The first twenty-eight pages of A Cultural History of The Book of Mormon walk us through the meta-text generated about The Book of Mormon even before it was published. Daymon Smith extracts excerpts from newspapers at the time that showed how stories surrounding the unpublished book helped form/frame perceptions of it. “Gold Bible” stirred up rumors and incited indignation in the piteous — another Bible? Blasmephous! Newspapers often mocked The Gold Bible by publishing bootlegged chapters of the book (fictitious, satirical accounts that bore little resemblance to the text itself).
Once published, the critics avoided the text itself or commentary of the text and instead kept pushing the Gold Bible notion, criticizing the style (counting repetitions of yea, it came to pass, now, and behold), as well as attempting to generate an origin story. It could be dismissed by, as one editor wrote, the enlightened liberal mind because of its audacious and fraudulent origin: money digging, plates of gold, translated by a peep stone in a hat. Yet, because no one took it seriously, the origin stories often included aspects that seemed too far-fetched. Thus, curiosity stirred, but not in the book itself.
Thus the teller of rumor, perhaps laughing to a neighbor, had to explain just what the believers believed in, what the “gold” in the de facto title came from, and the “Bible” part too. Lacking a name to characterize and, so, dismiss them, believers peddling the book benefited from bearers of tales about it who personally thought little of the text. So by the sometimes malicious, understandably prejudiced, at times nonplussed and even bemused labors of non-believers, the Book of Mormon carved out paths to the scarce believer. Believer in what? At first, in some metatext which regarded other metatext—origin stories, genres, and so on—as “true.” Hardly anyone was reading any actual Book of Mormon.Page 23, emphasis added
The fascinating part of this chapter is how Daymon demonstrates to us that each of us “translates” The Book of Mormon every time we read it and that most of these translations are deeply influenced by meta-text. Did it ever occur that the text might say something other than what an institution or group of believes says about what it says?
Every reading of the Book of Mormon is a translation, and so the process started by a young man talking into his hat continues, for better or worse a million times a day. […] As you read this page, in fact, you can imagine other readers interpreting (“translating”) its meaning different from yourself, and feeling perfectly justified in their own translation. Find other readers who seem to find in the text the same things you find, and one is well on the way to a society, a cult, a coven, scholarly community or religion. […] But, you may say, what the book means is what the author meant. Who is the author of the Book of Mormon? Do not be confused into thinking that book on your desk is The Book of Mormon, so much as a representation of it. So it depends on which Book of Mormon you mean: the engraved writings on plates having the appearance of gold, apparently compiled from other writers, who described other speakers and lives long passed? The English translation written by hand, or printed in 1830? Joseph Smith’s oral recitation? The 1981 text, with footnotes, interpretive cues, dictionary and index? The one presented in manuals, and discussed in a Sunday School class in Argentina? The Reader’s version, or the children’s version, an anti-Mormon’s version, or the version made for the market of Idiots? The one read by you? It is a collective work, not unlike the Nation-State, or Christianity, or the Red Sox or Sioux Nation. An imagined thing: we fool ourselves into believing it a factual thing, like a table or a cat.Pages 24-25
With all the doubt, mockery, criticism, and meta-text surrounding The Book of Mormon, how did it find roots in the hearts of frontier Christians? How did it come to create a religion, apostles, missionaries, a prophet-martyr, and eventually the state of Utah? How did it end up being the catalyst to creating the behemoth, multi-billion dollar organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Was that always the intended outcome of the book’s publication?
Outside New York, where the Gold Bible continued to thrive, metatext gathered around the Bible for centuries also had gathered families anxious to restore their New Testament stories, to conjure them into the realm of flesh and blood. Restoration was the thing, and Restorationists had a book describing exactly what ancient things ought to be restored: miracles, churches, rituals, powers. It may still signal a fraud to most Americans; but the Book of Mormon, landing in Ohio among what others might call “the credulous,” might among them be a sign of miracles being once again restored to our world. Another scripture? Why not, so long as it corroborated the Holy Word?Page 28
Please, consider reading along with me. A copy can be obtained here.