The Ascendancy of the Book of Mormon

January 16, 2004 | 18 comments
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I just finished Terryl Givens’s _By the Hand of Mormon_. Its a fun read, though a bit more polemical than I assumed it would be. I think it does make a solid contribution to Book of Mormon studies in its final chapters. Most interesting to me, though, was the summary it provided of Church’s attitude toward and utilization of the Book of Mormon over the past 175 years or so.

Givens gives statistics for how often the BofM was cited in church talks, church magazines, etc., before Pres. Benson’s landmark addresses on the topic, and they are astonishing to someone who grew up in a post-Benson Church. What I am interested in, however, is not how the BofM was treated publicly, but how it was treated by the membership, and what contributed to the success of President Benson’s efforts to change that.

First, I am curious as to how Mormon families used the Book of Mormon pre-1986. The way Givens describes it, its almost as if it were exclusively a missionary tool. It was studied as part of the church curriculum every four years, but that was about the extent of it. It seems that for the members, the _doctrines_ taught by the Book of Mormon were secondary to the brute fact of its existence. So I ask those that are (slightly) older than me, is that characterization right? Did the youth not know by heart the stories of the stripling warriors, of Samuel the Lamanite, of the mighty Ammon?

Second, I wonder what factors contributed to President Benson’s success in creating this apparent sea change in our attitude toward the Book of Mormon. For instance, what was the grass roots effect of the newly footnoted and cross-referenced edition of the standard works that was issued in 1981 or so? I am wondering if that facilitated families to become more engaged with the Book of Mormon. I imagine that the correlation effort, begun a couple of decades earlier, also laid the groundwork for the emphasis on the Book of Mormon, by streamlining the various curricula that were being used. What other factors have contributed to the cultural shift that has occurred in the past 20 years?

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18 Responses to The Ascendancy of the Book of Mormon

  1. Dave on January 16, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    Greg, nice observations. Of course, I can’t speak from direct experience, not being a “slightly older, pre-Benson” kind of guy, but I do think making the Book of Mormon the centerpiece of Mormon scriptural thinking is an interesting development.

    First, it seems an odd match with the public mainstreaming push–featuring Bibles instead of Books of Mormon in TV ads, noticeably toning down previously harsh rhetoric referring to other Christian denominations, and generally becoming mildly ecumenical in official relations with other churches. Perhaps the Book of Mormon push dates from the Benson administration while mainstreaming awareness (which I think is a good thing) dates from the Hinckley years.

    Second, I think the new emphasis on the Book of Mormon makes Church leaders more sensitive to critical scholarly work on the Book of Mormon–they seem to support the quick and pointed rejoinders now regularly published by the growing Mormon apologetics industry. Seems like Givens’ book (which I haven’t read yet) is a bit in the middle–apologists aren’t comfortable with all of it but haven’t given it the ‘ole one-two punch either. I take it you would put it on your recommended reading list.

  2. Greg on January 16, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    Dave,
    I should make clear that Givens’ book argues _for_ the historicity of the Book of Mormon (though that is not its primary theme). I would think the apologists (whoever they are) are quite comfortable with it. And I do recommend it.

  3. Gordon Smith on January 16, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    Greg,

    I was baptized in 1981, during my sophomore year at BYU. Although I was quite impressed by my LDS friends, the foundation for my testimony was (and remains) the Book of Mormon. I had read it twice prior to my baptism. Many people I encountered at BYU directed me to the Book of Mormon with expressions like, “Don’t trust me; find out for yourself.” One close friend told me that he had read the Book of Mormon 21 times — once for every year of his life. My assumption, therefore, is that the Book of Mormon was plenty popular at BYU before 1986.

    In the Spring 1982 semester, I enrolled in a missionary prep class taught by Reed Benson, President Benson’s son. My main recollection from that class is our study of the First Vision, but I have some memory of him emphasizing the Book of Mormon. If memory serves, Apostle Benson (prior to his ascendancy to President of the Church) had made Book of Mormon study a priority, so the use of 1986 may be too late, at least in some circles.

    As for the new scriptures, I remember the emphasis on switching that was being made around the time of my baptism. Of course, I didn’t need to switch because I had never owned a set of scriptures, other than my paperback copy of the Book of Mormon. I had always assumed that the new scriptures had more of an effect on how we use the Bible than the Book of Mormon. That is, because of the cross-references, we would tend to see similarities in the Bible while we were reading the Book of Mormon. Obviously, my view reflects my own emphasis on the Book of Mormon.

  4. Aaron Brown on January 16, 2004 at 7:15 pm

    Dave,

    Where have you seen any “apologists” give Givens’ book a lukewarm reception? The FARMS reviewers I’ve read seem to be in love with it.

    (As we speak, I’m about half way through myself, and am quite enjoying it).

