“Do Mormons Believe in the Bible?” (Long)

A couple of months ago I was asked to give a lecture at Northwestern University as sort of a community outreach to the students there (not as a proselyting event). This was sponsored by the local LDS singles branch, and I was suggested as a speaker by my fellow blogger RT. They suggested three subjects, and I at first picked “polygamy,” thinking that if the goal was to attract a lot of non-LDS students that would be the surest draw. But the powers that be got cold feet for that particular topic, and I can’t say that I blame them. They came up with the captioned subject instead, which was fine with me as it was actually an easier preparation for me than polygamy would have been.

The lecture was set for last night in Annenberg Hall at 7:30 p.m. I was glad of the location, as that is just two buildings behind the Garrett Theological Seminary where I’ve spent a lot of time, so it was easy for me to find. The drive was brutal, though. Normally when I go to Garrett on a Saturday it takes me an hour; last night the drive was an hour and a half, due to rush hour, rain and construction. But I finally made it, with plenty of time to spare.

At first I thought it might just be four people in the audience, but more folks wandered in, and we ended up with a very good crowd. I never had a chance to count them, but it looked like somewhere between 40 and 50. An old friend of mine who now works for CES was there (he had diverted his Wednesday night Institute classes to the lecture), as was our local AA70.

Below I’ll try to type up my speaking notes to give you a sense for what my presentation entailed:

Introductory Matters:

I actually started with two jokes. The first one was given to me by a friend: “Shakespeare wrote that even the Devil can quote scripture to his own purpose. Well, here I am.” The second one I just came up with on the spot: “I’m pleased to see this strong attendance tonight. I didn’t think anyone would come given that we’re up against the thrid presidential debate and, more significantly, Project Runway.”

Then I explained that I had been asked to address the question “Do Mormons Believe in the Bible?” There is a simple answer to that question: Yes. So now we can just eat the refreshments and go home.

But I take it that implicit in that question is another, namely, how does Mormon belief in the Bible compare with and contrast to that of others? So that is the question I want to address this evening.

Summary of Early LDS History:

[My working assumption was that there would be many non-LDS in the audience, and in fact there definitely were some, although I don’t know how many. So I geared my lecture to those people, and wanted to give them some context about Mormonism so that the rest of the presentation would make sense.]

– I explained a bit about the word “Mormon.”

– JS was born in Vermont in 1805 to his parents, Joseph Sr. and Lucy

– Joseph Sr. and Lucy began their marriage in comfortable circumstances, but experienced financial reversals. Moved from farm to farm throughout New England scratching out a living from the dirt.

– Greater opportunity to the west, so they moved to the Finger Lakes region of NY. The vortex of religious feeling in American history (Second Great Awakening, the Burned Over District).

– The Smiths a family of Seekers. (I told the story of when Lucy started attending Methodist services and Joseph Sr. started going with her. His father Asael [a Universalist] was livid and came to the house, opened the door and threw inside a copy of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, and bade his son to read it until he believed it.) Joseph Sr. remained aloof from organized religion. Lucy also had a Seeker background, but she felt a keener desire to affiliate with a church, and joined the Presbyterians for a time.

– Joseph Jr. took after his father (once told his mother he could take his Bible into the woods and learn more in five minutes than she could after hours of church meetings), but eventually, like his mother, yearned for a church home.

– Family had contracted to purchase a farm, and the entire family had to pull together to try to earn the money for the annual payments. One way they did this was with a cake and ale shop on Main Street in Palmyra. Joseph as a teenager had the job of taking refreshments in a cart out to where the people were to sell them, and where the people were frequently was camp meetings out in the woods. Exposed to the various fragmented Protestant sects of his area, he was confused as to which to join. (Leaned Methodist.)

– Was reading the Bible and came upon James 1:5-6. (As he later recounted, “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”)

– First Vision: “join no church.”

– Surprised at minister’s negative reaction to the idea of modern visions.

– Modern Mormons see the FV as the charter of our religious tradition, but for early Mormons it was the later appearance of Moroni [describe coming forth of BoM].

– I then described the migrations to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and to the west.

An Open as Opposed to a Closed Canon:

– Recall JS statement about inadequacy of Bible to settle the question. By his experience he came to reject the Protestant sola scriptura position. Unlike the Catholics, who make up the difference with Church tradition, he made up the difference with modern revelation directly from God to man.

– People would read the BoM, decide it was true and be baptized. So these people were accepting an open canon position.

– Word “canon” GR for “reed” (used as a measuring stick); came to mean an authoritative list of texts.

– We talked about the different canons of the OT and the development of the NT canon.

– Most Christian canons are closed, meaning that list of books is set in stone; you can’t take any away or add any to. In contrast, the Mormon canon is open.

– Mormons absorbed the Protestant canon of the Bible from the KJV by default.

– Mormons have their own terminology for this: “standard works” (originally anything published by the Church, but by 1900 usage limited to scriptures). The Mormon standard works are Bible, BoM, D&C and PoGP (describe latter two).

– Although Mormon canon remains open in principle, it is more ajar than wide open. Most additions derive from first generation or two of the Church. Most recent additions made in the 1970s.

– I also described ambiguous Mormons usage of the term “scripture,” which can mean either the canonized standard works or, more loosely, writings, teachings or addresses of contemporary church leaders that are not and never will be formally canonized.

Errancy as Opposed to Inerrancy:

– When Moroni appeared to JS, he quoted a number of scrips (Joel, Malachi, etc.), some with variations from the received version.

– BoM presents scriptural quotations and allusions also with such variations.

– Idea of textual problems with the Bible common in Joseph’s religious culture.

– In summer of 1830, shortly after publication of BoM, JS undertook a new project, to revise the Bible himself. A long tradition of Christians attempting to clarify and correct the Bible, but usually using scholarship and notes or commentaries, external to the text. But Joseph not an educated man or a scholar; he used inspiration, and he made his revisions internally within the text itself. More like a midrashic commentary or a targum.

– Started in Genesis, moved to NT, returned to Genesis and finished OT. Came to Apocrypha (bound between the testaments in his edition), so he asked whether he should translate that. Talked about D&C 91.

– Initial method was to dictate entire mansucript; very inefficient. Explained the JS “marked Bible,” which allowed JS to simply dictate revisions.

– Types of changes a mixed bag. (Long sections without parallel in the Bible [e.g. Enoch material], common sense corrections, modernizing archaic Jacobean KJV usages, assimilating to better known wording, harmonizing contradictions, doctrinal corrections.)

– Miracle we have it (Emma carrying ms. sewn into her dress when expelled from Missouri.)

– When main body went west under BY after JS killed, some rejected BY leadership and remained in midwest. Eventually became RLDS, and they controlled the mss. Good friends now, but severe tensions in 19th century. When RLDS finally published IV in 1867, LDS didn’t trust it and held it at arm’s length. Finally in mid-20th century LDS scholars given access to the mss. and could see RLDS were responsible in their editing. Effort to rehabilitate JST among LDS. 1979 edition of Bible includes 600 extracts from IV in footnotes/appendix.

– AoF: “We believe the Bible to be the Word of God, as far as it is translated correctly….”

– From JST and this AoF, it should be clear that Church is formally errantist. But many LDS make informal inerrantist assumptions. I described Chicago Statement on Inerrancy position that inerrancy refers to the original autographs, and said that many LDS would sign on to such a statement (although I wouldn’t and I think it would be a mistake. Expressed my view that scripture by definition is mediated through human beings, and human beings by definition are fallible and limited.)

Bible in Modern Church Life:

– Primary

– Scripture reading in the home; Family Home Evenings

– Seminary (described four-year curriculum)

– Missions (study, discussing with people)

– Priesthood (widely held)

– Lay organization

In comparing Mormon knowledge of the Bible with that of other Christian groups, I opined that Mormon knowledge is probably broader, but not as deep. (I used the expression “a mile wide and an inch deep”). Both tendencies derive from our lay structure. We have hundreds of thousands of returned missionaries among our people, something few other Christian groups can match. But our congregations rarely have someone with the kind of knowledge a Rabbi at a local synagogue has. Our bishops are engineers, not churchmen with advanced degrees in religioius studies. We do have our own Bible scholars, an impressive crew of grad students and interested amateurs, so we’re making progress. But requires individual initiative; no one ever became knowledgeable in the Bible just from attending SS.

