The Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon, Take Five

And now we hear from Joe Spencer:

Prefatory Note: I’ve written out my thoughts in the form of an actual syllabus. Occasionally, I’ve inserted a note I wouldn’t put on an actual syllabus, always in square brackets, that might be helpful. My thanks go to Julie for putting this thoughtful experiment together, and for inviting me to participate.

RelA 275
The Teachings and Doctrines of the Book of Mormon

Welcome to RelA 275, “The Teachings and Doctrines of the Book of Mormon.” As the title of the course indicates, we’ll be asking this semester about the teachings and the doctrines of the Book of Mormon. Note well, though, that this isn’t a course on the teachings and doctrines of the Church. We’ll keep our focus on what the Book of Mormon itself presents as worthy of our attention, ignoring the very-natural impulse to try to reconcile the scriptures with other sources. It’s more than we can do in a semester—or even in several semesters—just to begin developing a clear picture of what the Book of Mormon is itself doing, regardless of what we might learn elsewhere.

You might be used to working sequentially through the Book of Mormon, but we won’t be doing that in this course. Our purpose is instead to try, as best we can, to get a sense for what the Book of Mormon is as a whole. We’ll spend some time looking at the general purposes of the Book of Mormon, as well as at larger structures that organize the book. And we’ll spend some time looking quite intensely at a few texts from within the book, as well as at some localized themes and interests. By the end of the semester, you should have a clear sense of what the Book of Mormon is up to—hopefully, a much clearer sense than you’ve had before.

Two things you can bring to this course will make you especially successful in it, and make it especially productive for you. First, the more familiarity you have with the Book of Mormon, the better prepared you’ll be to engage with the ideas and texts we’ll be examining in this class. If the major contributors to, characters in, and stories of the Book of Mormon aren’t terribly familiar to you, you’re likely to learn very little. It’s hard to have your ideas genuinely challenged if you don’t have some ideas in the first place. Second, the more ready and willing you are to change your mind, the better prepared you’ll be to learn in substantial ways in this course. If you think you’ve already developed an adequate understanding of the gospel, if you think the Book of Mormon must say what you expect it to say, or if you think that whatever hasn’t grabbed your attention in the Book of Mormon before must be irrelevant to the life of faith, you’ll be pretty miserable in this class. It’s hard to grow intellectually or spiritually if you aren’t ready to change your mind.


The only required textbook for this course is, of course, the Book of Mormon. I’d highly recommend, however, that you consider using an edition of the Book of Mormon with which you aren’t familiar, and which might help you to see the book in a new way. In my view, there are four editions you might especially consider picking up, any one of which would provide you with a rich experience this semester:

1. Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale University Press, 2009). — Professor Skousen has spent decades reconstructing—from the pre-publication manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, from all published editions of the Book of Mormon, and from a good dose of solid speculation—his best guess at what Joseph Smith originally dictated to Oliver Cowdery during the course of translation.

2. The Book of Mormon (Penguin Classics, 2008). — The Penguin edition of the Book of Mormon reproduces the 1840 text, the last published under Joseph Smith’s direction. It contains the original chapter breaks (which were part of the dictated text itself), and the text is organized into paragraphs rather than verses. You may have to work a bit to find where you are at any given moment in terms of today’s chapters and verses.

3. Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2003). — Professor Hardy presents the text of the Book of Mormon (taken from the 1920 edition) in a format familiar from modern publications of the Christian Bible. A number of helpful appendices and extremely useful footnotes make this an important study aid while nonetheless providing chapter-and-verse information so that you know where you are.

4. The Book of Mormon: Revised Authorized Version (Herald Publishing House, 2002). — In the 1960s, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (since renamed Community of Christ) produced a revised version of the Book of Mormon, correcting grammatical errors, removing archaic language, and otherwise orienting the book to contemporary sensibilities. It has the original chapter breaks and its system of versification.

Other, shorter pieces you’ll be required to read over the course of the semester will be made available to you online.

[A note: There’s a policy in the BYU Religion Department about not requiring non-Church-published textbooks for religion courses—though it’s possible use outside materials in the course. I’ve tried to respect that here, not making something other than the official Church-issued edition the required text.]


