The Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon, Take Four

Today’s entry was written by Grant Hardy:

Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon – Possible Syllabus

If I were designing a syllabus for my own section of this course, or contributing to a conversation about a more widely used core syllabus, I would suggest something along these lines:

Goals for the course
1. Make sure students have a basic understanding of the text, doctrines, and themes of the Book of Mormon (Even with better seminary and church instruction, along with more missionary experience among students, the background knowledge they bring to the course will still vary widely and cannot necessarily be assumed.)
2. Introduce college-level reading tools & resources; that is, help students learn to read more closely
3. Communicate the characteristics and strengths of the Book of Mormon; address common concerns and criticisms
4. Provide something more than Sunday School and Seminary (Instructors should be able to show more depth and sophistication in both the text and its theology than the students have seen before.)
5. Combine academics and discipleship in a way that strengthens students’ testimonies, deepens their knowledge of the gospel, and increases their desire to live by its principles

Assumptions for success
1. Students should have access to something like my Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon, though ideally published by BYU or the Church. [ft1]

(I would feel much better about a course that focused on highlights of the Book of Mormon if I knew that students had access to a text in which they could easily see the overall sweep of the narrative, its constituent parts, and the context of what they were reading. So, for instance, it should be immediately apparent to them that Jacob wrote 2 Nephi 6-10, that Moroni wrote Mormon 8-9, and that Mormon wrote Moroni 7-9. They should be able to see at a glance what belongs to the Small Plates, to Mormon’s abridgment of the Large Plates, and to Moroni’s additions. They should be able to identify embedded documents such as letters, quoted chapters from the Brass Plates, and Zeniff’s memoirs at Mosiah 9-10. They should know that the Amalickiahite Wars were fought on two fronts, that much of Ether is made up of editorial comments from Moroni, and which teachings in 3 Nephi were given on which days of the Savior’s three-day ministry. A lot of this sort of contextual background could be conveyed through the editing and formatting of a college edition of the Book of Mormon, without much added commentary.)

2. It would be good if there were more upper-division religion courses available, at least at BYU, and this course should prepare students for further, more in-depth study. (Question: shouldn’t these introductory courses, required of all students, be set at the 100-level?)

3. This course should be similar in its general structure and scope to the other required cornerstone courses. For example, the courses on the Restoration and on Jesus Christ could also introduce students to issues of textual transmission, canonization, scholarly tools of analysis, historical backgrounds, common criticisms, and comparisons with other religious traditions.

4. Teachers should provide individualized examples and testimony. In addition, there should be a balance between a common core of topics to be covered in all sections and flexibility so that instructors can meet the needs of their particular students.

5. In a complete syllabus, I would add two or three article-length outside sources for each class period that could be recommended for further reading, especially if these were available online. For BYU students, one article per class could be required reading.

Basic class format
1. Most of the class periods would combine close readings of specific chapters with an introduction to key doctrines and scholarly analytical tools that will enrich students’ understanding of and appreciation for the scriptures. The selected chapters are presented in roughly chronological order, to reinforce students’ grasp of the structure of the text and the historical context of the narratives and sermons.
2. Although the sample classes below are identified by literary or historical topics, I anticipate that once the students have a clear understanding of the form and context of the chapters for the day, class discussions will focus on their doctrinal content. Fortunately, nearly every page of the Book of Mormon teaches or illustrates some aspect of the gospel.
3. As students learn to read with particular objectives—following arguments, looking for connections and allusions, identifying literary patterns, weighing the historical or narrative background—they will be better able to explore doctrinal themes. In addition, such readings will help them better connect with the individuals in the stories (or the prophetic narrators!), and most importantly, deepen their relationship with Christ.
4. I would leave half a dozen class periods open, interspersed throughout the semester, for flexibility from year to year or from instructor to instructor. There would be two generic outlines for these lessons:

Doctrinal Principles
Identify a major doctrine or theme of the Book of Mormon that recurs in several passages. Show how the writers understood these principles, learned from their predecessors and from revelation, and applied them in their lives. These lessons offer opportunities to read favorite sermons and discourses, to make sure that crucial doctrinal teachings are included or reinforced, or for students to present the results of their own enhanced readings skills. Topics might include various aspects of Christ’s role in salvation, justice and mercy, the fall and the atonement, the sovereignty of God vs. human agency, keeping the commandments, covenants, caring for the poor and vulnerable, the restoration of the gospel, scriptures for the latter-days, missionary work, conversion, preparing for the Second Coming, or the last judgment and resurrection.

