Terryl Givens

As promised last week, for your interest I’ve included the transcript of a couple of questions about the Book of Mormon that John Dehlin asks of Terryl Givens (professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond and commentator).

While I may not feel the need for this kind of input, I do appreciate that there are some who may struggle and seek others’ observations. And too, I really enjoy Givens’ insights regarding what we learn about revelation from the Book of Mormon. 🙂


“…It seems possible that through some sort of conspiracy, that this book (The Book of Mormon) could have been written secretly by a group of people. What are your thoughts on that?”


“Well, I think it all depends on what are the presuppositions with which you begin your investigation of the Book of Mormon. If you’re beginning with the assumption either that Joseph was a fraud, or that there is no such thing as supernaturalism, then of course you have to come out with some kind of an environmental explanation for how Joseph put this stuff together. And if you’re proceeding on that set of assumptions then these kinds of theories that you’re talking about are the most plausible and reasonable ones that one can suggest-the best that we can come up with.

“Perfect Beauty and Symmetry and Organic Unity”

But I’m not disadvantaged in that way. I don’t have to prima facie exclude supernaturalism or the possibility of modern prophets because those possibilities are just part of my world view. They’re part of my paradigm. And then I also come at it from a different perspective because my whole life has been devoted to the study of literature-to the reading of texts.

…I find those theories utterly incompatible with the perfect beauty and symmetry and organic unity of the Book of Mormon as a literary work.”




“Yeah. Absolutely. There’s coherence to it. In the very first-the opening chapters- where Lehi has a series of visions and experiences, there are a series of themes that are laid out. Revelation. Christ. Scriptures. And Zion in the wilderness. And those themes are carried and executed throughout the book with such perfect consistency from beginning to end. Especially the theme of revelation.

The very first real theological claim that the Book of Mormon makes, of what I think is real importance, is 1 Nephi 10 when Nephi is talking about the experience his father had with the vision of the tree of life. And he goes to the Lord and asks if he can have that same vision. The angel says, “What, don’t you believe the words of your father?”

Well, the entire Old Testament tradition is predicated on the notion that prophecy is given to prophets. Revelation is the province of leaders of nations or peoples. And at that moment, Nephi says, “Yea, thou knowest I believe all the words of my father.” And then the angel breaks into this hosanna shout and gives Nephi his own private personal vision.

“Individualized Personalized Revelation”

So at that moment early in the Book of Mormon it’s established that the major theological divergence of the Book of Mormon from the Christian scriptural canon is the principle of individualized personalized revelation. And that is carried out thematically throughout the book, in such a pervasive way.

“And God shall show unto you, that that which I have written is true.” Moroni 10:29

Fathers get revelation for their sons, generals get revelation as to where the Lamanites are going to attack, hunters get revelation as to where to look for the deer, enquirers get answers to theological questions and doctrinal  questions and then the book ends with a return to that exact same theme, right, where Moroni makes the extended process to a futurity.

So, in that way and in terms of the Christology that is so pervasive everything in the book chronologically and thematically is oriented around the centrality of Christ’s incarnation. It doesn’t make sense to me to try to explain that literary work as a kind of potpourri, as a kind of pastiche of all kinds of odds and ends that just come together from a variety of sources.

And then other more subtle indications, like the way the audience is so carefully constructed and shifts, from Nephi’s family and  posterity, to a Lamanite people who were going to displace the Nephites, and gradually by the end of the Book of Mormon it’s to an unknown audience through whom this record will come by means unknown.

“Cohesive, Coherent Literary Work”

This isn’t to my mind compelling proof that the Book of Mormon is inspired or ancient, but it is compelling proof to my mind that we’re working here with a literary work that is cohesive, coherent and not to be explained as I said in terms of this kind of ad hoc constitution or mosaic.

I think in this regard, Grant Hardy has done a magnificent job of showing that there is a complexity and a literary sophistication to this work that even Fawn Brody and others were far from fully appreciating.”

(some dialogue)

“…that’s the striking thing about Joseph is that again and again, he chose the most difficult possible way to perpetrate a fraud. Why not follow the path of Jacob Burma, or Immanuel Swedenborg or a thousand other mystics, who said, “Well, I fell into this dream trance and this book was revealed to me.” Why pretend that you’ve got an actual physical artifact that you have to prove to people exists. Why develop a Christology that is completely out of sync with what would be more plausible in terms of an ancient American record. So, yeah, there’s a certain perverseness to his self destructiveness, if he was a fraud.


Yeah, because… If it were a fraud, right, if it were a conspiracy, he brought his wife into it, he brought his parents into it, he brought his siblings into it, he brought Martin Harris into it, Oliver Cowdery, the Witmers-all those people and nobody, nobody broke the agreement, right?


“Well, that to my mind is one of the oldest defenses made of the Book of Mormon and it’s always been, I think, the most compelling. The fact that so many of those witnesses defected from the church, that broke personally with Joseph Smith, only enhances the value of their testimony with regard to the Book of Mormon, because that would have only added additional weight to expose the fraud, and yet, not a single one ever did.”

“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on the earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” Joseph Smith


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I am so NOT an intellectual. Nor am I the least bit attracted to what I call intellectual goble-de-goop. I LOVE learning. I don’t enjoy listening to intellectuals sparring.

When my friend, Graham impressed on me several times to listen to a five hour interview recently, I did so, because of his enthusiasm. Several times he has introduced me to jaw dropping tidbits of knowledge. This was no exception.  It was worthwhile listening and I gleaned a few fabulous morsels of wisdom and knowledge as usual.

However, in the forth hour I experienced a bit of an inner temper tantrum.  Once you read through these excerpts of this portion of the transcription, I’ll explain.


