Designing the Scriptures.

Today it’s in the news that President Nelson went and met with Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister. This was a little bit more interesting than just any meeting with a world leader for two reasons: (1) Ardern has been widely praised recently for her leadership, including her response to violence in her country, and (2) Ardern herself was raised in the church, but says she left the church in 2005 and currently identifies herself as agnostic.

But this post isn’t about that meeting, it’s about how we print and bind the scriptures. President Nelson made a gift to Ardern of what appears to be a very nice Deseret Book “Legacy Edition” of the Book of Mormon. It’s a nicely done hardcover edition that would look beautiful on a shelf, but it’s pretty pricey retailing around $100. Anyway, that got me thinking about what my ideal edition of the scriptures for my personal use would look like if I could design it myself.


I warn you that I’m not a professional book designer. We have had some folks at BCC who have more experience and training in this kind of thing. I’m not pretending to speak for them or anything. I’m speaking only from my own preferences as a reader and a book nerd, informed by just enough interest in typography and bookbinding to be dangerous, and probably not enough to really know what I’m talking about.

As far as an overall design philosophy, I admit that I feel a real tension between two impulses when it comes to the scriptures: On the one hand, I look at expensive scripture volumes and feel a little disgusted. The idea that an affluent LDS family in wherever, Utah would pay an amount for a set of scriptures that most people in the world could never afford doesn’t sit well with me. It almost makes me wish we all only used the cheap paperback editions you get from the missionaries.

But on the other hand, I am kind of medievalist at heart, and printed and bound books are really a medieval medium. So when I think of medieval texts and how much people sacrificed to preserve and maintain the word of God, and how they used the finest possible materials as a form of reverence for God and his word, I feel a bit of holy envy. Even the original 1830 edition of the book of Mormon was no cheap paperback even by the standards of the time. And so I think maybe it’s not so bad to make aesthetically beautiful and long-lasting scripture volumes that aren’t necessarily cheap.

Anyway, I won’t attempt to resolve this tension in this post, but I want to note that these are the kinds of thoughts that motivate me when I think about how scriptures are best presented in print. I feel a pull toward that which is plain, not gaudy or ostentatious and that which is inexpensive, but I also feel a pull to that which is made to last and that which is beautiful. And I recognize that those goals won’t always all be compatible.

Anyway, if I had my way, this is what I would want. This is my wish list for my personal edition of the scriptures:

Archival materials: This is the medievalist in me, but I want something that is made to last not just my lifetime, but something that could still be around in 500 years. I suppose that would mean acid free cotton or linen paper, pigmented ink, etc.

Sewn binding: Again, I’m not a bookbinding expert, but there are two main ways to bind a book: signatures (a collection of pages, folded down the middle) sown with (usually linen) thread, or “perfect binding,” where the pages are all just stuck into a big fat glob of glue that’s stuck to the cover. Perfect binding is cheap and works great for most things, but you know how a cheap paperback gets cracks and creases in the spine–especially when it’s a thicker book? That’s the disadvantage of perfect binding: it’s not very flexible, so it cracks. If it’s broken in correctly and well cared for, a sewn binding will loosen up and hinge and bend while still maintaining its structural fastening, instead of cracking.

Paper: I don’t love the thin bible paper used in the standard LDS editions of the scriptures. It feels too thin. I don’t want something that’s super thick, but I’d want something thicker than that. Something I wouldn’t be afraid of tearing if I wrote on it with a sharp pencil or a fine-nibbed pen. Also, something that I could write notes on with a fountain pen without too much bleedthrough. (My personal scripture-marking philosophy is pretty minimalistic, but when I do make notes, I like to make them in archival ink, which comes in bottles, so I like to use a fountain pen.) Maybe something in a 12-18 lb weight. I’d also want it to be a light ivory color rather than bright white. White can be a bit straining on the eyes, especially if you’re reading it in bright sunlight.

Content: I would want only the scriptural text itself; no index, topical guide, bible dictionary, chapter headings, etc. I’d eliminate all cross references except for direct quotes. It’s so much more accurate and easy anymore to look up things electronically, and the best study aids really work better, in my opinion, as standalone references. I’d prefer my ideal set of scriptures to be just the canonical text, with minimal non-canonical additions. The only exception I’d make is that I’d probably want to include some excerpts of Joseph Smith’s New Translation in an appendix, but I think it probably would make more sense to include as an appendix to the Pearl of Great Price, rather than to the bible, since it’s really more closely associated with what we call the Book of Moses. I’d maybe include a few maps as well, but fewer than we have in our LDS edition of the KJV bible.

