Friday, November 9, 2007

Changes to non-canonized scripture

The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News are reporting an interesting change in the introduction to the Book of Mormon. The introduction to the Book of Mormon, which formerly called the Lamanites "the principal ancestors of the American Indians" will in future editions refer to the Lamanites as merely "among the ancestors of the American Indians." The speculation, which seems accurate, is that this change is a response to recent DNA studies that place the principal ancestors of the Native Americans in Siberia.

The current edition of the Book of Mormon was completed in 1981 (with its introduction, footnotes, cross references, index, and various textual corrections). See here for background. The introduction was most likely written by a committee, though there are still stories floating around that Bruce R. McConkie did it single-handedly.

Whoever wrote the introduction, it does not purport to be revealed and it has never been officially accepted into the LDS canon. It is probably true, however, that the 1981 introduction's explanation of Native American origins accurately reflects what most members of the Church thought about. The fact that the church is making this editorial change without presenting it to the church for a sustaining vote confirms that the introduction was never canon and can be freely changed. The Book of Mormon itself makes no claims about Native American ancestry.

At any rate, my opinion is that this is a good (though fairly insignificant) change for at least two reasons.First, it demonstrates that the Church is willing to accept the validity of scientific research and to reconsider traditional assumptions. Second, it illustrates that interpretations of the scriptures, even an interpretation written and published by the church, are not absolute. Understanding this fact devolves more responsibility on the individual to understand the scriptures through study and prayer rather than take someone else's word for it.


The Shark said...

Yes, this definitely is a reminder that the scriptures were given to us for spiritual guidance and to know Christ, not figure out world history and how everything fits together, although the Book of Mormon certainly does provide some interesting facts that contribute to that.

People of Native American or Latino descent should read the Book of Mormon primarily because it is a true book of scripture that will help them live the Plan of Happiness, not because it is a book that helps them understand their genealogical background (though that fact is still true, if not as exclusive as one may have thought).

All that aside, I don't think that really changes things TOO much, at least not the things that immediately come to my mind (specifically the application of some of the prophecies regarding the Lamanites' descendants and tribulations). If the Siberians came in and dominated the Americas, whether by mixing with the Lamanites or taking cities from them, or simply living in different parts of the land without even knowing of their existence -- the Lamanite presence was still definitely there.

And I gotta say, I like giving credence to the whole Bering Strait theory. Just because we know there were Lamanite descendants in the Americas by the time the West discovered them, why should we discount that other groups came in as well? This land has been one big, wacky melting pot for ages, I think -- long before boatloads of white-skinned immigrants were dreaming of seeing Lady Liberty.

JKC said...

That's cool. I like the idea of this place being a pre-historic melting pot.

And good call on this being a reminder also of the purpose of the Book of Mormon---to inspire faith in Christ. I admit I have little patience with the BofM geography crowd who treats it as a some kind of atlas. Or the chiasmus fetish people who focus more on the book's structural idiosyncrasies than it's message.

I believe in the historical origin of the Book of Mormon, but in my view, that belief is intended to be an act of faith based on personal revelation, not an act of intellectual conviction based on geography and chiasmus.

Cabeza said...

Hey JKC, what about the other change to the Book of Mormon intro? It used to say that the Book of Mormon contains the fullness of the gospel, "as does the Bible." Now those last four words are gone. Why would the Church make that change?

JKC said...

My thoughts on the second change removing "as does the Bible":

1) It's just better writing. The syntax is clearer and more direct. The sentence used to read "...and contains, as does the Bible, the fullness of the everlasting gospel." It's just stronger writing to directly say "and contains the fullness of the everlasting gospel." It doesn't apologize or qualify.

2) Including the "as does the Bible" parenthetical qualifies Book of Mormon and raises the question: if the Bible contains the fullness of the everlasting gospel, why the need for the Book of Mormon? Notice that the new change does not say that the Bible does not contain the fullness of the gospel, but it focuses on what the Book of Mormon contains, not on what the Bible contains. It's more appropriate for an introduction to the Book of Mormon.

3) It could follow on the heels of the Church's recent emphasis on the uniqueness of the restoration. The last two or three conferences we have heard more mention of the historical creeds and how they differ. This could be because the Romney campaign is trying to ally Mormons with the evangelical Christian right, and in doing so, is trying to emphasize the similarities between Mormons and evangelicals. That is fine, but in emphasizing similarities, we need to remember what makes the restoration not just another denomination. The phrase "as does the Bible" could be interpreted as (to use a crass term), pandering to the Bible-thumpers.