Commitment to KJV:

– Originally, KJV was the common Bible among LDS by default.

– Rise of modern translations raised question whether we should transition to one of those.

– Influence of JRC and his Why the KJV? [describe]. Was on lots of bookshelves, and although rarely read (too dense for average member), people knew the general outline of argument, and it was very influential.

– 1979 edition sealed the deal; KJV now the official English language Bible of the Church.

– Advantages to that (classically beautiful language, everyone using the same version establishes consistency in classrooms and instructional material).

– But also big disadvantages. An archaic translation that doesn’t reflect more recent scholarship and difficult to comprehend, especially by young people.

– Substantial impediments to formally adopting a modern translation (e.g., what do we do with quotations and allusions to KJV in our modern scriptures? That intertextuality a problem).

– Fine to use other translations for personal study, but for official purposes for time being the KJV is it; suggests need to learn how to read it effectively.

Then we finished with a Q&A session, which lasted for maybe 15 minutes.

All in all I thought it went very well and I got some good feedback.


  1. What an awesome event! I wish I could have been there. Any zingers in the Q&A?

  2. Wonderful! I too am curious about the Q&A.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I was afraid people were going to ask about the Q&A. I don’t have a very clear memory of what the questions were. I’ll try to recall what I can:

    – The first question was what the church thinks of things like the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gospel of Judas. We talked about how the advice given in D&C 91 for the Apocrypha is applicable to these kinds of texts as well. I mentioned that there is some very responsible LDS literature on these subjects (such as the DSS cd-rom and the issue of BYU Studies devoted to the Gospel of Judas), and there is also some quackery, so one must be careful.

    – Someone asked whether errancy extends to the modern Mormon scrips like the BoM. I said there is diversity of thought on these kinds of issues in the Church, and while some people make a distinction like that (based on the wording of the AoF), I don’t. I view the BoM as errant as well. I told a story of when I was a young man and I had a couple who were my SS teachers and they taught us that there were no grammatical errors in the BoM. When my dad, a professor of education and a reading specialist, heard that he just laughed. I have an entire shelf of books dedicated to understanding the textual history of the BoM, and grammatical errors abound.

    – Someone asked if we don’t believe in errancy, then how do we read the Bible with assurance that what we read is reliable? This is one I think I fumbled a bit. I talked about using a multiplicity of sources and evidences to bolster any given proposition, but apparently some of the LDS kids in the audience thought I should have mentioned personal inspiration (a la the famous J. Reuben Clark talk), and that would have been a good thing to throw in. I just didn’t think of it at the time.

    There were more questions, but those are the ones that spring to mind at the moment.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Er, make that “someone asked if we don’t believe in inerrancy…”

  5. Great presentation! I would have liked to have been there — although there were already the competing options of the debate and project runway that made the choice impossible.

  6. I would have loved to be there, Kevin. I think it is a fabulous idea and will pass along the link to the LDSSA in our stake. One in particular will be very interested, I think.

  7. Sounds great, Kevin. Thanks for sharing. A question for you, as I have been considering picking up a more modern translation for personal study purposes, and see a lot of LDS scholars using the NIV. What is your recommendation?

  8. Kevinf, there’s a post here that goes into detail with recommendations and discussion. Perhaps FPR should host a non-KJV smackdown…

    Kevin, nice presentation.

  9. kevinf (#7) —

    See here and here and here for starters. I like the NRSV, and recommend the Harper Collins Study Bible edition or the New Oxford Annotated edition.

  10. Kevin, it really was a good event! Well done, and thanks. Another questioner asked how new materials get added to the LDS canon, and the president of the branch that organized the event asked whether Mormons are scriptural literalists. My favorite moment was the young man who asked if you saw Mormonism as an individualistic religion.

    kevinf, as someone with no knowledge of the original languages, I can only recommend on the basis of the aesthetic quality and comprehensibility of the many modern Bible translations I’ve read. On these criteria, the NRSV is the hands-down winner. The NIV simply isn’t as well-written, I think.

  11. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks for this, Kev. Great stuff.

  12. Kevin Barney:

    And did the AA70 give you any feedback afterwards?

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    kevinf #7, personally I like either the NRSV or the NET. The NIV strikes me as having a very noticeable evangelical bias at times.

