RELIGION LIBRARY

Mormonism

Origins

Sacred Texts

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.

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.

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