Lesson 4 in the Doctrine and Covenants Sunday School curriculum is entitled “Remember the New Covenant, Even the Book of Mormon,” a phrase taken from section 84. According to the manual, the objective of the lesson is to get class members to “recognize the Lord’s hand in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and to encourage them to study the Book of Mormon, follow its teachings, and share it with others.”
I apologize in advance that the way I went with this post probably doesn’t make it a very good Lesson outline; instead of short statements followed by incisive questions that get a good discussion going, I ended up with basically a long comment on some themes in the canonical texts, followed by some questions at the end. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend following this post as a lesson plan itself, but I hope there may be some useful insights in the post and in the comments that you can work into a lesson if you are teaching this material.
The lesson looks to the following canonized texts: sections 3, 5, 10, 17, portions of section 20 and section 84, and the post-first vision portions of Joseph Smith’s 1838 history that have been canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price.
The lesson also refers to a number of secondary sources. It refers to 1996 abbreviated history Our Heritage. But this doesn’t really offer any additional insight. The lesson also refers to the following gospel topics and Revelations in Context essays, which are, in my opinion, much better than Our Heritage:
- Gospel Topics: Book of Mormon Translation–this one does a nice job of laying out what’s known from the historical record on the mechanics of the translation, and corrects some of the misunderstandings that crept into older church manuals. Everyone who professes a belief in the Book of Mormon should try to become familiar with it.
- Revelations in Context: The Contributions of Martin Harris–Martin gets a bit of a bad rap in some of the early revelations because of the whole lost pages incident, and it can be easy to let that overshadow his later loyalty to the cause of the Book of Mormon. This essay does a nice job of helping to show us the whole picture. (As a personal aside, I worked nights one summer after my mission for the church Facilities Management group responsible for the Hill Cumorah and the Palmyra historic sites. One of my jobs was to clean the Martin Harris Farm–the church doesn’t offer tours, but there are bathrooms there for visitors who come on their own. It worked out that I usually got there just about sunset. The sunsets there, with red skies vaulting over dark distant trees, and golden shafts streaming over the waving emerald fields, were breathtaking. And even though the stately lake-stone home now there is not the original home, standing there in such beauty every day did give me an appreciation for the financial sacrifice that Martin Harris made, mortgaging a good portion of the farm to secure the debt owed to Egbert Grandin for printing the Book of Mormon, and eventually having to sell a good portion to pay the debt.)
- Revelations in Context: The Experience of the Three Witnesses–Martin gets a bit of a bad rap again, as he was apparently not as receptive to charismatic spiritual experiences as Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmers were, and his spiritual manifestation came later. It’s also easy to forget how important the three witnesses were to the early church, not just as witnesses to the Book of Mormon, but as church-builders themselves. The revelations in context essay doesn’t get into this, but it was the three witnesses who were given the assignment to search out the first twelve apostles, and the three witnesses who ordained them to the apostleship.
The lesson also refers to this really cool essay from the church history library:”A Bit of Old String: Mary Whitmer’s Unheralded Contributions” by Robin Scott Jensen. This one is particularly nice because women are basically absent from these early revelations, and it does a good job recovering at least one woman’s contributions to the story. These secondary sources are worth taking the time to read, but in this post, I’m not going to refer to them much. They are important, though, because they provide context to help us avoid misreading the primary texts.
As I read them, these canonical texts seem to cover three main aspects of the Book of Mormon: (1) its origin story, (2) its purpose, according to these early revelations, and (3) its role in the church according to section 84.
(1) The Book of Mormon’s Origin Story
The Book of Mormon’s origin story is not exactly new information for most church members. But for purposes of this post, I’ve tried to read it with fresh eyes, as if it were for the first time; and as I’ve tried to do so, I am impressed with three interrelated themes: (1) an overarching concern with the past, (2) the theme of the constant threat of loss, of divine preservation from loss, and (3) an overwhelming sense of the precariousness of the work of the Book of Mormon, including a special emphasis on the unreliability of Joseph Smith himself.
The shadow of the past
The fact of Moroni’s appearance highlights this concern with the past. Moroni is a relic of a lost past. And when he shows up, he starts quoting scriptures from past prophets who are dead and gone. His appearance here ultimately gives rise to the unique Mormon concept that angels are not a different species, but are humans from the past that have been resurrected–that is, saved (or in rare cases, preserved) from the void of death and forgetfulness–the inescapable monsters that constantly devour the past. So angels, thanks to Moroni, are not just links to heaven, they are links to the past. Consistent with that role as a link to the past, Moroni is the gatekeeper that gives access to a hoard that contains the divinely preserved relics of the Nephite’s past–the only traces left of that past.
