Review of “Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity”

The following is a cross-post for a review I wrote with the Association for Mormon Letters, also accessible here.


Review
——-

Title: Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity
Edited: Michael Hubbard Mackay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid
Publisher: University of Utah Press
Genre: Religious Non-Fiction
Year Published: 2020
Number of Pages: 544
Binding: Paper; Cloth; eBook
ISBN: Paper, 9781607817383; Cloth, 9781607817437; eBook, 9781607817390
Price: Paper, 45.00; Cloth, 70.00; eBook, 40.00

Reviewed by Jaxon Washburn for the Association for Mormon Letters

“Joseph Smith’s translations have to be translated.”

I first heard this claimed by Philip Barlow during the proceedings of the 2017 “New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation Conference” organized by the Faith Matters Foundation at Utah State University. There, the case was made by Barlow and other prominent Mormon Studies scholars—several of whom would later contribute to Producing Ancient Scripture—that a substantial maturing of our collective understanding of the various scriptural translation projects undertaken by Joseph Smith was at hand. This was not simply a matter of putting new wine in old bottles, however. This was a clarion call for a foundational reorientation of Smith’s prophetic imagination, revitalized at the crossroads of fresh theological frame-working and cutting-edge academic research. Producing Ancient Scripture represents the most comprehensive and robust answer yet to that invitation.

Quartered into larger related sections, Producing Ancient Scripture benefits from seventeen distinct chapters written by close to two-dozen reputable scholars of the Mormon Restoration tradition. Each chapter thus serves to bring different qualities of Smith’s various scriptural projects into sharp focus; grounding them in their respective historical contexts while simultaneously subjecting them to fresh scrutiny. That the book stands to challenge some committed believers as much as it will ardent critics, attests to the quality of scholarship it represents as well as the measured tone its editors were able to strike. This is a laudable accomplishment unto itself while covering a topic that has been historically dominated by polemic voices seeking to prove Smith’s scriptural productions as either works of God or works of fraud. Producing Ancient Scripture doesn’t seek to resolve those controversies, instead offering new explorations of the metaphysical, historical, textual, theological, and functional dimensions of the Mormon Prophet’s claimed-translations.

Without giving a comprehensive overview of all the book’s valuable chapters, I will say that Producing Ancient Scripture represents a kind of “state-of-the-union” publication for academic studies centered around the production of scripture within early Mormonism. It is clear that popular believing conceptions of Smith’s translations have often fallen short of appreciating the varied textures present in how the texts relate to one another, the contexts they were dictated in, as well as the narratives and sacred histories they hearken their readers to consider. It also becomes apparent that Smith’s scriptural productions, when viewed from more naturalistic lenses, represent more than just unimpressive forgeries or lackadaisical borrowings (plagiarisms?) from his surrounding environment. Whatever they are, early Mormon translation projects exhibit levels of textual sophistication and theological richness whose depths are only now beginning to be more fully understood and appreciated. That the texts continue to defy simple explanations attest to their viability as religious scripture and subjects of sustained academic study.

If Producing Ancient Scripture had a weakness, it would be that (much to the common refrain of the internal Book of Mormon narrators) space was limited and only so many perspectives could be included. Upon finishing, I could not help but wish that this work could have been one of several volumes in a sustained multi-work treatment of the subject. Fortunately, one doesn’t need to look too far to encounter other valuable peers among recent studies in the nature of Smith’s translation projects and produced texts, such as Bill Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (University of North Carolina Press, 2020), Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid’s The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019), or Jared Hickman and Elizabeth Fenton’s equally-formidable composite volume Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019). While several of these voices were present in Producing Ancient Scripture, I would have readily welcomed others to the fray as well, though this probably speaks more to my passion for the subject than any shortcoming on the part of its editors. Nevertheless, from the Book of Mormon to the Kinderhook Plates, the book succeeded in touching upon all of Smith’s major (and many minor!) scriptural or translational undertakings.

However one ultimately views him, Joseph Smith was as creative as he was ambitious in his world-building, theological musings, and production of scripture. The texts he brought into being sought to clarify and crystallize the sacred past, bringing it into full conversation with the present under the auspices of the “restoration of all things.” Whether claiming to make inspired revisions to the King James Bible, revealing new scripture previously lost to history, attempting to decipher cryptic Egyptian facsimiles, or uncovering the very tongue of angels in the original Adamic language, there seemed to be no prophetic task too large, no orthodoxy too insurmountable, for Smith to challenge. Producing Ancient Scripture proves itself to be an essential text to now consult for future efforts in understanding the enigma that is Mormonism’s founding prophet. It certainly has my full recommendation for anyone up to the task.

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