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.

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

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.

Hyrum Smith

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.



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

  1. Daniel, this is a nice corrective to the growing false narrative you mention regarding the supposed lack of the use of the BoM among early Mormons. It is very fair to say, as many Mormon scholars do, that the early Saints were a Bible-reading people and it is fair to say that they would turn to the Bible as their primary source of scriptures. In addition, there simply were not that many printed copies of the Book of Mormon in common use in those days, whereas the Bible was everywhere. But like many themes, the claim that the early Saints didn’t ever use the Book of Mormon for devotional purposes is clearly false.

  2. I notice that this post would seem to serve as confimation that Joseph Smith, interestingly enough, never once, in his preaching to the Saints, used any portion of the Book of Mormon as the topic of any sermon. It would seem that for Joseph, the Book of Mormon served primarily to cement his bona fides as a prophet and seer and translator. As for the actual messages of the Book of Mormon, he seems to have left that to others to discern.

  3. Mark N, I don’t think that is accurate. The D&C was revealed through Joseph Smith, and so those words obviously came through him. There are other stories such as his reveal of the name of the Brother of Jared or his discussion with his family about the Book of Mormon peoples which reveal his intense interest in the Book. Not to mention his reported visitations or encounters with figures from the Book of Mormon. And of course, Hyrum’s final reading from Ether also involved Joseph Smith as well.

  4. All you need to do is to present a single example of his having preached a sermon using something from the Book of Mormon as the basis of the topic of the sermon. I’ve never seen one. This is not to say that it never happened, just that if it did, we have no record of it. Hugh Nibley’s feelings on the matter, if I understand them correctly, is that the early Latter-day Saints really didn’t comprehend what they had in the Book of Mormon, because with all of its messages about a poliarized nation eventually destroying itself wasn’t on their immediate horizon. Us, on the other hand…

  5. The Book of Mormon was the framing document for the entire structure of the Church in its ongoing restoration. The cases are too numerous to count but I will mention two. D&C 20 is largely based on the Book of Mormon (not just the baptismal and sacrament prayers) and Priesthood authority would have never begun its unfolding if not for the Book of Mormon translation process. However, these are peripheral to my comment here.

    The point I want to make is this: the Book of Mormon is a handbook of exoduses. The pattern occurs repeatedly: accept Christ, pack up your belongings, leave your current surroundings, and gather with other like-minded individuals so as to fully practice your religion in safety. One cannot read the book on a devotional level and miss the pattern. It is integral to the book and to the lives of the people who read and accepted it in the 19th century. Where can we read this? Personally, I read it (indeed, it cannot be missed) In the lives of dozens of my own ancestors in what they did with their feet. Over and over again, from so many locations both in and outside of the U.S. they devoted their lives to the Book of Mormon exodus pattern by ever moving on, as necessary, to places of greater safety and freedom to fully exercise their religion.

  6. Stephen Wright’s observation — about the Book of Mormon’s impact on early Church structure and doctrine — is an important one. John Welch has a lengthy paper on the topic, “The Book of Mormon as the Keystone of Church Administration”, in _A Firm Foundation: Church Organization & Administration_ (David J. Whittaker and Arnold K. Garr, eds., Deseret Book/RCS, 2011, pp. 14-58). The paper was submitted as part of the 2010 BYU Church History Symposium. You can read a free PDF version here:

  7. The Book of Mormon never ceases to amaze me, even though it’s not my favorite book from the LDS canon. With evaluation, its depths and ultimate influence yet remain undiscovered…it keeps on giving and giving. Just when some think they have it encapsulated, off it goes with new vistas to discover.

  8. Stephen: apologies for the misspelling of your last name, which I just now noticed. Unfortunately, this blog software doesn’t allow for editing of comments. 🙂 ..bruce..

  9. Correction to my previous post: Nibley talked about a polarized world, with our nuclear weapons pointed at each other; one could certainly conceive of the problems of a polarized nation with the Civil War looming on the horizon. Fortunately, having made the move to Utah, the Saints were pretty much able to sit that one out.

  10. I have two pioneer Grandmothers (one from New York, one from Denmark) who, during the Utah settlement period, indicated that they were always reading their Book of Mormon. Indications are that they had a firm conviction of the Book of Mormon as a prophetic gift before they set ever out on their journeys. The fact that they continued on their journeys despite the hardships of travel and early Utah living conditions indicates the depth that the living symbol of the Book of Mormon provided. More than that, the fact that, as best I can discern, they lived exemplary Christian lives while seeming to “always be reading” the Book of Mormon indicates to me of the power of the book as a spiritual guide to them. I think that in these two Grandmothers the Book of Mormon, as symbol, was of great importance early on, but as they continued to walk the walk it became ever more to be used as a source of inspiration and spiritual guidance.

    And, we haven’t even began to get into what the Book of Mormon can teach us about the Temple.

  11. The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith has a few references to the Book of Mormon (pp 85-86 and 266-267), and the footnotes are overflowing with Book of Mormon references.

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