October 31, 2017
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I once had a bishop who told me that if I read a chapter of the Book of Mormon everyday I would never leave the Church. I agreed with it at the time, which isn't the case now. But I can't necessarily argue against it, because I sure as hell didn't read the Book of Mormon every day, so I'm simply a validation of the sentiment. I'm sure TBMs reading agree and also feel validated. However, I did not say that I proved him right. I'm sure there is someone, if not many, out there who did read the Book of Mormon every day and still left the Church. After all, in my opinion it is one of the smokiest guns for the Church. I actually plan to read it again soon. It will be the first time I will read it from a non believer's perspective. I imagine I will feel many of the same feelings I did when I read as a believer. After all, its stories teach universal concepts of good and peace. It also promotes racist and bigoted concepts similar to the Bible. But, the fact of the matter is it changed my life and this chapter will detail my previous love for the book and how it passionately developed.
Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon the "keystone" of Mormonism, "the most correct of any book on earth", and that "a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book".1 Those are all phrases that I heard regularly in Church settings. I used them often myself, especially on my mission. What's more, I fully believed them. Even so, I did not personally read the Book of Mormon regularly, despite my best efforts to do so. In high school, I even carried a small pocket edition in my back pocket in effort to read when I had down time. That didn't work. Although I did get a lot of attention because of it. Most my friends thought it was pretty cool, but I'm sure some did some pretty serious eye rolls too. My personal scripture study habits would be better described as sporadic. I would go a few weeks or even months of daily reading and then go at least twice as long without reading.
Family scripture study was a different story. My family read from the Book of Mormon together nearly every day. The only reason it wouldn't happened was if there was an irregularity that popped up in our schedule. I mostly assumed the responsibility of ensuring it happened, at least through the week. We would read first thing in the morning before anyone left for the day besides myy Dad. He would leave for work at an ungodly hour and would skip out. Other than him, I was the first one to leave every morning so I was the one that woke everyone else up to read. We'd usually be half awake and have trouble concentrating. As such, it wasn't so much family scripture study as it was take turns reading a few verses each to say that we did it. There was the rare occasion in which one of us would ask a question or my Mom would expand on a verse. But we were almost always able to leave the house with the satisfaction of doing what we were supposed to.
At a young age, a Church leader told me when reading the scriptures, if I caught myself thinking about something other than what I was reading, that was personal revelation from Heavenly Father. In hindsight, I now realize that this is terrible advice, especially for a 13 year old with a very short attention span while reading mundane, religious text. But the sentiment and teaching was common among all Mormons and only reinforced by the common mantra of "If you want to talk to God, pray. If you want God to talk to you, read the scriptures." I can only imagine the crazy things I thought of and interpreted as revelation from God. It was extremely hard to concentrate on what I was reading. On my mission this experience was much different. In fact, scripture study almost became a form of meditation for me and I loved learning of the stories in both the Bible and Book of Mormon. It was always done early in the morning with soft, relaxing music playing in the background. I was able to think of solutions to my daily problems and worries while reading my scriptures in this situation, not too different from when I meditate now.
In August 2005, then Church President Gordon B. Hinckley issued a challenge to all of Church membership to read the Book of Mormon by the end of that calendar year. He promised those that completed the challenge would have "an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God."2 I'm positive most Mormons will remember this challenge as it was taken very seriously by many. Unofficial reading charts were released to help track your reading. President Hinckley originally said that a pace of one and half chapters a day would allow someone to finish the entire book by the deadline. As time progressed, the pace obviously increased and I remember getting more overwhelmed having decided I wanted to to complete this challenge. Most of my friends at school were doing it and my seminary teacher was hammering it as well. But I honestly believe my decision to do so was at least semi-organic within me. I had a desire to truly know the Book of Mormon was true.
Some may be questioning my choice of words "truly know the Book of Mormon was true". The word "true" likely seems vague and unreasonable. But that's the wording chosen by the Church. To demonstrate, here's a promise that is made in the introduction of the Book of Mormon:
We invite all men everywhere to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder in their hearts the message it contains, and then to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ if the book is true. Those who pursue this course and ask in faith will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost.
