Most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have probably never thought of the Pearl of Great Price as controversial. The Book of Mormon, yes—it has been under attack practically since the night Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith. Yet, Givens and Hauglid  use this book to argue that the Pearl of Great Price is even more so. Unfortunately, the majority of the effort goes into attempting to prove the point, and it leaves the book less than faith-promoting. It does have some bright spots, however.
The book begins with the assertion that “without the Book of Mormon, the Church of Jesus Christ would lose its principal evangelizing tool and its most conspicuous sign of Smith’s prophetic vocation but relatively little of its doctrine.… With the Doctrine and Covenants, the church would lose a good bit of its ecclesiology—organization templates and guidelines for church government and its offices—but would not suffer a devastating loss of the deeper theological underpinnings of its faith.”  I found these statements to be very surprising. The Book of Mormon has enough unique doctrine in it for Tad Callister to devote an entire chapter of his recent book to it, and in several places Givens admits that doctrine found in places like the Book of Moses was first taught in the Book of Mormon. In addition, the Doctrine and Covenants contains a great deal of unique doctrine, in spite of the removal of the Lectures on Faith (which the book points out is commonly thought to have been the Doctrine of the Doctrine and Covenants). A comparison of our edition with that of the Community of Christ shows some of what would be missing without it.
The book goes on to make its point: “Mormonism, in other words, is absolutely inconceivable apart from this collection of scriptural texts that provided the faith’s theological core from the beginning but only received canonical recognition in 1880. At the present moment, controversies regarding multiple accounts of Smith’s ‘First Vision,’ as well as the origins of the text of the Book of Abraham, have brought unprecedented attention to this hitherto largely neglected work. The consequence is that the Pearl of Great Price represents at one and the same time the greatest vulnerabilities and the greatest strengths of the Church of Jesus Christ.”  As I argue below, this is quite an overstatement.
The claim is also made that the “Pearl of Great Price is studied in conjunction with the Old Testament, on a four-year rotation… as a virtual afterthought in the LDS curriculum.”  On the contrary, the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham are studied with the Old Testament, Joseph Smith-Matthew is studied with the New Testament, and Joseph Smith—History and the Articles of Faith are studied along with the Doctrine and Covenants. This means that the Pearl of Great Price is studied three out of the four years of the curriculum cycle. It is simply studied in context, rather than having a year specifically devoted to it on its own.
The idea that the Book of Mormon was not used very much by early church members, other than as proof of Joseph Smith being a prophet, is repeated in this book. This has never quite made sense to me, based on my study of church history and the lives of my ancestors. At the 2019 Joseph Smith Papers Conference, Janiece Johnson gave a presentation that demonstrated many examples of Book of Mormon intertextuality throughout the Joseph Smith Papers and elsewhere that show extensive knowledge of its content by Joseph Smith and many others.
The first section of the book is on the Joseph Smith Translation. A history is given, and it is said to be “arguably the most theologically significant endeavor in a productive prophet’s career.” This is due to what is revealed in the Book of Moses (“page for page… the richest doctrinal fount of the gospel Smith developed”), as well as a “harmonization of the Bible with his own revelations,” and the seeking of answers to questions which led to the receipt of many revelations that went into the Doctrine and Covenants. This seems contradictory to the statement made that removal of the D&C wouldn’t have much effect on the Church—especially when statements like this are made: “[Section 132] dramatically reshaped the church and became the most controversial and inflammatory revelation he ever produced.” 
One bright spot in the discussion of the Book of Moses is about Enoch, and of “a God of body and parts” and a “God who weeps,” as well as man’s ability to become like God. After pitting D. Michael Quinn against Richard Bushman for opinions on whether Joseph likely knew of 1 Enoch, Givens points out that a “weeping God” is in 2 Enoch, which wasn’t translated into English until 1896. Critics have claimed that Joseph’s ideas about the nature of God evolved over time, with supposed trinitarian references in the Book of Mormon and the late commitment of the First Vision to writing. Givens points out that the Book of Moses shows otherwise: “It is sometimes alleged that he came late to the idea of an embodied God. The historical record is fairly clear in attesting the contrary, however.” 
Lately, the word “translation” as Joseph used it has been much discussed. Givens states that “it might be better defined in Smith’s case as the ongoing task of transmitting and assembling an earthly counterpart to an original, heavenly urtext, prompted by whatever oracular devices and textual fragments were at hand to catalyze, inspire, or trigger his prophetic imagination.”  He applies that to the translation of the gold plates, the Bible, and the Egyptian papyri. I doubt that Joseph Smith would have completely agreed with that, since he believed he was literally translating ancient texts in his possession, except in the case of the Bible.
Next comes the section on the Book of Abraham. I found this to be the most problematic. Speaking of the timing of the translation, the authors state that “a small school of LDS scholars believe that these 1842 references to translation were actually revisions of 1835 work, and that all his translation was completed in that year. …Much of his Nauvoo translation (i.e., Abraham 3-5) bears the clear imprint of his Hebrew studies, which took place after his initial 1835 work on Abraham.”  In a footnote, the three names mentioned to be in this “small school” are John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, and Megan Hansen.  In reality, it has essentially been the consensus that most of the translation took place in Kirtland—which is why the collection of documents have been called the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. The three scholars mentioned are simply the ones that have published evidence to back up the argument. Hauglid and Givens, as well as some of the Joseph Smith Papers editors, are actually the recent exceptions to this thought, based on a different reading of some of Joseph Smith’s journal entries and some letters, along with the theory that his Hebrew studies influenced Abraham 3-5.
The book includes discussion of the responses to an anti-Mormon pamphlet by an Episcopal bishop, Franklin S. Spalding, published during 1913 in the Improvement Era magazine. “Most striking in all these responses was the openness of so many of the LDS writers to the criticisms leveled by the experts.”  On the contrary, on reading them, I found that not to be the case at all. The points where they appeared to be in agreement were just for the sake of argument, and they tried to make that clear. One such case is actually pointed out in the book just a couple paragraphs earlier: “Not that he was conceding the failure of Smith as translator, he insisted.”  Instead they pointed out that the experts were not even in agreement among themselves (again, pointed out in the book) and put forth arguments in favor of Joseph Smith’s translations.
B. H. Roberts, in the conclusion to his response to the pamphlet, said, “I believe that in the translations Joseph Smith has given to the world—confessedly not by scholarship but by inspiration, by his own spirit being quickened by contact with God’s spirit—that in those translations are truths that are parts of a mighty system of truth, the like of which is not found elsewhere among men. And that system of truth, now being worked out in the experiences of both individual men and nations of men, will receive, ere the end, a splendid vindication both as a system and all its parts.” 
The facsimiles are discussed, with an overview of what has been published about them by critics, as well as defenses from scholars such as John Gee and Hugh Nibley. An imbalance toward criticism means that the defenses tend to sound weak, and at the end of the section, the authors claim that “the majority of scholarly opinion, in sum, is dismissive of Smith as an ‘explainer’ of the three facsimiles.”  A footnote then explains that John Gee is the exception. In reality, such “scholarly opinion” is from critics, and several Latter-day Saint Egyptologists (including John Gee) have produced very good arguments showing them to be wrong – and also explaining why the critics generally are not even qualified to be making claims about the facsimiles.
Next the history and controversy of the extant papyri fragments are discussed. Again, arguments are given from both sides. This time faithful defenses are emphasized more. For example, the authors point out that “Latter-day Saint scholar Stephen Smoot argues that ‘by the hand [of Abraham],’ at least as a Hebraic expression, is generally translated to mean simple authorship. Nibley and Gee make similar observations.”  In addition, the section finishes by explaining that “Gee concludes that ‘these fragments are specifically not the source of the Book of Abraham.’ Hence, while non-LDS Egyptologists discount the Book of Abraham as a fraudulent translation from Smith’s Book of Breathing papyri, not all LDS Egyptologists are convinced that their church even possesses the source document with which to make an evaluation.” 
The next aspect discussed is the actual contents of the Book of Abraham. Hugh Nibley and others have written about the relationship between the Book of the Dead and the endowment. The authors discuss other ancient texts that support the story that is given of Abraham’s life, most of which were not available in Joseph Smith’s time.
One of the more controversial parts is about the Kirtland Egyptian Papers  and the translation process. The authors state that the use of “the Urim and Thummim, or seer stone, is entirely likely,” but that “the process by which he produced the Book of Abraham was of a different category altogether from that of his 1829 production of the Book of Mormon. …He wrestled with the Book of Abraham, using seer stones or not, on and off for seven years, attacking the task as an amateur linguist and working cooperatively with colleagues, and as far as we know he never declared the work complete or imputed to it the status of scripture.”  Scholars are not in complete agreement over whether a seer stone was used, but most think it unlikely. His methods and degree of cooperation with others are also contested.
The question of the relationship between the grammar and alphabet and the translation is discussed: “While we have no direct proof that Smith referred to this grammar and alphabet while translating the Book of Abraham, there are indications that he did, and we do know that he was working on both projects simultaneously.”  John Gee has stated that “almost every aspect of these documents is disputed: their authorship, their date, their purpose, their relationship with the Book of Abraham, their relationship with the Joseph Smith Papyri, their relationship with each other, what the documents are or were intended to be, and even whether the documents form a discrete or coherent group. With so many questionable or problematic facets of the documents in dispute, theories about the Book of Abraham built on this material run the risk of following a potentially incorrect assumption to its logically flawed conclusion.”  Indeed, that is what may have happened here.
