Monte S. Nyman and Lisa Bolin Hawkins, “Book of Mormon: Overview,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 54–60.
Book of Mormon: Overview
The Prophet Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion” and said that a person “would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” (Teachings, p. 194), for it contains the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ (D&C 20:8–9). To members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Book of Mormon forms the doctrinal foundation of the Church and speaks the word of God to all the world.
The Book of Mormon both confirms and supplements the Bible: “Behold, this [the Book of Mormon] is written for the intent that ye may believe that [the Bible]; and if ye believe [the Bible] ye will believe [the Book of Mormon] also” (Morm. 7:9). The Bible is primarily a record of God’s dealings with the forebears and descendants of Jacob or Israel in the ancient Near East. Latter-day Saints believe the Book of Mormon to be a record of God’s dealings principally with another group of Israelites he brought to the Western Hemisphere from Jerusalem about 600 b.c. They anticipated the birth and coming of Jesus Christ and believed in his Atonement and gospel. Their complex, lengthy records were abridged by a prophet named Mormon, inscribed on plates of gold, and buried by his son, Moroni, after internecine wars destroyed all of the believers in Christ in the New World except Moroni (a.d. 385).
Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon
In his short lifetime, Joseph Smith brought forth many scriptures. His first prophetic calling was to bring forth the Book of Mormon. In 1823, at age seventeen, he was shown the hidden record by Moroni, then a resurrected angelic messenger from God (Joseph Smith—History 1:27–54). After several visitations during the next four years, Joseph was allowed to remove the sacred record from its resting place in the Hill Cumorah, near Palmyra, New York. Despite many interruptions and persistent persecutions (Joseph Smith—History 1:57–60), Joseph Smith translated the lengthy record in about sixty working days. Latter-day Saints bear testimony that he did this “through the mercy of God, by the power of God” (D&C 1:29), “by the inspiration of heaven” (Messenger and Advocate [Oct. 1834]:14–16; Joseph Smith—History 1:71, n.). He had the assistance of several scribes, chiefly Oliver Cowdery, who wrote what Joseph Smith dictated. The book was published in Palmyra in 1830. At least eleven witnesses, in addition to Joseph Smith, saw and/or hefted the Book of Mormon plates before he returned them to Moroni.
Purposes and Contents
The Book of Mormon, as its modern subtitle states, stands with the Bible as “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Its main purposes are summarized on its title page: to show the remnants of the Book of Mormon people what great things God did for their forefathers, to make known the covenants of the Lord, and to convince “Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” The central event in the Book of Mormon is the appearance of the resurrected Christ to righteous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere after his ascension into heaven at Jerusalem. During his visit, Christ delivered a sermon that is similar to the Sermon on the Mount recorded in the New Testament, but with certain vital clarifications and additions. He declared his doctrine, the fulness of his gospel necessary to enter the kingdom of God; and he established his Church with its essential ordinances, and ordained disciples to preside over the Church. At this time, Christ also explained the promises of God to Israel; healed the sick and disabled; blessed the children and their parents; and expressed his great love, allowing each individual to come forward and touch the wounds he had received during his crucifixion (see 3 Ne. 11–26). The record of Jesus’ visit and many other passages in the Book of Mormon verify the divine sonship, ministry, Atonement, resurrection, and eternal status of the Lord Jesus Christ and show that the fulness of his gospel is the same for all people, whenever and wherever they have lived.
The ancestors of these people to whom Jesus appeared had been in the Western Hemisphere for about 600 years. The Book of Mormon opens with the family of Lehi in Jerusalem at the time of the biblical prophet Jeremiah. Lehi was warned by God about 600 b.c. to take his family and flee Jerusalem before it was destroyed by Babylon (1 Ne. 1:1–2). The account, written by Lehi’s son Nephi, first tells of his family’s departure from Jerusalem and of his dangerous return to the city with his brothers to obtain sacred records that contained their lineage, the five books of Moses, and a history of the Jews and writings of prophets down to Jeremiah’s time (1 Ne. 3–5).
The group traveled in the wilderness until they reached a pleasant land by the sea where Nephi, with God’s instruction, built a ship that took them to the New World (1 Ne. 17–18). Nephi’s older brothers, laman and Lemuel, expressed resentment at Nephi’s closeness to the Lord and did not want him to rule over them (1 Ne. 16:37–39; 18:10). When the family reached the New World, this antagonism led to a schism between the Nephites and Lamanites that pervades the Book of Mormon.
As the Nephite sermons, prophecies, and historical records were compiled and handed down, the writers emphasized that those who keep God’s commandments prosper. Unfortunately, many who prospered became proud and persecuted others, with war as the eventual result. The desolation of war humbled the people, who began again to call upon God.
