The Culture-Forming Power of the Book of Mormon

My theme this month has been the relationship Latter-day Saints have with their formative scripture, the Book of Mormon. I believe the book exerts a powerful, culture-forming influence on every aspect of Mormon life. For instance, young LDS men are named Alma and Moroni after Book of Mormon characters. Thousands of Latter-day Saints have grown up in Utah towns with Book of Mormon names like Manti, Nephi, and Bountiful.

The Book of Mormon’s influence on shaping a unique LDS culture is demonstrated by the number of consumer products it has inspired. You can buy a polo shirt embroidered with the angel Moroni on the breast, or a tee shirt printed with a Book of Mormon quote. You can give your daughter a tiny Book of Mormon charm for her bracelet, while you son might enjoy a Nephi action figure. Your family can play games like “Book of Mormon Quest” or “Settlers of Zarahemla.” The Book of Mormon has inspired a genre of youth fiction, several feature films, and a whole series of animated adventure videos. Latter-day Saints use these products both to declare and to fortify their allegiance to the Book of Mormon and everything it represents.

According to Brigham Young University professor Louis Midgely, the Book of Mormon reinforces the “generative or founding events” that form the identity of the group and “melds them into a community” (in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World, 2000, p. 103).

The Book of Mormon’s characters model core normative experiences. Its heroes and villains, such as Korihor the antichrist, provide stereotypes by which Latter-day Saints learn to evaluate and relate to the people and institutions of the world. These characters also provide an example of foundational principles for each new generation. Thus The Encyclopedia of Mormonism says (p. 141):

“For LDS children, the Book of Mormon is a source of stories and heroes to equal those of the Bible…. They tell and sing with enthusiasm about the army of faithful young men led by Helaman (Alma 5:41-50); of the prophet Abinadi’s courage before wicked King Noah (Mosiah 11-17); of Nephi and his unwavering faithfulness (1 Nephi 3-18); of Abish, a Lamanite woman who for many years appears to be the lone believer in Christ in King Lamoni’s court until the missionary Ammon taught the gospel to the king and queen (Alma 19); and of Jesus’ appearances to the Nephites (3 Nephi 11-28). There are many favorites.”

The ordinances of contemporary LDS worship are defined significantly by the Book of Mormon. For example, the model of baptism is introduced in Mosiah 18. The mode of baptism by immersion, along with the particular baptism prayer, is taught in 3 Nephi 11:23-27. The prayers offered every Sunday in LDS wards over the Sacrament (the LDS version of Communion) are taken from Moroni chapters 4-5.

The Book of Mormon also shapes foundational values and attitudes. In my experience, Latter-day Saints will avoid discussing uncomfortable topics because of their aversion to “contention.” How contention is defined and evaluated is firmly rooted in Book of Mormon passages like Alma 4:9 and 3 Nephi 11:29. My father was the ward clerk for many years, and one of his duties was to count the sacrament meeting attendance. Richard Bushman points out that the high value Latter-day Saints place on keeping records is derived from the culture of record-keeping described in the Book of Mormon.

Latter-day Saints are passionate about missionary work. At any given time, tens of thousands of LDS missionaries are deployed around the world. The Book of Mormon has shaped and confirmed this value through its heroic stories of missionaries like Alma the Younger, Ammon, and the second Nephi. As the Encyclopedia of Mormonism says (p. 204), “Frequent efforts were made by Nephite missionaries…to convert people from these groups to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to organize them into righteous churches and communities.” That’s basically what the Latter-day Saints are still doing today. Ezra Taft Benson understood the power of the Book of Mormon as a culture-shaping force (Ensign, Oct 2005, 60-62):

“I challenge our Church writers, teachers, and leaders to tell us more Book of Mormon conversion stories that will strengthen our faith and prepare great missionaries.”

Other examples of culture-forming values and examples from the Book of Mormon can be adduced to support my observation that the Book of Mormon’s significance extends far beyond its truth claims. Latter-day Saints treasure the Book of Mormon. It contains cherished stories, models, and ideals. It’s not just that they believe it, or believe it to be true. It represents ingrained patterns of thought and response which shape the fabric of their lives.

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