Our Foundation Stories Part V: The Meaning of the Book of Mormon

John Nilsson Mormon 9 Comments

What does the Book of Mormon mean?  Does it follow from its existence that Joseph Smith was (is?) a prophet, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s only church on the earth, that Thomas Spencer Monson is the only one on the earth today that has the authority to officiate for God? Alternatively,does it mean that anthropologists are mistaken about the origins, history, and cultural practices of pre-Columbian Americans? That Latter-day Saints are in possession of the real history of the Americas?

Or does it mean, as many early Saints believed, that the Restoration of the lost parts of the gospel had begun,and that the tribes of Israel were about to assume their rightful seats in the order of things, and Christ to inaugurate his government from the Old and New Jerusalems?

Here are some meanings contained in, or suggested by the existence of, the Book of Mormon which LDSaints have suggested to me at one time or another:

  1. That Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ.
  2. That atheism, communism, and the welfare state are satanic creations.
  3. That military actions are morally defensible and defensive wars are just.
  4. That pacifism is a morally defensible alternative to military service.
  5. That the United States is a land chosen by God for a special purpose.
  6. That native inhabitants of the Americas are descended from Lehi.
  7. That the United States is in the grip of secret combinations.
  8. That faith is like a seed.
  9. That cataclysms ravaged North and South America at the time of Christ’s death.
  10. That Polynesians are the descendants of Hagoth.
  11. That God speaks to all peoples geographically (the First Vision suggests God speaks to all people historically).

The only items above about which I have strong opinions would be 1 and 11.  Anyone like to make a case for meanings 2-10 or state others?

Comments

comments

Comments 9

  1. Let me talk about #5 just a bit. I think with some broadening, it is supported by the BoM.

    I don’t hold much with theories that place Nephi & company landing anywhere outside the Americas. It doesn’t fit much with what is written, and Joseph Smith seems to have held pretty strongly to the idea not just as a person, but also as a prophet from what I can tell. Of course I’ll never know in this life for sure unless the Millenial prophecies happen sooner than most expect.

    All that said, I think you were to broaden #5 to be “The North & South American continents” and not tie it to a particular secular government, then the idea is that what the Lord had in mind becomes a geographic area that was set aside in the latter days as an initial place for the gospel to get started and to get going. It is also hard to deny that the Americas are where the church is headquartered and that the church is having much greater success in the Americas than in the rest of the world.

    Now, I think that ultimately, like the special purpose that God had in mind for the Jews of the OT, the special purpose of the Americas, if you choose use this interpretation, is not to be a permanently ‘better’ people, but to first serve, then enlighten the rest of the world so that the entire world becomes a ‘land chosen by God’.

    That’s my take. For the next 15 minutes or so, anyway.

  2. I’ve long been one to advocate taking the Book of Mormon text at face value—to read what it actually says. The vast majority of inferences regarding the United States/New World as promised land and the native Americans / Polynesians as Lehites are derived through “interpolations of men,” as it were, not an objective reading of the text.

    It’s true that many of these notions find ample support in the writing of the early (and not so early) church leaders, but if we’re trying to determine what we actually learn from the Book of Mormon text itself, I think it’s important to make that distinction. If we accept Ezra T. Benson’s outline for determining what source trumps in case of conflict or ambiguity (see here) we see that canonized scripture takes authoritative precedence over even the words of the Church leaders. (I suppose unless they specifically point out that an now defunct segment has been “fulfilled,” etc, but that’s threadjack bait.)

    Even the D&C references to the native tribes as “Lamanites” (D&C 28:8-9) could be seen in the context of God “giv[ing] unto [his] servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding,” not necessarily that he is confirming their presupposed notions and interpretations.

    Regarding the ideas of what the Book of Mormon teaches about acceptable warfare, government, etc, I think the biggest lesson it teaches is situational relativism. Righteous groups saw success and blessings under monarchical, judicial, and Marxist (or Utopian if that makes you cringe–think 4th Nephi), even a military dictatorship, if we consider the time that Pahoran was overthrown and Captain Moroni essentially became the commanding figure. Also, we see both righteous warriors and righteous pacifists, again depending on their circumstances.

