Books to Build Faith

 

Moroni buries the plates of the Book of Mormon in what is now known as the Hill Cumorah, near modern Palmyra, New York

 

I’m sometimes contacted by people who’re experiencing doubts about the claims of Mormonism or whose spouse or father or daughter has lost faith.  I always ask what the specific issues might be, and I then try to address those or to locate colleagues or printed resources that might help resolve their concerns.

 

I think that such efforts are extraordinarily important.  Elder Neal A. Maxwell, for whom the Maxwell Institute was named, was fond of Austin Farrer’s praise of the great C. S. Lewis: “Though argument does not create conviction,” Farrer wrote, “lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.”  (See Austin Farrer, “Grete Clerk,” in Jocelyn Gibb, comp., Light on C. S. Lewis [New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1965], 26.)  

 

Farrer’s words  long served as a kind of unofficial motto for several of those who were associated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), which later became the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.  I think that motto was entirely appropriate.

 

I don’t, however, like to play only defense.  I don’t want to spend all my time putting out brushfires, playing catch-up, responding to crises. To use a very popular modern buzzword, I much prefer to be proactive.  I want to build faith to such a strength that crises will be less common, to create conditions under which such brushfires will be much more difficult to kindle.  Back to the sports metaphor:  If the defense is always out on the field, it may be able to keep the opposing team from scoring.  But if the offense doesn’t eventually come out to play, the prospects of victory will be very low.  A single error by the defense, one moment of inattention or poor execution, will be enough to lose the game.

 

One way that I choose to be proactive is to suggest a basic packet of books that I would like as many Latter-day Saints to read as possible, a set that I especially wish faltering members to be familiar with. I offer a few nominations here:

 

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981).  I was once, I confess, sitting at the back of a rather unexciting church class, rereading Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, when an academic colleague of mine from BYU sat down beside me. “Next to the scriptures,” he commented, “that’s the most faith-promoting book I’ve ever read.”

 

I’m inclined to agree with him. Richard Anderson, who earned a law degree from Harvard before receiving a doctorate in ancient history from the University of California at Berkeley, is one of the finest scholars the church has ever produced.  In this book, he subjects the Book of Mormon witnesses to meticulous examination.  They emerge from the process as sane, lucid, honest, reliable men—a fact of perfectly enormous importance because of the way their testimony directly corroborates central claims of Joseph Smith and Mormonism.

 

Brother Anderson has written many other very important articles on the witnesses—and on other relevant topics—since his book was published.  These are available online at the Maxwell Institute website, including but not limited to “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31; “Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 39–60; and “The Credibility of the Book of the Mormon Translators,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 213–37.  But Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses remains, I think, the place to start on this vital subject.

 

John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005).  In this book, the prolific polymath John W. Welch has assembled an impressive collection of original documents relating to six foundational topics in Mormon history: (1) the first vision, (2) the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, (3) the restoration of the priesthood, (4) Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences generally, (5) the restoration of temple keys, and (6) succession in the presidency (specifically the “transfiguration” of Brigham Young in Nauvoo).

 

Mark McConkie, ed., Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Knew the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003).  Mark McConkie, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, has created a vast treasury in this book and in the accompanying bonus CD of intimate views of the Prophet Joseph Smith.  The sheer volume of material is deeply impressive. (The CD includes 2,000 pages of primary-source testimonials. The book alone includes statements from many scores of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries.)  Most of the accounts included—from Joseph’s family, friends, and acquaintances, and even from his enemies—have never been published before or are, practically speaking, inaccessible to ordinary people.  But they’re very much worth the time.  Joseph Smith, as described by those who knew him, comes across as an honest, good, and sincere man.  And once again, because of the nature of his claims, that’s something very important to know and understand.

 

Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).  This is a somewhat more difficult book than the others I’ve recommended above, but, in my opinion, it’s a book that will abundantly reward the effort invested in it.

 

Grant Hardy, who holds an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University in classical Greek and a PhD from Yale University in Chinese history, has published impressively on the history of historical writing from his perch at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he’s served as the chairman of the History Department.

