There are many ways to read the Book of Mormon.  It can be

  • A manual for redemption, showing us how to enter Christ’s presence
  • An exploration of morality during times of war
  • A commentary on 19th century American religious and political life in the genre of a biblical epic (especially for those who see it as a product of Joseph Smith)
  • An expansion of the Bible

It can be many other things as well.  One can read it many times, looking at various strains of thought, patterns, and motifs, and each time find a very different book.

When looking for these different patterns, we should keep in mind what Ezra Taft Benson pointed out early in his term as President of the Church:

The Nephites never had the book; neither did the Lamanites of ancient times. It was meant for us. Mormon wrote near the end of the Nephite civilization. Under the inspiration of God, who sees all things from the beginning, he abridged centuries of records, choosing the stories, speeches, and events that would be most helpful to us.

Each of the major writers of the Book of Mormon testified that he wrote for future generations….

If they saw our day and chose those things which would be of greatest worth to us, is not that how we should study the Book of Mormon? We should constantly ask ourselves, “Why did the Lord inspire Mormon (or Moroni or Alma) to include that in his record? What lesson can I learn from that to help me live in this day and age?”  (Ezra Taft Benson, October 1986)

To this we could add: the Catholics don’t have the book.  The protestants don’t have the book.  Of all people in the history of the world, it is the Latter-day Saints who have the book.  It is we who claim to have received the gospel contained in it, and then judge the rest of the world as benighted because they don’t have ready access to it’s precepts and haven’t covenanted to obey them.  It is the standard by which we will be judged, and we should therefore liken its narrative to ourselves as we study it.

One useful but rarely explored pattern in the Book of Mormon, is its critique of religion and of religious people.  If the book was intended for us today, primarily to those who can claim to be of the house of Israel—for the time being, that’s the Latter-day Saints—then shouldn’t we apply those religious critiques to us?  Shouldn’t we carefully, methodically, and unsparingly liken the many descriptions of religious institutions, religious leaders, and religious followers to our own institutions, leaders, and members?

It’s not hard to understand why those kinds of comparisons are completely absent in the manuals that guide our study.  Who wants to see themselves as Laman and Lemuel rather than Nephi?  Who wants to see themselves as King Noah’s people, rather than Abinadi?  Who wants to see themselves as the prideful Zoramites or the wicked Amalackiahites rather than Alma and Amulek?

Yet it was Laman and Lemuel who were devoutly committed, even to bearing testimony, to the true church and priesthood at Jerusalem, while Nephi was the reckless apostate convinced that the institution could, indeed, be led astray.  It was King Noah’s people who held priesthood keys and built finely decorated temples, while Abinadi held no institutional authority and preached with nobody’s permission but God’s.

The hallmark of the servants of God, and of those who receive their ministry and repent, is the revelation they receive.  If we are receiving the same revelations as Alma the Younger, or as those who received his ministry, then we can liken ourselves to him as we read (Alma 36:24-26).  If we are not receiving the same revelations—which are promised to all those who seek diligently (1 Nephi 10:17-19)—then there are plenty of unbelieving, deceived, hard-hearted, stiff-necked, unrepentant, and blind-eyed religious people presented by the Book of Mormon who are much more accurate proxies for us.

These hallmark revelations are not simply “gaining a testimony”, or feeling spiritual feelings which lead us to follow some leader.  They are not policy decisions made by committees of leaders after extensive market research, polling, and focus groups.  Policy and procedural changes are not signs of continuing revelation. Schematically, true revelation follows an ascending path from the first flood of pure intelligence that allows a person to believe the knowing testimony that another bears (1 Nephi 2:16).  It can and must progress from there to repentance and the baptism of fire (2 Nephi 31:13).  As the person rejects tradition and embraces truth, devoting themselves to hearing and doing the commands of the Lord, they words of Christ become a feast (2 Nephi 31:20 – 32:6).  The words of Christ will lead you into His presence (2 Nephi 32:6, DC 93:1).  This is not just a path for chief priests, and they are no more likely to walk it than anyone else.  It is the path to salvation for every human being. If a person is taught the gospel from their youth and lives out their life without obtaining this blessing, something has gone terribly wrong.  Either the true teaching was sufficiently mixed with false traditions that it lacked the power to save them, or they did not respond to the pure gospel with faith and diligence.  It is true that the blessing can only come in the Lord’s time, but he has promised that it can come to every soul in this life, as it did to Adam and Eve (DC 88:67-68, DC 93:1, Moses 6:68).  That is the promise inherited by all of Adam and Eve’s seed (Moses 5:9-10).

If an individual has not yet progressed beyond the gate of this path, they should ask God “what lack I yet?,” listen to His answer, and be patient (DC 101:38).  It is up to each individual to see their own likeness in scripture, among the prophets if he is a prophet or she is a prophetess, or among the hard-hearted and penitent if they are still seeking God. If an entire group of people has gone generations with few if any of them entering God’s presence, then a major course correction is needed.   They are wasting time and not building Zion. The Book of Mormon has plenty of lessons for such people, which should serve as sobering calls to repentance.

As a critique of religion, The Book of Mormon can teach Latter-day Saints, among many other things:

  • the dangers of religious institutionalism
  • the potential to idolize leaders, institutional structures, and buildings
  • the predictability with which people idolize those things
  • the potential to set our hearts on riches and material comfort
  • the universality of the assumption of self-righteousness
  • the interplay between the prophetic and the priestly (i.e. between true prophets and presiding authorities)
  • how to recognize servants of God
  • how such servants are qualified, and what their message will look like
  • how to respond to such a message, when it comes
  • what kinds of spiritual manifestations attend true faith, and are only absent when faith is absent (angels, miracles, visions, the second comforter, etc..)
  • The terrible danger of enforcing a religious system of priestcraft, where religious leaders become popular among and beloved by their followers, cease laboring for their own livelihood, and are instead supported by the people.

To explore the Book of Mormon’s potential to explore my own understanding of religion, I have been studying Abinadi’s ministry to King Noah’s people.   This study is contained in the following four posts.