There is a real sense in these that were it not for the Book of Mormon, the entire people and civilization that gave birth to these relics would have been lost completely to the void of death and forgetfulness. Not just their lives, but even their memory has been erased–apparently a fulfillment of the repeated Book of Mormon warning that if they did not repent, God would remove his protection against the devouring monsters of death and forgetfulness, and would thus “utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth” and that the only sign that they ever lived would be the record the left behind (see Mosiah 12:8; Alma 9:12; Ether 11:2). The early revelations talk about Book of Mormon prophets praying that God would preserve a record of their memory (e.g., D&C 10:46-50). Moroni and the plates are presented as literally the Nephites’ only hope that anyone will know that they were here.  Moroni appearing to the young seer was a bit like Coriamtumr appearing to the Nephites, or like the mysterious old man that the Rohirrim find before they build Meduseld–a man out of his time, the last remnant of a once great people that had dwindled, eventually to “forget and be forgotten.”
Loss and divine preservation from loss
The portion of section 20 describing the story of the Book of Mormon was one of Joseph Smith’s first attempts to present the Book of Mormon’s origin story to the world, and the story it tells helps us see how Joseph Smith himself viewed the Book of Mormon and how he wanted the world to see it. That story is a story of loss and of redemption. The story opens with Joseph Smith having “received a remission of his sins” (v. 5), but then almost immediately losing that state of innocence, finding himself “again entangled in the vanities of the world” (id). He is sitting on a razor’s edge, so to speak, balanced at the peak between potential failure and loss on both sides–a loss that would repeat the loss of the Nephites and of any sign that they ever lived. But then, through humility and repentance (v. 6), he is divinely preserved from that loss and is given access to relics of the past: Moroni (id.), the plates, the interpreters, and the result is the Book of Mormon (v. 8).
Section 20 makes an important contribution to the way we read the Book of Mormon with its description of the Book as a “record of a fallen people” (v. 9). Again, there’s that sense of the Book of Mormon as a recovered past. And it almost immediately injects a sense of unreliability into the Nephite story. This description is a powerful reminder that the story of the Nephites is not an example to follow, but a warning of what not to do. They started their promised land just as the puritans would later found their shining city on a hill, and though they had “the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (v. 9), they would ultimately fall. Small wonder that when section 20 begins discussing theological principles, immediately after declaring a belief in justification and sanctification, it warns that despite God’s mercy, “man may fall from grace and depart from the living God” (v. 32).
The precariousness of the work of recovering the past
The early revelations related to the episode of the lost pages further flesh out these themes of loss, preservation, redemption, and further develop an acute sense of precariousness of the mission. Section 3 and section 10 tell the story of the loss of the pages that were initial attempt to translate the plates, and the accompanying loss of the prophet’s seeric gift. We lifelong members of the church so often read these sections with the benefit of hindsight: having been raised on the story, having it drilled into us in seminary, or at least told it as we joined the church, we know the end from the beginning already; we already know that God has had Nephi make his record “for a wise purpose” that Nephi “kn[e]w not,” but that we know. But I’m not sure that’s really such a benefit in this case. We know that the loss of the record of Lehi is no great loss–at least no permanent and debilitating loss. But reading with that hindsight, we have lost the sense of precariousness that pervades the episode of the lost pages. I think to truly understand these revelations, we need to at least try to appreciate that sense of precariousness. We must temporarily forget, or at least set aside, that we know that Nephi’s record will replace Lehi’s, (and that it will be even better ), that Joseph’s seeric gift will be restored, and that the work will come through at last. None of this was taken for granted at that time.
The loss of the initial translation attempt and of the gift that made it possible was, for all that Joseph and Martin knew, permanent and complete. When the gift was restored and the translation began again, it was not an expected thing. It was, to quote Tolkien again, a “eucatastrophe”–a salvation unlooked for that turned abject grief into a joy that was just as poignant.
There is also in these revelations, a profound and repeated theme of unreliability. Martin Harris bears some of this, but as I read it, the brunt of these revelations’ unrelenting lament of the unreliability of men focuses on Joseph Smith’s unreliability, God’s trust in him anyway, and of his eventually living up to God’s trust, with the help of grace. Again, as I noted, the story begins with his remission of sins, but quickly he is again “entangled in the vanities of the world.” I can’t help but think that “vanity” here is not just a euphemism for sins, but “vanity” in the sense that the preacher uses it in Ecclesiastes: a word that encapsulates the ephemerality of this world and worldly pursuits–especially of treasure and money.
Joseph Smith’s history tells how he was immediately tempted to see the plates for their monetary value, and to think of ways to realize that value, and how Moroni’s yearly equinox training sessions and rebukes were focused at least in part on getting him to give up all hope of pecuniary gain. He was “doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor” (v. 23), and therefore Moroni added to his initial message a special warning: ” he added a caution to me, telling me that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich. This he forbade me, saying that I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building his kingdom; otherwise I could not get them.” (v. 46). In his descriptions of how the plates were constantly under threat of “the most strenuous exertions” to steal them (v. 60), I can’t help but hear echoes of Samuel’s curse that Nephite gold would become “slippery.”