 

In Understanding the Book of Mormon, he turns his highly trained eye on the historical writings of Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni, treating them as distinct personalities with very different approaches to their material.  Although he himself is an active and committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the purposes of this study he “brackets” the question of whether or not they were real individuals.  Nevertheless, the extraordinarily fruitful results of his study demonstrate that the writings of Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni are indeed quite distinct—and by far the most reasonable explanation for this, in my opinion, is that they represent three real, historically different men.

 

I believe that serious and fair-minded engagement with the four books I’ve recommended is virtually certain to strengthen faith in readers who’re even slightly open to the possibility that Mormonism is true.  Mark McConkie’s compilation will build confidence in the character of Joseph Smith.  Richard Anderson’s book and John Welch’s anthology provide powerful corroboration of Joseph’s claims to revelation.  Grant Hardy’s book demonstrates, at least in one area, how very complex, rich, and internally consistent the Book of Mormon is.

 

When people contact me with doubts and problems, I don’t want merely to try to allay their concerns.  I want to build their faith so that their areas of uncertainty will shrink relative to their areas of confidence. These books—and, of course, there are others—are well suited to do just that.

 

Posted from Park City, Utah

 

 

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  • Log

    I would recommend “Passing the Heavenly Gift”, by Devner Snuffer. It explains how the nastiness in Mormonism’s past, which gives so many cause to leave the Church, is compatible with the Restoration being authentic, the Church as God’s covenant people, and how it fulfills the prophecies concerning the latter-day Church in the scriptures.

    • DanielPeterson

      I’ve received notes from several people expressing deep concern about any recommendation of Denver Snuffer’s writing. I haven’t read it myself, and can’t comment. But what I’ve heard recently, and what I’ve been told about it earlier, makes me cautious, to say the least.

      • Log

        I understand why some people would have concerns with this book in particular. I would endorse it only for those whose faith in the Restoration has been shaken, or broken, by our history.

        In the end, we all must apply the Moroni 7 test to see if a thing is good and of God by searching in the light of Christ. How we judge in this search shall be how we are judged (Moroni 7:18).

  • jeffwild

    I remember reading your similiar post on the Maxwell Institute site and at the time thought of reading these works, but never did. Thanks again for the additional push. It is great that they are all available on Kindle.
    Even if I am not yet an LDS member, I assume you feel that these are wonderful books to help understand the faith, not just build existing faith?

    • DanielPeterson

      Yes. Very much so. (Sorry for the late response!)

      And, by the way, if I can ever be of any help, feel free to contact me, at daniel_peterson@byu.edu.

  • rockyrd

    The person who recommends “Passing the Heavenly Gift” is either naive or a troll. I would not recommend that book to anyone, especially one who is trying to build faith.

  • Jeffrey Thayne

    Denver Snuffer’s works claim to be faith-promoting, but what they really end up doing is undermining the reader’s allegiance to prophets and apostles. Snuffer claims to be a fully active, believing member of the Church (and, for all I know, he is), but he elevates the personal live of communication with God so high above the priesthood line of communication with God that the latter is rendered redundant or obsolete.

    Most of the people I know who have read Snuffer’s work have begun referring to the LDS Church, the apostles, and the prophet as the “the corporate church,” and dismissing the institutional hierarchy of the Church as a corruption of Christ’s original intentions. The teachings of prophets and apostles are seen more as prudent advice without authoritative weight unless specifically confirmed by personal revelation. Snuffer helps people to come to terms with the supposed faults and mistakes of early Church leaders by devaluing the importance of the priesthood line of communication with God altogether.

    • Log

      I find it difficult to discern from your comment whether you have read the book in question.

      • Jeffrey Thayne

        I have read parts of it, but not all of it. I’m simply describing the change in attitude I’ve observed in people who read and then recommend his books. Several of them have rebutted me by saying that what I describe is not the case — but when I question them further, it is invariably revealed that their allegiance to living prophets and apostles has, actually, been compromised.

        One clear test: if, hypothetically speaking, the First Presidency were to issue a statement inviting members to stop reading Snuffers work, how would you respond?

        This is a question that doesn’t presume anything at all about Snuffer’s writing. Perhaps it’s wonderful. But let’s say that, hypothetically, for some reason, the First Presidency requested that members stop reading it. What would you do?