There are four sorts of things you’ll be doing by which I can assess your learning in this course:

1. Reading Outlines — Every week, there will be a reading assignment preparatory to our class discussions. You’re not only expected to read the material; you’re expected to produce an outline of the material you’ve read. The outline should abridge the material in a meaningful way, demonstrating that you’ve taken time to make some sense of the readings. You should conclude your outline with three questions your reading left you with. You’ll turn in eleven of these over the course of the semester. All will be graded, but you’ll be able to drop one of them.

2. Methodology Responses — Every other week, you’ll read an article or a book chapter that models a different academic approach to the Book of Mormon. These articles and book chapters will be assigned to you. After each one, you’ll have the task of writing a short response (of no more than five or six sentences) assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the approach. The tools you can develop as you read and think carefully about these studies will help you a good deal on your exegesis, described below.

3. Exegesis Paper — At the end of the semester, you’ll write a short (five-page) paper, working out a close exegesis of a Book of Mormon text of your own choosing. You’ll provide a short introduction and a brief explanation of your interpretive methodology at the outset of the paper, and then you’ll do close interpretive work. You should draw on at least a couple of outside resources of an academic nature, so you’ll want to be sure you can find such resources and consult with me as you prepare to write. We’ll often do exegetical work in class, so you should be quite familiar with exegesis by the semester’s end.

4. Exams — There will be both a midterm and a final exam. These will be focused exclusively on the material discussed in class and the texts you read and outlined in preparation for class discussions. The final exam will not be cumulative.


Week 1
Topic to be Discussed: Authors, Editors, and Contributors
Methodology Reading Assigned: Stephen Ricks, “Kingship, Coronations, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6”

[What I’ve got in mind with this topic is this: After introducing the course and going over the syllabus, etc., we’d spend the first two meetings talking about the differences between the processes through which biblical texts came to their final forms and the processes through which the Book of Mormon came to its final form, about Mormon’s and Moroni’s respective relationships to the final text of the Book of Mormon, about the variety of contributors to the Book of Mormon, and the like. And then we’d provide a very broad first characterization of the Book of Mormon: small plates, large plates, plates of Ether, and so on.

As for the first methodology reading, I think it’s important to start off with work in Hugh Nibley’s vein, since it’s familiar and interpretively informative.]

Week 2
Topic to be Discussed: The Book of Mormon is about Jesus?
Reading to be Outlined: Title Page; 3 Ne 11-26
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 1; Methodology Response 1

[What I’ve got in mind here is to begin the actual discussion of the text by raising questions about exactly what the global message of the Book of Mormon is. It’s too easy to say that it’s about Jesus Christ and that’s it. A close reading of Third Nephi reveals that when Jesus visits the Book of Mormon peoples, he turns their attention from his atonement and its implications for their individual relationships with God to a much broader set of concerns: a covenantal history within which the atonement serves a determinate role. Here we’d just introduce the idea of the Abrahamic covenant as a larger backdrop to the Book of Mormon’s main interests.]

Week 3
Topic to be Discussed: Nephi’s Project
Reading to be Outlined: 1 Ne 1-22
Methodology Reading Assigned: John Sorenson, “Culture and History in Book of Mormon Lands”
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 2

[We’d have finished the discussion of the previous week by noting that Christ’s covenantal focus in Third Nephi echoes the concerns of Nephi at the book’s outset, and so here we turn our attention back to Nephi. We’d spend this week looking in great detail at the project Nephi undertakes just in his first book: its detailed and remarkable structure, its heavy emphasis on the written and the textual, and especially its way of setting up the entanglement of Nephi’s early vision and the writings of Isaiah. This last point would especially set us up for what comes in Second Nephi, to be discussed the subsequent week.

As for the second methodology reading, I think it’s best to stay for a time in the ancient world, but now to shift from the Old to the New World setting.]

Week 4
Topic to be Discussed: Nephi’s More Sacred Things
Reading to be Outlined: 2 Ne 6-30
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 3; Methodology Response 2

[Here we’d move from First Nephi’s outline of the project to what Nephi describes as “the more sacred things” in his record: 2 Nephi 6-30. Here again the focus is the entanglement of the writings of Isaiah and the vision Nephi experienced early in his life. We’d spend some time riddling out Nephi’s interest in Isaiah as this is displayed in 2 Nephi 26-27, some time looking at the Isaiah passages more generally and what quotations from them elsewhere in Nephi’s writings suggest about his interpretive approach, and some time looking at Jacob’s very un-Nephi-like interest in atonement theology.]