    Aaron B

  5. Clark Goble on January 16, 2004 at 8:08 pm

    Pres. Benson gave his talk while I was on my mission. (I *think* that’s right) In any case it was well after I was a child. But I remember Book of Mormon stories quite well. The song was always everyone’s favorite in primary. I think that while we didn’t turn to it, the lack of a good edition almost certainly had something to do with it. The same way Jim mentioned last week that we quote apostles more now because their words are so easily available and *searchable*.

    The bigger issue is less how much we quote them though than how much we use them. Do we grapple with the focus of the Book of Mormon? That I’m not sure we do. Mention isn’t use. And I’m not sure we take seriously the main themes of the Book of Mormon.

    I should also mention that we learned the “cycle” reading of the Book of Mormon ad nauseum in seminary. However I think overall it is an interesting hermeneutic principle. Perhaps even one somewhat uniquely Mormon in the modern world. I find myself unconsciously looking for cycles and analyzing a lot of events in terms of it.

  6. Jim F. on January 16, 2004 at 8:23 pm

    Wow, it is difficult to admit to being one of the “older” ones called on to recollect here. My anecdotal experience agrees with Givens’s assessment. When I joined the Church in 1965, there was very little scripture study or scriptural literacy. I distinctly remember the shock I had when I went to Sunday School for the first time and realized that few knew more than a little about any scriptures, Book of Mormon or otherwise. When I was a student at BYU, it wasn’t uncommon for men to carry scriptures to church meetings–though it was uncommon for them to read them regularly–but it was rare to see a woman with scriptures. I don’t think that President Benson was solely responsible for the change to more focus on the scriptures. That happened gradually. But it seemed to me that he was quite responsible for the emphasis on the Book of Mormon.

  7. Dave on January 16, 2004 at 8:34 pm

    Aaron,

    Perhaps you are right. I was speaking from my memory of earlier discussions and reviews–I thought Givens had demonstrated some independence from the orthodox story. I just went and reread the NY Times review and the AML review of Givens’ book (but not the FARMS reviews–it’s not so easy to get to them anymore). It appears there is very little an apologist would object to in Givens’ book. Until I actually read it myself, I will happily defer to those who already have on this point.

  8. Kristine on January 16, 2004 at 10:35 pm

    I’m reading Givens this week too–time for a Times and Seasons book group?

    I’m a little older than Greg, I think–graduated from Primary in 1981. While I remember singing Book of Mormon Stories and The Golden Plates, and hearing some stories–certainly I knew about the stripling warriors, and Abinadi (kids just love burning at the stake stories!), Nephi & Laman and Lemuel, etc., I don’t remember a lot of encouragement to study the scriptures on our own. We had a family rule that you had to read the Book of Mormon before you were baptized (and the rest of the standard works by age 12), but I don’t remember that seeming like a normal thing.

    I spent some time studying Primary history (WAY more interesting than you’d think!) this summer, and one of the tidbits I haven’t quite figured out what to do with is the 1987 Primary Sacrament Mtg. Program. Because of translation and production schedules, it would have had to have been planned at least a year (and probably more like 2 to 3 years) before it was published, and it was printed in 1986, several months before Pres. Benson’s talk. So there must have been some serious emphasis on the Book of Mormon floating around before the talk was given. In any case, I think that the Primary’s having done a couple of Book of Mormon-themed programs (which basically determine the curriculum for the year) in the late 80s would have had a significant, if not fully remembered effect on kids growing up then. And both Dwan Young and Michalene Grassli were very concerned with encouraging kids to have and read their own scriptures–the bribe-with-candy-to-carry-your-scriptures-to-church program must have sprung up sometime in the mid- to late 80s, as did the make-a-froofy-lacy-cover-for-your-new-scriptures trend in homemaking meetings. (sorry, i don’t mean to be too sarcastic; i actually think it’s a very good and useful thing for people to be familiar with their scriptures!) The new Primary songbook, interestingly, has several more Book of Mormon-themed songs, actually dealing with the content of the Book of Mormon, rather than just its existence. Most importantly, they provide a Book of Mormon setting for Christ’s birth and the events surrounding His crucifixion and resurrection.

  9. Clark Goble on January 16, 2004 at 10:48 pm

    Kristine, at the risk of derailing this thread into a tangent, perhaps you could blog on the history of the names in Primary? I distinctly remember being a targeteer. Then I was told the names were all removed. Yet last Sunday they were all posted outside of doors with Targeteers being Valiants or something like that.

  10. lyle on January 17, 2004 at 12:15 am

    the T&S book group…as a ‘live’ blog or a running thread sounds fun. of course, i’m just being self-interested and seeking to learn from all of ye mighty non-intellectual, iron roddish/liahonish bloggers here.

    Yes Clark…the names are still around, kinda. I happen to teach the Valiant 10 class. i was so surprised they knew so much!