Personal Applications
Choose a topic with particular relevance to your students (perhaps with input from students), and show how one might read several chapters in their original context to identify practical advice for contemporary Latter-day Saints, paying due attention to the differences between the ancient and modern societies. Topics might include repentance, personal revelation, faithfulness in times of turmoil, rational belief and challenges to faith, prayer, dealing with adversity, living in a faith community, or Christian leadership.

A possible concern
A few of the topics in this syllabus are somewhat technical (textual criticism, Native American DNA, Hebraisms, Book of Mormon archaeology, comparisons with the Qur’an, etc.), and this is even more the case with topics in the Old and New Testaments or Church history. It would be good to have experts from BYU with academic training in biblical languages or American history provide eight to ten mini-lectures (20 minutes or so) that could be shown in Institute classes around the country. These lectures, modeled after those produced by the Teaching Company, could feature several different professors (it would be great to bring more women’s voices into every Institute classroom), and they could be easily revised and updated. For an example of just how good videotaped academic introductions to the scriptures can be, take a look at Christine Hayes’ class on the Hebrew Bible, available for free at Open Yale Courses.

Sample Classes:

1 – Introduction
Goals of the course; issues of scripture and canon; various modes of reading scripture (devotional, historical-critical, personal application, literary); contextualized reading vs. proof texting; scholarship and faith. The importance of gaining a spiritual witness of the truth of the book.

2 – Origins of the Text
Moroni, the gold plates, lost 116 pages, translation, publication. Have the students punctuate and paragraph a block of text similar to what John Gilbert would have seen from the printer’s manuscript. Show pages from the 1830 edition at

3 – Textual Criticism
Manuscripts, major editions. What sorts of changes have occurred in different editions and why; deliberate vs. accidental variants; Royal Skousen’s Critical Text Project. Different theories of translation; grammatical and stylistic issues; 19th c. language. Show examples where variant readings enhance understanding.

4 – Historical Background I: Judah
The Babylonian conquest, Deuteronomistic History, Hebrew prophecy (particularly Isaiah), early Israelite ideas of God and covenant. How the Book of Mormon was a response to the loss of Jerusalem—the locus of the Davidic monarchy, the Levitical priesthood, and the temple. How 1 Nephi 17 fits the pattern of Deuteronomistic discourses in recapitulating the history of Israel.

5 – Historical Background II: The New World
Geographical theories, archaeological evidence, DNA. Help students use a hypothetical map based on internal evidence. Give an example from the missionary chapters or war chapters where geography makes a difference in the narrative. Present to students some of the strongest evidences of the book’s historicity. For me, this might include the NHM altars in Yemen and the way the Jaredite king-list of Ether 1:6-33 is reversed and expanded in chapters 7-11

6 – Prophecy and Revelation
1 Nephi 11-14 (perhaps as an apocalypse), or a combination of chapters on conditions in the latter days. If student have questions, one might note that the Book of Mormon speaks to issues in nineteenth-century Christianity such as Universalism, gifts of the spirit, and the sufficiency of the Bible, and this can be explained as the result of prophetic insight, revelatory updating, or an inspired translation.

7 – Literary Criticism: Internal Allusions
2 Nephi 2 and 9. Examine the connections between the teachings of Lehi and Jacob. In addition, look at the two sermons in their broader contexts (2 Ne. 1-4 are Lehi’s last words to his children, with chapter 2 being specifically addressed to Jacob; 2 Ne. 6-10 is a single sermon given by Jacob).

8 – Models of Scriptural Exegesis
1 Nephi 22, or 2 Nephi 25-30, or Mosiah 12-17. Each of these features Nephite interpretations of Isaiah.

9 – Literary Criticism: Poetry
Introduction to poetry in the Hebrew Bible. 2 Nephi 4 (the Psalm of Nephi) and Alma 36

10 – Doctrines in Political and Social Contexts
King Benjamin’s sermon on Christian ethics (Mosiah 2-5) culminates in his people making a new covenant. How does this compare with covenants and covenant making in the Old Testament? And what is the political situation that appears to have necessitated the creation of a new mode of social organization?

