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Religion Library: Mormonism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Stephen Taysom

The concept of scripture is central to Mormon history and theology. It is one of the pivotal areas of differentiation and contestation between Mormons and other groups. The basic definition of scripture within the Mormon canon is that which is spoken or written when moved upon by the Holy Ghost. In conjunction with the Mormon belief in continual revelation, this broad definition of scripture leads to the principle of an open canon; scripture is never final or complete.

At the same time, however, the corpus of authoritative writings rests on a relatively fixed set of four books: the Bible (a Church-produced King James Version with Mormon annotations is the preferred version), The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. Generally speaking, Mormons understand scripture as encompassing these four "standard works" as well as official pronouncements and sermons by general authorities of the Church.

The idea of an "open canon," then, refers mainly to the belief that Church leaders receive divine inspiration and that their utterances are considered equal in authority to existing canonized texts. It also implies that scripture is an expansive, open-ended category that always exceeds known, existing texts. In practice, Mormon history has received far more scholarly attention than Mormon texts. There are many issues surrounding the composition and usage of Mormon scripture that have not been adequately addressed.

The Book of Mormon gave Mormons their unofficial name and set them apart as a distinct religious community. Joseph Smith and a number of witnesses reported that Smith translated the book from a set of gold plates that he found in a hill near his home in Palmyra, New York. The translation proceeded by inspiration. Smith did not know the language on the plates, referred to in the text as "reformed Egyptian." The book was published in 1830 and made Smith a minor national figure. Smith claimed that he returned the plates to the angel Moroni when the translation was complete.

The central narrative of The Book of Mormon is the story of Lehi and his family, who fled Jerusalem around 600 B.C.E. and travelled across Arabia before constructing a boat and sailing to a promised land. The bulk of the book tells of the family's struggles in their new environment (which traditionally has been understood as America) as they went through cycles of war and peace, wealth and poverty. Lehi's descendants formed two opposing groups, Nephites and Lamanites, who were often at war with one another. The climax of the narrative involves a visit from the resurrected Christ to Lehi's descendants.

The Book of Mormon has always been a heavily contested text, and from the beginning many have embraced or discarded it without having read it. Thus it has always had a strong iconic function, viewed as representing either Smith's prophetic gifts and divine calling or his madness and fraudulence.


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