Ambitious in concept and scope, Terryl L. Givens's By the Hand of Mormon is a unique study of the Book of Mormon, the founding scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unlike many academic treatments of the Book of Mormon, Givens's study seeks neither to defend nor to challenge the truth-claims inherent in the Mormon scripture and the story of its coming forth. It examines, rather, the reception of the Book of Mormon itself, both within and outside of Mormonism, throughout its more than 170 year history. This focus allows Givens to examine the various approaches—historical, archeological, philological, and doctrinal—by which commentators on the Book of Mormon have sought since its publication either to establish its legitimacy or to expose its fraudulence.
In Givens's view, these efforts at legitimization or exposé generally miss the mark; doctrinal or historical aspects of the Book of Mormon only partly account for its significance to Mormonism. To limit the Book of Mormon to its historicity or to its doctrinal message is to overlook its more dynamic, religion-building function as a sacred sign—the tangible manifestation of divine purposes in modern times. Givens posits that the most important implication of the Book of Mormon is that latter-day prophetic authority is made evident by the book's very existence, and this implication of authority has been a distinguishing religion-building function of the American scripture from the outset.