Week 5
Topic to be Discussed: Moroni’s Worries
Reading to be Outlined: Morm 8-9; Eth 1-15
Methodology Reading Assigned: Samuel Brown, “Seerhood, Pure Silence, and the Language of the Grave”
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 4

[Having looked in some detail at how Nephi understands the larger covenantal aims of the Book of Mormon, we’d now move to Moroni’s similar focus, emphasizing Moroni’s more obviously neurotic relationship to such things. We’d look at Moroni’s worries especially in Mormon 8-9 and Ether 12. And then we’d look at the apparent reasons for Moroni’s handling of the Jaredite history: to tell the story of a gentile people, to be contrasted with covenant Israel, whose story is told in the remainder of the Book of Mormon. We’d look at how the Brother of Jared clearly serves as a kind of gentile exemplar of faith, a figure to be emulated by Moroni’s gentile readers.

For the methodology reading, I want to remain within the field of history for one more reading, but now with a focus on how the Book of Mormon can be read in the context of its nineteenth-century emergence.]

Week 6
Topic to be Discussed: Women in the Book of Mormon
Reading to be Outlined: 1 Ne 5; Jac 2-3; Mos 11, 20; Alma 14-15, 17-20, 56; Hel 15; Moro 9
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 5; Methodology Response 3

[Having spelled out the covenantal backdrop—the larger “familial” focus—of the Book of Mormon, we’d turn next to the question of gender, fitting this into the larger covenantal frame. Here the point would be to develop two things at once: (1) the horrible history of violence toward women that characterizes the Nephites while being (largely) absent from Lamanite gender relations, and (2) the fact that prophets both early and late within the Book of Mormon directly notice this feature of Nephite history and culture and explicitly critique it, attributing the eventual destruction of the Nephites to their gender difficulties. We’d look also to the promise of better gender relations among the Lamanites as a hermeneutic key to understanding the Book of Mormon. This would bring the first half of the semester to a kind of close]

Week 7
Topic to be Discussed: Review and Midterm
Methodology Reading Assigned: Grant Hardy, “Other Voices: Embedded Documents”

[Having dealt with history—apart, unfortunately, from reception history, which I just can’t figure out how to fit in the semester—the methodology now shifts to non-historical approaches. To start with, I’d have them tackle Hardy’s “literary” approach to the text.]

Week 8
Topic to be Discussed: The Non-Covenantal Turn
Reading to be Outlined: Mos 11-18; Alma 46
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 6; Methodology Response 4

[The motivating question of this week would be how to make sense of the Mosiah-to-Helaman stretch of the Book of Mormon, entirely non-covenantal in orientation. To set that up, we’d look in detail at Abinadi. The point would be twofold. First, it’s necessary to see how Abinadi intervenes at a point in Nephite history when the use of Isaiah and covenantal theology had taken a deeply problematic turn, making change necessary. Second, it’s crucial then to look at exactly what changes for the Nephites through Abinadi’s prophetic intervention, with the interpretation of Isaiah being fundamentally transformed from a matter of covenant to a matter of Christology. We’d give a little attention also to Moroni’s speech after Amalickiah’s rebellion, which reworks the covenantal themes pretty heavily.]

Week 9
Topic to be Discussed: Nephite Monarchy
Reading to be Outlined: Mos 1-6; 25-29
Methodology Reading Assigned: Joseph Spencer, “Conversion”
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 7

[The idea here would be to look rather broadly at the Book of Mosiah as a study of Nephite monarchy and its collapse in the face of the emergent ecclesiastical tradition under Abinadi and Alma. We’d spend some time looking at Benjamin’s complexly anti-monarchical theology, and then we’d turn our attention to the dialectic between the church and the kingdom that leads pretty quickly to the demise of the monarchy in the last chapters of Mosiah. This would be where we’d begin to spell out the larger political complexity of the Book of Mormon, dealing also with difficulties between the Nephite majority and marginalized groups in Nephite history.

As for the methodology reading, here we’d turn to theological interpretation. It’s problematic, I realize, to have students read my own work, but I think the piece I’ve selected here is probably the most sustained theological treatment of a Book of Mormon text.]