    Doctrinally, I think one of the greatest insights is the illumination of the covenant relationship between a person, and Christ. Particularly, the way a person enters into a covenant via baptism by the assumption of a new name (Christ’s name,) and then becomes a single entity with Christ. Then Christ assumes ownership for us, as well as the responsibilities and liabilities that come with it: “Yea, blessed is this people who are willing to bear my name; for in my name shall they be called; and they are mine.” (Mosiah 26: 18)

    So that’s my take on things for now.

  3. Post
    Author

    Benjamin,

    I find it interesting and refreshing that both you and KC ended your comments with an acknowledgment that your stated opinions could change. Imagine if every comment on this site ended that way!!

    “It doesn’t fit much with what is written, and Joseph Smith seems to have held pretty strongly to the idea not just as a person, but also as a prophet from what I can tell.” Not to nitpick, but I honestly don’t understand how one could differentiate between Joseph offering his personal opinion on the Book of Mormon and speaking as a prophet (when he’s offering God’s personal opinion?) about the Book of Mormon? Could you help me by giving one example of Joseph doing each one?

    KC,

    I see an interesting difference between the way you and Benjamin assign weight to statements about scripture, and an irony. Benjamin seems to take prophetic statements about scripture as authoritative, whereas you seem to prioritize scripture over prophetic statement. The irony of this, of course, is that you reference a prophetic statement as grounds for prioritizing scripture, not a scriptural one.

    Can we find scriptural grounds for prioritizing scripture over prophetic statements?

    I would assume that most LDS would find it unnatural to distinguish between scripture and prophetic statements. I fully understand what you’re trying to do, but don’t think it has much resonance in the wider LDS culture.

  4. John (#3 last paragraph):

    I would assume that most LDS would find it unnatural to distinguish between scripture and prophetic statements.

    . On the contrary, I think that most LDS prioritize prophetic statement, even dubious prophetic statement, over scripture. Brigham Young emphasized this constantly during his presidency, claiming that the “living oracles” were what mattered most, and that he could do with out the canonized scripture completely, as long as he had the “living oracles”. The old “the prophet will never be allowed to lead the membership of the church astray” quote (I’m paraphrasing) has huge resonance with the LDS community, particularly in the current climate that emphasizes “following the prophet”. I’m pretty sure there are no scriptural grounds for prioritizing scripture over prophetic statement. In that regard, all the extra-BOM historical/doctrinal exegeses by prominent leaders (where I believe most of #2-#10 and others come from) gain more credence, and may even overshadow the BOM’s explicit messages.

  5. A great irony indeed! I guess the resolution might be found when we consider that scripture essentially is a collection of prophetic statements, the key being that the prophetic statements that are found in scripture have been canonized.

    Of course, the process of determining what does and doesn’t get canonized is a matter of great controversy…remember the council of Nicea?

    But even within an LDS context, the criteria for canonizing something so that it becomes included in what we call “scriptures” is not a light matter. While we readily say that every word uttered in general conference is “scripture,” there is certainly no eagerness to append the contents of each conference ensign to the Pearl of Great Price.

    In fact, if I remember right, there were some early publications of the Book of Mormon that featured photos of Mayan baptismal fonts and the like, which were readily removed in subsequent publishings, seemingly to suggest that “we just don’t know about these kinds of things,” and the church has “no official position” regarding Book of Mormon geography, anthropology, etc, despite the existence of many statements from church leaders who seemed quite convinced of the truthfulness of their conjectures. This seems to me to indicate a desire to separate the canonical from the speculative. So, since I don’t find the account the Zelph the white Missourian Lamanite in my scriptures, I hesitate to hold it to the same level as what I actually do find in the scriptural text.

    As far as scriptural grounds for prioritizing scripture over prophetic statements, I doubt you’ll really find any, really. Although there are many examples of people’s words being compared to scriptural precedents (like Sherem) and their veracity or falsehood determined thereby. But then we also have examples of Jesus contradicting the Mosaic law and superseding the old scriptures with his statements (which later became scripture.)