Ancient American prophets, like biblical prophets such as Moses, Isaiah, and Daniel, were shown visions of the future of various nations. For example, Nephi foresaw Christopher columbus’ discovery of America, the influx of Gentiles into the New World, and the American Revolution (1 Ne. 13:12–15, 18–19), as well as the birth and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Christ’s birth, ministry, and death were prophesied by Lehi, Nephi, Benjamin, Samuel the Lamanite, and other prophets. When Mosiah discovered a people who had left Jerusalem with Mulek, a son of Zedekiah (see Jer. 52:10; Omni 1:12–15; Hel. 8:21), and King Limhi’s messengers found a record of the extinct Jaredites, the Nephites learned that they were not the only people God had brought to the Western Hemisphere.
After the appearance of Jesus Christ, the Nephites and Lamanites enjoyed peace for more than 160 years (4 Ne. 1:18–24). Then, many who had been righteous broke their covenants with God, and the Church and their civilization began to collapse. At last, in a.d. 385, the few remaining Nephites were hunted and killed by Lamanites. The book ends with Moroni, the last Nephite, writing to the people of modern times, admonishing them to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moro. 10:32).
Latter-day Saints embrace the Book of Mormon as a record for all people. In addition to instructing their contemporaries and descendants, the prophets who wrote these ancient records foresaw modern conditions and selected lessons needed to meet the challenges of this world (Morm. 8:34–35). Their book is a record of a fallen people, urging all people to live righteously and prevent a similar fall today.
The Book of Mormon has had a profound effect on the Church and its members. It is so fundamental that Joseph Smith said, “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations and where is our religion? We have none” (Teachings, p. 71).
The Book of Mormon teaches that the living God has spoken to several peoples throughout the earth who have written sacred records as he has commanded (2 Ne. 29:11–12). The Book of Mormon is one such record.
It also stands as evidence to Latter-day Saints that God restored his true and living Church through Joseph Smith. The importance of this belief for Latter-day Saints cannot be overestimated, for they are confident that God watches over the people of the earth and loves them, and that he continues to speak to them through contemporary prophets who apply unchanging gospel principles to today’s challenges.
The Book of Mormon also is important to Latter-day Saints as an aid in understanding the Bible and the will of God. Nephi prophesied that many “plain and precious” truths and covenants would be taken from the gospel and the Bible after the deaths of the apostles (1 Ne. 13:26–27). Many questions that have arisen from the Bible are answered for Latter-day Saints by the Book of Mormon, such as the mode of and reasons for baptism (2 Ne. 31; 3 Ne. 11:23–26); the proper way to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Moro. 4–5); the nature of the Resurrection (Alma 40); the effects of the Fall of Adam, and the reasons for evil and suffering in the world (2 Ne. 2). The Book of Mormon reinforces the LDS doctrine that the gospel of Jesus Christ existed before the Creation and has been revealed to prophets and believers throughout time.
Also sacred to Latter-day Saints is the Book of Mormon as a tutor in discerning the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Many Latter-day Saints, including those born into LDS families, trace their conversion to Jesus Christ and their commitment toward the Church to prayerful study of the Book of Mormon, and through it they learn to recognize the Holy Spirit. Thus, the book becomes a continuing symbol of personal revelation and of God’s love for and attention to the needs of each person. It also declares that all mankind will be judged by its precepts and commandments (Mosiah 3:24; Moro. 10:27. It is evidence that God remembers every creature he has created (Mosiah 27:30) and every covenant he has made (1 Ne. 19:15; 3 Ne. 16:11). The Book of Mormon is the base from which millions have begun a personal journey of spiritual growth and of service to others.
For LDS children, the Book of Mormon is a source of stories and heroes to equal those of the Bible—Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in the lions’ den, the faithful Ruth, and brave Queen Esther. They tell and sing with enthusiasm about the army of faithful young men led by Helaman (Alma 56:41–50); of the prophet Abinadi’s courage before wicked King Noah (Mosiah 11–17); of Nephi and his unwavering faithfulness (1 Ne. 3–18); of Abish, a Lamanite woman who for many years appears to be the lone believer in Christ in King Lamoni’s court until the missionary Ammon taught the gospel to the king and queen (Alma 19); and of Jesus’ appearances to the Nephites (3 Ne. 11–28). There are many favorites. The book is used to teach children doctrines, provide examples of the Christlike life, and remind them of God’s great love and hope for all his children.
The book is central to missionary work. It is the Church’s most important missionary tool and is destined to go to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people (Rev. 14:6–7). All LDS missionaries encourage those they contact to read and pray about the book as a means of receiving their own testimony from God about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, a witness of Jesus Christ.
Latter-day Saints are regularly admonished to make fuller use of the Book of Mormon. In 1832, two and one-half years after the book was published, the word of the Lord warned the Saints that they had treated the revelations too lightly and had neglected to “remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon” (D&C 84:57). Church leaders repeatedly encourage members to make the Book of Mormon a greater part of their lives. President Ezra Taft Benson has counseled Latter-day Saints to read the book daily and to share it and the gospel message with all the world.
