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Religion Library: Mormonism

Sacred Texts

Written by: Stephen Taysom

The first version of the second canonical text, The Doctrine and Covenants, was  published in 1833 as A Book of Commandments and contained sixty-five revelations received through 1831. The utterances address day-to-day business matters within the nascent sect as well as more abstract matters of Church doctrine. The revelations were arranged chronologically, without commentary. Smith seems to have been more concerned with obtaining directions suitable for the moment  rather than ensuring theological clarity or consistency.

In 1835 a further compilation of revelations was published with the title of The Doctrine and Covenants.  It was presented to the Church members for acceptance and thus officially canonized.  Since then, additions to the revelations to Joseph Smith and his successors, the presidents of the Church, have resulted in steadily expanding compilations under the same title.

The Pearl of Great Price, by far the shortest of the four canonical works, brings together "Selections from the Book of Moses," "The Book of Abraham," "Joseph Smith-Matthew," "Joseph Smith-History," and "The Articles of Faith." It was first published in Liverpool in 1851 in response to requests from new converts and later adopted officially.

The section on Moses consists of inspired expansions of the Old Testament account of Moses, while the Abraham text likewise fills out existing narratives from the lives of the patriarchs. The latter has for many years been a point of controversy, the major issue at stake being the relationship between Smith's translation and Egyptian scrolls found inside several Egyptian mummies purchased by Smith in the 1830s. The question is not likely to be resolved.

The fourth work of Mormon scripture is the Bible, which played a crucial role in the creation of the other three texts in the canon. Smith had a much more open conception of the Bible than his contemporaries and viewed his prophetic authority as license to revise the Old and New Testaments.

In producing additional scripture, and using the biblical narrative as a point of departure, Smith reinforced biblical authority while also undermining it. He placed himself inside the biblical narrative, forming a human link between diverse scriptural texts. He combined literal with metaphorical interpretations. He also resisted the idea of a revelation or scriptural text ever being in a final, unalterable linguistic form that would close the canon.

Study Questions:
1.     How do Mormons define scripture? Why is it an “open canon”?
2.     What are the four books most utilized by Mormons? Describe each of their central teachings.
3.     What is the central narrative to The Book of Mormon? Why is the book contested?
4.     How did Smith understand biblical authority?


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