  11. Frank on January 17, 2004 at 1:49 am

    President Benson gave his first major address on the Book of Mormon, entitled “The Book of Mormon is the Word of God” back in the early seventies. One of his general conference talks after becoming the President of the Church was basically a replication of the earlier talk. In addition, both Bruce R. McConkie and Marion G. Romney wrote and spoke in depth along the lines the President Benson did during the early 1970′s. Obviously the big push did not come until later, but that push merely echoed the sentiments that many of the brethren had expressed earlier. Thus, the doctrinal and personal importance of the Book of Mormon has long been recognized by the brethren. It wasn’t until President Benson, perhaps, that the average church member woke-up to the significance of the record.

  12. Kaimi on January 17, 2004 at 2:26 am

    In an earlier post, Nate discussed an article by Noel Reynolds suggesting that the Book of Mormon was not taken seriously as a piece of church doctrine until recent times.

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000062.html

    https://byustudies.byu.edu/productitem.asp?id=1135&type=7

  13. Nate Oman on January 17, 2004 at 12:05 pm

    Noel Reynolds wrote a great article for BYU Studies awhile back making a point similar to Givens, namely that the Book of Mormon was widely ignored prior to recent times. (I believe that Givens relied on some of Reynolds’ research which may account for the glowing review of Given’s book that he wrote for FARMS)

    Reynolds traced the return to the Book of Mormon not so much to President Benson as to the rise of correlation.

  14. Kristine on January 17, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    Clark: there’s a nifty appendix with a chart listing all the names, symbols, mottoes, etc. of the various primary classes in _Sisters and Little Saints_ by Carol Madsen and Susan Staker (Oman). The names, songs, and mottoes were part of the progressive educational experiment which informed the early Primary–the thought being that children would learn better if they had some identification with the group, some stake in its progress. The emphasis on those things just kind of dwindled, as did the rest of the progressive agenda in Primary, from about 1940 on. When Primary changed from weekday to Sunday in 1980, I think there was a brief attempt to do without any class names, but they came back in pretty short order, I think as much for convenience as anything else (and because Sister Grassli wasn’t as bothered by the names as Dwan Young).

    I have to say that I didn’t much like being a Merrie Miss!

  15. Bob Caswell on January 17, 2004 at 9:03 pm

    To show you how naive and/or young I am, I just posted about this at bobandlogan.com without reading what was already here at good ol’ timesandseasons.org. The last line of my post says “Help me out here. Has there ever been a time in Church history when not reading the Book of Mormon every day has been accepted or approved?”

    In 1986, I was seven years old and in the thick of primary. Growing up, I have had what feels like countless guilt trips from my family, seminary teachers, and other churchy influences for not reading the Book of Mormon every day. I may be alone here but when I asked the question at the end of my post, it was because, growing up, I never envisioned a world where good Mormons didn’t read their Book of Mormon every day. I have since come to terms with this on my own not knowing that how I felt was the way things were twenty years ago.

  16. Clark Goble on January 17, 2004 at 9:22 pm

    Kristine, funny aside. I was the only Blazer in my ward but there were three Merry Misses. However they were all inactive and then my teacher went inactive so I got put in the Merry Miss class. For some strange reason the teacher kept teaching the Merry Miss lessons and activities. I did learn to crochet and the importance of many feminine activities…

    Bob, it often can be a little jarring seeing how different the church was in different settings. For a bit of a shock take a look at the Priesthood lesson manuals from the 40′s and 50′s. One of Hugh Nibley’s books actually became a lesson manual. (I can’t remember which — An Approach to the Book of Mormon I think)

    Church structure has lots of changes every 15 – 20 years. I still remember as a wee lad going to Sunday School in the mornings on Sunday and Sacrament in the evenings – a bit of a chore for us since the chapel was about 30 miles away and across a toll bridge. They passed sacrament in both. I still remember them teaching us how to pass the sacrament in Junior Sunday School. And I’m *not* that old.

    I think some of the new kids would be a little shocked at the older endowments as well. Once again I’m not talking a long time ago: I got my endowments in 1987!

  17. Bob Caswell on January 17, 2004 at 9:37 pm

    Clark, I’ve heard stories about the endowment having gone through at least four or five major revisions since its inception. I remember in seminary receiving a copy of the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet from the sixties. We all had a good laugh as we read how women shouldn’t “bob” their hair in certain ways. Also, the whole thing about going to church morning and evening every Sunday… Maybe I should just count my blessings and quit my complaining!

  18. Eric James Stone on January 20, 2004 at 2:52 am

    I grew up in the pre-Benson era, and the Book of Mormon was the main focus of my family’s scripture study (which, perhaps, we did not hold as frequently as we should have.) As a child, I was familiar with all the major adventurous stories in the Book of Mormon, thanks to a book that I believe was called “Stories from the Book of Mormon.”

    I’m sure my family was not unique in that aspect, so I would say there must have been a lot of families that made the Book of Mormon an important part of gospel study before Pres. Benson’s speech.