long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Jonathan Edwards: BYU Studies

For today's observations about Jonathan Edwards and the Book of Mormon we'll consider the latest edition of BYU Studies, which features an article by Richard Bushman titled "Translation and the World Order."


In the article, Bushman describes some of the most recent approaches to understanding the text of the Book of Mormon. He explains:

In the matter of diction, [B.H.] Roberts was an environmentalist and, in Schleiermacher’s terms, saw the Book of Mormon translation as moving the text toward the reader rather than preserving foreign terms.

Recently, Latter-­day Saint scholars have increasingly followed Roberts’s line of reasoning. Instead of emphasizing the absence of nineteenth-­century language as previous apologists did, they have picked up on Roberts’s language “common to the time and locality” and joined the critics in identifying elements of Joseph Smith’s cultural environment in the Book of Mormon. 

Instead of trying to refute environmentalism, they recognize substantial evidence of Joseph Smith’s world in the text. In a recent work on translation, Jonathan Neville finds language from the influential Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards in the Book of Mormon, hypothesizing a young Joseph Smith stocking his mind with Edwardian diction heard from local pulpits and perhaps written works.10 

Brant Gardner points to phrases like “song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26) that would be alien to Nephi’s culture but commonplace in nineteenth-­century America’s evangelical culture.11 Then there are the tens of thousands of two- to four-word phrases from the King James Bible, not likely to be found in Mormon’s language or Nephi’s.12 

In their interpretations of Book of Mormon translation, these scholars are abandoning Schleiermacher’s first translation alternative of moving the reader toward the writer and adopting his second method, moving the original author toward his modern readers.13

10. Neville has found almost four hundred nonbiblical phrases of three words or more common to Edwards’s writings and the Book of Mormon. See Jonathan Edward Neville, Infinite Goodness: Joseph Smith, Jonathan Edwards, and the Book of Mormon (n.p.: Museum of the Book of Mormon, 2021), xiii–xiv, 3–8, 185–86, 239–81.

11. Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 256; see also 187–95. For a summary of other Latter-day Saint views on modern language in the Book of Mormon, see Gardner, Gift and Power, 148–56.

12. See Bushman, Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates, 179.

13. All of these scholars honor Joseph Smith’s inspiration but look for ways to account for the many traces of nineteenth-century culture in the book. As Grant Hardy puts it, “The English Book of Mormon may be a rather free translation that was nevertheless revealed word for word.” Grant Hardy, “The Book of Mormon Translation Process,” BYU Studies Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2021): 205.

While Bushman was correct that in my book Infinite Goodness I mentioned 400 nonbiblical Edwardsian phrases, the database has expanded considerably since that book was published. 


In Alma chapter 1 alone, there are around 50 nonbiblical Edwardsian phrases.


The word count in Alma 1 is something like this (omitting common words/phrases and depending on how we could unique words and phrases).

Bold = KJV (~234 words)

Blue = nonbiblical BofM/D&C w/o JE (~167 words)

Red = nonbiblical BofM/D&C and JE (~219 words)

With few exceptions (e.g., babblings), all of the KJV words/phrases are also found in the writings of Edwards. 

Some scholars have focused on the intertextuality between the KJV and the Book of Mormon without considering Jonathan Edwards. This seems to leave them with a skewed perspective on the sources of the nonbiblical language in the Book of Mormon.

Recognizing that Joseph Smith "had an intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations" including Jonathan Edwards gives us greater insights into how God prepared Joseph Smith for his role as translator and prophet, and also expands our understanding of the text of the Book of Mormon.

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