As with the Old and New Testaments, here are my suggestions for this year’s study of the Book of Mormon. (Edit for newcomers: Who am I and why do my suggestions have any merit?)
First, there is a lot of material written on the Book of Mormon, and a lot of it is now available online, between the Maxwell Institute (including the Hugh Nibley library), BYU Studies, and the Religious Studies Center. A lot of this material consists in either articles (shorter) or books directed at narrow sections or topics, like King Benjamin’s Speech or Warfare in the Book of Mormon or Isaiah. I’m not listing those specific kinds of treatments, but will refer to them as the year goes on in my Gospel Doctrine posts. I used to run a database of those resources, organized by book/chapter/verse, but ran out of time to keep all the links updated and add material. Eventually, the out-of-dateness got embarrassing, and I took it down, but it’s archived here. Several people/groups have put it to good use since, so it lives on, in a way.
Second, I’m keeping this mainstream, traditional, and high quality. That’s obviously subjective, and it rules out a lot. You’ll notice there’s little here that’s “devotional.” That is, I believe we need to study the Book of Mormon deeply, not venerate it as a fetish with big leather pretty editions that we don’t actually read, or short, cheesy, shallow expositions. Devotional is not necessarily a dirty word, but there’s good devotional and there’s “fried fluff” and theological Twinkies. The Mormon market consumes far too much of the latter, and demand drives supply.
The Short List (no particular order)
- Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon (Oxford Press, 2003), Amazon link.
- An excellent overview of the coming forth, translation, reception, and controversy of the Book of Mormon, and its contents.
- Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford Press, 2010), Amazon link.
- Hardy is a close reader, bringing out literary connections and implications, while demonstrating the complexity of the text.
- Grant Hardy, Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon (UofI Press, 2005), Amazon link
- See Other Ways to Read below, #1.
- Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem (Maxwell Institute, 2004) Amazon link. Maxwell Institute link.
- The best single source for understanding the ancient Near Eastern background and setting of Lehi’s family. This is solid work.
- John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (FARMS/Deseret Book, 1996), Amazon link.
- For some background on Sorenson, this book, and the two Ensign articles that preceded it, see his experience with Correlation here.
- James Faulconer, The Book of Mormon Made Harder (Maxwell Institute, 2014 ), Amazon Link.
- Like his other books in the Made Harder series, this is mostly thought-questions about the reading, and is really excellent work. This is the only book here that follows the order of the Book of Mormon, book/chapter/verse, with something for everything.
Learning about the Book of Mormon changes how I read and understand it. These books give very solid grounding in the background, literary complexities, controversies, content, and mainstream interpretations of the Book of Mormon.
Other Ways to Read
Many of us have read the Book of Mormon a lot, and it can be a challenge to approach it differently. Let me suggest a few ways to make it new and interesting again.
- Try Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition. He has changed the format to bring out literary parallels and distinguish poetry from prose. Moreover, it does away with the break-every-verse-into-its-own-thought, and offers occasional footnotes, commentary, and introductions. Minimal as it is, it’s the closest thing we have to a Study Edition of the Book of Mormon.
- Pick up an 1830 reproduction Book of Mormon, care of the Community of Christ (formerly known as the RLDS Church), and experience it in “classic” or “original” format.
- EDIT: I’m told this may be a higher quality reproduction.
- Write your own paraphrase, as I did here for Alma 32, using Webster’s 1828 dictionary, close reading, the KJV, and my suggestions and cautions in the latter part of this article.
- Basically, work through it verse-by-verse, putting a verse at a time in your own words. Then read through 8-12 verses at a time, and see if it flows and makes sense. If not, you’ve missed something.
- Or try this one done by a BYU prof, and be prepared to enjoy, disagree, and take a grain of salt.
- Go through and reformat the text yourself, as Ardis did (see here and here ).
- EDIT: Nathan R (a friend of mine) has created Word files with the Book of Mormon text assigned to different styles, allowing easy reformatting. See here for discussion and links to the files.
- EDIT: Since the punctuation in the Book of Mormon was added by the printer, feel free to repunctuate it yourself if it makes more sense. Grant Hardy provides several examples of where this makes better sense of the text. Nathan R. has a word doc with all punctuation and sentence-initial capitalization removed, page here.
- Or, go back to your mission language or a language you studied. Spanish is pretty easy.
- Try listening to it instead of reading it. This link is a direct download from lds.org of Book of Mormon audio files.
- EDIT: Also, I just went and checked out BookofMormonCentral,
a new thing out of BYU (I think, albeit unofficially)(nope, not a BYU thing) that looks promising, though still in Beta. Check out the reading demo here.
The point is, get involved with it somehow, so it gets into your brain a different way. Audio. Different format. Different language. Read it in a different order (Ether first, then Mosiah, then the Small Plates?). Take notes (see my 3-part series on note-taking suggestions here.) Read it out loud.