John Dehlin is interviewing  Terryl Givens. “He did graduate work at Cornell University in Intellectual History and UNC Comparative Literature. He holds the James A. Bostwick chair of English. He is a professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, where he teaches courses in 19th century studies, and the Bible’s influence on Western literature. As a commentator on Mormon religion and culture, he has appeared on PBS, NPR, and CNN. Author of 10 books”


“ A lot of people trip up on the history (of the church)… So if it’s okay, I’m just going to ask you how you work through some of the more historical aspects that people struggle with.

I guess the very first problem if we look historically that many people have, is with the first vision and the multiple accounts and most of our listeners will know this but the very 1st historical account of Joseph Smith 1st vision is different from the second, different from the third. Some say substantively different and others say, like Richard Bushman, that it’s just different perspectives with age. How do you make sense of all that?”

T. G.

“Well, I don’t find any real substantive problems in the differing accounts of the 1st vision. I think Joseph is writing these under very very different historical conditions and circumstances so I think one evolution that we see, is a sense in the 1st vision, the 1st account, that he hadn’t fully, I think, captured the implications of his experience in terms of the global future and destiny of the church that grows out of these initial spiritual experiences.

Whereas I think later there is more of a concern and an attention to what the implications were of what he learned for a dispensational history of apostasy and restoration.  So part of it is the difference between a personal conversion narrative he’s recounting, and the opening of a new dispensation.

I do think it’s significant that throughout his life Joseph referred to the year 1827, as the beginning of his prophetic career. So he always seemed to see his receipt of the gold plates as what really marked him as a prophet, and I think this is one of the mistakes we make in telling our history, is to refer to the young boy prophet. He’s not a prophet in 1820. He’s not called as a prophet. He didn’t see himself as a prophet and he never did see himself as a prophet in the year 1820 when he had those first visionary experiences.

The main contradiction that you probably have in mind is the sense that in the 1st vision there is only one God, one Being that he sees, whereas in subsequent descriptions there are two?”

J. D.

“In the 1st version of the First Vision, right? He says, “I was visited by the Lord, or something like that”.

T. G.

“What he says in the 1837 account, He says exactly this. “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and He spake unto me”.  So he says, I saw the Lord and then the Lord spake unto me. Now some church historians have suggested that he may have had in mind two different personages even in that retelling. “I see the Lord, God the Father and then the Lord Jesus Christ speaks to me”.

I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but I think there’s certainly enough ambiguity there that one can’t claim there’s an obvious ‘de facto’ contradiction between those accounts. So I think that there are a lot of other more difficult hurdles in early church history than that particular example.”


“Okay, and for someone who is going to say “Look, if you see God and Jesus, you’re going to mention both of them kind of explicitly-you don’t buy that?”

(More discourse, including discussion regarding the role of apologetics, too lengthy to repeat here)


“…Does that make sense?”

T. G.

“Yeah, it does and I have some sympathy with those who want to read it that way. I think that that kind of developmental paradigm has certain plausibility. I don’t buy into it.

I think that there is a much stronger case that can be made for the seeds of most of Joseph’s theological system being already present in the Book of Mormon in 1830 in many cases and ways that I don’t think that even he seemed to be self consciously aware of.

I think for example if you look at the vision of the brother of Jared. Christ appears to him as an embodied, right, a spiritually embodied deity before He’s born and says that man will be made in the image of that same spirit body and that seems to me to be fully consistent with everything that Joseph always taught about God. In his lectures on faith right, given very early in the Kirkland period-he’s already referring to God and Christ as separate beings…

I think some of that conventional language is without real theological weight in the way it’s being used.”

J. D.

“Okay. Okay, so you say you have sympathy to the argument, that it could be a growing story, but that for you the evidence isn’t compelling.”

T. G. “That’s right.”

J. D. “Okay, that’s fair.”


Listening to this exchange my feelings became agitated. Had I been nearby, as though these men were my teenage sons kibitzing, I would have rudely burst upon them.

“Guys!! Guys!! What are you thinking?! Why must you expound with all this verbiage? What’s the point? Have you not heard of the simple solution? Why haven’t you tried it? What is the matter with you?”

“And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” Philippians 3:15

I was a bit disappointed but not surprised, due to the forum the discussion took place, that Givens couldn’t or wouldn’t mention somewhere in the exchange something to the effect that on some issues, as an active believing Mormon he has received a testimony  of the truth and that he KNOWS.

That, in my opinion, is the difference between intellectuals approaching contrasting points of view and the ‘unschooled’ fisherman.

I marvel that Heavenly Father is no respecter of persons. That means that He is willing to reach down to you and to me and let us know for ourselves whether Joseph Smith really did see two Personages.

God’s finger can touch my heart and my mind to allow me to know whether the Book of Mormon really is true. And whether it truly is a third testimony of Jesus Christ. And on and on.

I don’t need to study the history of the church to glean an answer for myself (although I LOVE learning all I can about its incredible history). I don’t need a degree. I don’t need to debate with learned men. I don’t need to wonder about its veracity EVER again.

All I need is faith and my lifeline to heaven-the precious gift of the Holy Ghost and His willingness to reveal all truth. All I need is to ask. And to believe that Heavenly Father will give me the testimony I seek.

Until I listened to this interview, I was not aware that there might be different versions of the First Vision.

However, I do know with all my being, this truth.  Joseph Smith went into the woods near his family home to offer his first vocal prayer to God.

He said: “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me… When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith-History 1:16:17) 

How very grateful I am for a loving Father in Heaven who is willing at all times to extend His influence in order to confirm His truths unto the hearts of His children.

Do you believe the story of the first vision? Do you know for certain with all your heart and soul that it is true?