I’d want to use the canonical texts: the traditional KJV and the current text Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price. I like translations like the NRSV and Wayment’s translation, and I find the Book of Mormon textual variants documented by Skousen, some of which are included as references in the MI study edition to be useful. But I’d prefer to keep these as handy references separate from the canonical text.

Typeface: For the main text I’d want to choose a light, readable serifed typeface that’s uncrowded, but still relatively compact, and that has a heritage that derives from some of the classic 16th century typefaces, like something from the Garamond family. Aragon is one of my favorites. But for book titles and chapter numbers, it would be cool to have something a bit more calligraphic that calls back the old medieval hand-lettered bibles, but that still more readable than the more ornate Blackletter forms. I like Clairvaux.

Layout: This is what I would change the most. I’d want the page width to be less than five to five-and-a-half inches, and I’d want only a single column, not double columns. For me, the ideal column width is three to four-and-a-half inches. I like the size of the old “compact” size scriptures the church used to make; they’re nice and portable. But the problem with them was that rather than re-setting the text, they just reduced the two-column layout designed for the larger “standard” size. This makes the print so small as to be basically unreadable, and regardless of the print size, two columns don’t make any sense at all on a page that’s already only a little over three inches wide anyway. I’d like a size that’s relatively compact, but with a page layout actually designed for a smaller page.

I’d also get rid of the verse divisions in the Book of Mormon, and have verses marked unobtrusively in subscripts or superscripts. Something like the MI study edition. I’d eliminate almost all footnotes, but I’d want to leave a decent sized top and bottom margin for adding in a few cross references and notes of your own. I’d follow the original Book of Mormon chapter divisions, and mark the current chapter divisions in the margins or in footnotes. As for the bible, I’d keep the traditional chapter divisions, with the verses marked unobtrusively in subscripts or superscripts, and in the gospels, I’d divide the pericopes with an extra space, but no heading or anything.

Volumes: I’m kind of undecided about this, but I’d probably want to put the Book of Mormon and the New Testament in one volume. If it’s not too thick, I’d throw the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Joseph Smith New Translation appendix in there as well. Otherwise, I’d keep those in a separate volume, and the Old Testament in a separate volume.

Cover: I’d want a semi-soft cover in full grain leather, with a back cover that wraps around the page edge on the side onto the front cover, and has a strap closure on the front. The kind of thing you could toss into a backpack for a week in the mountains without worrying about it getting messed up. Something that would be durable but would get a nice patina over time.

This would be my ideal personal copy I’d carry with me for travelling and speaking in church and stuff. Something stripped-down, portable, and durable. I’d couple an edition like this with a library of study aids and texts, but I wouldn’t carry them around.

I also think it would really cool to create illuminated versions of some restoration scripture, but that would be more a piece of art than something you’d use day to day.

  • If you were designing your ideal edition of the scriptures, what would it look like?



  1. Lotsa room for notes. My scriptures are full of postits, and stuff written in the margins.

  2. I love the format used in Wayment’s LDS New Testament.

  3. Mine would would play “Scripture Power” every time you opened it like those musical greeting cards. Of course you could disable that feature if you so desired.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    To be honest, I rarely use paper scrips anymore. Because of poor eyesight I had to move to a large print quad, and that thing was a bear to schlep around, so these days I mostly just use my iPad.

  5. Jennifer says:

    I would put each of the canonical books in a separate volume so I could lay them out and compare passages; I would keep the PoGP at the end of D&C. I like your idea of creamy paper, not bright white, in a decent weight, and a very clear and readable font. I’m a musicologist, so I’m used to reading texts with half the page as footnotes — I would love that — combine everything from the NIV, Wayment, JST, concordant cross-references, etc., in footnotes. I love the Wayment text and organization; I have to trust him on the Greek translation, but I notice that a lot of gendered language in the KJV he renders as gender neutral, which I appreciate. I also would love wide margins for writing my own notes; my scriptures are basically double the thickness because of the post-it notes on virtually every page (except Leviticus . . .). I would even go for a high quality loose-leaf binding that would allow room for expansion, so that if I wanted to add my own comments, there would be lots of room. Clearly, I will need a wheeled scripture tote for these things. But my current practice, while we’re reading NT, is just to take my Wayment edition, my own notebook, and leave the rest at home. I don’t love reading on my devices, but it works well for a supplement and lightens my church tote. This is fun to think about. No doubt Deseret will take note of all the suggestions.

  6. Lol, JLM.

  7. Yeah, Kevin, I mostly just use my phone at church. Mostly because I feel like the print copies are too bulky and heavy. I have the standard ones, and they’re a pain. The large print would be even worse.

