Category:Book of Mormon/Out of place in 19th century/Present day relevance

Present Day Relevance of Book of Mormon Language

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Out of place in 19th century

Book of Mormon a unique volume

In the Book of Mormon the words of many prophets are brought together for the particular instruction of our own age. Those words are presented to the world in a strange and wonderful form. Go through the whole literature of devotion and you will find no book like this. If the great Christian writings of such widely differing geniuses as the scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages, Swedenborg, and the author of Science and Health were to be printed on loose-leaf, the pages of all of these could be freely shuffled among each other without any serious disruption of style and content. They are all doing the same thing—simply commenting on the Bible—and they all use with mechanical ease and practiced skill one and the same key: the old Neoplatonic formula of "spiritual" interpretation. This is an easy game to play; it is a much harder thing, in fact, to spend many years with the scriptures without acquiring the conviction that one is privy to the deeper secrets of their interpretation. But none of these inspired writers, though claiming inside knowledge into the mind of God, will face up to the test of a prophet and speak as one having authority. In the end, the Bible is always their authority, and like the scribes and Pharisees of old they can always pass off onto it the responsibility for whatever they say.

This is not the case with the Book of Mormon. What do we find in it? A wealth of doctrine embedded in large amounts of what is put forth as genuine historical material, not devotional or speculative or interpretive or creative writing but genuine historical fact, stuff that touches upon reality—geographical, ethnological, linguistic, cultural, etc.—at a thousand places. On all of these points the book could sooner or later be tested, as Joseph Smith knew. We cannot possibly deny his good faith in placing it before the whole world without any reservation. Aside from all other considerations it is a staggering work; its mass and complexity alone would defy the talent of any living man or body of men to duplicate today. Its histories are full and circumstantial; yet sober, simple, straightforward—there is nothing contrived, nothing exaggerated, nothing clever in the whole book. For a century and a quarter it has undergone the closest scrutiny at the hands of its friends and enemies, and today it stands up better than ever. Let me illustrate how very recent findings have vindicated the Book of Mormon on two broad and general themes.[1]

Increasing relevance of the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon draws us the picture of another and totally different type of society which has become a historical reality only within the last thirty years or so. It was once thought that the world which Homer described was purely the product of his own inventive genius. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, the shrewd and observant English scholar and traveler Robert Wood had the idea of writing "a detailed work in which similarities of the cultures exhibited in the Old Testament, in Homer, and in the Near East of his own day should be collected, and prove that a 'Heroic Age' is a real and recurrent type in human society."3 Wood died before he could produce the work, and it was not until the 1930's that Milman Parry showed that what is called heroic poetry is necessarily "created by a people who are living in a certain way, and so have a certain outlook on life, and our understanding of the heroic will come only as we learn what that way of living is and grasp that outlook."4 Then Chadwick showed that epic poetry cannot possibly be produced except in and by a genuine epic milieu, as he called it—a highly developed, complex, very peculiar but firmly established and very ancient cultural structure.5 How ancient may be guessed from Kramer's recent and confident attempt to describe the culture of the earliest Sumerians in detail simply on the basis of the knowledge that they produced a typical epic literature. Knowing that, one may be sure that theirs was the same culture that is described in epic poetry throughout the world, 6 for epic cannot be faked: innumerable attempts to produce convincing epics by the creative imagination are almost pitifully transparent. Now one of the books of the Book of Mormon, the book of Ether, comes right out of that epic milieu, which it faithfully reproduces, though of course the world of Joseph Smith had never heard of such a thing as an epic milieu. Here is a good test for the Book of Mormon. It is but one of many—all awaiting fuller treatment, and none as yet settled with any degree of finality. But the mere fact that there are such tests is a most astonishing thing. That one can actually talk about the Book of Mormon seriously and with growing respect after all that has been discovered in the last 125 years is, considering the nature of its publication, as far as I am concerned, in itself ample proof of its genuineness.

But the Book of Mormon was not meant as a sign and a wonder to an unbelieving world; though an angel from heaven were to declare it, we are told, the world would not believe. It was meant to give instruction to those who should believe in these last days. It is a book for hard times and for great times. I have always thought in reading the Book of Mormon, "Woe to the generation that understands this book!" To our fathers, once the great persecutions ceased, the story of the Nephites and the Lamanites was something rather strange, unreal, and faraway—even to the point of being romantic. The last generation did not make much of the Book of Mormon. But now with every passing year this great and portentous story becomes more and more familiar and more frighteningly like our own. It is an exciting thing to discover that the man Lehi was a real historical character, a fact that can now be established from secular sources with a high degree of probability, but it is far more important and significant to find oneself in this twentieth century standing as it were in his very shoes. The events and situations of the Book of Mormon that not many years ago seemed wildly improbable to some and greatly overdrawn have suddenly become the story of our own times, when we see and shall see the words of those prophets who speak to us from the dust fearfully and wonderfully vindicated.[2]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 24, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 24, references silently removed—consult original for citations.

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