        I’ve never met a person who has delved into Snuffer’s work and recommended it that has said they would comply with the prophet’s request. They have all come out and said, “But it invites me to Christ, so it can’t be bad — the prophet would have to be wrong,” or, “I would follow the voice of the Spirit, because my testimony resides in Christ and not in men,” etc. Absolutely none of them have expressed a loyalty to the prophet as a spokesman for God, and all of them said that further conditions must adhere — such as personal revelation confirming that particular directive — before they would comply.

        And while it’s only a hypothetical, that hypothetical has invariably revealed to me the fact that Snuffer really does set himself up as an authority at least equal to that of the prophets and apostles (he does, after all, claim personal visitations from Christ, and that he is therefore a special witness of Christ), and that, at best, he elevates the personal line of communication with God over the priesthood line of communication with God (or, at least, inadvertently communicates that attitude to his readers).

        • Log

          So, like the Book of Mormon, Snuffer’s books need not be read to have a binding and definitive opinion on them?

          You are condemning a book, without having read it, based upon your judgement of the character of those who have read the book?

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            Like I said, I’ve read parts of it. In everything I read, he would mingle truth with subtle, false variations of truth. Further, he would cast aspersions on the current leadership of the Church. He would make remarks that implied that he, at times, had a stronger grasp of what the Church should do than the prophets and apostles leading it, implying that they at times have the “authority of the priesthood” but not the “power of the priesthood,” and that they are not taking full advantage of the spirit of revelation offer to us by God.

            He never directly said it, but would make subtle remarks here and there that implied it, and his general attitude was one of, “Because I have seen Christ, and none of the Brethren claim to have, I have as much claim to declare truth as they.”

            That, coupled with the fact that those who I know who’ve invested themselves in his writings have all-but-dismissed the prophets and apostles as having the authority to declare the will of God for the Church in our day, killed my desire to continue reading, or to recommend it to anyone else.

          • Log

            So, let me be perfectly clear.

            You are condemning a book without having read it. You refuse to specify which “parts” of the book you have read, and which, minimally, could simply have been the title off the cover from the photo on Amazon.com.

            You are condemning the character of the author of the book you haven’t read, implying that his claims, which you have not investigated and cannot cite directly, are false. You admit you are putting words in his mouth and condemning those words. You are further condemning the character of those who have read the book because they won’t answer a hypothetical question similar to “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” with a simple yes or no.

            Does that fairly summarize the content of your posts on the matter?

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            No, actually, it doesn’t at all.

          • Log

            Please feel free to correct me. I would hate to misunderstand you. I have read your comments several times and that appears to be the gist of them.

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            I mean what I said, which is not at all what you seem think it is. And, if you interpret what I said so wildly wrong, I’m not sure that anything further that I say in the name of clarification will help much. Those who dismiss Denver as the serpent he is must, in your mind, be just what you describe: hard-hearted and undiscerning, unwilling to investigate.

            Also, I reject the idea that I have to read every word of the book to know its source. I don’t have to give someone a “fair hearing” to know he’s a serpent. I can know by his fruits: the behavior and attitudes of those who idolize his words.

            And, I’ll have you know, I read a few chapters, not just the back cover.

          • Log

            John 7:50
            50 Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,)
            51 Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            Here is a review on Amazon from someone who read the entire book, that confirms everything I gathered from what I read about the book: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2SRCL1WJMIZWZ/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0615528961&nodeID=283155&store=books

            By the way, before dismissing the review, notice he gave the book 4 stars. He is a supporter of Denver’s narrative. Read the review, and tell me: where does the reviewer get it wrong?

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            (And, apparently, he goes on to explicitly state what, in the chapters I read, were only a subtext.)

          • Log

            Does reading a review of a book qualify me in any way to have a relevant opinion on the contents of the book?

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            5 reviews from 5 different people who say, “Dumbledore dies,” implies that Dumbledore actually does die in the text. So yeah, I can learn about the contents of a book by reading what people say about it.

          • Log

            Would you endorse that type of reasoning from evangelical Christians in rejecting the Book of Mormon?

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            It depends on the context.

