The Book of Mormon and the Latter-day Saint Witness

In my latest series of posts, I’ve been discussing how the Book of Mormon is used in Mormon life and culture – an expansion of chapter eight of my book Understanding the Book of Mormon.

Previously I described the Book of Mormon’s evidential function: how the Book of Mormon catalyzes a self-validating spiritual experience that convinces Latter-day Saints of the divine authority of Joseph Smith and his mission. The invitation to seek a spiritual confirmation of the Book of Mormon’s truth is directed externally as well, to potential converts investigating Mormonism.

In keeping with this evidential function, the Book of Mormon is the LDS Church’s most important missionary tool. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism reports (p. 142) that “all LDS missionaries encourage those they contact to read and pray about the book as a means of receiving their own testimony from God about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.”

In a speech reprinted in 2005(Ensign, Oct 2005, 60-62), former LDS President Ezra Taft Benson said:

“I challenge those who are in business and other professions to see that there are copies on the Book of Mormon in their reception rooms…. I challenge all of us to prayerfully consider steps that we can personally take to bring this new witness for Christ more fully into our own lives and into a world that so desperately needs it.”

But the Book of Mormon goes beyond inviting its readers to accept its truthfulness. It also models a particular way of responding to a religious message. In so doing, it affirms the evidentiary function. But beyond that, the Book of Mormon exerts a formative influence that has shaped the contours of Mormon culture.

One example of this culture-forming power is seen in a paper given by Don Bradley at the Sunstone Symposium in 2007, called “Making Witnesses: The Book of Mormon’s Secular Strength”. Bradley argues that the Book of Mormon employs a variety of means to create the reader’s expectation of a certain type of religious experience. By doing so, it creates a culture of witness or testimony. That is, the Book of Mormon teaches and models the pattern of how to obtain a witness from God, and thus of how to act as a witness oneself. This repeated pattern affects the way in which the reader experiences and receives the book.

For example, the Book of Mormon’s narrative passages provide a paradigm for those who desire to obtain a witness. Typically, genuine conversion to Christ is accompanied by the reception of spiritual knowledge and certainty, which then leads to a desire to bear one’s testimony to others. The reader is thus encouraged to receive the Book of Mormon in just the same way that they read of its characters receiving Christ.

Moroni 7:30-32 offers a doctrine of witness. It sets forth the idea that the role of angels (presumably including the angel Moroni) is to declare God’s word to certain chosen vessels to bear testimony of him. But it is only by the testimony of the few that the rest of humanity can exercise faith. A few receive the witness of angels so that all may receive their witness, and through it, the witness of the Holy Ghost.

Two witness statements have been published in every edition of the Book of Mormon since 1830. The Testimony of Three Witnesses andThe Testimony of Eight Witnesses both report how groups of people saw the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was purportedly translated. We might conclude that the testimony of the Eight has greater evidentiary value, because the Eight claimed to have actually touched and hefted the plates. They report a physical event. But the testimony of the Three has been much more prominent in LDS use. I believe this is because their witness functions as a model for the contemporary reader of the Book of Mormon. Like the Three, but unlike the Eight, the experience of gaining a witness of the Book of Mormon today is not a physical or audible event, but occurs within the heart and mind.

These various Book of Mormon features work together to model how the reader is to receive the text, and how he or she is to become a witness in return. This takes shape in LDS culture, for instance, in the monthly testimony meeting, as well as in proselytizing methods, where bearing one’s testimony of the Book of Mormon is probably the central component.

The example of testimony formation illustrates the culture-shaping power of the Book of Mormon. The book acculturates its readers to new norms, and initiates them into a community of witnesses spanning from the text to the local congregation. I plan to explore the Book of Mormon’s culture-forming influence in my next post.

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