Book of Mormon Studies and Grace

A Conversation with Brad Wilcox

Brent R. Nordgren

Q: After many years of teaching in the School of Education at BYU, you are moving over to join Religious Education. What motivated you to make this change?

A: Ever since returning from serving as a mission president in Chile ten years ago, I have been teaching mission prep and Book of Mormon classes on the side. I guess it was time to make my side job my full-time job. I definitely found that it was something that I loved. It is a place where I can extend my reach and hopefully do the most good. This is a great change for me in my professional life. I’m thankful for the opportunity.

Q: Your research in childhood literacy has been well received by the Utah education community, and beyond. How do you see yourself continuing that research now that you have joined Religious Education?

A: I’ve helped bridge the literacy-religion gap in the past in some work I did with John Hilton, but now I’ll be able to do it from the other side. We’ve learned a lot about literacy and effective reading, writing, and study habits that we could easily implement in Religious Education. I’m asking my Book of Mormon students to read, write, and keep study journals. There are ways that have been used effectively in education circles that I think I’ll be able to bring into my religion classes. Rather than just saying “read your scriptures” or “write in your study journal,” I hope to give students strategies they can implement and be successful.

Q: Tell us about your ongoing interest in Book of Mormon studies.

A: Before, any religious research I was doing had an outlet at Especially for Youth (EFY) and BYU’s Education Week, where I would share insights from my studies, but now I hope to also have academic outlets for this research as well. It gives me another place to start sharing what I am learning.

Much of my research has focused on names in the Book of Mormon. My interest started back during the Harry Potter craze when all the kids were reading Rowling’s books. I started to notice that elementary students were writing knockoffs of Harry Potter and inventing a bunch of funny, weird names. I started noticing that I could identify writers simply by the names they were creating. They had patterns of how they would come up with those names. For example, one would have the same ending and just change the beginning. He would use Thorup and Borup and then Clorup and Snorup. I was identifying authors just by the patterns in made up names. I started thinking, if I can do this with young students, is this something I could do with adult authors?

That started me on a line of research into sounds that I’ve labeled phonoprints. This is not something that was already in the literature. LDS readers are familiar with wordprint studies and how authors can be identified by the way they put words together in sentences. Phonoprint goes to a micro level, identifying the way authors put sounds together in invented words. So some colleagues at BYU and I have looked at fantasy authors, and we’ve been able to establish that, yes, they do have a phonoprint. We are able to recognize authors by the sounds they gravitate to. Just like an author gravitates to certain word choices, an author will gravitate to certain sound choices as well. We’ve published some of this research in professional journals having to do with onomastics, the study of names.

We’re starting to look at the names in the Book of Mormon now and what’s interesting is that we’re not seeing a phonoprint. So, if Joseph Smith made up all those names, as critics claim, he certainly did it differently than J. R. R. Tolkien, who made up hundreds of names and based them on invented languages. We’ve been able to show that Tolkien has a distinct phonoprint that he wasn’t able to escape, even when he went from language to language—from dwarf to elf to hobbit—he still kept his same phonoprint. As we research the Book of Mormon names, we’re not seeing the same thing happen. We’re not seeing one phonoprint surface. We’re seeing a clear distinction among the Nephite, Lamanite, Mulekite, and Jaredite names—they’re different in ways that mirror the patterns we see in authentic names.

We’ve also looked at names from the census. We’ve shown that the census names don’t have a phonoprint pattern because they’ve evolved from differing language backgrounds rather than being made up by one author. We’re showing that the Book of Mormon names actually have more in common with the authentic names than they do with names made-up by authors.

Similar research that was published in Religious Educator 17, no. 2, has to do with the name-letter effect. Authors tend to gravitate towards sounds in their own names. Edgar Allen Poe, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were nineteenth-century authors who gravitated towards the sounds in their own names as they named characters in their books, whereas the sounds in Joseph Smith’s name and the sounds of his family member’s names do not surface significantly as we examine the names in the Book of Mormon. That would’ve been the natural pool from which Joseph Smith would have been drawing sounds if he had invented the names, following the pattern that we’re seeing in other authors. As we look at the Book of Mormon in new ways, we’re finding that it is holding its ground.

Q: Grace is a topic you have researched, written about, and spoken about for quite some time. In fact, I remember attending the BYU devotional in 2011 where you spoke about grace. It is a topic with a growing interest among Church leaders and members. Your talks and books have helped make this complicated topic more accessible. What is most satisfying for you as you share this hopeful message?

A: I’m thrilled that so many people in the Church are speaking more and writing more about grace, because it’s so important. Missionaries are grabbing hold of it, too. Five years ago, I think missionaries in the Church would have encounters with born-again Christians over grace and not know what to say. Now, they are happy to speak about grace and say, “We believe in grace,” and they can talk about it with confidence. They are no longer feeling like grace catches them off guard. They’re able to explain that we are Christians and saved by grace.

The doctrine has not changed, but I have tried to teach it in a way that people could understand it a little bit more. That’s perhaps where my elementary education background came in handy. I’ve adapted difficult concepts to teach at basic levels for years, so when people tell me they loved the book Continuous Atonement because they could understand it, I take that as a huge compliment because it means people are grasping this doctrine. I tried to lay out the doctrine of grace so that people can see that it isn’t some born-again Christian extreme that we have to avoid; it’s something we embrace. I tried to teach it from an LDS perspective.

I used comfortable language and gave some comfortable examples so that people could understand and share it with children and teens. They are emphasizing works and obedience but for different reasons than in the past. We’re not earning our way to heaven. We’re learning to be heavenly. We’re not putting Christ’s Atonement aside. We’re utilizing the Atonement to reach the goals that he wants us to reach. Being able to teach about the continuous nature of the Atonement in a way that people have been able to wrap their heads around has been very satisfying.

Bishops have told me they’re using the book to help people, and I think that’s great because it’s getting into the hands of people at moments when they need it the most. I’ve heard from people who are going through a repentance process, people who are on the edge of leaving the Church, people who are excommunicated and wanting to come back to the Church, even people in prison. I’m able to see that it is reaching people, and nothing could make me more happy.

Q: Do you have any books coming out anytime soon?

A: The next book Deseret Book is publishing is called Changed Through His Grace. It explains how the Atonement is not here just to cleanse us from our sins, but grace, the power that flows from the Atonement, can change our natures. Change is not a popular topic in today’s world, but that’s the message of the gospel. Christ can change us from bad to good and from good to better. We can even be changed from human to divine. That is the ultimate goal—coming to Christ so we can become like Christ.

Q: We wish you well in your new position at Religious Education and with the new book.