    But I feel like I don’t retain information as well when I read on a screen vs the printed page.

  8. The Wayment edition is really nice.

  9. Nathan Richardson has created Word versions of the standard works with or without chapter breaks that you can format however you would like. You could even publish them at blurb or lulu and they would look like a proper book!

    (He even made the BoM without punctuation available so you can add your own!)

  10. Me, I’d get rid of the sycophantic dedicatory epistle to King James. I’d replace it with the KJV’s actual introduction, “The Translators to the Reader,” which is rather more impenetrable but also more useful. Among other things, it gives excellent reasons for abandoning the KJV (and jettisoning most of the “helps”).

    I’m very fond of the Petit Medieval Clarendon typeface from the Cambridge KJV the Church used to use. Whatever we use now is clear but also rather bland. I miss, too, the inline pronunciations which tried very hard to make OT names pronounceable. Plus they had cool accented letters.

    Paragraphs as paragraphs with superscripts for verse numbers, yes. That’s pretty standard for modern Bibles. The problem there is who gets to come up with the paragraphing for the Restoration scriptures. The original verse divisions for the BoM would be one starting point.

    Definitely sewn bindings. Ribbon bookmarks. Sell at a loss.

    Just make them beautiful, practical, durable, and accessible. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

  11. “The original verse divisions for the BoM would be one starting point.”

    No such thing til Orson Pratt which is the same as now. The publisher had to add all the punctuation.

  12. Well, true. I should have said “original paragraphing.” The current chapter-verse divisions we use are from Brother Orson, but the original edition did have chapter divisions and paragraphing. These old chapter-paragraph divisions are still used IIRC in the BoM published by the Community of Christ as chapter-verses. Yes, the paragraphing and punctuation were done at the printer, which is why I suggested it only as a starting point. I don’t recall who did the original chapter divisions. I’m obviously not an expert on the subject. Thanks for keeping me on the strait and narrow.

  13. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    A few years ago I started reading a cheap replica of the original BoM, without verses or the current chapter divisions, and it really opened my mind to how the stories were told, and there was much greater ‘flow’ to the reading. The arbitrary chapter and verse breaks really interfere with how (I believe) the text was intended to be read. It was also just a welcome change to what had become redundant reading. So I definitely concur with your desire for this feature.

  14. Brd529, thanks for the link to Richardson’s word versions. I remember seeing that years ago, but I’ve never spent much time with it.

    John Jenkins, the Clarendon typefaces are nice. But just as a matter of personal taste, I find them a bit heavy. I’m drawn to the lighter faces that are closer to the old humanist style.

    It’s my understanding that the old chapter divisions (pre-Orson Pratt, apparent in replica copies)are part of the original translation, not something added later. And jpv is right that the punctuation was added by the printer.

  15. I did the same thing a few years ago, Turtle, and I agree that it really does make a difference. It was cool when the doubleday edition did something similar, and one of the things that most drew me to the MI study edition was that it preserves the original chapter divisions, but marks the Orson Pratt chapter and verse divisions also, which is good for citing verses.

  16. I have for years worked on my own digital formatting ( but have never given much thought to what I would like in a paper edition — a weird omission, because I normally prefer paper over screen for reading … for everything, oddly, EXCEPT the scriptures. I like the physical points you consider, and will be thinking about my own preferences now. (I had never considered it before, but your preference for heavier paper is one that I share.) Thanks!

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    I never marked scriptures before my mission. My seminary scrips were pristine. I began to mark scrips on my mish just out of self-preservation. I served 77-79 so I had the old Cambridge KJV and the old Triple (with its horrendous footnoting system that didn’t make a lick of sense.) I marked those scrips up pretty thoroughly, mostly with red pencil When I got home the new 1979 Bibles came out, and shortly after that the new 1981 triples, so I bought new scrips but never bothered to mark them. Somehow the experience of marking them thoroughly was all I needed; At some point I switched to the aforementioned large print quad, and I never marked that one up, either. So for me I got all the benefit I needed from marking my missionary scriptures.

    Now that young people pretty much don’t bother with physical, bound books, even though there is a way to do it I’m guessing there is not a lot of actual marking going on. And I don’t know, but I’m guessing that that lack inhibits the depth of their familiarity with the scrips.

  18. This is possibly an unpopular opinion, but I think we in the church have a little bit of a fetish for scripture marking. Marking can be useful in the moment, but as for long-term, I think it can actually inhibit revelation and new insight because it can lock you into a previous understanding and obscure new ways of seeing the text. I marked my mission scriptures a lot, but the set I have now I mark minimally. There’s a great, probably apocryphal story of President Hinckley: he was speaking at some general authority training meeting and suddenly wanted to quote something, but didn’t want to go back to his seat to get his scriptures, so he asked President Packer, who was behind him, to hand him his scriptures. When President Hinckley opened President Packer’s scriptures he exclaimed “I can’t read anything in these! Everything is crossed out!”

