Charles Swift

Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU


Several years ago, I developed an Honors Program course that I titled “The Book of Mormon as Sacred Literature.” I valued and enjoyed teaching students in that course for many reasons, but certainly one of them was the reward I felt in helping them to discover the importance of seeing the literary qualities of that book in particular, and of the scriptures in general.

Many students came to the Book of Mormon without considering that it had any literary qualities at all, let alone enough to spend an entire semester discussing. Others, however, might admit that there was a literary quality to the book but that such a thing was far down the list of what was important. They could see stories in the book, naturally, and some even found poetry, but the literary aspects of the Book of Mormon were of little concern. If there were any literary components to the book to speak of, they were at best the icing on the cake.

Because I’m the one who created the course, it’s no surprise that I viewed the role of the literary elements of the book quite differently. I would explain to my students that, while there may be moments when the literary parts of speech could be viewed as mere icing, there were many more in which they proved to be intricately tied to the meaning and purpose of the text. I didn’t claim that every page of the book was literary in nature, but there were enough of those pages to make seeing the literary aspects of the book a most worthwhile exercise. In fact, such literary forces in the book could not be removed from the book without doing serious damage to its meaning and its ability to convey that meaning.

One class day each semester I would invite my students to have a particular experience with the text in order to understand the importance of literature in the Book of Mormon. We’d read this verse in class:

Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them. (Alma 5:7)

After we read it together, I then assigned them to rewrite that verse, being careful to convey the same meaning while also stripping of it any literary language. I’d give them several minutes to write their version on a piece of paper, and then I’d collect them and read several of them to the class. The class would quickly discover three important facts.

First, almost no one succeeded in not using any literary language. Often the student writer would not recognize that a phrase was indeed metaphorical (e.g., “changed their hearts”). Sometimes the student would replace what he or she saw as a literary word with a different word—but one that was equally literary in nature. They found it extremely difficult to write without using literary devices.

Second, the students realized that what they wrote was not nearly as beautiful or powerful or memorable as the original. I could have given them a week to rewrite that one verse, but they could never have matched it if they had to avoid allowing any literariness to seep in. (Of course, there was the other realization: writing scripture without the mantle of a prophet resulted in little worth cherishing compared to actual scripture.)

Third, and arguably most important for my purposes on that class day, the students came to understand that the literary quality of that verse helped to convey meaning that could not be conveyed without such language. The various metaphors and symbols were helping the students understand doctrine and spiritual truths that could not be accessed through non-literary language. In other words, sometimes the literary devices were an essential ingredient of the cake.

I am the first to admit that the scriptures stand apart from all other writing in their power and importance. They are sacred, holy words unlike any other texts. However, they are not completely unlike other writings of great literature. Understanding their literary nature can help us readers more fully recognize and appreciate the power the scriptures possess as inspired writings.