The Book of Mormon
In May 1983, I first read the Book of Mormon with any seriousness. As I did so, it struck me for the first time just how radical this book and its claims were. It came to me with great force how incredible this whole tale of Joseph Smith’s was, and how we Mormons were the only people who believed all this stuff: angels, gold plates, Christ in America.
This lightning bolt rather quickly led me to the realization that I had gone along with the idea because my parents had taught it to me, but why would anyone else? I knew people talked about prayer for this sort of thing, but wondered if you might just “want it” to be true to the point that you could “create” your own answer.
I didn’t talk about this with anyone; I didn’t explain it to my parents or anything—partly, I think, because I had the sense that I didn’t want to be biased by their reply. It was a lonely moment.
After spinning the matter in my mind, I concluded that such a momentous question (for so it suddenly seemed) would probably take many weeks of struggling and prayers to settle, at best. I knew it entirely possible that I wouldn’t get an answer, and wondered what I would do if I didn’t. And, even if I was answered, would I recognize it? And, would my worries about the implications of not getting an answer lead me to manufacture a reply?
I had, I think, decided that if this went on for a while with no reply, I’d tell my parents that I didn’t know. I pictured them as a bit sad, but not angry. And, I decided I could live with that.
So, I got down on my knees—I asked God to forgive me my sins. I explained to Him that I’d just read part of the Book of Mormon, and that I didn’t know if it was true or not. I asked Him to tell me.
I was completely unprepared for the experience that followed. I was filled with a joy, a warmth, a love, and a sensation of such overwhelming mental clarity that it left me tired and weak afterwards. I could barely stand. I wrote a brief account in my journal, and noted that I had to keep stopping for a break because I didn’t have the strength to write.
In the moment of revelation, any doubts I had were gone—I literally couldn’t entertain them, and I tried. I might as well have been trying to convince myself I wasn’t thinking. I was filled with insight, as if mental connections and understanding were being made almost too rapidly to process them.
I then asked if Joseph had been a true prophet, and the experience returned. I felt as if I was back home, after a long absence, and that I had found something that I hadn’t known was missing until that moment. I had never experienced anything remotely like this, and so knew I hadn’t created it. If I couldn’t even conceive of it, how could I fabricate it? Besides, I was too surprised.
Well, I didn’t tell anyone about that experience for some time. But everything was transformed for me, and I could never look at the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith the same way again. God knew what I needed to persuade me, and I got it.
No question or discovery has ever felt terribly threatening for long, because I learned that God was real and that Jesus was the divine savior.
I hope the reader will forgive me a brief digression, as I treat this website like a Twelve-Step Program. In that vein, I would like to say: My name is Greg, and I’m a biblioholic—a book addict.
It’s true. I would rather read than do just about anything—I’d rather read than sleep or even eat, and I have on occasion. Some people climb mountains—my brain is always saying, “Yes, that’s very pretty. But, you know, you could be home reading.”
Thus it was that several years after praying about the Book of Mormon, I discovered an old copy of Hugh Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon. I was enthralled—not because I thought it proved the Book of Mormon (doing so didn’t interest me; I already knew it was true), but because it lifted the text out of the never-never land in which I pictured it, and made it concrete and real—I saw it as a foreign time and land, which Nibley’s education made it possible to appreciate.
I became convinced that secular learning was an aid to the religious life. One thing that appeals enormously to me is the LDS concept that all truth is part of a grand whole that is internally self-consistent (even if we don’t always see how or why yet). Truth and learning is never a threat, save if our arrogance makes it so.
Science and religion
While easy to say, this wasn’t always an easy lesson to learn. I was once essentially called to repentance by a church teacher. She insisted that dinosaurs and humans lived together—my reaction was less diplomatic than it ought to have been. I can only plead that I was too surprised at hearing this to do anything but blurt out my disbelief in front of the whole class. I’d never heard such a thing before.
That evening, my parents took a remarkably “hands off” approach to the question and simply pointed me to the different schools of thought within the Church on the matter. The experience worried me initially—I was already deeply drawn to biological science, and though I didn’t know anything about evolution, I was pretty sure that humans tromping around with dinosaurs was not something that most scientists believed. But, I had no desire to study something that was somehow dangerous to faith or right belief—and, my teacher had pretty clearly communicated to me that this was the case.
Prayer reassured me again. I’d hoped for a clear answer and reconciliation—but didn’t get it. I did get, however, the assurance that studying such things was a worthy and worth-while pursuit. I didn’t need to accept what I had been told if it didn’t gel for me. And, interestingly, I learned that it was none of my business to make converts in church to whatever conclusions I came to.
It is vitally important that our learning or intellectual life not alienate us from others—or alienate others from us. But, at the same time it was humbling and thrilling for God to trust me enough to work the problem. He seemed less worried about what I concluded than how I went about it, and what I did with whatever I came up with.
So, I learned there is to be some intellectual work in the world. We need not—and, when the chips are down cannot—rely on other members or teachers to read the scriptures for us or parse doctrine. Even leaders, I was surprised to learn, do not see every detail in the same way. But, God seems to prefer it that way—the riot of a tropical rainforest, as opposed to the rigidity of a putting green. We’re to develop some independent ability—coupled with a healthy dose of humility.
