At a time when the world generally and USA specifically is dealing with a deadly pandemic, racial tensions, civic outrage at a fever pitch, and a looming pivotal election, Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming share their take on the Book of Mormon seen through the lens of social justice.
The Book of Mormon for the Least of These, Volume 1 (of 3), published in 2020 by By Common Consent Press, respectfully, reverently, and boldly views the unique, sacred text of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a document mirroring the world’s dysfunctions and human failings as told through ancient individual voices. Lehi, Sariah, Nephi and others in the Book of Mormon approach their trials – including persecution, hunger, danger, abandonment, loss, war, and unknown lands – as followers of God. While they bring with them only a few physical items from their land of origin, they do carry the strengths and foibles of their personalities, cultures, traumas and the social-psychological perspectives of their lived experiences. What can we learn when we acknowledge that background in their words and stories?
Fatimah and Margaret’s book has received impressive reviews. For example, renown historian, LDS scholar and author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman says:
Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming have given us a beautifully written commentary on hundreds of verses in the first third of the Book of Mormon. Although they avowedly write from the perspective of contemporary social justice advocates, their perspective is broader than that. They see in the Book of Mormon a picture of life as a hard journey–harsh, discouraging, contradictory–but one where God is always present to succor suffering travelers.
Maybelline Alvarez-McCoy – educator, activist, and Co-founder of the LDS Legacy Conference – writes regarding the book:
The Book of Mormon For the Least of These is a transformative and revolutionary work that should be a staple in LDS homes across the globe. This book is a love letter to us, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and it is felt with such vigor within each page. It nods to us and our struggle at the margins and reminds us that we have always been centered in sacred text. This lens shall live on and inspire great and needed transformation for the generations that are to come.
Here’s a quick intro to the authors and their unique points of view.
Rev. Dr. Fatimah S. Salleh was born in Brooklyn, NY, to a Puerto Rican-Malaysian mother and an African American father. She is the eldest of seven. Dr. Salleh received her PhD in Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also earned a Master’s degree from Syracuse University in Public Communication and a second Master’s in Divinity from Duke University. She is the founder of A Certain Work, an organization dedicated to educating on issues of faith, diversity, equity, and inclusion. She is married to Eric Sorensen, and they have four children.
Margaret Olsen Hemming is the Editor-in-Chief of Exponent II and sits on the board of the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts. She earned a Master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University. She lives in Chapel Hill with her spouse, three children, and a large vegetable garden.
Focusing on the content of the Book of Mormon rather than getting entangled in questions of historicity or authorship, Fatimah and Margaret pay close attention to the challenges the Book’s characters – Nephi, for example – face, and how they record their experiences and reactions. For example, Margaret acknowledges the complexities of Nephi’s reactions to physical and personal hardships in 1st Nephi:
I think we can reasonably give Nephi space for his feelings of resentment and residual anger. I believe that even God understands those feelings. If anything, reading these scriptures with that context of his life history and the emotions he has increases my sense of empathy for him. Like me, like you, like all of us here, he is a flawed person working his way back to the divine, doing his best with a limited understanding. That is beautiful to me. So I don’t believe that Nephi’s feelings are wrong. I do believe that he makes a terrible error when he attempts to enlist God in cosigning on those feelings. … I do not believe that we can take Nephi’s words out of the context of the years of violent abuse heaped on him.
I want to note that Nephi’s story also reminds us that people can change. We can repair past mistakes. We can draw closer to God. We can do better. After all, it was Nephi, the same man who wrote [some] troubling verses, who also wrote, closer to the end of his life, “For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men . . . and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female . . . and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33)
Margaret and Fatimah and I had a conversation about questions that came to me after reading their book. Margaret and Fatimah were candid, unified (not differentiating between whose idea was whose except in one case), and eager to share more about their process of writing, the surprises they discovered as they probed, and the kind of reception the book has received since its publication in January 2020. Here is our back and forth.
Segullah: The books says it is “by Fatimah Salleh with Margaret Olsen Hemming”. How does your process for writing together work? If you discuss passages together, do you have some kind of midrash together where you both caucus about the scriptural author’s intentions … or is it primarily Fatimah’s personal take on the passage with Margaret polishing the gems?
F&M: This book came about in a pretty unusual way. We each read the section we are covering separately. Then we meet together and discuss it verse by verse. Much of the theory behind this book is work that Fatimah did over decades of studying and teaching the Book of Mormon. There’s always discussion, and Fatimah always preaches a word. We record that conversation, and Margaret takes notes. Margaret listens to the recording and takes more notes, then she shapes it into text. We review and revise together.
