Just days ago, a critic demanded that I identify even a single significant contribution made by the Book of Mormon. In response, I offer a few thoughts on the subject.
I expect that this critic was seeking unique doctrines — of which, admittedly, the Book of Mormon offers relatively few. In my judgment, though, such a demand for doctrinal novelty reveals an inadequate understanding of the book’s character and function. The Book of Mormon does feature exceptionally clear accounts of such supremely important doctrines as atonement, resurrection, the state of the human soul between death and resurrection, and so forth.
However, it isn’t a compendium of essays in systematic theology, a failed attempt at a doctrinal handbook, a botched “Mormon Doctrine,” an inadequate Encyclopedia of Mormonism, but rather, for the most part, a historical narrative.
And its stories aren’t mere vehicles for conveying doctrine. They’re essential. As Alma 37:8 puts it, “they have enlarged the memory of this people” by providing us with accounts of faith and faithlessness, righteousness and wickedness, despair and hope, repentance and hardness of heart. Alongside the stirring history of our own dispensation, with its westward pioneer exodus, its handcart treks, and other such dramatic tales, as we appropriate the stories of the Book of Mormon they uniquely define us as a people.
That said, here are a few specific items from the vast cascade of ideas that come to me when I consider the contributions the Book of Mormon has made to my life and thinking:
• The Book of Mormon constitutes a veritable handbook of personal revelation (see, for example, Moroni 10). As Terryl Givens insightfully observes in his 2002 book “By the Hand of Mormon,” it instructs us regarding — and serves itself to illustrate — “dialogic revelation.”
• Of equal value, Alma 32 provides us with a profound and complementary account of the nature of personal faith and how to cultivate it.
• King Benjamin’s address (including his wonderful explanation that “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God”) is one of the finest sermons in all of scripture (see Mosiah 2-5).
• Likewise, the great allegory of the olive tree at Jacob 5, with its prophetic history of Israel’s past and future, ranks among the richest of all scriptural parables.
• Alma 5’s discourse on being spiritually born of God, receiving his image in our countenances, and experiencing the mighty change in our hearts that constitutes genuine conversion supplies almost limitless material for reflection.
• The magnificent chiasm of Alma 36 is a literary masterpiece, literally centered on Christ.
• The declaration in 2 Nephi 2:11 of the necessity of “an opposition in all things” has helped me, unfortunately more times than I can count, to process setbacks, obstacles and sorrows. I’ve found comparable comfort and hope in the words of the Lord recorded by Moroni: “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27).
• The story of Korihor in Alma 30 and his ironic fatal encounter with the very “social Darwinism” that he had preached (long before Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term) provides a powerful lesson for us in our time. (See “Korihor and 'Social Darwinism',” published June 21, 2012, on deseretnews.com).
• I never fail to be arrested by the poignant summation eloquently written by Jacob near his life’s end: “the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26).42 comments on this story
• In striking contrast, Lehi’s teaching that “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25) charters the remarkable religious humanism that I consider among the crowning glories and most attractive features of Mormonism.
• By far, however, the most urgently needed contribution of the Book of Mormon is surely the tangible evidence it constitutes of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and of the Restoration and, even more vitally, its status as a second witness of the divinity, Atonement, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and its testimony to God’s continuing love — today as well as anciently — for the entire world. These contributions are scarcely negligible.