    There may be no reconciliation between the two that is satisfactory to all. While we can take both the scriptural text and the the subsequent church leader’s words seriously, I do feel it necessary to determine which is which, especially if the question being asked is “what do we learn FROM THE BOOK OF MORMON.”

  6. Even if the BoM were true, that does not mean that Thomas Spencer Monson is the only one on the earth today that has the authority to officiate for God.

    Imagine if I never heard of the Book of Mormon or the LDS church and a Mormon Fundamentalist presented me with the Book of Mormon, I read it and took Moroni’s challenge, prayed and got confirmation that the BoM was true from the holy ghost, does that mean that I would have to join the FLDS?

  7. I think 2, 7 and 10 are the only comments that really are not explicitly found in the text. I realize the book never says that the nineteenth century Indians were descendent’s of Lehi, but the story and the D&C lead one to that conclusion. As for Jesus being Christ and seed like faith one can get that from the New Testament, so I don’t see that as being an important feature of the book. I know when I read the book I was convinced that wars could be just, and pacifism was honorable. The U.S. being chosen and the calamities after Jesus death was very clear to me. I think one of the main purposes of the book is to show God is not limited by geography. When I read the book at sixteen I was a clean slate and all of the above that I comment on was what I learned from the book. I had not read any pro or critical literature about the book. FARMS and Signature books were ten or more years down the road to existence. Hugh Nibley and Dialogue did not exist in my California world, that was stuff people read in Utah. So for me and many other members many of the things you bring up existed. The secret combinations for most people was something in the future, though we believed it would happen.

  8. Here is an even better example. Let’s say a member of the CoC presents a copy of the ORIGINAL 1830 Book of Mormon and the person becomes converted to the 1830 Book of Mormon, which the LDS church doesn’t use. Does this mean that he must then by logic join the CoC and not the LDS?

  9. John, I’m not sure I can offer specific examples of when Joseph Smith was giving a personal opinion vs. speaking prophetically, but I definitely make the distinction. Why else would we not use everything he said as absolute scripture [as in–doctrine and covenants]? He spoke a lot, and much of what he said was inspired. But even speaking under inspiration is not QUITE the same as handing out a direct revelation or the direct words or the Lord. At least in my mind. Although I could be convinced otherwise if someone makes a strong enough case.

    Think about the difference in the D&C when JS states, “Thus saith the Lord unto my servant Sidney Rigdon…” and proceeds to give a set of specific warnings and instructions compared to the ideas that Joseph sets forth in discourses, however inspired, such as the King Follet discourse. One is extremely clear, the other, at least to me, is JS struggling to clarify something he obviously understands fairly well himself, and is inspired, but he has trouble translating from a deep spiritual understanding into a purely physical language. Finally compare that to his business dealings, wherein he often had difficulty, largely due to his tendency to give things away, even when he knew the person could never repay him (of course this inspired great loyalty on the part of the saints, but from a business perspective it was a terrible decision, and he was ostensibly running a store from time to time).

    Finally, none of this really changes my point.

    As for the priority of prophetic statement over scripture, here’s my take. I will take the words of a living prophet giving modern counsel over scripture in many cases, however there are certain caveats to this. First, there is always the framework of the scriptures. So a living prophet isn’t going to contradict scripture in certain ways. They may clarify, expand or even correct misunderstandings of scripture, but to change original scripture as it came from ancient prophets is not going to happen: except! as a matter of stating the very obvious situation that the ancient code is one that was temporary. Such as the law of animal sacrifice, which was fulfilled by the sacrifice of Christ. We no longer keep the Law of Moses in the same way, but we do not ignore it. Just as Peter declared that the Kosher requirements were no longer in effect, we learn that some laws can change…but this is because the principles do not. Only a modern prophet could possibly make this clear, which is why a prophet is necessary at all.

    If you do not accept modern prophetic statements as having some authority over scripture, then the need for a modern prophet is greatly reduced, maybe eliminated, except as a temporal leader (build this, direct this program, etc). Which is something the Presiding Bishop could easily do. Frankly, most of what our Presiding Bishop does is more akin to the Papal powers than the Prophets do (at least that’s my understanding, and it makes sense historically).

    Enough for now.

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