    JNS #10, I didn’t realize that was the president. That was the last question, and I was already pretty well past my allotted time, so I made an allusion to Phil Barlow’s concept of “selective literalism” from his Mormons and the Bible. Thanks for helping me on my brainfreeze on his name.

    Hunter #12, No, I didn’t get any feedback directly from the AA70. I didn’t really stay that long afterwards to chat, as I was worried about the long drive home.

  14. Sounds like a great lecture. Thanks for sharing your notes.

  15. NIV – “a very noticeable evangelical bias”

    I would read a post write-up on that, Kevin.

    Do LDS think the KJV has an evangelical bias?

  16. That’s lovely.

    Great job!

  17. The Right Trousers says:

    I’ve got the NIV Study Bible, and I love it. Most of the evangelical bent is in the study notes, AFAICT. (They’re great nevertheless, and quite thorough and honest – they even mention our interpretation of baptism for the dead.) I’m going after the Oxford Study Bible next. One really nice thing about studying from the NIV is that I understand the KJV a lot better. Another big plus: they specifically targeted a smallish vocabulary and simple wording, which is great for kids.

    I also have to put in a good word for the NET Bible. The license lets me put it on my tablet PC, the translation is good, and the translators’ notes are thorough and interesting.

  18. Todd Wood (#15) asked

    Do LDS think the KJV has an evangelical bias?

    I would rephrase the question to ask if evangelicals read the KJV with an evangelical bias. Or for that matter, whether Mormons read the KJV with a Mormon bias. And the answer is probably yes.

  19. Kevin,

    I would agree with the mile wide/inch deep analogy. The inch deep comes from years of reading the NT/OT at the surface level and teaching classes in church at a “base level”. Any attempt I have ever made in a church class to dig any deeper then a inch deep level is met with yawns and guys checking their gadgets for Cowboys scores. A Rabbi or a bible scholars exposure would be much deeper. Esp the Rabbi’s

    I am pretty confident that years of reading scriptures at the inch deep level and practicing what they teach is sufficiant for most people’s salvation/exhaltation. Esp the practicing part.

  20. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 18

    There are more people commenting on this thread than there are Evangelicals who read the KJV any more.

  21. MIke,

    I seriously doubt that. Most evangelicals that I know use the KJV along with the NKJV

  22. MikeInWeHo says:

    That’s Texas for you! : )

    You probably know more evangelicals than I do (although you might be surprised — remember I’m from Michigan originally). In my experience almost nobody uses the KJV anymore. Discussion of NIV vs NRSV vs NKJV abound, however.

  23. The NIV does have an evangelical bent. For example, Exodus 21:22 is translated

    2 “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [e] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows.

    Every single other bible translation translates the “gives birth prematuely but there is no serious injury” as “miscarries.”

    Pretty serious textual change.

  24. As to the question as to whether the KJV has an evangelical bias, Evangelicals (in the current sense) didn’t exist during the time of translation, so it seems something of a stretch.

  25. Yeah, Mike seriously. Lots of them call the NIV “Nearly Inspired Version”

  26. Ben Clarke says:

    While I admire your presentation, I was interested on your thoughts on the aforementioned Article of Faith (number 8 in the top 13). What Bible do we believe in? While Joseph’s definition of ‘the bible as it was penned by the original authors’ (paraphrase, I could be wrong) is handy, it becomes harder when we are asked what text we use in Sunday School. If we don’t believe the KJV is translated correctly (and I assume few Mormon scholars would argue against some serious problems with the KJV), and we don’t accept the JST as a canonical book of scripture, do we have a Bible that’s translated correctly? If not, are we just deferring our belief in the Bible, or is faith in an ‘incorrect’ translation enough?

  27. Kevin —

    I have been invited to speak to a Unitarian/Universalist congregation and want to mention Asael’s Universalism. Do you have a source for the story about Joseph Sr.’s encounter with his father over church-going? It is in Rough Stone Rolling? Sorry to ask but I am at the office and am afraid if I wait until after I research it the thread here will have gone cold.

  28. Here’s one source.

  29. Justin —

    Thank you


  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Sorry, JWL, I didn’t see your question until just now. The source Justin gives is exactly the one I used myself.