Friday, December 17, 2010

The American Covenant: Fulfilling the Gospel Promise of One Nation Under God


Title: The American Covenant: Fulfilling the Gospel Promise of One Nation Under God
Author: Timothy Ballard
Publisher: n/aGenre: Non-fiction
Year Published: n/a
Number of Pages: n/a
Binding: n/a
ISBN10: n/a
ISBN13: n/a
Price: $n/a

Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle for the Association for Mormon Letters

(Note: I’m taking the unusual step of reviewing a manuscript rather than a galley or a finished book.  It is hoped that some here will have helpful suggestions for the author, as well as a general feel as to whether this book should go forward to publication.)

I’m going to cite, in its entirety, a full paragraph from the Introduction:

“I always considered America to be a special place, as it was the host country of the Restoration.  However, I never knew before how profound that connection was.  This surely presents the connection by showing how God, in an effort to further His ultimate design for His children, created and offered up America by and through a *national covenant.*  It is a covenant between God and the people of our nation, and it comes complete with specific obligations, promised blessings and divine instruction.  It is a covenant whose principle [sic] fruit is the development, defense and distribution of three very specific socio-political blessings: 1) liberty; 2) protection and 3) prosperity.  It is a covenant that, through imparting such blessings, enhances and maximizes God’s gift of agency unto personal salvation.  It does so, first, by providing an environment where God’s children might choose freely, becoming who and what they desire to be, thus enabling their personal progression.  And it does so, second, by providing the environment in which the restored gospel, with its saving principles and ordinances, might thrive both at home and abroad, thus enabling God’s children to not only progress, but to specifically progress unto eternal life.  It is the American Covenant.”

And so begins an absorbing read into the nature of the American Covenant, how the world’s history, with its many philosophical and religious movements, serves to inform and sometimes define the Restoration that crowns the Covenant, and how honest scholars must open their minds and hearts to the cumulative effect of history on the Restoration, rather than focusing on the innovations of the restored gospel.

The manuscript I have in hand covers only half of the full volume as envisioned by the author.  As such, it takes us through the thrilling history of the discovery and settlement of the Americas, the quest for independence, and the Declaration of Independence.  Step by step, the author studies, in intricate detail, each of the steps that led to the establishment of the world’s first democracy, and thus paved the way for the Restoration of the gospel.

To illustrate how closely he ties American history to the larger gospel story, consider this statement:

“The scriptures make it clear that God inspired and supported the American Revolution, and they imply that this Revolution would somehow lead to the latter-day restoration of the gospel.  However, we are largely left alone to flesh out the details concerning how exactly the Revolution would help deliver the Restoration.  It is only through resolving this issue that we might fully comprehend *why* God so powerfully intervened in America and its war for independence.”

Now, I’ll be the first to confess that Ballard isn’t the first person to make such a connection.  But, in my opinion, he does a better job of fleshing out his thesis than other writers have done.  And while he is generous in citing Church leaders in support of his theme, he is even more generous in his citing of secular sources that both illuminate and illustrate his points.  These citations provide a fascinating look into the minds and hearts of the men and women who lived the experiences we can only study.

Some in the LDS reading community will react to this kind of book with statements like, “Oh well, more Ezra Taft Benson, more W. Cleon Skousen.  Who needs it?  And, frankly, they have a point.  This is a theme that has been studied and written about to death over the years.  What possible justification can there be for yet another book on this subject?

To be frank, this book is, simply put, better than many of the others. Ballard has a way of pulling the facts together in a fluid and comprehensible manner, a way that will satisfy fans of Skousen and Benson, and yet not offend their detractors.  Ballard has avoided the more speculative assumptions of some Mormon patriots, preferring a sound exegetical method that just cries out for acceptance.

Those who know me know that my politics differs markedly from Ballard’s.  But this did not prevent me from appreciating his scholarship and his views.  In fact, there are times when he goes further than some loyal Mormons would go in finding parallels, say, in the Temple rites and in Masonry.  Some might feel that he ought to attribute more to revelation than to historical precedent.  But “historical precedent” is precisely what Ballard is trying to demonstrate here.  If I read his thesis correctly, it is that God has made the earth ready for the Restoration through a long line of historical and ideological developments.  The clear lines he draws between Joseph Smith’s thought and the thoughts of others who preceded him are often remarkable.

Do we do any damage to Mormonism by showing how, rather than being some new religion revealed by an angel and taught by a prophet, it is actually the crowning achievement of a long historical record?  Does every truth need to be new?  By rereading American history in light of the Restoration, Ballard has given readers a clear path to follow in understanding just how God has guided history, resulting in the ushering in of the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times.  This isn’t new, of course; others have done this before.  But few have done so with such coherence and polish.

I do hope Ballard finds a publisher.  I haven’t yet seen the second part of the book.  I assume it maintains the same high quality of writing and scholarship.  Ballard is to be commended for this massive effort on his part.  With no guarantee of finding a publisher, he nonetheless dedicated his time, his soul, to this project.  I wish him well and truly hope this manuscript finds its way to print.

Jeffrey Needle
Association for Mormon Letters

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