"Extravagant Fictions" : The Book of Mormon in the Antebellum Popular Imagination
Ever since rumors of a Golden Bible began circulating in the late 1820s, the Book of Mormon has occupied a singular place in the American popular imagination. It has been revered as scripture by Latter-day Saints and condemned as imposture by anti-Mormons for nearly two centuries, but what of Americas more moderate majority? Especially in the earliest days of its presence in print, how was the Book of Mormon seen by ordinary Americans, and what do their perceptions reveal about their day? This study analyzes the place of the Book of Mormon in the antebellum popular imagination as revealed through the lens of humor. A surprising number of the books early observers found something unmistakably humorous about its content and story of origin, and assumed that it was a piece of imaginative fiction. In expressing their views of the Mormon scripture, often in comic ways, they revealed much about the social and religious values they espoused, the cultural incongruities with which they were grappling, and the underlying assumptions that were being shaped in part by a uniquely American humor. Sounding a natural resonance with many of Americas comic chords, the Book of Mormon quickly achieved a certain cultural currency that was recognized by both humorists and polemicists, who often exploited humors rhetorical power. In the process, the Book of Mormon became and has remained a mythic presence in the national imagination.