I was born a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the so-called Mormon Church), descended on both sides from ancestors who joined the church in its earliest days. All of which means, with respect to my own membership in the Church and adherence to its teachings, absolutely nothing. Every faithful member must obtain his own testimony, or witness, of the Church and its teachings.
The basis of my own testimony, as it is for the testimonies of many others, is the Book of Mormon. This book was published by Joseph Smith, the first prophet—I do not say “founder”—of the Mormon Church, when he was a young man of twenty-four years. He claimed that he did not write the book, but rather that he translated it, by the power of God, from golden plates that had been delivered to him by an angel. The angel, named Moroni, was in life a prophet in ancient America. His father, another prophet named Mormon, wrote most of the book as the history of his people, who were an offshoot of the house of Israel. The first ancestors fled from Jerusalem a few years before the city was destroyed and its inhabitants sent into exile by the Babylonians, in 587 BCE. Led by God, they made their way to a new Promised Land, in the Americas, where they settled. Soon, however, they divided into warring factions, with the Nephites generally observing the Mosaic Law and preserving its traditions, including the promise of a coming Messiah, and the Lamanites rejecting the old ways.
The high point of the Nephite history was the appearance of the resurrected Jesus Christ, who taught the people the fullness of the Gospel and organized His church among them. There followed a long period of righteousness and peace among the Nephites, but eventually the people declined into wickedness and the society into factional conflict. When Mormon was a young boy, war broke out between the Nephites and the Lamanites, and it continued on and off with genocidal ferocity through the rest of his life. He was a political and military leader as well as a prophet, and he could see the final destruction of the Nephites coming, so he gathered together all the people’s records and labored to condense them into one book. He wrote the book on golden plates—gold does not corrode—because he intended to hide it in the ground until God in His own time should bring it forth, to remind the house of Israel of His covenants with them, and to convince all the peoples of the earth that Jesus is the Christ. Unfortunately, Mormon was killed in battle before he could finish his book, so his son Moroni was left to complete it and hide it away, sometime around 420 CE.
The Book of Mormon made Joseph Smith famous, or infamous, by giving material form to his claim to divine revelation. Without it, he would perhaps have been one of the many self-professed prophets who might gather a few followers, but who otherwise are generally ignored. With it, he could be—and indeed he was—vilified as a fraud or dismissed as a madman, but he could not be easily disregarded. The popular appellation for the Prophet and his followers, “Mormons,” clearly demonstrated what it was that stirred the interest, along with the suspicion, of outsiders. No sooner was the book published than newspaper articles about the “gold bible fraud” appeared, and these were followed by books and pamphlets attacking the Prophet as an impostor. For his part, he held that the book proved “that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old; Thereby showing that he is the same God, yesterday, today, and forever.”1
I recognize that everything about the Book of Mormon—both the story the book itself tells, and the story that Joseph Smith tells about how it came to be—can appear as strange and even outlandish. They do not fit the rationalist and materialist sensibility of modern man. Ironically, the book itself refers to this problem: Nephi, the first great prophet in it, says that when his writings shall appear, many will reject them saying, “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible,”2 while Moroni, the last prophet in it, says that his work will come forth at a time when people will “deny the revelations of God, and say that they are done away, that there are no revelations, nor prophecies, nor gifts, nor healing.”3 Because it is so strange, the Book of Mormon has become one of those books that many people dismiss without ever reading it. They assume that it must have been written by Joseph Smith, or by someone else and then appropriated by him. At the same time, many of these same people will confidently affirm that the Bible is the word of God, even though it is no less full of stories about prophets and divine revelation, and little is known for certain about how and by whom it was originally compiled. Apparently it is easier to believe the words of ancient prophets than modern ones.