The book mentions a couple of times that the Book of Abraham has caused some to lose their faith when they encounter critical information about its production. It clumsily attempts to smooth things over but actually inflicts more damage: “The Church now acknowledges on its website that prophetic misunderstanding and prophetic inspiration may coexist in the same person at the same moment. Smith certainly believed that he was successfully rendering the actual Egyptian symbols into their English counterparts. In the case of the facsimiles he was apparently wrong, and in the case of the Book of Abraham narrative he may have been wrong as well. Yet the church website—in a striking return to the position first articulated in the church’s 1912 responses to the Egyptologists—proposes the possibility that ‘even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri… they catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham.’”  This is not only a bad interpretation of the 1913 responses (not 1912), but a misrepresentation of the Church’s essay on the topic, which favors the missing scroll theory (giving what’s quoted above as an alternate), and is very supportive of Joseph’s interpretation of the facsimiles, as were the 1913 responses. As for the part about what the Church supposedly “acknowledges on its website,” I’m not sure what is being referring to, as there is no reference given, and the essay does not say that.
The remainder of the Book of Abraham section discusses the actual translation. It was different than the Book of Mormon translation in that there is clear evidence of reworking, revising, and editing (which is what John Gee and others think was going on in the 1840s when Joseph Smith said he was working on translating in preparation for publication). The authors state that he did not say that he was called of God to do the translation, as he had been with other translations, nor did he claim that it was scripture. These things may be true, but because he wanted the translation published and he was teaching the things contained in it, this makes those things clear without explicitly stating them. This statement is also not helpful: “His system has no basis in linguistics and does not pass muster with any Egyptologist; but the considerable labor and sheer inventiveness evident in the project provide a remarkable window into his methodology and imagination.”  Nobody is even quite sure what “his system” was, or what parts of the “considerable labor” Joseph participated in or was in agreement with.
The conclusion to this section attempts to patch things up by saying, “The ‘Egypticity’ of its themes and motifs; the belief in a missing source papyrus; the recasting of the Book of Abraham as ‘inspired Pseudepigrapha’; comparisons with Jewish Midrash; a more expansive understanding of Smith’s role as seer and translator—these and other adjustments to nineteenth-century paradigms have offered millions of believers a way forward, relying on faith without forsaking reasonableness.”  In reality, “millions of believers” probably just rely on their belief that Joseph Smith translated an ancient text by the gift and power of God that has important teachings about things such as the pre-Earth life and man’s relationship with God.
The section on Joseph Smith—History is a breath of fresh air after the preceding section. Givens discusses the history of the First Vision story and criticisms about the various accounts, giving some good defenses. He points out that the first mention of the First Vision is in D&C 20, given on April 10, 1830. Joseph Smith’s first autobiographical account was in 1832. It was brief, with few details, “consistent with Smith’s apparent view that his encounter with the Lord in particular was an entirely personal episode, not for general consumption, and not directly related to his calling as the First Elder in the church.” It wasn’t until 1835 that he seemed to be comfortable sharing it with others. At this time, more detail was added, which has made some skeptical, specifically about there being two distinct beings that visited him. Givens says it is “reasonable to see that detail as secondary from Smith’s perspective.” 
The addition of further details in 1838 about the confusion and strife between religious sects and “their creeds [being] an abomination” likely came about due to Joseph’s greater willingness to share them after clergy having been involved in mob attacks. Finally, in 1842, “he decided that nothing less than the full extent of his experience that morning in upstate New York would suffice to convey the foundations of that fullness. …And so the personal became public, and biography took a crucial step toward canonization.” 
The final section is on the Articles of Faith. This section provides interesting information about the history of creeds among churches, and then the apparent genealogy of what Joseph Smith wrote for the Wentworth Letter, where the Articles of Faith were first published. Its precursors include lists of beliefs written by Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Young, Parley P. Pratt, and Orson Pratt, and they are all compared and contrasted with Joseph’s in a chart. The question is addressed of why the church has a creed when Joseph was adamantly against them: he meant them to be explanatory rather than a test for orthodoxy. In fact, it is pointed out that many important beliefs are not included in them. This is partially because some things, such as temple ordinances, had not yet been fully revealed. And it seems that an effort was made to list beliefs that other Christians might have in common with the church.
Readers of this book looking to have their faith bolstered are likely to be disappointed. Givens’ tendency towards naturalistic phrases, such as “revelatory imagination,” “productive prophet,” and “religious making imagination” can be bothersome and faith diminishing. However, it does provide an overview of criticisms against the various parts of the Pearl of Great Price and some defenses, which may be helpful. While I found the premise of the book to be problematic, especially the section on the Book of Abraham, other sections do have more worthwhile information. If someone wants to learn more about the Book of Abraham, however, I suggest they start with John Gee’s An Introduction to the Book of Abraham.
- Givens gives credit to Hauglid for the idea to write the book, and I understand at least part of the Book of Abraham material also comes from him.
- Page 3.
- Page 4.
- Page 22.
- Page 35.
- Page 73.
- Pages 95-96.
- Page 140.
- Page 209, footnote 154. See also John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, chapter 2.
- Page 145.
- B. H. Roberts, “A Plea in Bar of Final Conclusions,” Improvement Era, February 1913, page 325.
- Page 153.
- Page 155.
- Page 159.
- The book refers to them as the “Abraham/Egyptian Papers,” due to the authors’ belief that the translation extended into Nauvoo.
- Page 173.
- Page 175.
- John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, page 33.
- Page 180.
- Page 201.
- Page 202.
- Page 232.
- Page 237.