Understanding the Book of Mormon part 3, by Ross Anderson
My book, Understanding the Book of Mormon, provides an overview of the content of the Book of Mormon and explores the claims Latter-day Saints make about the book as an ancient record and divine scripture. But chapter eight breaks new ground by evaluating how the Book of Mormon is used in LDS life. This is the subject of my posts this week. (See Post 1 and Post 2.)
Yesterday I mentioned a paper by Mark D. Thomas, wherein the author sought to discern what active Latter-day Saints value about reading the Book of Mormon. Based on my interpretation of Thomas’ remarks, and the response offered by John-Charles Duffy, I have summarized five basic ways the Book of Mormon functions in Latter-day Saint religious experience. In yesterday’s post, I explained the therapeutic, aesthetic, and moral functions of the Book of Mormon in LDS life.
The fourth use of the Book of Mormon reported in Thomas’ survey is as a conduit of revelation. When people stated what they like about the Book of Mormon, they reported how the book becomes a vehicle for experiential revelation from God. This is different from saying that the text is or contains the word of God. Rather, the Book of Mormon acts as a door to the spiritual world. Latter-day Saints believe they actually hear personally from God as they read, receiving promptings of the Holy Spirit to give them insight about life. These spiritual messages are not necessarily tied directly to the content on the pages before them. Instead the book becomes the medium rather than merely the source of such revelation.
By what it teaches and models, the Book of Mormon creates the expectation that such individual revelation is the norm. Terryl Givens labels the experience of this two-way communication with God as "dialogic revelation." He says, "The [Book of Mormon] scripture hammers home the insistent message that revelation is the province of everyman." ("The Book of Mormon and Religious Epistemology," Dialog 34, p. 40). He refers to 1 Nephi 10-11, where Nephi expresses a desire to see for himself the things his father had seen in a vision, and notes that "Nephi is commended, not reproved, for seeking access to the mysteries of heaven for personal rather than public edification", while his brothers are harshly condemned for rejecting such a prerogative for themselves. Thus the Book of Mormon defines personal revelation as the norm of LDS spiritual life, and also becomes the vehicle through which Latter-day Saints expect to receive it.
The fifth way the Book of Mormon functions for Latter-day Saints is evidential. People in Thomas’ study said they valued the Book of Mormon because it fortified their confidence in Joseph Smith and the LDS Church. The book provides them with an inner way of knowing the truth, by the power of the Holy Spirit. So its function is not merely to teach, model, and provide guidance, but to convince.
The Book of Mormon itself expects its readers to seek a spiritual experience that will verify the truth of its message. Moroni 10:4 says:
"And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost."
Thus the book boldly invites a response: not to evaluate its doctrines or historicity, but to ask God to make its truthfulness known by supernatural means.
This invitation is directed first to those who grow up within Mormonism. Young people are urged to "gain a testimony" for themselves by reading and praying about the Book of Mormon. This spiritual witness is a crucial formative experience by which those who are raised in the faith are individually converted to it. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism reports (p. 143) that "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."
This experience of gaining a testimony is decisive. If the Book of Mormon is accepted as divine scripture, then it is possible, even necessary, to accept Joseph Smith’s spiritual authority and thus everything he represents. Doubts or criticisms toward the Book of Mormon are not resolved primarily by pointing to external evidences, but by an appeal to the decisive confirmation received through this inner experience.
In my next post, I will explore how the evidential function of the Book of Mormon is also directed externally, toward potential converts investigating Mormonism, making the Book of Mormon the predominant tool Latter-day Saints use to proselytize others.
Ross Anderson (D.Min., Salt Lake Seminary) is the founding pastor of Wasatch Evangelical Free Church in Roy, Utah, where he has served since graduating from seminary in 1983. He was born in Utah and raised in California as an active member of the Mormon (Latter-day Saint) Church. He is passionate about incorporating ex-Mormons into the church, and is the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon. Ross blogs at http://rossanderson.us
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