Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My Take on the Book of Mormon Intro Change

Regarding the recent change in the introduction to the Book of Mormon from "the Lamanites ... are the principal ancestors of the American Indians" to "they are among the ancestors of the American Indians," I responded to the following questionnaire from a local newspaper reporter:

Do you consider the Introduction to the Book of Mormon to be scripture? Why or why not? As far as you know, have church officials conclusively defined it to be one or the other (that is to say, either scripture or supplemental material akin to the index, pronunciation guide, footnotes, etc.)?

The way I understand it, Mormons are told that anything said by an apostle in an official capacity is scripture, so by that standard the introduction is scripture, since an apostle apparently wrote it. However, the four standard works are scripture on a higher level, and the argument could be made that the auxiliary materials don't rise to that same level, including the introduction. To my knowledge, the Church has not conclusively defined this question.

As a Latter-day Saint, does it impact your acceptance of the Book of Mormon and/or the doctrine of the LDS Church that a revision like this would be made?

This clarification tends to bolster my faith both in the Book of Mormon and in the Church. As far as history goes, the Book of Mormon is like a flashlight shone in a dark room; it shows a slice of the picture quite well, but it leaves many things unexplained, and this change to the introduction better reflects this reality. The institutional church can be quite stubborn about taking any action that could acknowledge a past error, so I find this textual update refreshing.

In your opinion, both as a Latter-day Saint and an observer of the faith (and in the absence, at least for the moment, of a definitive statement from the Church), would you say that the change was made because of scientific evidence that makes it seem likely that the Lamanites are not, in fact, the "principal" ancestors of the American Indians? That the LDS Church's hand was, in effect, forced by a sort of scientific peer pressure? Or do you consider it more likely that the change is a result of new revelation to church leaders?

First of all, the change does not mean that the Lamanites are definitely not the "principal" ancestors of the American Indians—they could still be. After all, you could interpret the word "principal" in several different ways, such as "most spiritually significant" or "largest number of ancestors" or "biggest proportion of DNA." The change just acknowledges that we really don't know.

While I'm certain that Elder McConkie's intentions were good, he was notorious for making overly authoritative statements of his own opinion, and as a culture we are still cleaning up some of his messes, such as his statements about race and premortality and about the identity of the "great and abominable church." In fact, I understand that his controversial Mormon Doctrine is going to be allowed to go out of print, a step that is long overdue, in my opinion. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if he was right about most things but just politically incorrect.

I think this textual change arose from a combination of realizing that McConkie tended to go overboard and that scientific evidence does weigh heavy in the minds of many people, so why leave an unnecessary stumbling block in the introduction. Perhaps the Holy Ghost inspired Church leaders to make this change or at least confirmed that it was wise to do so, considering today's situation with DNA science.

The Deseret News said that church officials declined to comment about the authorship of the Introduction, whereas the Salt Lake Tribune made a definitive, unsourced statement that it was written by Bruce R. McConkie. What is your understanding regarding the authorship of the Introduction? Why might church officials have declined to comment?

As you can see, I too assume that McConkie wrote the text. I can't tell you a source either, but I've always been taught that he wrote the chapter headings throughout the Book of Mormon, as well as other supplementary materials.

I imagine Church leaders simply don't see any benefit in acknowledging that text written by an apostle could reflect an inaccuracy or exaggeration. That might undermine some members' confidence in other statements from General Authorities.

Do you think that there will be any measurable or significant impact on church membership? Is this the sort of thing that people inside the faith will shrug off, or is there the potential for a large number of members to be alienated?

I would hope that the overall impact will be positive, that this textual refinement will make it easier to believe for those who are skeptical because of today's DNA science—which has many problems and limitations of its own, by the way. But I'm sure for others it will disrupt their faith enough to fall away, especially if they are subconsciously seeking for such an excuse to leave. No doubt some critics will use this episode as evidence against the Church.

If you were to speculate, in another 40 or 50 years from now, will this be seen as a significant revision to the Book of Mormon, or will its impact have faded with time?

I don't think this change carries any more weight than some of the earlier changes to actual Book of Mormon canonical text, such as the changes related to skin color that help the book sound less racist. Perhaps the long-term significance will depend on how DNA science itself continues evolving. I wouldn't be surprised if some aspects of DNA science get debunked, in which case this change's impact will fade. But as long as the debate continues, the change's impact will continue.

Is it surprising to you that the LDS Church would make this change and not announce it, either publicly or to church members? Why or why not?

No, I'm not surprised. The Church doesn't like to draw attention to errors or misstatements by its leaders.

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