RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 3: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith Manual)
Posted by joespencer on February 10, 2008
The Book of Mormon is the word of God.
This is the shortest and perhaps the least obviously thematic section in the lesson. This post will consequently be more a collection of thoughts than a systematic treatment.
I’ll begin with the last of the four quotations in this section: “The Book of Mormon is true, just what it purports to be, and for this testimony I expect to give an account in the day of judgment.” In a sense, this is little more than a simple testimony. And yet I personally find it very comforting; indeed, the most comforting teaching in this whole lesson. Comforting: not so much because I am glad to hear Joseph state so unequivocally that the Book of Mormon is “just what it purports to be,” but because it is thrilling—personally thrilling—to see Joseph attach his own subjectivity to his testimony, and to phrase this attachment in the terms of a fully committed wager. In other words, Joseph’s testimony here is so marvelous precisely because it doesn’t appeal to reason, to evidence, or to emotion: instead, his testimony is his entire—and eternal—person. I see this as profound courage, a marvelous admission (much like his “no man knows my history” statement in the King Follett Discourse) that the story is ridiculous and fantastic, paired with an undying fidelity to the truth of that story. I think that every one of us must, at some point, come to bear that same testimony, to claim that same subjectivity, and to stake our eternal souls on that same wager. I hope I am already doing so.
The first two teachings in this short section are quite familiar. The first can be found in the (modern) introduction to the Book of Mormon: “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other book.” The historical circumstances here are helpful: “the brethren” here is specifically the Twelve, meeting in council in Nauvoo just after their return from England. The timing is important: with Zion “officially” lost, Joseph shifted his focus to the perennial mission field, in which we still live, and called the Twelve to stand (for the first time) next to the First Presidency in the hierarchy of the Church. This shift ruffled some feathers, because the Twelve, according to D&C 107, is equal in authority to the standing high council. However, Joseph seems to have understood that to refer to the standing high council in Zion only, since he gave the Twelve the authority over all the stakes of Zion (stakes here in contrast to Zion itself). In a sense, I think Joseph radically redefined the work of the Church with this move, according to a redefinition that still prevails (one that has become so regimented that we now misunderstand it!): the Church is through and through a preparatory work, a spreading out of keys and authority in such a way that the saints can be prepared eventually to go back to Zion (I think it is for this reason precisely that it was only beginning in 1841 that Joseph began to hand out things like endowments and sealings and…).
What is so significant, then, about the teaching from the lesson is that it sets at the center of this preparatory work nothing other than the Book of Mormon. It is profound, I think, that it was to the Twelve that the statement was made, and precisely as they were moving into “place”: the Book of Mormon is the text for the entire work of the Church, and it must be taken as the guide that leads people into this Church and leads the Church to the Kingdom. I take it that this is precisely what Joseph means when he says that the Book of Mormon is the “keystone of our religion.” Now, if only we would begin to abide by its precepts (that word itself deserves some attention: it means less “principles” or “doctrines” than it means “worldviews” or “ways of approaching things”… how does the Book of Mormon recast our thinking about the world?).
The second teaching is, quite simply, the eighth article of faith. We pass over this one far too quickly, especially when we use it as an excuse to dismiss the Bible. A few points, then.
It seems significant to me that Joseph presents the Bible first here: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God….” The Book of Mormon comes only with an “also.” Of course, even as the Bible is given a kind of preference, it is disparaged somewhat by its qualifying “as far as it is translated correctly.” In a sense, then, there is a kind of double disparagement in this article of faith: we believe first and foremost in the Bible… but it is incorrect in many parts; we believe the Book of Mormon is as correct a word of God as we have… but we come to it only after our allegiance to the Bible. I really like this double disparagement, though, because it forces us to recognize a kind of interdependence between these two texts: the Bible’s problems of translation (problems I don’t think we have even begun to understand, by the way, and problems I won’t begin to ask questions about here, since my purpose is primarily to talk about the Book of Mormon) force us to take the Book of Mormon seriously, but the secondariness of the Book of Mormon forces us to return thence to the Bible. The one is not without the other, in the Lord. The one interprets the other, and the other interprets the one: we can’t make any sense of the Book of Mormon without the Bible, and we can’t make any sense of the Bible without the Book of Mormon. There is a kind of dialectical or circular relationship between the two, and it is one that we, as a people, have hardly begun to take seriously.
This interrelationship is further discussed in the third and lengthiest of the teachings in this section: it comes to its climax with the claim that the Book of Mormon must “come forth and be united with the Bible for the accomplishment of the purposes of God in the last days.” Moreover, Joseph is careful to show the parallels between the two books: the Nephites and Lamanites had “the same order, the same priesthood, the same ordinances, gifts, powers, and blessings, as were enjoyed on the eastern continent.” The Book of Mormon cannot be disentangled from the Bible.
This connection to the Bible looks back to part 1 of the lesson: it is from Isaiah that Nephi draws his understanding of the Israelite-Gentile relations that are to govern the “use” of the Book of Mormon. But it also looks forward to part 4 (which I’ll be writing up tomorrow morning): the two books are wrapped up in the work of the council, of the fathers, and they introduce us into the work of the temple in a profound way.