  19. I like most of these ideas, though I fear I am too used to the two-column format to ever give that one up.

    And I am in favor of putting the text into paragraphs with unobtrusive verse numbers, and restoring the original Book of Mormon chapters.

    Like Jared, I am in favor of getting rid of most of the footnotes, though I would also add some. There are some English words in the KJV that translate two, three, or even four Hebrew or Greek words, and I think we need footnotes to explain which one is being used.

    For instance, there are four Hebrew words translated as “man” (Adam, Ish, Enosh, and Geber), three Greek words translated as “hell” (Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus), two Greek words translated as “world” (aeon and cosmos), and two Greek words translated as “sorcery” (mageia and pharmakeia).

    (And yes, that last one is the root of “pharmacy” – in the Mmiddle ages, making and using mind-altering drugs was considered a dark art).

    And that only scratches the surface of the translation ambiguities. It will take a lot of work to make people aware of them all.

  20. I would go the opposite of you Jared and dream of the ideal electronic copy of the scriptures. I’ve been thinking of this since we started doing Come, Follow Me in January. I think the electronic version of CFM that I use on an iPad finally reaches a point of usefulness for electronic media that goes far beyond print versions that people have dreamed about for years. I can touch a scripture link in the lesson and it appears in a companion window on the side so that I can keep my place in the lesson yet see the entire context of the scripture. I can touch a link to a video and have it play right there in the lesson. I imagine the ideal electronic scripture set to have linked content from scholars, to have linked content to video and other illustrations, all set in a usable and intuitive interface that allows me to branch off without getting lost. I would use that kind of resource and never pick up a printed version of the scriptures again.

  21. I should qualify that I don’t think CFM is the first instance of electronic linking or that it constitutes some new paradigm of electronic reference material. I just think CFM is a nice example of a simple, well thought out electronic delivery system that exploits the power of linking other content like scriptures and video in an intuitive and simple way that preserves the continuity of the lesson. I’ve used electronic media for decades but it usually suffers from the rabbit hole syndrome where the user falls into a hole that leads him farther and farther away from where he started. I can use the Logos software to see other versions of the scriptures but I have to consciously shift from one version to another, and when I do that I find I lose the thread that made me search other versions in the first place. I’d like a scripture app that contained those versions, as well as commentary, video, illustrations and maps in a more structured way, like CFM, that would allow me to learn without getting lost.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Jared, I agree with you about marking based on my experience, which I just happened to fall into. That is, I thoroughly marked my mish scrips and got a specific benefit from that process, but then I stopped marking at all and have gone completely clean since. So I now I get the benefit of having gone through the marking process once, but I also get the openness of having a clean page before me now.

    For people interested in footnoted commentary, here is a resource you may find useful. John Jenkins (whio has participated in this thread above) was a participant and wrote fantastic footnotes to Luke-Acts and Romans, and yes, we included From the Translators to the Readers. Click the linked word “here” towards the end to find the files.

  23. salty tribune says:

    Opal cover with a black stone for the writing of some what ivery or other preaces materal that looks well with the opal then a sods blood for the type ink and thats it.

  24. Yeah, Believing Joseph, the KJV is not ideal for exactly that reason. But for my personal set, I’d still rather keep the footnotes out and just study other versions and translations to clarify. But that’s just me. As for the columns, for me it’s a matter of readability. I’d want to shoot for a column width of 3-4 inches or so. I’d be happy with two columns if the entire page were like 8 inches wide or more. But that would be too big for my ideal set to carry around. So I’d stick with a single column.

    KLC you raise really good point about the rabbit hole problem. That’s partially why I feel I don’t get as much out of reading on the screen (not that that stops me from doing so). I agree with you that the integration of resources into CFM is nice, and that integrating scriptures with more scholarly resources along the same lines would be great. I’d use that as a study aid library to supplement. But I’m not always in a place where I can charge a device, so I don’t think I could ever fully switch to electronic.

    Kevin, thanks for reminding me of that link, and for drawing the connection with John above. Great work, John!

