This month I am reposting a series of reflections I wrote that appeared last summer on the Koinonia blog, which explore the multi-faceted relationship Latter-day Saints have with the Book of Mormon.
In 2006, Mark D. Thomas presented at paper at the Sunstone Symposium, entitled “Marketing Research and the Book of Mormon.” Thomas surveyed 57 respondents, all active members of the LDS Church, about their experience with the Book of Mormon. He asked them the kind of questions asked in marketing research: first, what they liked about the Book of Mormon, and second, why they valued that attribute. While the study is not large enough to be quantitatively reliable, it is qualitatively helpful to discern what drives Latter-day Saints when they read the book.
Based on my interpretation of Thomas’ remarks, and the response offered by John-Charles Duffy, I have summarized people’s answers into five basic ways the Book of Mormon functions in Latter-day Saint religious experience.
The first function is what Duffy calls therapeutic, meaning that the act of reading the Book of Mormon gives people certain positive feelings that they value. Respondents said that, as they read, they felt something positive. They felt close to God. They felt what they interpreted as the presence of the Spirit. They experienced good feelings like hope, peace, comfort, encouragement, and uplift.
One of the leaders of the LDS Church, Richard G. Hinckley, expressed this in an article in the Ensign magazine (June 2008, 68-69):
“When I read the Book of Mormon, something inevitably happens to me. My burdens feel lighter. Faith and hope replace my worries, concerns, and doubts. Life appears brighter.”
The second function Thomas’ study identified can be called aesthetic. Simply put, respondents like the story itself, which makes it accessible and thus a tool people will use. In particular, people said they liked reading their own historical circumstances – their own life, and the life of the nation – within the Book of Mormon drama.
This aesthetic response to the Book of Mormon leads directly to its third function, which I call the moral use. People said that they like how the Book of Mormon provides guidance for how to live their lives. It provides moral certainty and religious authority against the evils of the world. It shows its readers how to live a fulfilled life. People like the ideals that reading the book points them to, such as peace, virtue, values, and eternal life.
Latter-day Saints experience the moral guidance of the Book of Mormon through a process they call “likening the Scriptures.” This unique LDS phrase comes from 1 Nephi 19:23, where Nephi wrote that, as he taught his people, he “did liken the scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” The phrase describes how the reader places himself within the text, to see his own individual life situations and issues in the pages of the book. She compares the scriptures to her own life, asking questions like, “What principles are taught in the scriptures I just read?” and “How do those principles relate to my life?”
Latter-day Saints have great confidence that the Book of Mormon will provide wisdom for their lives. They believe that its teachings are applicable today because its ancient writers prophetically selected material that would speak to the modern world.
The moral use of the Book of Mormon is repeatedly urged upon Latter-day Saints by their leaders. For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley challenged the LDS to finish reading the Book of Mormon by the end of the year (Ensign, August 2005, 6):
“Without reservation I promise you that if each of you will observe this simple program, regardless of how many times you previously may have read the Book of Mormon, there will come into your lives and into your homes an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God.”
Usually the Book of Mormon is studied individually or as a family. Some Latter-day Saints mark the pages with colored pencils, or make notes in the margins. Many use study supplements, dozens of which are available from LDS booksellers. Unlike traditional Christian Bible studies, groups that meet informally to discuss the Book of Mormon are rare. But the Book of Mormon is a regular subject of Sunday school classes. LDS leaders do not preach expositionally from the Book of Mormon. Yet its principles inform many of their talks, and they often retell the book’s familiar stories to underscore religious principles and reinforce moral behavior.
Next Post: two more functions of the Book of Mormon in LDS religious experience.