A Biography

By Paul C. Gutjahr

Princeton Univ. 255 pp. $24.95

Outsiders may be skeptical of a holy book written on gold plates unearthed in an Upstate New York field by a migrant farmer almost 200 years ago, but the Book of Mormon is here to stay. “While the book stands as an important artifact in the study of the American history and culture, it is no less important as a contemporary religious text with global influence,” writes Paul C. Gutjahr in “The Book of Mormon,” a “biography” of the scripture found by Joseph Smith and believed to be the word of God by 14 million people and one presidential candidate. According to Gutjahr, a literature professor who’s also studied the Bible, Smith’s “Christology” is powerful because it details Jesus’s adventures in America after his crucifixion. “Thus the Christ of the Eastern Hemisphere also becomes the Christ of the Western Hemisphere,” he writes, “a savior to the entire world.”

Unlike Mormon exposes such as Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Gutjahr’s slim volume doesn’t delve much into polygamy or baptism of the dead, controversial practices not found in Smith’s original text. While some of Gutjahr’s claims stretch credulity — does the musical comedy “Book of Mormon”by the creators of “South Park” really prove that the book has “finally escaped the confines of strictly religious discourse”? — it’s refreshing to read a nonpartisan book about Mormonism.

“No matter whether one considers the Book of Mormon to be divinely inspired holy writ or the work of one man’s impressive imagination,” Gutjahr writes, “it is increasingly hard to argue against the growing scholarly consensus that ‘the Book of Mormon should rank among the great achievements of American literature.’ ”

’The "Book of Mormon: A Biography’ by Paul C. Gutjahr (Princeton University Press/Princeton University Press)

— Justin Moyer