Julie is posting detailed commentary and Kent is providing literary reflection; I’m afraid all I have to offer on the Book of Mormon is general observations. This week let’s talk about situating the book as a whole, not so much in terms of content and form (which I’ll address in later posts) but in terms of function and use. How does the Church use the Book of Mormon? How do you use the Book of Mormon?
What the Book of Mormon Says About Itself
One place to start is the Title Page to the Book of Mormon itself, which (we are told) is translated text that accompanied the body of the Book of Mormon text. That page tells us that the Book of Mormon is intended to do three things:
- To inform the descendants of Lehi about the history of their ancestors (Nephites and Lamanites) and that they are descended from the house of Israel;
- To tell the descendants of Lehi that they are “not cast off forever” and that “they may know the covenants of the Lord,” which complements the first item by making Israelite ancestry not merely an item of historical interest to the descendants of Lehi but a status that activates present-day promises and possibilities; and
- To proclaim to all readers (“Jew and Gentile”) that Jesus is the Christ and that God reveals himself to all nations.
The third item is general, but the first two items are specific to the descendants of Lehi or, as they are often termed in the text, “the remnant of our seed.” Once upon a time, that designation, along with the promises extended at various places in the Book of Mormon to the descendants of Lehi, was thought to apply to all Native Americans. Under the current understanding — that the descendants of Lehi are actually a small and unidentified portion of the Native American population, the large majority of which are admitted to be of Asiatic descent — the special promises in the Book of Mormon addressed to the descendants of Lehi actually do not apply to most Native Americans. I have not seen this obvious point discussed elsewhere, although it certainly seems like the kind of thing that would be addressed somewhere in the twenty volumes of the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture.
Another source for statements about the purpose of the Book of Mormon is the text itself, such as 1 Nephi 13:40:
And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved.
This verse gives what I think is a better statement of purpose than the Title Page, specifically noting that the Book of Mormon would:
- Support the Bible.
- Restore plain and precious truths that have been removed from the Bible since its texts were originally delivered.
- Testify to all people that they must come unto Jesus Christ or they cannot be saved.
Interestingly, the items on this list pulled from 1 Nephi 13:40 seem to match up better with the statements about the Book of Mormon one hears in the present LDS curriculum than the items from the Title Page listed earlier.
From the early days of the Church, the Book of Mormon has been used as a sign of the calling and prophetic status of Joseph Smith. That is certainly true for the LDS curriculum today and also for how LDS beliefs are presented in LDS missionary teaching to those who are unfamiliar with LDS doctrine and history. This tight linking of the Book of Mormon with the life and mission of Joseph Smith is nicely illustrated by a quotation from Elder Holland’s October 2009 General Conference talk “Safety for the Soul.” He related how Hyrum Smith recited Ether 12:7-8 to Joseph as they departed Nauvoo to answer legal charges in nearby Carthage (which led to their detention in Carthage Jail and shortly thereafter to their assassination by a disbanded unit of the state militia). Elder Holland continued:
As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?
Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be “houseless, friendless and homeless” and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
While undeniably appropriate for exhortation and ministry, linking the Book of Mormon so directly to Joseph Smith (or to LDS doctrine in general) can unwittingly deflect attention from the book itself, as noted most recently by Grant Hardy in Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (OUP, 2010):
Most studies tend to mine the text for evidence in larger arguments about the nature of Mormonism as a religious movement or the credibility of its first prophet. … While historians have searched the Book of Mormon for clues about nineteenth-century America or Joseph Smith, Mormon writers have generally focused either on evidence for the book’s historical claims or correlations with LDS theology. And for many Latter-day Saints, careful scrutiny of the volume’s contents is secondary to the direct relationship with God that the book makes possible. Those investigating the faith are encouraged to pray about the Book of Mormon …. Individuals who feel they have received such a spiritual witness are often content to redirect their energies from textual analysis toward living the wholesome sort of lifestyle that Mormonism advocates. (p. xii-xiii.)
So these quotes give some ideas for how the Book of Mormon can be used or should be used. How do you use it? How does it affect your life? What has it done for you lately?