The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


Sacred Narratives

Sacred narratives play a major role in Mormon thought. At the most basic level, Mormonism shares with other Jewish and Christian groups the sacred stories of the Hebrew scriptures, including the creation of the earth by God, the creation of Adam and Eve and their life in and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the story of Noah's flood.

Mormons take a slightly different approach to some of these stories than many other traditions, however. For example, in the Mormon version of the sacred creation narrative, Jesus Christ, who before his birth was the Jehovah of the Hebrew Bible, created the earth and all things on it at the direction of God the Father. Jehovah was assisted in this by other "noble and great" spirits, most notably the angel Michael. Michael, according to the Mormon narrative, was born on earth as Adam, the first mortal man.

The story of the fall of humankind, Adam and Eve's sin, is also somewhat different within Mormonism. Rather than a tragic event that had to be rectified, Mormons believe that the fall was always part of God's plan and that it was necessary in order for humans to procreate and to undergo the necessary mortal experiences that would allow them to return to the presence of God.

Mormons share with other Christians the sacred narrative of Christ's life as presented in the New Testament. Mormons tend to be conservative in their reading of scripture, and tend toward an acceptance of the stories of Jesus' life, teaching, death, and resurrection as historical truth. In this, they remain quite close to conservative Christian groups in their reading of these narratives.

Mormons differ, however, in their use of extra-biblical literature. The Book of Moses and The Book of Abraham, which are published as part of a collection of sacred texts called The Pearl of Great Price, elaborate on the biblical themes of creation. The Book of Moses recounts the creation but provides a more detailed account of events such as the Noachian flood and the events surrounding Enoch's City of Zion. In the Book of Abraham, which Smith said he translated from some ancient Egyptian papyrus fragments, the sacred narrative is taken back in time to a period in which the spirit children of God helped to create the earth, and participated in a "war" that pitted the followers of Lucifer against the followers of Jesus.

The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of divine revelations to Joseph Smith, contributes to the shaping of Mormon sacred narrative by adding a distinctly American flavor to the biblical narratives. This is particularly true of revelations that identify an area in Missouri as the place where Adam and Eve found themselves after being cast out of the Garden of Eden.

Chief among the extra-biblical sources used by Mormons to create sacred narrative is The Book of Mormon, which claims to be a record recounting the migration of several groups from Jerusalem to the Americas in antiquity, and the history of those groups as they unfolded from the time of their various arrivals until the last of these civilizations was destroyed in the 5th century C.E. The bulk of the record concerns the history of Lehi, a prophet from Jerusalem who, at the command of God, took his quarreling family and fled into the wilderness around the year 600 B.C.E.

Lehi sailed to the Americas where his family split into warring factions named after two of Lehi's sons, Nephi and Laman. The story traces the rise and fall of these civilizations, and emphasizes the evils of pride and the corresponding turn from God's true faith that such an attitude always precipitates. The Nephites, who had been the most righteous branch of Lehi's posterity, eventually succumbed to pride and sin and were vanquished and destroyed by the wild and ferocious Lamanites. These Lamanites, according to the Mormon narrative, are among the ancestors of the Native American tribes. Modern Mormon discourse draws heavily on these motifs from the narrative of The Book of Mormon, especially the oscillating process of repentance, humility, divine blessings, increased hubris, and sin that Mormons refer to as the "pride cycle."

Beyond the scriptural canon, Mormons in their temple worship employ yet another type of sacred narrative. Mormon temples are open only to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) who pass stringent tests of orthodox belief and practice. One ritual performed in the temples is called the "endowment," during which initiates are taken on a symbolic journey. Participants watch as a sacred narrative unfolds that recounts the creation of the earth, the events in the Garden of Eden, and the interaction of Adam and Eve with heavenly messengers who teach them the gospel of Jesus Christ. Initiates then participate in the symbolic entrance into the presence of God, using the knowledge presented by the angels to Adam and Eve.

A final element of Mormon sacred narrative makes use of what may be termed the pioneer epic. The story of early Mormonism is one of frequent persecution and hostility. Modern Mormons, even those outside of the United States, feel a deep sense of attachment to the sacred story of suffering and eventual triumph that follows the Mormons from their early defeats in Missouri and Illinois, their arduous and deadly trek across the Great Plains, and their settlement and prosperity in the remote American West. As with all sacred narrative, the Mormon pioneer epic is often used to contextualize and give perspective to the problems and difficulties of the present by recounting the travails and glories of the past.

Study Questions:
1.     How are Mormon scriptures similar to Christianity? How are they different?
2.     Why do Mormons believe the “fall” of humankind was necessary?
3.     What books are included in the Pearl of Great Price? What stories do they tell?
4.     Who is Lehi? How does Lehi's lineage relate to modern day people?
5.     Describe the ritual of endowment. Why is it a sacred narrative?

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