Those who gain this divine witness from the Holy Spirit will also come to know by the same power that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, that Joseph Smith is His revelator and prophet in these last days, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s kingdom once again established on the earth, preparatory to the Second Coming of the Messiah.1
As a missionary, I shared these paragraphs with those I was teaching — referred to as investigators — frequently. As you can see, it uses a domino effect style of thinking and everything starts with the knowledge of the Book of Mormon. Essentially, they claim that if the Book of Mormon is "true" — i.e. inspired scripture written by prophets as directed by God — then Joseph Smith must have been a prophet, and if he was a prophet then his claims to the one and only true Church of Christ must be true. Notice the complete absence of nuance in that mindset. We would teach people that if they felt good while reading the Book of Mormon, that was Heavenly Father telling them it was true. Nevermind the fact that it could just be due to the various inspiring stories and hero plots in the book. This thinking presents an enormous conundrum as billions of people have felt similar feelings reading other religious texts that have nothing to do with Mormonism. This is not official doctrine of the Church, but I've heard faithful Mormons express belief that the likes of Mohammed were inspired prophets in their time but their present day followers are misled. This is just one example of the justifications attempting to explain how other writings can lead one to feel the same way as Mormon scripture.
In the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, a prophet named Moroni explains how to reach the knowledge that Mormons seek about the Book of Mormon:
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.3
Notice that several criteria are set forth in order to get an answer about the Book of Mormon. Read the book, ponder it, pray and ask if "these things are not true" — not if they are true, but if they are not true — with "real intent" and "faith in Christ" then God will tell you. It may not be incredibly obvious from the text, but there is plenty of room for confirmation bias and circular reasoning in this promise, especially the way the Church interprets it. I was taught as a missionary that someone had to want to know the Book of Mormon is true in order to receive an answer. Apparently, that is what Moroni meant when he supposedly said "real intent". If a person prayed already believing the Book of Mormon was false, then they wouldn't get their answer. But if they were open to the idea of it being true — or even better, already believed it was true — then they could get their answer. Some people I taught would pray many times over hoping for an answer but would never get one. After shaming them by asking if they had faith and real intent, we would then ask how they felt while reading the Book of Mormon. If they felt good, we would inform them that was their answer. The entire process is fairly manipulative and makes me cringe to think that I was not just a part of it, but an advocate of it.
I did not complete President Hinckley's challenge on time, and I distinctly remember feeling guilty that I did not. I had many friends in my ward and school that did and they seemed happy with themselves for doing so. I did however finish the book in early 2006. I decided I was going to put Moroni's promise to the test. I, like my investigators on my mission, prayed many times to receive a testimony of the Book of Mormon but never felt that I got a particularly strong answer. At the time, I remembered the experiences I related in chapter 7 in gaining a testimony about the Church. I applied the same domino thinking found in the introduction of the Book of Mormon but in a slightly different order. If I knew the Church was true, I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet. If I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet, I knew the Book of Mormon was true. I remember feeling peace when coming to this realization and thinking God was answering my prayers. I now believe it was relief from the stress of potentially not knowing the Book of Mormon was true. Again, there was a complete lack of any nuance or niceties. In my mind, if one was true, they were all true.
The frequency, quality, and enjoyment of my scripture study piqued during my mission. I'm sure that most returned missionaries will say similar things. It is a mission rule to study your scriptures for an hour personally, and then another hour with your companion — the other missionary with whom you were paired — every day. Topics of study typically were supposed to be geared towards the investigators and the lessons being taught that day. As I stated above, I loved scripture study on my mission. I would deep dive into many topics I found interesting. I would cross reference verses between the Bible and Book of Mormon along with other books of scripture. Towards the end of my mission, I even started writing my own commentary, verse by verse on the Book of Mormon. I started it when I had a matter of weeks left and didn't get very far. I was convinced I would finish when I got home but it never happened.