The vast majority of Book of Mormon commentaries just regurgitate current Mormon doctrinal understandings back at you instead of reading the text closely and allowing it to challenge and change us. The one real exception is Brant Gardner’s 6-volume commentary Second Witness (Kofford Press), Amazon link to 1 Nephi volume, the first in the series. Reviews are positive from across the spectrum. My Mom taught an adult class on the Book of Mormon, working through it carefully in six years, using Gardner’s commentary and Hardy’s Understanding. Gardner assumes a mesoamerican setting, and looks for Mesoamerica in the Book of Mormon, not vice-versa. This isn’t apologetics, but exegesis using a particular cultural and linguistic setting. That said, speculative commentary (as such cultural and linguistic commentary must be) makes up a small part of the overall, so don’t let that turn you off.
EDIT: I want to mention one very unusual “commentary” of sorts, a sci-fi adaptation and retelling of the Book of Mormon by Orson Scott Card, the Homecoming series. It follows the Book of Mormon quite closely. He was actually accused of plagiarism, and his tongue-in-cheek response was, “you can’t plagiarize history.” What’s interesting is how it brings out potential motivations, conflicts, and other bits. Like I said, it’s not a commentary in the traditional sense, but it does make you think about the Book of Mormon differently.
Coming Forth, Translation, Publication, and Text
- Mackay and Dirkmaat- From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (BYU Religious Studies Center/Deseret Book, 2015), Amazon link
- Richard Turley and William Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Deseret Book, 2011)- Amazon link.
- Turley is well-known from his Church history materials.
- Matthew Brown, Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth (Covenant, 2003), Amazon link
- Brown had a talent for turning up interesting bits, before his untimely death.
- Brant Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Kofford Press, 2011), Amazon link
- Gardner shows up on this list again. If you’re interested in issues of tight vs loose translation, how it was done, this book makes a good argument.
- Don Bradley’s book The Lost 116 Pages: Rediscovering the Book of Lehi,(Kofford, ??)
- Alas, is not in print yet. However, see some of his work on it here.
- If you want to get into the nitty gritty of the text, you’ll need Royal Skousen’s various works, like these.
- For an overview, however, you can read Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of Mormon from the MI, here. Recommended.
- Also, the Joseph Smith Papers Project has made quality photographs of the Printer’s Manuscript, 1830, and other editions available here online. “The first volume of the Documents series covers the time period of the translation. The first volume of the Histories series (and the online history series) have histories written by Joseph Smith and other covering that time period.”
- John Sorenson, Visualizing the Book of Mormon (FARMS, 1997), Amazon link, from $0.49. Used and older books are great from Amazon.
- Again, this assumes a Mesoamerican setting, which I consider the most probable. It also has the most professional academic support behind it.
- Similar is this newer volume. Val Brinkerhoff does excellent visuals, but I have some questions about any included commentary by Joseph Allen.
- John and Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (FARMS, 1999), Amazon link.
- The Encyclopedia of Mormonism has articles on each book and many of the Book of Mormon characters, seerstones, etc., and is online here.
- The closest thing to that in paper is the Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Deseret Book, 2003) Amazon link
- At 850 pages, it covers a lot. Some of the articles are great, others, not so much. I think the best thing is probably that each of the Isaiah chapters has an article devoted to it.
- Gardner’s new book- Traditions of the Fathers- the Book of Mormon as History (Kofford, 2015) Amazon link
- New, and on my shelf.
- Nibley’s class transcriptions from teaching the Book of Mormon here. (Spoiler: Hard to follow.)
- Nibley is always classic, but outdated, and it’s all online. Or will be shortly.
- John Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Maxwell Institute, 2014) Amazon link
- This is Sorenson’s magnum opus,a compilation of decades of research… which means it’s mixed. The quality depends which decade of work is being represented. See review here.
- Joseph Spencer’s books, which are being reprinted, I hear.
- Joe is a blogger, professor, philosopher, prolific writer, and all-around good guy. His books need to get back in print soon.
- The Mormon Theology Seminar books.
- This changing group has produced some very good work. You can see the rough, in-process work here; the conference editions are being published by the Maxwell Institute.
- Bradley Kramer, Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon (Kofford, 2015)
- On my shelf, heard good things, haven’t read it yet.
- Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Knopf, 2006) Amazon link.
- The sole non-LDS author, Mann’s book doesn’t directly address the Book of Mormon. However, somewhat like Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes makes you rethink the world of the Bible, this book will make you rethink the history of the Americas and its pre-Columbian inhabitants… which most Mormons will contend include the peoples of the Book of Mormon. IIRC, he doesn’t address that claim directly or indirectly.
Now go forth, and read.