It’s remarkable that the story doesn’t start with Joseph entangled in the vanities of the world for the first time, for him to repent and take up a mantle that he would faithfully bear henceforth, but begins with him being “again entangled in the vanities of the world,” after already having been given a remission of sins (D&C 20:5). Preservation from loss to the void thus requires not just repentance, but repeated, constant repentance. Later, Joseph Smith trusts a “wicked man” (D&C 3:12; D&C 10:1)–there’s Martin’s bad rap–fears him more than God (D&C 3:7), loses his gift, and is called again to repentance. He repents, but even after repenting, he is warned that his judgment is unreliable, that he “cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous” (D&C 10:37). There is a real sense of the unreliability of humans and of the precariousness of their achievements–even achievements they reach with God’s help–that pervades these early revelations. Section 3 makes this point particularly, emphasizing that there is no such thing as an exception to human unreliability because of the fact that a person is called by God: “although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him” (v. 4).
These texts don’t shy away from Joseph’s unreliability and his propensity to be seduced by ephemeral and slippery things like the siren call of treasure-lust and praise of men. And yet they are also pervaded by a profound sense that God’s mercy and grace is sufficient to overwhelm his unreliability and stem and even reverse the loss of his gift–that in spite of his failure, Joseph is “still chosen,” and “again called” (D&C 3:10) but that he must repent and rely on God’s mercy. This is akin to the sense of precariousness that pervades these texts, and the only answer to both the precariousness of the mission and the unreliability of the missionary is divine grace, accessed through humility and constant repentance. Appreciating the sense of precariousness and of the constant threat of loss makes the need for constant repentance as acute as I believe it is supposed to be.
The loss of the Book of Lehi also does something else. In addition to the fact that it vividly illustrates Joseph Smith’s weakness, the threat of loss, and the precariousness of his work, it is also a powerful reminder that the text that Joseph Smith produced to the world was not written by the finger of God, or dictated straight from God’s mouth to Joseph’s ear, but was, again, the product of human toil. God provided the miraculous access to the past, but the record itself is a relic from the past, not a gospel treatise authored by God. It reminds us that there is an inaccessible text behind the text, and an inaccessible truth behind the inaccessible text. The Book we have is not the ur-text, but the last product of an unknowably long line (unknowable because it’s full length has been lost to the void) of authors, chroniclers, and redactors, compilers, seeric translators, scribes, editors, typesetters, etc. By doing so, in my opinion, it points us away from the text itself–or perhaps, more precisely, through the text itself–to the things that the text points us toward. And again, this helps strengthen the sense of precariousness and urgency. This book was not something that God just willed effortless into existence; it was the product of a hard-won battle against the monsters of the void: death and loss and forgetfulness, the monster that is continually devouring the past. It was a battle that required the partnership of God and humans, and that unreliable humans giving it their all, even with God’s partnership and grace, didn’t escape unscathed, and barely succeeded in getting us what we got.
(2) The Church’s Condemnation
Oddly enough, that same sense of precariousness, of not-for-grantedness that pervades the Book of Mormon’s origin story, also pops up later in the portion of section 84 that famously declares that condemnation rests on the church for not taking the Book of Mormon seriously. Poetically, this section was dictated September 22, and 23, 1832, the fall equinox, the same night that Moroni made his midnight visits and that Joseph finally succeeded in accessing Moroni’s hoard. Just as Joseph Smith was, even after having his sins remitted, “again entangled in the vanities of the world,” requiring a rebuke from Moroni for thinking of the monetary value of the relics, the church, even after having received the Book of Mormon and many other revelations, was taking the Book of Mormon lightly. Therefore, just as Joseph Smith was repeatedly commanded to humble himself and repent, the church is also warned that this condemnation will remain until it repents and remembers the Book of Mormon (vv. 54-57).
When President Benson, speaking as the President of Church, said that the Lord had still, over a century later, not lifted that condemnation, he only further strengthened the sense that the church’s failure in this respect is not just a singular failure in its own story, but is a part of a very old story and relentlessly repetitive story–a struggle against the loss of death and against our human unreliability that did not begin with us, but was played out before our time by Joseph Smith himself on a personal level, and before that, by the fallen Nephites on a much larger scale (and before them, by the Jaredites).
So what would it mean to take the Book of Mormon seriously, or as section 84 puts it, to remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon?
Does it mean that we quote it more? Does it mean that we read it more often? Does it mean that we talk about it more? Does it mean that we read it more closely? Does it mean that we think more deeply about what it says? Does it mean that we treat it rigorously, interrogate it, wring truth and meaning out of it? Does it mean that we question our assumptions about what we think it says and means?