11 – Parallel Narratives
Compare Mosiah 27, Alma 36, and Alma 38 (three accounts of the conversion of Alma and the sons of Mosiah); or Mosiah 21-24 (accounts of the deliverance of Limhi’s people and of Alma’s people); or the prison experiences of Alma and Amulek vs. Nephi and Lehi (Alma 14, Hel. 5).

12 – Narrative Analysis (Historiography)
Read the missionary experiences of Ammon and Aaron among the Lamanites (Alma 17-27) and think about how Mormon has shaped these accounts. Why does he tell the stories in the order that he does? What details has he included and excluded? Or alternatively, one might read the account of Alma and Amulek in Ammonihah (Alma 8-16) asking the same questions. Both passages include marvelous doctrinal discourses.

13 – Original Chapters
The chapter divisions of the original manuscript and 1830 edition seem to reflect breaks that were intended by the Nephite editors. Read Alma 30-35 and discuss why Mormon thought that the episode with Korihor belongs in the same story as Alma and Amulek’s mission to the Zoramites.

14 – Literary Criticism: Rhetorical Analysis
Compare how Alma communicates his gospel message to three different audiences in the sermons at Zarahemla, Gideon, and Ammonihah (Alma 5-9); or compare Alma’s sermons to each of his three sons (Alma 36-42).

15 – Literary Criticism: Discourse Analysis
Show the students how to summarize the argument and identify rhetorical devices from an important sermon such as Jacob 1-3 (which includes important teachings on family relations) or Hel 13-16 (Samuel the Lamanite) or Moroni 7 (Mormon on faith, hope and charity). Then assign students to do the same with one of their favorite Book of Mormon sermons.

16 – Embedded Documents
Alma 56-58 (Helaman’s letter). Why did Mormon choose to include this letter as a primary source rather than summarizing its contents? How might that compare with Moroni’s inclusion of two letters from Mormon at Moro. 8-9?

17 – Editorial Comments
The three major editors—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni—comment all the way through the book. Look at some of their longer comments (1 Ne. 19; 2 Ne. 11; Hel. 4, 12; 3 Ne. 5; Ether 12) to get a better sense of their perspectives and agendas. Or compare their farewell statements (2 Ne. 31-33; Morm. 7, 8-9; Moro. 10).

18 – Literary Criticism: Typology
One of the purposes of the Book of Mormon is to prepare a people for Christ’s coming. Christ appearance to the Nephites (3 Ne. 9-11, 15-18) can function as a preview, or typological counterpart, for the Second Coming and the establishment of Christ’s millennial kingdom. What were the differences between Jesus’ reception in the Old World as compared to the New? How did Christ’s teachings in Bountiful compare with what prophets had earlier proclaimed, or what later Christians would assume?

19 – Intertextuality
Compare the Sermon at the Temple (3 Ne. 12-14) with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). What are the main differences? Why are they there? What do they tell us about the situation of the Nephites compared with that of the Jews in Judea? Why does the Book of Mormon quote almost exactly from the King James Bible? (You might also compare Moro. 10 to 1 Cor. 12.)

20 – Theological Analysis
Track diversity in one aspect of traditional Christian theology—atonement theories, Christologies, the role of miracles in faith, the sacraments—and show how the Book of Mormon resolves the issue. Identify other examples of how the Book of Mormon adds to the witness of the Bible.

21 – Comparative Scripture Studies
Compare the origins, contents, and claims of authority in the Book of Mormon and the Qur’an. How is the Book of Mormon similar to and different from the Bible in terms of origins, structure, transmission, and canonization?

22 – The Divine Role of the Book of Mormon in the Latter Days
Its use in LDS history; translations into other languages. Preparing for a lifetime of study
These sorts of lessons might need to be adapted for use in Institute classes, but at BYU, where students are getting university credit, there should be a greater expectation of college-level academics combined with spiritual and devotional perspectives (though if I were part of a committee putting together a core syllabus, I might be happy if two-thirds, or even half of these lessons were included).