This work is challenging and the path to publication has not been simple. Our social locations look pretty different and partnership in that context is challenging. However, we share a common goal and deeply trust one another, which has made this project possible.
Segullah: You are both busy women with families and professional responsibilities. How do you practically juggle your time and its demands? I say this knowing full well that men would rarely be asked such a question, but shouldn’t they be? Shouldn’t they also be equally yoked with family obligations as a high priority? Do we as a society just assume they will have a support staff to protect their time and cook their meals?
F&M: One of our rules from the very beginning was that we would never apologize for times that our children interrupt us as we talk. Pretty much every discussion is interrupted at some point, especially during this time of COVID-19 when our children are all home and needier than usual. It’s not uncommon for one of us to have a child in our lap as we talk or be working and simultaneously getting a teenager out the door for school. Our families are an integral part of who we are and how we understand this work, so we don’t apologize for how they appear in the middle of that work.
That said, neither of us could do this and simultaneously be the primary caregiver at home all the time. I don’t believe that’s possible. Sometimes that means working in the early morning, before children are awake. Sometimes that means our spouses configuring their work schedules to have sections of time when they are the primary caregivers. It has required everyone in our families to offer flexibility, sacrifice, and grace.
Segullah: What are you working on right now? If I understand correctly you’ll cover the entire Book of Mormon in 3 parts, the 1st obviously completed. Did you have an entire manuscript completed when the first volume was published, or are you working on them as you go – volume by volume?
F&M: We are working as we go, volume by volume. Right now we are finishing Mosiah and making our way in Alma. We expect the second volume to cover Mosiah, Alma, and Ether; the third volume will address Helaman to the end. We knew pretty quickly after we started this project that it would take at least five years to complete. the analysis and writing simply takes a large amount of time, and we both have other jobs.
Halfway through 2019, we started hearing people sharing their concerns about studying the Book of Mormon for Come Follow Me in 2020 and saying that they were looking for a study resource that 1) was written by a woman or person of color and 2) addressed the issues that they struggled with in the Book of Mormon. We decided to release the project in three volumes partly so that these ideas and this approach of reading would be out there sooner, hoping that it would empower people to dig into the Book of Mormon for themselves, even as we continue to work on subsequent volumes.
Segullah: I love the freshness and – dare I say – audacity? – of this take on the BoM. I didn’t grow up as a Latter-day Saint, but came to the Church as a young adult from a committed Christian heritage. I always had the sense as a new convert that there was one “authorized” way to read and interpret the BoM, and that wasn’t to be challenged. We are, however, encouraged to go through our scriptures often, and are invited to study particular topics or concepts throughout the canon. What you have done seems to me the brightest example I have seen of that kind of search.
Now I read your perspective, and I see with fresh eyes. I mean this not just in terms of the Book of Mormon, but of all canonized texts. God works through and communicates with humans who are always influenced by their upbringing, education, families and life experiences. Of course this will impact how they express their experiences with the Divine.
The Book of Mormon makes big claims, and you have taken it – respectfully, perceptively – at its word. You view it from the perspective of the authors and all the tradition, baggage, and personality quirks they bring with them. I now appreciate even more the line attributed to Moroni in the title page of the Book of Mormon: “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God.”
F&M: I think this is one of the most important lines of scriptural text, and we ignore it almost completely. One of the extraordinary things about the Book of Mormon is how often the authors tell us that they are human and make mistakes. Nephi does it repeatedly. We need to believe them when they tell us that.
Segullah: One of the other big claims of the Book of Mormon comes from the familiar passage in Moroni 10:4:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
I have heard LDS church leaders insist that if you follow this formula you will know that it is “true.” It’s an absolute promise, and if you don’t get confirmation that it’s true, the problem is on your end, not God’s.
And what exactly does “true” mean? For one who thrives on words and their meanings and possibilities, I was always stumped by this.
In my own experience, decades after my baptism, I was surprised and delighted to receive a very personal and particular answer to my longings for confirmation. When, for the bazillionth time, I asked the question from these verses, conforming as best I could to their conditions, I heard “as it were” a voice in my head telling me: “You’re asking the wrong question. What YOU need to be asking is ‘where does God want me?'”
Then I immediately sensed that God indeed vigorously wanted me to stay put in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That obviously is a very personalized response from a God who knows me well. That remains one of my most spiritual experiences and is a testament to how loving and personal God is.
Whenever I’m tempted to wonder why the reply I got wasn’t the kind the Church leaders expect you to get, I’m reminded of D&C 8:2 when Oliver Cowdery was still wrestling “concerning the engravings of old records”: “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.” God apparently knows both Oliver and me and answers us in the ways we need.