Probably yes, to all those questions, but I would suggest that perhaps answering that question also requires us to look at what these early revelations said was its purpose.
(3) The Purposes of the Book of Mormon
An Escape from the Void for Lehi’s Legacy
Playing off the sense of loss to time and death and forgetfulness, these early revelations speak of one purpose of the Book of Mormon as a means to preserve the memory of a now lost and otherwise forgotten pre-European Christianity in the new world. Section 3 talks about this (vv. 19-20). Section 10 goes into more detail about Lehite prophets praying that the Lord would bring to light their memory and the memory of the gospel given to them, and make them accessible to others that would later live in the places left desolate by their disappearance (vv. 46-51)–again, there’s that sense that but for this record, their memory would be prey to the monsters of the void.
A Call to Repent
The second purpose that section 10 identifies is to “establish my church.” But unlike many other revelations that discuss church organization, “my church” as used in this revelation doesn’t refer to an ecclesiastical institution, but to the invisible church. The revelation explains that anyone who repents and comes unto Christ is his church (v. 67). Thus, by saying that the Book of Mormon’s purpose is to “establish my church,” it is saying that it’s purpose is to call people to repentance. The Book of Mormon’s purpose to “establish my church” in this revelation is not just an indication that the church’s worship liturgy and ordination protocol, as would be later laid out in the articles and covenants, would be textually grounded in the Book of Mormon, it is a reflection of the fact that the Book of Mormon is primarily a call to repentance.
Recovery of the Pre-Contact American Christian Gospel
The third purpose that section 10 identifies is to bring to light “the true points of my doctrine” as it was given to the descendants of Lehi and Sariah (v. 62). I suggest that in light of this, perhaps part of remembering the new convenant might include a renewed focus on those portions of the Book of Mormon that explicitly define “my doctrine” and “my gospel” (e.g., 3 Ne. 11:28-40; 3 Ne. 27:13-21). And what we do we find when we look at those passages? Lo and behold: a focus on God’s mercy and the absolute, universal need for repentance and sanctification, echoing those themes that seem to pervade the Book of Mormon’s origin story as the only escape from the monsters of the void.
A Catalyst to End (or Reduce) Doctrinal Contention
Finally, section 10 says that the purpose of all this is to “establish my gospel, that there might not be so much contention concerning the points of my doctrine” (v. 63). I wonder how we have done on this front. How well have we used the Book of Mormon to end, or at least reduce, controversy about the points of the doctrine of Christ? Have we sometimes misused it to actually increase contention over doctrine? Have we sometimes enlisted it in furthering a “war of words and tumult of opinions” over doctrine, rather than in a peacemaking effort to end that war, or at least broker a cease fire here and there? Have we misused it to make other theological points that we thought were important instead of using it in light of its purpose as a call to become converted by grace through faith and repentance?
I also feel like I should point out that if we have so misused the Book of Mormon, that’s not to say that we’re any worse than any other band of Christians that has ever been. The history of the development of orthodoxy and of the treatment of heretics is harrowing, and as I’ve suggested before, dwarfs any doctrinal errors in the creeds so as to justify the statement in the First Vision account that the creeds of Christendom were an “abomination” without needing to draw any conclusion about the abominableness of any of the particular theological content of the creeds. Enlisting scripture in service of defining and enforcing orthodoxy while largely missing its call to conversion through repentance is a long and venerable tradition.
What might using the Book of Mormon as a tool to and or reduce controversy over doctrine look like?
There’s probably a multitude of answers to that question, but I suggest that perhaps one answer is perhaps a renewed focus on the Book of Mormon not as a treatise of theology or a compendium of proof-texts to support our orthodoxy, but as an urgent clarion call to repent. In fact, as new scripture that is not already part of an accepted canon, the Book of Mormon almost seems structurally designed to resist proof-texting. What if the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to put an end to doctrinal in-fighting not just among Mormons, but to reduce such in-fighting among all Christians–that is, among all those who are “my church,” those that repent and come unto Christ? If that is the purpose, would that change the way we use it? How could we use it to further that end? Would that help to answer the question of how we repent and remember the new covenant?
 This sense that the Book of Mormon is their only hope at being remembered is palpable enough in Joseph Smith’s history, and in these early revelations, and in the Book of Mormon itself, but it is perhaps made more acute by the fact that since that time, no other evidence has been found to unambiguously confirm their existence, and hopes by some that archeological or DNA evidence would do so have been unfulfilled.
 I occasionally hear people at church speak wistfully about the lost theological treasures and “deep doctrine” that must have been in Lehi’s record. But section 10 seems to take the position that in fact Nephi’s record is, at least when it comes to “my gospel” is superior: “Behold, there are many things engraven upon the plates of Nephi which do throw greater views upon my gospel” (D&C 10:45).