I have some sympathy for this reaction; to a degree, even though I grew up in the LDS Church, it was how I felt about the Book of Mormon when as a teenager I first thought seriously about what I really believed. I did not simply dismiss the book, however, but actually read it, in part, as I remember, to fulfill some kind of requirement for the Mormon religious life award in Scouting. At the same time, in Seminary—an early morning religious education program for high school students—I was studying the life of Joseph Smith, so I knew something about his education (or lack thereof) and early life experiences. I also had heard numerous times the counsel of Moroni—“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”4—so I tried it out. At first nothing happened, but then one day, walking home after playing tennis, with my mind wandering, I received an extremely strong impression—so strong that I still remember it quite clearly—that Joseph Smith did not write the Book of Mormon, and it was exactly what he said it was, an ancient book of scripture that he had translated by divine power. At the time, I had not heard of theories that the Book of Mormon was written by someone else of Smith’s day, but on examination they are no more convincing than the theory that Smith himself, with his few months of formal education, wrote it: no one ever claimed to have actually written the book, and no original source has ever been found.
I have read the Book of Mormon a number of times since my first experience with it, and each time I have discovered new things that deepen my understanding and strengthen my testimony of it. I mention only one small example. The second or third time I read the book, I found the last part of it to be quite ragged, with a number of passages that seemed to bring the book to a close, only to be followed by more text.5 For some time this section of the book bothered me, until I realized that I was looking at it wrong. I was not reading it sufficiently literally, as the work of Mormon and Moroni. I needed to ask what was going on in their lives as they wrote this section. When I looked at it this way, the solution to the problem immediately appeared, and it made me feel personally close to the two ancient prophets. They were fighting in the great war against the Lamanites that would eventually lead to the destruction of the Nephite people. Every time they faced a battle, they had to assume the worst, that they would be killed, so they had to conclude their book and hide it. They could not leave it to be found by the Lamanites, who would undoubtedly destroy it. When they survived a battle, they could recover their book and continue writing, until the next battle loomed. If Joseph Smith had really written the Book of Mormon, the ragged ending would have been a subtly brilliant literary device, although to the best of my knowledge he never drew attention to it.
For me, the most important effect of the Book of Mormon has been to increase my understanding of, gratitude to, and love for the Savior, Jesus Christ. It includes, in the book of 3 Nephi, what deserves to be recognized as a fifth Gospel, different from but complementary to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament. Like these, it tells the story of Jesus’ birth, teachings, passion, and resurrection, but it does so from the point of view of the Nephites in the Americas. In this way, it affirms even more powerfully than they the universality of the Savior’s mission. The Book of Mormon also contains what I consider to be the most moving explanation of the Savior’s atonement in all of Scripture. It comes in a sermon by the prophet Alma, who in his younger days was a rebel against the church, and had something of a Paul-on-the-road- to-Damascus conversion experience, so he knew first-hand the need for repentance and the atonement. As he explains it, the Savior would “go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled, which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance.”6
Calling the Book of Mormon “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion,” the Prophet Joseph Smith claimed that “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”7 That has been my experience. There are many great books, and, life being short, no one can read them all. I would say, however, that it would behoove anyone to read, and seriously consider, this particular book.
1 Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. Brigham H. Roberts, 2nd ed., Rev., 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974) 1: 65. (Doctrine and Covenants 20: 11-12.)
2 2 Nephi 29: 3.
3 Moroni 9: 7.
4 Moroni 10: 4.
5 See 3 Nephi 29-30, Mormon 3: 17-22, 5: 8-24, 7: 1-10, 9: 31-36; Ether 4-5; 12: 6-41; Moroni 10: 2-34.
6 Alma 7: 11-13.
7 History of the Church, 4: 461.
Posted October 2011 on FairMormon.org
Roger M. Barrus is Elliott Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, where he has taught since 1982. He received his bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Michigan State University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Government from Harvard University. He has published articles and contributed book chapters on American government and politics, American foreign policy, and political philosophy. He has co-edited two books on American government. He reviews books on Mormonism and Utah for the Western Historical Quarterly, and recently posted a long essay on Mormon history and Utah politics on Square Two. His most recent publications are translations (with a colleague in the Classics Department) of Plato’s Gorgias and Protagoras. At present, he is working on Dante’s political philosophy and his Comedy. Barrus fulfilled a mission for the LDS Church in Spain, and has served as a Sunday School teacher, elders quorum president, bishop, high councilor, counselor in a stake presidency, and counselor in a mission presidency. He has taught an Institute class since 1998. He was one of a small group of educators and business people who founded Southern Virginia College, in Buena Vista, VA, as an independent four-year institution, dedicated to serving the LDS community.