The reply I got doesn’t, however, answer questions of “what does ‘true’ mean?”. How do you two wrestle with that theological and philosophical conundrum? I note that you eschew completely any conversation about the veracity of the plates, angelic messengers, holy swords, etc. and take the scriptures literally at their word. Can you share why you made that choice?
Margaret: When I was about twelve, there was an evening when the rest of my family was out of the house. I don’t remember where they were, I just remember that we had a VHS tape that was due and the movie rental store was about to close. I was a little nervous to walk by myself downtown so I took our family dog with me. The dog, however, acted terrified the entire time and whined and stuck so close to my legs that it made it hard to walk.
What’s funny about that story is that my sister believes that this exact memory is hers. She insists that it was she who was alone in the house and walked with the scared dog to return the VHS to the rental store. We both have perfectly clear memories of the exact same experience, down to the tiniest details of the time of day and the people we passed.
I share this because I don’t think we’re very honest about what we mean when we talk about “truth” and the human experience. My sister and I will never know who lived this incident. Given how slippery memory is, it’s even possible that this event never actually happened at all. I don’t think the factual events matter so much as what that story has meant to each of us in the retelling of it. For some reason, it captured feelings of responsibility overcoming childhood fear and that tension of feeling capable and also still a little unsure that accompanies adolescence. What literally happened is unknowable, but the meaning that we take from it is very potent. I don’t think the latter kind of truth is any less important than the former.
We believe that the strength of the scriptures lies in understanding the meaning-making that another person did in their journey with God. Hearing how other people experience the divine is critically important to our own relationship with God. That’s the beauty of a testimony meeting. And it doesn’t mean that we have to agree with the other person’s theology or accept everything that they say. It just means that there’s extraordinary power in listening to the stories and histories of others, especially those that sound different from our own because they expand our understanding of who God is.
Segullah: I’m curious about the kind of feedback have you had from other Church members. Are there repeating refrains?
F&M: For the most part, responses to the book (from any demographic on the Mormon spectrum) have been overwhelmingly positive. Interestingly, the most common criticism we get is something like, “Who do you think you are to write a book like this?” This comes from white men in both orthodox and unorthodox circles of Mormonism.
Our response is to point out that the long list of resources available for understanding the Book of Mormon is populated almost entirely by men. That’s a big problem. As the theologian, Miguel de la Torre writes, “When only people with socially-sanctioned authority get to interpret scripture, there is a risk that those interpretations will serve to protect power and privilege.” The Book of Mormon is already a text that centers on male voices. We need a way of reading it that speaks to those on the margins and that centers their experiences. It is our social location – the fact that we wrote this book in tiny slivers of time while raising seven children between us, in bodies that usually do not get to claim authority in our church – that gives us the perspective that a project like this requires.
Segullah: I have been heartened by some recent expansions of thought about scripture study, such as this new formatting and this deep reading. What have you found to be robust and spiritually satisfying patterns for studying Scripture?
F&M: Two things: the first is to slow down. For whatever reason, we tend to value the quantity of reading scripture, as if that tells us anything about what we got from it. We try to read the Book of Mormon in three months or boast about how many times we’ve read it since our missions. I think this has the unfortunate effect of allowing or even encouraging us to skim through the parts that make us uncomfortable. Instead, we should slow down to a crawling pace. We should read scripture more slowly than anything else in our lives. Look at every word. Think about the motivations of each person. Consider their personal context. Ask the questions: What in their lives prompts them to think about God in that way? What are the theological implications of those words? How am I emotionally reacting to these words? How can I offer empathy to the people involved?
Secondly, if you are someone who lives with privilege, put particular effort into reading scripture from the perspective of someone without that privilege. We tend to center ourselves in interpretations of sacred text. Pushing against that tendency also requires lots of questions. In the book, we write about asking the questions, “Who is present but unheard? Who is suffering and why? What kind of violence is in the background of this story? How does this call us to relieve affliction? How are these actions informed by trauma? What are the diverse ways that God is showing up in this person’s life? What are the assumptions this person is making? Is there another way to understand this story?” How would women read this story differently? What about immigrants or refugees, people who, like Lehi’s family, have uprooted their lives and endured terrifying hardship? What about people who live in poverty? What does scripture say about queer folk?
Deliberately reading scripture while looking for themes of social justice will unveil new depths to the Book of Mormon that have mostly gone unexplored. We have found that this kind of reading not only speaks to us in ways that traditional readings do not, it also inspires us to be braver in our discipleship. Read in this way, we see the Book of Mormon as a text that calls readers to see the oppressed and engage in the work of liberation.
Segullah: Thank you so much for this conversation and your honest insights, sisters! All the best to you as your work on the next two volumes!