Crowned With Sheaves Like Nephi of Old: Devotional Usage of the book of Mormon Among the Early Saints

Terry Givens in his prodigious and highly regard work, By the Hand of Mormon: An American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion, advances a thesis that has since become commonly accepted among Mormon Scholars and bloggers. In it, he discusses the importance of the Book of Mormon to the early members of the Church and describes how the book was primarily used as a symbol and tangible manifestation of the restoration, rather than for its theological or devotional value. I have great regard for Terryl Givens, having been a Mormon Summer Scholar in the program that he runs. And I think his thesis has been very valuable in helping Mormons understand the changing role of the Book of Mormon and to more seriously dedicate ourselves to study of the text itself.

Nevertheless, while I do believe that Terryl Givens offered very valuable insights and is largely accurate, I also think his thesis glosses over the various devotional ways that the Book of Mormon was used by the early Saints. Moreover, although his theory acknowledges nuance and counter examples, it has since been spread and amplified in a more exaggerated fashion to suggest that early leaders completely ignored the spiritual value of the Book of Mormon.

In this post, I want to offer a couple of prominent examples that I have found in early church history that illustrate the ways that the Book of Mormon was used not only as a symbol, but as a source of inspiration and spiritual guidance.

D&C 33:8

Of course, one of the most prominent examples of devotional usage of the Book of Mormon comes from the Lord himself through the Prophet Joseph Smith. In D&C 33, the Lord calls missionaries to gather his elect from the four corners of the earth, and promises them that if they open their mouths they will “become even as Nephi of old, who journeyed from Jerusalem in the wilderness.” This is an unusual reference to Nephi, because of all of the characters of the Book of Mormon Nephi does not come to mind as a great or successful missionary. And yet, Nephi had incredible visionary experience and was at times filled with such greater power that his message literally shook the listeners to their core. And Nephi was a great teacher expounding on the scriptures, another theme from this section of revelation (See D&C 33:16). And some have even speculated that additional missionary exploits of Nephi might have been contained on the 116 lost pages and that these stories might have been told by early members of the church. Regardless of whether that theory has any truth in it, it is clear that these words would have had meaning to those inspired to go out a serve, and that Nephi served as an exemplar of a man of vision and courage.
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No Doubt to Know

girlthomasTrying to find a way with Scriptural understanding to reconcile the honest search for Truth and the spiritual destructiveness of unbelief, I found that doubt is not a positive attribute. As described by prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ, doubt is the enemy of faith. Unbelief is slightly worse because of a more concrete condition of the mind and heart, but they are both related to each other. Doubt doesn’t lead to faith. It destroys it by leading to questioning everything; even miracles that we participate in by the Grace of God.

The one instance when doubt brought greater understanding was Acts 10:17 after Peter received his vision of the unclean animals. Religiously speaking, it was a weak doubt because he had complete confidence the vision was real. He simply wondered, “what this vision which he had seen should mean,” and pondered for an answer. His faith in the vision was rewarded with a missionary opportunity to baptise a gentile. He then realized in Acts 10:28 that, “it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” The use of the word “doubt” in this instance might be the wrong choice of words, when “wondered” might be more appropriate.

Despite modern definitions and meanings, to doubt is not the same as questioning. It is natural and even required by Scripture that we should question. No one can discover truth without inquiring with mind and spirit where it can be found. How we are to question is important to properly growing in faith. There is a form of action involved that goes beyond the intellectual curiosity. It reads in 1 Thes. 5:21 that believers should, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” As always, Jesus Christ explained how this is to be done while teaching at the Temple. His teachings became a source of astonishment to the people attending because he had no formal intellectual training. They asked him how he could know so much without the proper school education and he responded in John 7:16-17 that, “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me,” and “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” He is teaching that the way to discern spiritual things is to follow what God has already taught. This idea is emphasized in verse 19 when he asks, “Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me?” Those who do not follow the basic teachings of God cannot comprehend deeper truths and will be stuck with their questions. Continue reading

Richard Bushman’s commentary on politics and the Book of Mormon

On Friday, February 3rd and Saturday, February 4th of this year, Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life (IRCPL) hosted a conference titled “Mormonism and American Politics.”  Yesterday the IRCPL posted ten videos to youtube for the following presentations:

  • Richard Lyman Bushman: “Joseph Smith’s Presidential Campaign
  • Sally Barringer Gordon: “The Laws of God and the Lawyers
  • Jan Shipps: “Ezra Taft Benson and the Conservative Turn of Those Amazing Mormons
  • Max Mueller: “Twice Told Tale – Telling Two Histories of Mormon-Black Relations During the 2012 Presidential Election
  • Philip Barlow: “A Mormon-Inflected Foreign Policy?
  • David Campbell: “A Peculiar People?: The Religious, Social and Political Distinctiveness of Mormons
  • Claudia Bushman: “Mormon Women Talk Politics
  • Joanna Brooks: “On the Underground: What the Mormon Yes on 8 Campaign Reveals about the Future of Mormons in American Political Life
  • Russell Arben Fox: “Canon, Community and Civil Religion: Mormonism and Politics in Post-Establishment America
  • Peggy Fletcher Stack: “Mormonism in the Media: The Inadequacy of Parallels or Why Reporters Can Get It Right and Still Be Wrong
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