The focus on the Book of Mormon usually centers around Joseph Smith, which can sometimes present more questions than it answers. Though many have tried, Smith is admittedly a difficult person to analyze, and many Mormons unable to thoroughly determine his motivations for deceiving so many people tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. The authors of holy books are, however, usually complicated personalities, many with questions that may never be fully resolved. Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and countless others display dual traits of seeming to believe their own claims or theology to a certain extent, while simultaneously demonstrating awareness of the deception. Clearly, we cannot just give them all the benefit of the doubt. Personally, I don’t think I have to be able to explain the motivations for why any holy book was written, I actually think more can be learned from looking at its target audience instead.
For starters, the Book of Mormon’s own descriptions of itself hardly sound like conventional scripture. As the story goes, the gold plates were the only copy in existence, guarded more as a private journal or a secret book than one for the spiritual benefit of an entire civilization. The fictitious Nephites didn’t make and distribute copies of their scripture as the real Jews did the Law and the prophets, nor did they create liturgical structure like the Jewish parashot, or commentaries. The Nephites seem to be the most unique sect in history for being so incapable of spreading their own holy books, that even believers would have to admit that the Book of Mormon didn’t become scripture in the traditional sense until Joseph Smith started to publish it. It was only then that he and his followers actually started to treat it as such, carrying it to church, preaching from it, and creating study materials. It’s ironic that Mormons today are so aggressive in printing and scattering their word around the world, when there seems to be no explanation why their supposed predecessors couldn’t do the same.
Next, the contents of the Book of Mormon aren’t very applicable to its supposed audience. So-called prophecies about Columbus, the Revolutionary War, or even the book’s own discovery would be meaningless to a civilization that would perish centuries before any of these events occurred. And since its remarkably specific prophecies end abruptly at the early 19th century, it seems obvious that was its target audience, which logically points to Smith and/or his companions as the author. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon anachronistically quotes or paraphrases many New Testament scriptures that would have been unavailable to an audience in the Americas, totally defeating the purpose of quoting, as only a later audience could have appreciated the connection.
Finally, the theology of the Book of Mormon and the LDS church bears an undeniable resemblance to American folk beliefs of the period. While New Testament authors took it for granted that future generations might not preserve the exact method of baptism practiced by John and later followers, the Book of Mormon is practically written as an instruction manual. Similarly, disputes over infant baptism, works vs. grace, and even polygamy were all-too-conveniently resolved by the Book of Mormon in one pretty package with ribbons, even though this same book seems to have been useless to preserve the religion of the ones claimed to have written it.
If Mormons treated the Book of Mormon as the Nephites supposedly did, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to plant a copy of it in every house and hotel room. It would be a more secretive book like the embarrassing Book of Abraham, which they withhold from prospective converts until they’re ready to swallow its absurdity. The reason they don’t act like the Nephites, though, is because the Book of Mormon wasn’t written for the Nephites, it was written in the 19th century for Joseph Smith’s 19th century contemporaries.