Reading the Book of Mormon
This sacred record asks the reader to approach its words with faith and prayer. One of its teachings is that readers will “receive no witness until after the trial of [their] faith” (Ether 12:6). Therefore, although aspects of the book may seem unusual or improbable at first, it invites its readers to entertain them as possibilities until the whole picture becomes clear and other feelings are experienced and thoughts considered. Moreover, the final inscription of Moroni on the title page asks readers to look beyond human weaknesses in the book: “If there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God.” He closed his own book within the Book of Mormon by exhorting all who receive these things to ask God, with a sincere heart and with real intent, having faith in Christ, if they are not true, and promises that God will manifest the truth of it (Moro. 10:4).
Latter-day Saints of all ages and interests find rewards in reading the Book of Mormon. At first, people tend to focus attention on its main messages and story lines. With further reading and pondering, they discover numerous themes, meaningful nuances, interesting details, and profound spiritual expressions.
The first-time reader may find the Book of Mormon difficult at times. Its style, as translated into English, is somewhat similar to that of the King James Version of the Bible, and the reader who is not familiar with the Bible will encounter some unfamiliar word usages. The 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon is annotated with many Bible references and aids to facilitate a more detailed comparison.
Book of Mormon prophets Nephi, Jacob, and Abinadi quote extensively from Isaiah (see, e.g., 2 Ne. 6–8 [Isa. 49–51]; 2 Ne. 12–24 [Isa. 2–14]; Mosiah 14 [Isa. 53]), an Old Testament prophet whose poetic style and allusions have challenged readers of the Bible and also have proved difficult to many who study the Book of Mormon. Initially, some Church leaders encourage first-time readers to move through these chapters, understanding what is accessible and saving the rest for later study. In Isaiah’s writings, Latter-day Saints find an important testimony of Christ and of the fulfillment of God’s covenants with the house of Israel. Christ admonished his followers to “search these things diligently, for great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Ne. 23:11).
Another possible hurdle for readers is the book’s nonchronological insertions. Nephi and Jacob and Jacob’s descendants wrote first-person accounts from about 590 b.c. until about 150 b.c., and then Mormon (about a.d. 385) inserted a shorter chapter to explain his role as abridger of another record. Then the reader is returned via Mormon’s abridgment to the history of Nephi’s successors and of the descendants of Alma. As groups of people break away from and return to the main body, parts of their records are incorporated into the book, causing the reader to jump back to earlier events. Likewise, Moroni’s abridgment of the very ancient book of Ether appears out of chronological order near the end. In addition, the Book of Mormon, like the Old Testament, describes events from widely separated intervals. As an abridgment, it contains only a small part of the proceedings of these ancient peoples.
Approaching the Text
The arrangement of the Book of Mormon lends itself to many approaches. Three mutually supportive avenues are most often followed. First, the book serves as a source of guidance and doctrine, yielding lessons and wisdom applicable to contemporary life. This approach is recommended in the writings of Nephi, who wrote that he “did liken the scriptures unto [his people], that it might be for [their] profit and learning” (1 Ne. 19:23). Latter-day Saints find its pages rich with ennobling narratives, clear doctrines, eternal truths, memorable sayings, and principles. Knowing the conditions of the latter days, the ancient prophets periodically address the individual reader directly. Latter-day Saints emphasize the need to read the Book of Mormon prayerfully, with faith in God, to benefit personally from its teachings and to come unto Christ.
A second approach to the Book of Mormon, adding historical dimension to the first approach, is to study the book as an ancient text. The reader who accepts the Book of Mormon as an ancient Hebrew lineage history written by prophets in the New World will find the book consistent with that description and setting. The book is a repository of ancient cultures that are as far removed from modern readers as are those of the Old and New Testaments. Continuing research has found Hebrew poetic forms, rhetorical patterns, and idioms, together with many Mesoamerican symbols, traditions, and artifacts, to be implicit in the book or consistent with it.
Finally, one may enjoy the Book of Mormon as a work of literature. Although the style may seem tedious or repetitive at times, there are order, purpose, and clarity in its language. Its words are often as beautiful and as memorable as passages in the Psalms, the Gospel of John, and other notable religious works of prose and poetry.
Most faithful readers of the Book of Mormon, however, do not define or limit themselves to any single approach or methodology, for these approaches are all transcended by the overriding implications of the book’s divine origins and eternal purposes. Study and faith, reflection and application, all help a person know and comprehend the messages of the Book of Mormon. But for millions of Latter-day Saints, their most important experience with the Book of Mormon has been the spiritual knowledge that they have received of its truth. It has changed and enriched their lives and has brought Jesus Christ and his teachings closer to them.
Benson, Ezra Taft. A Witness and a Warning. Salt Lake City, 1988.
Downs, Robert B. Books That Changed America. London, 1970.
Faust, James E. “The Keystone of Our Religion.” Ensign 13 (Nov. 1983): 9.
Nibley, Hugh W. “The Mormon View of the Book of Mormon.” Concilium 10 (Dec. 1967): 82–83; reprinted, Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 8:259–64.
Smith, Joseph. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City, 1976.
MONTE S. NYMAN
LISA BOLIN HAWKINS