mormons, Mayan ruins have become a place of pilgrimage. Many centuries before Columbus, the Book of Mormon tells us, ocean-faring Hebrews set sail from Jerusalem and landed in Mesoamerica. In “The Lost Book of Mormon,” Steinberg tags along with a tour group to Guatemala and southern Mexico—or, as the Book calls them, the Lands of Nephi and Zarahemla.
A visit to the National Museum of Guatemala offers a fascinating glimpse of Mormon exegesis at work in the field. In one gallery, on a Mayan altar adorned with symbols, a tour guide points out a glyph that could be interpreted as meaning “and it came to pass.” To the pilgrims, this is hugely significant, because “and it came to pass” is the most famous recurring phrase in the Book of Mormon, with a thousand three hundred and eighty-one appearances. Few paragraphs begin without it. To Mormon detractors, Steinberg notes, it’s a telling verbal tic that strongly suggests “a weak ventriloquism of biblical idiom.” For believers, the incessant repetition of the phrase is “like a charming quirk of one’s beloved.” And, more than that, it’s a sign—it must be, given that it appears in scripture. To readers of faith, Steinberg writes, “everything, every mystery, every slightly odd detail, would eventually reveal something.”