[ft1] Handbook 2, Section 17 on “Uniformity and Adaptation” states that uniformity is required with regard to the scriptures (17.1.1), and the Church has thus far interpreted this injunction very conservatively by specifying the use of a single edition of the standard works for English-speaking Latter-day Saints. I might suggest another interpretation based on the Endowment. Like the temple films, in which the sacred, approved text is portrayed with different sets, actors, music, and cinematic styles, the approved text of the Book of Mormon could be presented in different formats, in ways that highlight various features and help readers see new things in the familiar words. At the least, a college edition of the Book of Mormon should put the official text into paragraphs, with quotation marks, multi-chapter headings, section headings, and poetic lines where appropriate (in much the manner of my Reader’s Edition and modern translations of the Bible). In addition, it would be useful to highlight the original chapter breaks, indicate additions and changes to passages quoted from the Bible, provide a few notes on intertextuality and literary patterns, and identify significant textual variants.

Julie’s comment: Well, wow. I’m floored. Can you imagine a church where most adults had been through a class like this? I think the idea of having a library of brief videos by experts is absolute brilliance. The only other thing that I have to add, in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, is that I have a forthcoming article concerning Huldah’s ministry as key background to Lehi’s ministry that would fit well in class #4. Also, this Ensign article, “Understanding Old Testament Poetry” by Kevin Barney, is an excellent Mormon source for an introduction to reading biblical poetry (class #9).

15 comments for “The Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon, Take Four

  1. g.wesley
    November 19, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Yes. Let’s be sure to do this please.

  2. November 19, 2014 at 11:17 am

    x2, g.wesley.
    From your post to admin ears, Grant and Julie.

  3. EmJen
    November 19, 2014 at 11:33 am

    I want to take this class. Right now.

  4. November 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Me too. I’m totally signing up. (You will be teaching this, right Grant? In Chicago? Pretty please?)

  5. Terry H
    November 19, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Yes. Nothing more to say. PS Julie, forthcoming where and when?

  6. LilyTiger
    November 19, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Yes, This!

  7. Kevin Barney
    November 19, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    I totally agree with footnote 1. See my review of the Reader’s Edition here:

  8. Kevin Barney
    November 19, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Oh, and I love the assignment to have students paragrap and punctuate a block of text like John Gilbert. What a fantastic exercise that would be!

  9. Julie M. Smith
    November 19, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Terry H, should be in the 1 Nephi 1 book from Maxwell, maybe some time next year?

  10. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    November 19, 2014 at 5:39 pm

    I have purchased Grant Hardy’s course for the Teaching Company on Religious Texts of the World, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We ought to do a Kickstarter to finance having him do his Book of Mormon course as an introduction that can help Mormons (and interested others) see the structure of the Book of Mormon, so the messages come out in context.

    The fact is that most of the actual sermons of the Book of Mormon are within the general stream of Christian doctrine. The thing that the Book of Mormon teaches us most of all is that God and Christ are real, that prophets and prophecy are real, and that the Book of Mormon itself is an ensign marking the place where we can experience that reality. For that reason, how the Book of Mormon was written, and how to understand it, is a big part of the value of the message. Reading a sermon is one thing, there are many sermons in the Christian tradition that are commendable; but reading a sermon that comes with authority from God defining what He expects from us and what he promises us, is quite another.

  11. dk
    November 19, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    I rarely bother to comment, just wanted to say I think this is brilliant, and I too want to take the class. Love love love! And yes, punctuating a portion of the book of mormon is a great idea.

  12. Terry H
    November 19, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks Julie. One of these days we should talk. I’ve been working on Samuel Brown’s new book and its great. I’m trying to get with him in December. Any word on release of your Kofford book?

  13. Julie M. Smith
    November 19, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    Terry, they tell me mid-December. And I’d love to talk anytime!

  14. Jo7nes
    November 20, 2014 at 1:16 am

    Please, Grant Hardy, teach this course. Couldn’t we do it on-line via subscription? Julie could tell you more about how to do that. I would LOVE to participate. I am, at any rate, saving your post as a guide for personal study and to use if I’m ever in the position to teach any course, church or otherwise, on the BoM.

  15. November 20, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Actually, I like Raymond’s kickstarter suggestion. Five years ago, I posted about The Teaching Company and asked “who lectures on the Book of Mormon?”, concluding “Somebody’s got a niche to fill.”

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