Hoskisson and Peterson, eds., “To Seek the Law of the Lord”: essays in honor of John W. Welch


Title: “To Seek the Law of the Lord”: essays in honor of John W. Welch
Author: Edited by Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson
Publisher: Orem : Interpreter Foundation, c2017
Genre: Gospel Scholarship
Year Published: 2017
Number of pages: xix, 543
Binding: Trade Paperback (available in hardback)
ISBN13: 978-1-947516-01-4
Price: $24.95

Reviewed by Dennis Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters

Some books are to be sipped and spewed out; some, chewed and spat out; some, eaten and digested. This is one of the latter, and it won’t burn your throat going down nor tickle your nose coming up. It will engage your mind, though. Of the twenty-five pieces of work in this book, only four — the Foreword, the Introduction, the Biographical Highlights, and the selected Bibliography — are intended to do otherwise. Those parts aim to help you get to know Jack Welch.

The other twenty-one are serious scholarly papers intended to present well-thought-out answers to significant questions. For example, Jeffrey M. Bradshaw’s “Faith, Hope, and Charity: the ‘Three Principal Rounds’ of the Ladder of Heavenly Ascent” combines the metaphors of Jacob’s Ladder and Jesus’s self-identification as the ladder of heavenly ascent (John 1:51) with the 13th Article of Faith and the metaphorical layout of the Salt Lake Temple to explain how those three virtues, faith, hope, and charity, can lead to sanctification. This takes Bradshaw 53 pages and 325 footnotes. In contrast, Stephen D. Ricks’s “Proper Names From the Small Plates: Some Notes on the Personal Names Zoram, Jarom, Omni, and Mosiah” occupies 5 pages and deploys 24 footnotes. But both are drawing on a wealth of study and lifetime of learning.

The learning is impressive. Ricks notes in his paper that his work is part of the Book of Mormon Names Project (or Onomasticon Project), an outgrowth of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS, founded by Welch), being carried out by John Gee, Paul Y. Hoskisson, Robert F. Smith and Ricks himself. They are “specialists in Hebrew, Semitic philology, Egyptian language and linguistics, and Assyriology” (351) — although he does not say who specializes in what, or whether each knows all of that. But these are not dilettantes, and they are wrestling with difficult issues, not least of which is the nature of the text of the Book of Mormon. Almost every possible derivation that Ricks posits for these four names has a footnote thanking another scholar for the suggestion – – among them JoAnn Hackett, twice. I mention this not to show that I read footnotes but to note that all of these scholars are men. Hackett is also listed as a participant in the Onomasticon project on its website, leaving me to wonder whether she lacks the specialised education possessed by the men listed above. No one in the preliminary materials addresses the lack of women scholars in this festschrift, adding to my wondering.

Another thing that I wonder about is the close-knit nature of this group of men. Most of them have some connection to FARMS and its successor organizations. Stephen E. Robinson, in his personal reminiscence of Welch, notes that there are some elements of friction between Welch and his colleagues at BYU (where most of them are, like Welch, also employed — or were). As Robinson puts it:

“Jack’s full contributions to the BYU and to the LDS Church have sometimes been only grudgingly acknowledged by those who cannot overlook his greatest sin — his penchant for invading the turf of others with his powers of telescopic observation and microscopic analysis combined with his irritating habit of being right.” (7)

This hint of academic politics impinging on scholarly pursuits makes me wonder at how much more might be hidden beneath the placid surface of this feast of papers.

I don’t have to wonder about two other concerns, literary concerns: chiasmus and poetry in the Book of Mormon. Noel B. Reynolds covers the former in “Chiastic Structuring of Large Texts : Second Nephi as a Case Study.” Robert F. Smith addresses the latter in “Poesy and Prosody in the Book of Mormon.” Since Jack Welch’s scholarly adventures can be said to have begun with literary studies, it is fitting that they find a place in this festschrift. Reynolds, noting that Welch first began seeking chiasmus in the Book of Mormon in 1967, as a missionary, explains what he was looking for thus:

“About three centuries ago, a few European scholars … began to notice rhetorical structures featuring repetition and parallelism in the books of the Hebrew Bible. By the 19th century, a few had also begun to notice reverse parallelisms (chiasms) as well. Initially, it was short chiasms where the key terms were close together, as in poetry. But gradually chiasmus, like parallelism generally, was recognized as an organizational principle that could be used for larger texts – – and even for entire books of prose.” (333-334)

Following the lead of a German scholar, Welch started looking, while still a missionary, for such structures in the Book of Mormon. He found them. Following his lead, Reynolds here addresses the larger-scale structures in 2nd Nephi, of the type “used … for entire books of prose”. It is a fascinating addition to the whole matter of chiastic structure, and includes several examples of smaller structures inside the larger structure. But chiasmus is becoming almost a feature of Mormon popular culture — so much so that R. A. Christmas published a parody chiasm in his latest book Saviors on Mt. Disneyland : new and collected poems called “Why I Stay : another faith-promoting chiasmus!” — and you may well be familiar with the concept as well.

But we are just now in Gospel Doctrine class launching into a study of the Old Testament, a book rife with Hebrew prosody — including chiasmus. So I will dwell on Robert F. Smith’s “Poesy and Prosody in the Book of Mormon,” because he gives a thorough explanation of Hebrew poesy and prosody, on the assumption that Hebrew literary practice underlies the translated text. As with chiastic structure (which he addresses as part of the poesy), the presence of parallelism in Biblical texts is well-attested. Here is a Book-of-Mormon example Smith cites from Jarom, verse 3:

the hardness of their hearts,
and the deafness of their ears,
and the blindness of their minds,
and the stiffness of their necks.

Smith does not mention that the remainder of that verse also constitutes a parallel structure. Here is the entire verse, including its prose intro:

Behold, it is expedient that much should be done among this people, because of
the hardness of their hearts,
and the deafness of their ears,
and the blindness of their minds,
and the stiffness of their necks;
nevertheless, God is exceedingly merciful unto them,
and has not as yet swept them off from the face of the land.

The kind of amplifying re-statement in the last two lines I learned to call “incremental repetition” when I was first introduced to it in English classes. It is a form of parallelism, but adds in the second part to the statement in the first part, in this case characterizing God’s mercy as an action not yet taken. Smith introduces another kind of parallelism “as with the tricolon at 1 Nephi 19:9,

They scourge him,
and he suffereth it,
And they smite him,
and he suffereth it,
Yea, they spit upon him,
and he suffereth it,” (437).

Here I note that the second part of each pair is repeated verbatim (the “tricolon” refers to Smith’s use of the term “bicolon” to describe a single pair; I don’t know whether he would call the example above from Jarom 3 a tetracolon or two bicola — or three, with my addition). But that is the nature of this kind of parallelism: it invites elaboration. The hunt for it, in the double-columned prosaic printing of the Book of Mormon, also invites participation, which may be why the topic is so interesting to me. It has also proven interesting to Colin B. Douglas.

Douglas published Six Poems by Joseph Smith: A Dimension of Meaning in the Doctrine and Covenants in 2015, in which he presents a convincing reading of six sections of Doctrine and Covenants, as if Joseph Smith had picked up lessons in poetry from his translating. Robert F. Smith does not suggest that, but he demonstrates throughout the Book of Mormon the presence of elements of Hebrew poetic practice, many of which occur in sections of Doctrine and Covenants. His analysis of these elements is a welcome addition to study of the book. It is also a good introduction to Hebrew poesy, to that in other Semitic tongues, and to the poetic practices of the entire Fertile Crescent.

In fact, one of the best features of “To Seek the Law of the Lord” is the wide variety of articles, from the close philosophical reasoning of James E. Faulconer’s “The Transcendence of Flesh, Divine and Human” to the close reading necessary for Donald W. Parry to produce “The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaA) – – Catalogue of Textual Variants.”

That such a multitude of approaches to scholarship present themselves in honor of John W. Welch should reassure us that Mormon scholars have the training necessary to explain, illuminate, and defend the Church, its scriptures and its gospel.