My university studies reinforced these lessons, as interest and student poverty drove me to work summers as a research assistant. One summer was dedicated to intra-cellular physiology, while another focused on human, physical, and social factors contributing to injury. Medical education taught me skepticism of my own and others’ conclusions—even with the best of intentions, we could deceive ourselves or our patients. And, sometimes the issues we desperately wanted answers to in medicine were ones ill-suited to be answered definitively. Yet, such uncertainty must not paralyze us into radical skepticism about all our efforts to help the sick. We had to act without knowing everything, while remaining aware of what we did know (and how well, and why) to recognize when something better came along.
(I did not realize it then, but these were lessons that would stand me in good stead when I turned my attention to Church history, though the Lord had to point it out to me. I have discussed this elsewhere. I remain amazed at how confident or dogmatic some historians become when working with data much less amenable to the scientific method than the issues that bedevil the physical sciences and medicine.)
I had grown up on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and so one day my book addiction led me to pick up Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Unlike some, I was not particularly moved by his arguments for the existence of God, or a universal moral law—those weren’t doubts or concerns I had.
But, Lewis altered how I looked at discipleship. Even now, he still appeals to me more than most Christian apologists because of his intense self-awareness of his own fallibility and weakness, and the necessity to actively engage in the process of on-going sanctification. Reading Mere Christianity was a deeply spiritual experience in which I was taught a number of things that continue to influence how I look at—and try to live—the gospel. And, doing so took me back to the Book of Mormon, where I learned about mercy and grace and the transforming power of Christian discipleship in a way I hadn’t before.
I’ve read Lewis’ book twice since. The second time was after my mission, and the third was a few years ago. In both cases, I enjoyed rereading it—but, it didn’t seem to have more to teach me. It had taught me what it could (which was, and continues to be, very valuable), but the spiritual power and transformation of the first reading was not repeated. (Granted, this may say more about me than Lewis.)
I first read the Book of Mormon with any seriousness more than two decades ago. I’ve continued to read it ever since—I’ve lost count, but I’m sure I’ve read it cover-to-cover at least once a year for more than a quarter century, and many sections much more often. Remember, I’m an addict—I can’t help myself. I need help.
As for the Book of Mormon, the truly amazing thing to me is that more than twenty-five years later, it’s still doing the same thing. Lewis was educated in the great universities of the world. He read and spoke multiple languages. He was a subtle thinker and gifted communicator. And, yet, his book seems to have done all it can for me after only a reading or two.
By contrast, this Book of Mormon, produced by a backwoods farm boy with three years of formal education, dictated over a period of about two months—one continuous run-on sentence, no punctuation, grammatical errors and all—continues to enlighten and transform my life.
If it wasn’t helping me, I’d have quit reading it. There’s too much to read—and I love reading too much—to read things that I don’t get anything out of. Life’s too short, and no one knows that better than a book-addict in a library.
Any book that could get me to read it that many times, that often, and still benefit would have to be something special—an astonishing production, a work of staggering genius even if there were no divine claims with it at all. No other book has ever done that, save the gospels and parables of Jesus.
I may not know much—but I do know books.
I occasionally hear critics dismiss the Book of Mormon as trivial, or not terribly complex or impressive—well, there are people who don’t see what the fuss about Bach or Shakespeare is either. Such dismissiveness says far more about the critic than it does the work being dismissed.
Almost every significant spiritual experience in my life has been tied closely to the Book of Mormon—it has an uncanny ability to serve as a catalyst or driving force to insight and transformation. You run into Jesus on every page, and there’s no remaking this Jesus—you can’t water Him down, or run away, or assume He was just a clever Jewish peasant.
No, in the Book of Mormon you must confront Him as Jehovah, as the Bright and Morning Star, the Hope of Israel. And, I’ve seen revelation change me and change others.
Not bad for a nineteenth century New York farm boy. He’s done what no other writer has managed: for me, anyway. And, he keeps on doing it.
God be thanked for the Book of Mormon—that book of books. And, for all the other books too, which when read through the lens of the restored gospel also bring us closer to Home, and fill us with the joy of things forgotten.
Posted April 2010 on FairMormon.org
Gregory Smith studied research physiology and English at the University of Alberta, but escaped into medical school before earning his bachelor’s degree. After receiving his MD, he completed his residency in family medicine at St. Mary’s Hospital in Montréal, Québec. There he learned the medical vocabulary and French Canadian slang that he didn’t pick up in the France Paris Mission, and won the Mervyn James Robson Award for Excellence in Internal Medicine.
He now practices rural family medicine in Alberta, with interests in internal medicine and psychiatry. A clinical preceptor for residents and medical students, he has been repeatedly honored for excellence in clinical teaching.
With a research interest in LDS plural marriage, he has spoken to the Miller-Eccles study group, the 2009 FAIR conference, and been published in the FARMS Review on this and other topics. He and two co-authors are at work on a book chapter which examines nineteenth-century marriage ages. His science background has also led him to write about DNA and the Book of Mormon.
With twelve years of classical piano training, he is a life-long audiophile and owns far too many MP3 files. He lives happily with his one indulgent wife, three extraordinary children, and four cats.