“‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.” Or so Mark Twain has it in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar. I prefer the definition I heard once from John W. Welch: “A classic is a book that wears you out before you wear it out.” Through four decades of studying and teaching British and American literature, I have encountered many classics that I will never wear out. I keep returning with new eyes to authors such as John Milton, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. Of all that I have ever read, the classic that has engaged me the most over a lifetime of learning is the Book of Mormon. Not only do I find the book inexhaustible, but through study and faith I continue to gain insights that are remarkable, even stunning.
I was first exposed to the Book of Mormon in a home where it was loved and treasured by my parents. However, only in my later teenage years did I finally read the book in its entirety. I took to heart and tested Moroni’s promise: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). While I had never doubted that the Book of Mormon was God’s word, I was grateful for the intimations I received of its truthfulness.
During a mission in my early twenties, I came to realize that my testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon was also a testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith who translated the book “by the gift and power of God” (Title Page). My testimony has been further strengthened by prayerful reading of additional scriptures brought forth through Joseph Smith, including the inspired translation of the Bible as well as the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. As I have taught these scriptures in adult Sunday School classes, sessions of early morning seminary for youth, and Institute of Religion classes, I have had repeated confirmations by the Spirit that Joseph Smith was an instrument in the Lord’s hands. I accept, as the apostle Paul taught, that “the things of God knoweth no man, except he has the Spirit of God” (JST 1 Corinthians 2:11). Other whisperings of the Spirit regarding the heaven-directed calling of Joseph Smith have come during repeated visits to sacred places associated with the Prophet, including Kirtland, where my wife and I were missionary tour guides at the Historic Kirtland Visitors Center, and Nauvoo, where I taught at the Joseph Smith Academy and also served as an ordinance worker in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple.
While I was regularly engaged with the Book of Mormon during the first decades of my adult years, I somehow had not connected this engagement with my professional pursuits. That changed when a colleague in the English Department at the University of North Carolina proposed that he and I write a book on the Book of Mormon as literature. I had studied the Bible as literature in college, yet I had never before thought of the Book of Mormon in a literary way. When my colleague’s publisher turned down the proposal, that ended plans for a collaborative venture. However, having seen new dimensions of the Book of Mormon, I continued exploring literary aspects of the book with increased enthusiasm. As I did so, I experienced many enlightening impressions.
A major university press was interested in my manuscript, but it became clear from readers’ reports that I had striven unsuccessfully to write simultaneously to two quite different audiences. Realizing that, I changed my focus to a Latter-day Saint audience, with the result being the publication of Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon (Deseret Book and FARMS, 1997). I did, though, have a good experience in communicating with a non-Latter-day Saint audience about the Book of Mormon. I presented at a South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference a well-received paper on the Book of Mormon as a New World epic. The chairman of the program, a Jesuit professor of English at Georgetown University, expressed afterwards his desire to include a segment on the Book of Mormon in his American literature course.
At another time, while flying to a scholarly conference, I informed a colleague from Texas that I was working on literary aspects of the Book of Mormon. When he asked for an example, I recounted Lehi’s dream about the tree of life and elaborated upon it. In ways I hadn’t seen before, my colleague proposed that the tree of life dream sets up much of the Book of Mormon that follows, including the major journey motifs. He was right. Coming early in the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s dream vision initiates the invitation to come unto Christ that permeates throughout the Book of Mormon. In his vision, Lehi traveled through darkness to come to a major symbol of Christ, the tree of life whose fruit did “exceed all the whiteness” Lehi had ever seen (1 Ne. 8:11). Not content to partake of the fruit by himself, Lehi as a type of Christ beckoned to his wife and children and said “unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto [him], and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit” (1 Nephi 8:15). Seeking a similar vision, Lehi’s son Nephi learned from the Spirit of the Lord that he would see “the tree which bore the fruit which thy father tasted” and afterward would “behold a man descending out of heaven” and would “bear record that it is the Son of God” (1 Nephi 11:7). This prophetic view was fulfilled by the resurrected Savior’s appearance to the Nephites. Echoing Lehi’s initial appeal, the prophet Alma preached that the Lord mercifully invites all persons to come unto Him and “partake of the fruit of the tree of life” (Alma 5:34). Later, Alma led his auditors through the steps of faith, showing how eventually they could partake of that “which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst” (Alma 32:42). This suggests a connection between the tree of life and a sacramental experience—which we remember when we read of the resurrected Savior’s administering the sacrament to the children of Lehi gathered at the temple in Bountiful. There the Lord’s countenance and clothing, like the tree of life, “did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof” (3 Nephi 19:25).
With President Ezra Taft Benson, I have had confirmed to my soul that “The Book of Mormon was written for us today. God is the author of the book. It is a record of a fallen people, compiled by inspired men for our blessing today. Those people never had the book—it was meant for us” (“The Book of Mormon Is the Word of God,” Ensign, May 1975, 63). If one were to ask if God, “the author of the book,” knew the final structure the Book of Mormon would take, the answer would surely be, “Of course.” “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). He directed both Nephi and Mormon to do things for purposes unknown to them. Nephi said: “The Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not” (1 Nephi 9:5). And Mormon averred: “I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will” (Words of Mormon 1:7). For me, as it was for President Gordon B. Hinckley, the Book of Mormon is as relevant as today’s newspaper—or better, because of its prophetic quality, tomorrow’s newspaper. I testify that the book is God’s word for us today and a second witness with the Bible that “Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations” (Title Page). It is “brought out of the earth,” Moroni prophesied, “and it shall shine forth out of darkness, and come unto the knowledge of the people; and it shall be done by the power of God” (Mormon 8:16). In the Lord’s words, it proves “unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure” (2 Nephi 29:9).
Posted January 2010 on FairMormon.org
Richard Dilworth Rust is a Professor Emeritus of English and an Adjunct Professor Emeritus of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting professor at Indiana University, Brigham Young University, the University of Heidelberg, and Berne University. His Ph.D. (1966) is from the University of Wisconsin.
Dr. Rust was the General Editor of the thirty-volume Complete Works of Washington Irving and has published mainly on nineteenth-century American authors such as Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Longfellow, Mark Twain, and Henry James as well as on the American Civil War and the Revolutionary War. Besides his book on literary aspects of the Book of Mormon, he has published in the Ensign, New Era, BYU Studies, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Colloquium: Essays in Literature and Belief, Book of Mormon Reference Companion, and two FARMS collections, Warfare in the Book of Mormon and Rediscovering the Book of Mormon.
As Elder Rust, he served in the Northern States Mission (1957-1959) and subsequently, with his wife, in the Ireland Dublin Mission (2003-2004) and the Cleveland Ohio Mission (2005), assigned to the Historic Kirtland Visitors Center. An ordained patriarch, he has served in various capacities in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including as a branch president, a bishop, and a counselor in two stake presidencies. He currently teaches a Gospel Doctrine class in Sunday School and is an ordinance worker in the Raleigh North Carolina Temple.
Dr. Rust is married to the former Patricia Kathleen Brighton. They have three children and fourteen grandchildren.
See, additionally, Dr. Rust’s chapter in Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars.