I read a recent article by a critic who laid out his bill of particulars against the LDS Church. There was nothing new or particularly interesting in what I saw there, but he did drag out an old argument against the Book of Mormon that I haven’t heard for some time. The argument goes something like this: If the Book of Mormon was written by ancient inhabitants of America, and translated by a 19th-century American, then why is it written in King James English? Doesn’t that just show that the Book of Mormon is a tawdry knock off of the Bible?
Without putting too much thought to the issue, two responses immediately come to mind.
The first is that the Book of Mormon isn’t written in King James English. While Joseph Smith used vocabulary that was similar to what we would expect from the Bible or perhaps Shakespeare, with a liberal sprinkling of “ye,” “canst,” “hath” and a veritable ton of “verily,” it isn’t at all consistent in its use of such language.
Now, I won’t pretend to be a linguist, but you can see the inconsistent use of KJV vocabulary on virtually any page of the Book of Mormon. Let’s look at one of my favorite chapters, Alma 5. In verse 14, Alma says, “And now, behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances?” In the next verse he asks, “Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality…?” In the next verse he asks “I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?” To me, these verses demonstrate a fair amount of inconsistency in word usage. The “have ye spiritually been born of God” in verse 14 doesn’t match well with the “Do you look forward” and “can you imagine” in the next two verses. You might expect a “doth thou” or “canst ye” instead of the words used by Joseph Smith. One would anticipate “thy works” rather than “your works” in verse 16. And most of the Book of Mormon reads exactly like this.
So, if the Book of Mormon isn’t exactly written in perfect KJV English, then what “language” are we reading? Most likely we are seeing a type of formal English used in religious communities in the New England at the time of Joseph Smith that came close to the language of the scriptures that they knew, filtered through a poorly educated Joseph Smith who would be unlikely to use that language with exact consistency. In other words, the “voice” you “hear” in the Book of Mormon is that of Joseph Smith, who used the same type of language in recording revelations he used and other scriptures that he translated. He used language that his readers at the time would recognize as appropriate to religious/scriptural writings. When it came to scripture, that was the only language he knew to use. This is the same approach used by modern translators of the Bible, many of whom use modern vernacular in an effort to connect with current readers.
Which leads to my second response, which is: “Why was the King James Bible written in KJV English?” Surely the Bible’s King David was no more likely to talk like the Sheriff of Nottingham than was the Book of Mormon’s King Benjamin. Curiously, the King James Version of the Bible was written in a type of English that was not widely used at the time. Whereas the language used by Joseph Smith actually made the Book of Mormon more accessible to his contemporary readers, the King James Bible used similar language for the opposite reason: To make sure that the Bible was not too accessible to the common man. It wasn’t exactly ancient history in King James’ time when scholars were executed for trying to make the scriptures accessible to the masses, and there was a tendency to make the Bible at least a bit difficult for a casual reader. The scriptures still were the purview primarily of scholars.
Even though the Book of Mormon and the Bible were translated in very different ways and at different times, both of them are written in language that the translators would have felt appropriate to holy writ. One wonders what language Joseph Smith would have needed to use in the Book of Mormon in order not to draw some criticism. Was it supposed to read like a Mark Twain novel? Jane Eyre? Maybe it should have used the pidgin English employed by the Native Americans in B-Western movies? Would “Behold Jesus cometh” be significantly improved with “Me thinkum Jesus come?”
The approach of this argument against the Book of Mormon is to describe an entire forest by focusing on the bark of a particular tree. What really matters with any book that claims to be sacred is not the vocabulary used, but the message conveyed. It is the message that has value, not the words chosen by the messenger. If you want to know whether the Book of Mormon is sacred, read it, pray sincerely about its truthfulness, and see if you have a sacred experience in response to it. Millions of us have done exactly that.
Or, behold, hath done exactly that. Whatever floats your boat.