Is the Book of Mormon a sure guide or simply a Mormon talisman? Dan Peterson regrets that to most Mormons it is the latter: he writes today:
"Studies of Latter-day Saint sermons and curriculum from the earliest period of church history well into the 20th century demonstrate surprisingly little use of the Book of Mormon to establish doctrines or as a text from which to preach. Many Saints were converted by reading it, but, thereafter, they tended to overlook its specific content. Early members, mostly converts, knew the Bible well and used it extensively in their teaching and missionary efforts, but the Book of Mormon served mainly as a kind of talisman, its sheer existence pointing to Joseph Smith's prophetic calling. Even Joseph Smith used the Bible far more than he used the Book of Mormon in his sermons."
It is little wonder that he is concerned because, as he points out, as late as 1984-86 Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson was berating church members for neglecting the Book of Mormon, declaring in the October 1984 General Conference:
“My beloved brethren and sisters, for some years now I have been deeply concerned that we are not using the Book of Mormon as God intends. As I participated in the Mexico City Temple dedication, I received the distinct impression that God is not pleased with our neglect of the Book of Mormon. In the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord decreed that the whole church was under condemnation, even all the children of Zion, because of the way they treated the Book of Mormon. 'And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent,' said the Lord, 'and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon' (Doctrine and Covenants 84:57)."
Even in delivering the news that this trend is being reversed professor Peterson admits the news is not that good after all because the change is but dimly seen:
“I'm personally glad that we've moved beyond the day when the Book of Mormon's chief function, by far, was simply to serve as evidence that Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet of God. I'm delighted that we've begun, however dimly, to perceive the richness of its content.”
Imagine that! A book of “scripture”, of modern revelation that has been the exclusive preserve of the Mormon Church for 180 years being largely neglected in its content for – well, 180 years. It is remarkable, more so because this neglect is brought to our attention by a Mormon scholar of no little repute. Why should “investigators” have to wade through this quagmire of atrocious writing and worse history if Mormons are not prepared to do it?
He regrets this neglect that has prevailed for much of the history of his church, both in the pulpit as well as the pew, at headquarters as well as across the stakes and wards of the church. He says nothing by way of explanation or mitigation, instead taking the opportunity to reject the Spalding theory, reinforce the Joseph Smith story and then, remarkably, to celebrate nonetheless the profound importance of the Book of Mormon as symbol.
Coming full circle, he ends celebrating what he began by regretting, that the Book of Mormon is, “a virtuoso display of revelatory power.” That is, a symbol of Joseph Smith’s authenticity as a latter-day prophet.
One last note, and this needs to be heard no matter how often it must be repeated. Professor Peterson makes much of the fact that critics cannot explain the Book of Mormon, writing, “no explanation other than the one involving God and angels — which [critics] reject — has withstood scrutiny.” But it is not for critics to account for the Book of Mormon, just as it is not for victims to account for perpetrators, just to demonstrate that it is not what Mormons claim it to be, that it is wrong, and that has been done eloquently and often enough for any reasonable person to understand. It is for Mormons to account for the Book of Mormon since it is they who are presenting it to the world as something it is patently not.
He then writes that, “The so-called "Spalding Theory," for instance, flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and enjoys occasional zombie-like revivals still today. However, no reputable historian, believer or unbeliever, advocates it any more.”
But then nor do any historians outside the Mormon Church give any credence to the claims of the Mormon Church for the Book of Mormon. You can’t appeal to historians when it suits you and then neglect their considered, expert opinion when it fails to agree with you. It might be more honest to tell prospective Mormons that even Mormons are not so impressed with this turgid tome and non-Mormon experts reject wholesale every claim made for it, talisman or not.