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.
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.
Lucy Mack Smith
In her history, Lucy Mack Smith describes a moment where she led a group of saints on a journey by boat towards Kirtland. She describes gathering the brethren and sisters together and encouraging them with an inspiring sermon: “ “Now, brothers and sisters, we have set out just as father Lehi did to travel, by the commandment of the Lord, to a land that he will show us if we are faithful. I want you all to be solemn and lift your hearts to God in prayer continually, that we may be prospered.” For the faithful early saints, Lehi’s journey became an archetypal journey towards the promised land. While other scriptural stories could have been used such as the biblical exodus, Lucy Mack Smith expressly invoked the themes of righteous gathering and Zion featured prominent in the Book of Mormon. And given that she soon after describes the impact of their singing on the non-member captain, it is possible that she expressly chose this story precisely for its missionary potential.
Lectures on Faith
The Brother of Jared is listed alongside Enoch and Moses in the Second Lecture of Faith as an individual who “through prayer and supplication . . . obtain a manifestation of God to themselves.” Thus, we again see Book of Mormon figures used as an example to inspire the Saints, and we see that these great figures of the Book of Mormon were venerated and spoken of in the same breath as biblical giants like Moses and Enoch.
Lorenzo Snow’s patriarchal blessing contains a powerful reference to the Book of Mormon. It declares that “thou shalt have faith like the brother of Jared.” Thus, as we saw with the lectures on faith, the Brother of Jared’s incredible faith which allowed him to see the premortal Christ is described as an exemplary instance of supernal faith. This is an especially appropriate blessing for President Snow, given his well attested vision of the savior in the Salt Lake Temple.
Parley P. Pratt
Pratt’s autobiography has several instances describing the power of the Book of Mormon. The most well known is his description of being overwhelmed when reading the account of the savior’s visit to the Nephites. I will not dwell on this example however, because it fits comfortably into both a devotional and symbolic usage of the Book of Mormon due to its linkage to the promise of the Other Sheep.
But another powerful but less well-known instance occurs later when Parley Pratt is imprisoned in the Summer of 1839 in Missouri. Orson Pratt tells his brother of an impression of their deliverance and predicts that they would subsequently go to Illinois (Chapter 31). Orson then opened the Book of Mormon randomly to the words of Ammon to King Lamoni “”Behold, my brother and my brethren are in prison, in the land of Middoni, and I go to deliver them!” As Parley Pratt explains, “This was indeed a similar instance to ours. Ammon, on that occasion had an own brother in prison,and also brethren in the ministry, and did deliver them. Our case was exactly similar, not in Middoni, but in Missouri. And, what was still more strange, in a book of six hundred pages, this was the only sentence which would have fitted our case.”
What strikes me about this instance, is that opening up the Bible to a random passage for inspiration is a common practice among Christians. And here, the Pratt brothers relied on the Book of Mormon as a similar divinely inspired source of devotion. These verses provided them comfort and courage at a difficult and trying time.
Speaking of comfort in trying times, no post on early devotional uses of the Book of Mormon would be complete without reference to Hyrum Smith’s usage of the Book of Mormon on the way to Carthage so powerfully attested by Elder Holland a few years ago. As they left Nauvoo for the last time, they read the powerful words found in the Twelfth chapter of Ether: ““Thou hast been faithful; wherefore … thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father. And now I, Moroni, bid farewell … until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ.” And later, Joseph bore witness to his jailors of the divinity of that book.
Elder Holland’s Powerful testimony rings true not only of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, but also of the power that its words contain and the safety and comfort that come from reading it, both in our day and in the times of the early saints:
“Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.”
These are some of the examples that I have discovered of usage of the Book of Mormon which defies characterization as merely symbolic. If you are aware of more examples of devotional usage among the early saints, please add them to the comments below, because I would love to expand this list.