Among the hallmarks of Ezra Taft Benson's tenure as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was his stirring summons to reemphasize the Book of Mormon.
"My beloved brethren and sisters," he said during the October 1984 general conference, "for some years now I have been deeply concerned that we are not using the Book of Mormon as God intends. As I participated in the Mexico City Temple dedication, I received the distinct impression that God is not pleased with our neglect of the Book of Mormon. In the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord decreed that the whole church was under condemnation, even all the children of Zion, because of the way they treated the Book of Mormon. 'And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent,' said the Lord, 'and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon' (Doctrine and Covenants 84:57)."
'The Lord," he declared in April 1986, "inspired his servant Lorenzo Snow to reemphasize the principle of tithing to redeem the church from financial bondage. … Now, in our day, the Lord has revealed the need to reemphasize the Book of Mormon."
Studies of Latter-day Saint sermons and curriculum from the earliest period of church history well into the 20th century demonstrate surprisingly little use of the Book of Mormon to establish doctrines or as a text from which to preach. Many Saints were converted by reading it, but, thereafter, they tended to overlook its specific content. Early members, mostly converts, knew the Bible well and used it extensively in their teaching and missionary efforts, but the Book of Mormon served mainly as a kind of talisman, its sheer existence pointing to Joseph Smith's prophetic calling.
Even Joseph Smith used the Bible far more than he used the Book of Mormon in his sermons.
This, by the way, would be extraordinarily striking had Joseph himself written the book to express his own ideas — which is probably what most relatively well-informed unbelievers assume. (They have little choice, because no explanation other than the one involving God and angels — which they reject — has withstood scrutiny. The so-called "Spalding Theory," for instance, flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and enjoys occasional zombie-like revivals still today. However, no reputable historian, believer or unbeliever, advocates it any more.) But Joseph seems somewhat detached from the book after its publication. He betrays little if any "pride of authorship." Whereas authors typically like to call attention to their creations — have I mentioned my "Muhammad" biography lately? — Joseph doesn't do this with the Book of Mormon.
I'm personally glad that we've moved beyond the day when the Book of Mormon's chief function, by far, was simply to serve as evidence that Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet of God. I'm delighted that we've begun, however dimly, to perceive the richness of its content.
And yet I want to defend the continuing importance of the Book of Mormon as a symbol. It's much more than that, but it's definitely that. It's powerful evidence, as the 19th-century Saints recognized, that Joseph was what he claimed to be. It was "given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them — proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old; thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever" (Doctrine and Covenants 20:10-12).
It was and is a virtuoso display of revelatory power. Had Joseph Smith been a mere frontier pseudo-prophet, he could simply have produced frequent "revelations" along the lines of the Doctrine and Covenants. He needn't have created an enormously complex "history" of purportedly lost ancient civilizations — thus exposing himself to huge and unnecessary risks.
Most importantly, though, the Book of Mormon is, as it describes itself, a witness to the existence of a personal God who intervenes in human history for the salvation of his children, and to the deity and redemptive power of Jesus Christ. There is no message more significant than that.
(For the most recent demolitions of the Spalding theory, see the articles in "Mormon Studies Review" 23/1 by G. Bruce Schaalje, Paul Fields and Matthew Roper, available in print and online at maxwellinstitute.byu.edu.)
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of mormonscholarstestify.org.