          • Log

            Please enlighten me – what context would make such reasoning appropriate in rejecting the Book of Mormon?

          • Log

            At every point where he characterizes Snuffer’s motivations, such as “He is critical of the Church’s Apostles”. Every such statement is putting words in Snuffer’s mouth.

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            Is it true that Denver believes the current Church to be in a state of apostasy?

            For example, is this statement true: “Essentially, he theorizes that the Mormon Church has been in an expanding state of apostasy ever since leaving Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1845.”

          • Log

            Have you seen him say that the Church is in apostasy? I can’t locate it on his blog or in the books I’ve read of his. Can you help me out here?

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            Um.. read the reviews. Pretty much every reviewer comments to such an extent. If he never says it, then why are so many readers walking away with that impression? Why did *I* walk away with that impression? So clearly, even if he never states it directly, he expresses it in some way that most readers are able to grasp.

          • Log

            Once again, does reading the reviews qualify a person to have any relevant opinion on the content of a book?

            If you haven’t read a book, and haven’t investigated its claims, what qualifies you to make any assessment of its contents?

          • Log

            In fact, here’s what I have been able to find.

            “2. It is utterly untrue that I have said the church is apostate. I reject the accusation. If the narrative I suggest in PTHG is true, then the Lord’s post-Nauvoo ire is evidence the Lord is still watching over and intends to further His work with the members of this church. Those whom He loves, He chastens. (Heb. 12: 5-11; Helaman 12: 3; D&C 95: 1.) Mine is not a faithless, but a faith filled history. I’ve reiterated this before and reiterate it again. (See my post: The Traditions of Men, Part 1, April 21, 2010.)”

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            The fact is, every person I’ve know who has read his book has come to believe that, and has relinquished their allegiance to living prophets and apostles. If he does not intend that, then his book is poorly written. Either way, I cannot recommend it.

          • Log

            Having not read the book, I would say you were by default unable to issue a qualified recommendation OR condemnation of it.

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            Meh. I’ll let others decide if my opinion is legitimate, by comparing my experience of the few chapters I read with the reviews of those who’ve read the entire thing (such as, for example, the one I linked to). They match up pretty closely.

          • Log

            I’ve read the entire thing thrice. I am unable to spot an error of reasoning, of historical falsity, or scriptural citation within. Would I say the Church is apostate? No. Did Snuffer say the Church was apostate? No.

            Would I cease reading Snuffer’s books were the First Presidency to issue an edict against doing so? Sure. As everything he says is already in the scriptures or the teachings of Joseph Smith, I haven’t really got a need for him.

            Again, I would recommend the book for them whose faith had been shaken or broken upon an examination of our history. I would not recommend it for them who are satisfied with their current understandings of our history.

          • Guest

            And, just a thought as well: I interpret the Garden of Eden very differently than some. Much of what Lucifer taught Adam and Eve is factually true — but what made him the serpent was the fact that he was not authorized to teach it. I believe that had Adam and Eve waited, the same teachings and the same offering would have been extended by authorized messengers.

            I believe that much of what Snuffer teaches may be true (albeit mixed with some subtle falsehoods). But accepting factually true ideas, but from unauthorized messengers, can be just as much a form of rebellion against God as embracing false ideas altogether, and can cloud our judgment just as much. As we begin to rely on unauthorized messengers, our trust in authorized messengers begins to wane.

            So even where Denver is at times right (such as, for example, about the possibility of receiving the second comforter), I do not believe he is authorized to teach it, and thus I cannot in good conscience engage his ideas. And because he is not an authorized messenger, I do not find it worth my time trying to sift the false ideas from the true ones.

            In answer to your question, as I said before, I read a few chapters, but not the whole book. I cannot recommend it, and I reject completely the idea that I must give false messengers of truth a complete, exhaustive hearing before telling them to depart.

          • Log

            So, in fact, you have verified my reading of your comments.

          • Jeffrey Thayne

            Um… not at all. So long!

    • MountainBiker

      Thanks for this and your subsequent comments Jeffrey. I had come across Denver Snuffer and his works with interest in the last couple of weeks. Based on what you’ve said here I’m going to give them a wide berth.


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