Week 10
Topic to be Discussed: The Judgeship of Alma
Reading to be Outlined: Alma 1-16, 28-35
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 8; Methodology Response 5

[I’d want to begin this week with some structural study of the whole Book of Alma (its parallel halves, telling the same story twice over with variations that are deeply significant). We’d then give our attention to two larger sequences of Alma’s “reign”: his early preaching, which results in war; and his later preaching, which similarly results in war. We’d look at some of Alma’s actual doctrines, as well, getting clear about the flavor of Alma’s theology. We’d also ask some larger questions about Mormon’s deep interest in this period of Nephite history.]

Week 11
Topic to be Discussed: The Nephites at War
Reading to be Outlined: Alma 27-28, 43-62
Methodology Reading Assigned: Jad Hatem, “The Vow”
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 9

[Here we’d look first at the events that led to the wars to which Mormon gives so much attention—preaching and conversion! And then we’d look at some of the larger implications of the war chapters: how close the Nephites were to annihilation, the persistent problems that underlay their difficulties, what we might say about Moroni’s complex “example,” the motivations behind the subsequent rise of the Gadiantons, and so on. We’d return to some of the larger structural questions about the Book of Alma, and we’d also provide some reflection on what happens in the Book of Helaman.

The last methodology reading would turn finally to comparative scripture, drawing on Jad Hatem’s attempt to put the Book of Mormon in conversation with the scriptural traditions of Buddhism and Shiite Islam.]

Week 12
Topic to be Discussed: Theologies of Atonement
Reading to be Outlined: 2 Ne 2, 9; Mos 3, 15-16; Alma 7, 12-13, 34, 40-42; Hel 14
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 10; Methodology Response 6

[At last we’d come to some stricter themes. Here we’d just begin to outline the theological tradition, Jacobite in orientation, focused on the nature of the atonement. We’d look at what’s shared throughout the tradition, as well as what’s definitely not shared. A major aspect that would have to be looked at closely would be the tension between Amulek’s theology (indebted to, but distinct from, Lehi’s) and Alma’s theology, asking what these kinds of tensions suggest.]

Week 13
Topic to be Discussed: Grace
Reading to be Outlined: 2 Ne 10, 25; Mos 2-5; Moro 10
Assignments to be Submitted: Reading Outline 11; Exegesis Paper

[Here we’d look at the doctrine of grace laid out in the Book of Mormon, in the entanglement between two passages in Second Nephi, in Benjamin’s remarkable sermon, and in the concluding words in Moroni 10. And then we’d say just a bit about Moroni 10:3-5 to bring the course to a conclusion, drastically rereading that text.]

Week 14
Final Exam!



Julie’s comment: Joe’s class is certainly ambitious! (And he escapes my wrath by devoting a week to women in the Book of Mormon; I’ll reproduce the suggested readings that I mentioned previously: Camille Fronk’s “Desert Epiphany,” Camille Williams’ “Women in the Book of Mormon,” Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Could Feminism Have Saved the Nephites?,” and Daniel Peterson’s “Nephi and His Asherah.”) And if anyone else would like to submit a post to this series, please do!

3 comments for “The Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon, Take Five

  1. Terry H
    November 19, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Between all 5 of the parts, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Thanks to all so far.

  2. Keith
    November 19, 2014 at 8:41 pm

    Joe’s brilliant. I’d like to take this course. I’m not certain I could teach this–it’s so much his. And if I did teach it, I’d want him to grade all the papers from 3 or 4 sections.

  3. November 19, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    I’ve been enjoying the whole series but I especially liked some of your thoughts here Joe. I would love to see you detail the implications from the war chapters. My second book has a chapter devoted to those consequences. It was partially inspired by Edward Luttwak’s comment that victory can be as bad for a nation as defeat. In victory all of the armies habits and behaviors, even the counter productive ones, are automatically seen as leading to that success. So I took some of the innovations for which Moroni is famous, and thought about their potential consequences. So for example, more armor costs more money, which requires more taxes, which increases the chances of rapacious officials and rebellion against them. With those ideas in mind I then noticed things I hadn’t before in Helaman that support the idea of those consequences. I did the same thing with items like additional fortifications, preemptive war and seizing additional lands (as well as additional strategic, tactical, and logistical consequences from heavier armor) and had the same results.

    I also enjoyed your comments about the Mosiah through Helaman section of the BoM. A majority of my book covers the same sections and its always good to see I’m on the right track with my analysis. Though I didn’t integrate those items into a larger theology like you did here.

    Like many I was worried about the curriculum shift, but if the classes are like the ones I’ve been seeing here I like the change a great deal. Thanks for the post. :)

Comments are closed.