The publication of Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon by Oxford University Press represents a breakthrough in the history of Mormon scholarship. Like its impressive predecessor, The Viper on the Hearth, it offers a sympathetic approach to Mormonism that–with the distinct exception of the books on Mormon history issued by such presses as the University of Illinois, Alfred A. Knopf, and the University of Chicago–has had few precedents, if any, at so rarified a level of academic publishing. This time, though, the sympathetic focus is on the primary Mormon scriptural text itself.
It is one thing to treat the history of the Latter-day Saints with sympathy and with regret for their persecutions and sufferings in the nineteenth century. It is quite another for so elite a publisher as Oxford to treat Mormon beliefs respectfully, as worthy of serious intellectual engagement. (Oxford requested this manuscript from Terryl Givens, having been pleased with The Viper on the Hearth.) Open virtually any textbook on the history of the United States or, even more strikingly, on the history of American religion, and you will almost unfailingly find a brief synopsis of the life of Joseph Smith and a cursory summation of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. You will then read a very concise but also more or less admiring account of the heroic pioneer trek to the Great Basin. But you will typically not find, even in books on the religious history of the American people, much curiosity about the actual ideas and claims that have motivated and provided life-structuring meaning for millions of Latter-day Saints over the better part of two centuries. At the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, the premier and by far the largest gathering of scholars focused on religious history and religious ideas, Mormonism seldom receives any attention at all while whole sessions are devoted to such topics as the religious significance of Madonna’s music videos and to small eco-feminist religious communes.