  25. I don’t know how anybody can talk about a single scripture design.
    If I’m looking for a fetish object, that I’d probably keep in a glass case, well . . . I wouldn’t.
    If I’m looking for a book to read from the pulpit—an altar bible—I want a commonly accepted version, plain text, large print, lie-flat binding, and a high-contrast paper/ink/font combo. Preferably in paragraphs, not verses.
    If I’m looking for a study version, to prepare a sermon or a lesson, I want multiple versions and I’m starting to incorporate electronic (which used to seem too clumsy for this purpose but has gotten better). Looking around me I count a dozen in near reach.
    If I’m looking for the simple pleasure of reading, call it a “devotional” scripture, I look for paper not electronic, a good size for the hand, i.e., not too big and not too small, paragraphs instead of verses, a nicely balanced set of notes and cross-references (zero doesn’t work as well for me), and a comfortable English that for me is not KJV, not academic, not casual or hip, not simplified.

    That latter specifications are not intended to create a null set. I find Wayment’s New Testament nicely balanced in a way that appeals. Some editions of the NRSV work. The Book of Mormon (obviously to me) needs a new version, but Grant Hardy’s work has greatly improved my experience and the Maxwell Institute Study Edition copy I have is a good size and nice printing.

  26. Great point, Christian. A single do-everything edition isn’t really possible. My ideal edition I’ve described here is really one for travel and carrying around. For reading at home I’d supplement with a variety of other translations and other study aids. A large format pulpit edition would be a cool thing to have in Latter-day Saint chapels. Especially if it were an illuminated edition.

  27. On a more serious note, I’d love a BoM with colored text that indicates precisely who is speaking/writing. Oh, and modern punctuation and paragraphing.

  28. JLM, that’s an interesting issue. I remember really liking the idea when I first saw a bible with Jesus’s words in red, and that could work for the end of 3 Nephi whe Jesus is physically present in the story, but I think I’d not want colored text for most of the Book of Mormon, OT, and D&C, because often it isn’t clear whether it’s the words of a prophet speaking in a prophetic register (common), if it’s actually a dictation by God (rare), whether it’s the father, the son, the spirit, an angel, or one of the above quoting another, and I’d be wary of an attempt to resolve that uncertainty to the point of seeking on one reading to represent typographically. So ultimately, I’d probably avoid colored text for the same reason I take a minimalist approach to marking scriptures. But I understand that I may be in the minority on that.

  29. Speaking of a large format pulpit edition, I would like to ban scrolling for a scripture on a phone at the pulpit in the middle of a talk. There are much more important things to worry about, but if I could also have an “annoyance” list on the side this would be high in that list.

  30. christiankimball,
    I attended a sacrament meeting recently where the speaker’s cellphone suddenly spoke, asking him to clarify his question. The joys of technology.

  31. I agree with half the author’s points and stridently disagree with the other half (i.e., Clairvaux as a font choice). I think the main takeaway from the discussion is that we need more options. I think there’s minimal value in forcing everyone in Gospel Doctrine to read from the exact same editions in the exact same formatting.

    As for my personal preferences:
    – I would have a different Bible translation (NRSV is pretty good, or maybe a proprietary LDS translation along the lines of the Wayment NT translation, but definitely not the Reina-Valera 2009 approach to creating an LDS proprietary translation, which IMHO erred on the side of deference to the KJV even when doing so obscured the original meaning). Let people keep using the KJV if they want, but offer another option too.
    – Rather than eliminate footnotes, I’d like a robust study edition. Eliminate all the inane footnotes that do nothing but suggest looking up a subject in the Topical Guide. Offer actual historical information. The Book of Mormon footnotes should incorporate scholarship from Royal Skousen, Grant Hardy, John Sorenson, and others, and have an appendix on the translation process, an actual map (Sorenson’s, with the necessary disclaimer), etc.
    – One index and encyclopedic BD-style reference for all the Standard Works, rather than a BD/TG for the Bible (which also reference the Restoration scriptures) and a separate Index for the “triple” (which does not have Bible references). The current system is redundant and makes no sense. Or eliminate it entirely in favor of digital tools, but I lean in favor of keeping it for the value of studying unplugged.
    – Frank grappling with difficult issues in the footnotes and study aids, following the example of Gospel Topics essays.

  32. Travis, I’m totally with you on the weird redundancy between the TG, Index, bible dictionary (and in some languages, the guide to the scriptures). I agree with many of your points, and on the others, I can see where you’re coming from. I totally understand the desire for robust footnotes, but I don’t think we’ll see much of that kind of commentary coming from the church in the future, and I think that’s probably a good thing. If the church publishes non-canonical material in a scripture volume, it sort of imbues it with an aura of officialness that can calcify interpretations. That’s why I’d prefer volumes of scripture themselves to be pretty minimalistic, but I’m all for separate robust study editions and commentaries not published by the church.

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