About a year into my mission, my Mission President — an adult, retired man assigned to oversee the operations of the mission and the well being of the missionaries — gave each missionary a brand new copy of the Book of Mormon. He challenged us all to take the copy and read it cover to cover highlighting any references made to Jesus Christ. Everyone in the mission participated and it was a special experience for most. For me personally, it changed the way I viewed my religion and intensified my beliefs. I loved the parables and metaphors found in the scriptures, and while looking for references to Jesus in the book, I got profoundly metaphorical. For example, the Bible refers to Jesus as the "light of the world", so I would highlight any reference to light.4 But I also started marking words like love, grace, bread, life, and any other word that I felt referenced Jesus' influence or his life. As I did this, I quickly came to realize how deeply beautiful Jesus' teachings were. It was a fiercely spiritual experience for me. I felt that I had come to truly develop a relationship with my Savior. Even presently as a secular person, I still recognize the power that was in that experience and refuse to abandon that particular copy of the Book of Mormon. It's a sacred memento of an important part of my spiritual journey.
After that, I was hungry for more and started trying to find references to Jesus that were not as apparent. When I came home from my mission, 1 Nephi chapter 11 was my favorite chapter in all of the Book of Mormon. In it, the prophet Nephi has a vision in which he sees the life of Jesus. Nephi describes Jesus' birth, baptism, and the calling of his disciples. My favorite verse in the chapter was verse 11 in which Nephi says he spoke with the Holy Ghost "as a man speaketh with another".5 Mormon doctrine puts a great amount of emphasis on listening to the Holy Ghost and being sensitive to its promptings. I could share dozens stories that I heard about people receiving a prompting from the Holy Ghost to do something they weren't planning on doing and it benefitting them or someone else. Sometimes the stories were even as dramatic as saving someone's life. The point is, Mormons strive to be sensitive to such promptings and it is a struggle for many, so the idea of talking with the Spirit as though talking face to face with another person intrigued me tremendously and I wanted to know how Nephi achieved it.
After Nephi made that claim, he was visited by an angel. It does not mention the identity of this angel which was important to me for some reason. In the Bible, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and informs her that she will give birth to Jesus.6 Mormons teach this was the angel of the biblical prophet Noah.7 This teaching is unique to Mormonism and it must have made me feel entitled to know who this particular angel was that appeared to Nephi. So I scrutinized that entire chapter and I prayed about it. I can't remember exactly how I reached a conclusion, but I know it was largely based in assumption and emotions. I thought the angel was Jesus Christ himself and Nephi simply didn't realize it. This idea portrayed a strong message to my 20 year old, missionary self: if I became as sensitive to Spirit and could talk with it seemingly face to face as Nephi did, I would eventually be able to see Christ. I quickly made it my life's mission to make sure that happened.
In traditional Mormonism, there seems to be an understanding that only the present prophet and other high up authorities can see and speak with Christ, even though no president of the Church has explicitly claimed to see Christ for quite some time. However, there is a new sect or movement within Mormonism that was, the way I understand it, founded upon this idea that everyday people can see Jesus too. It is called the Remnant Movement and was started by a man named Denver Snuffer who claims to have seen Jesus. I was already on my way out of the Church when the Remnant started gaining momentum, but had I known about their beliefs sooner, they undoubtedly would have resonated with me.
Many are likely thinking that I fell a long way religiously to go from believing I could converse with Jesus to not believing in his divinity whatsoever. Perhaps there are some fellow atheists reading and wondering if I'm embarrassed to admit such grandiose beliefs. I have found that many who have left Mormonism have come from similar places with similar beliefs and ideas. It honestly is not uncommon. As far as being embarrassed, I likely would have been about a year ago. But as of right now, I believe these experiences play such an important part of the person I am today and where I am in life, why should I be embarrassed of them? I believed with all of my heart that I was going to see Jesus one day and now I don't believe in deity. I was so touched by the content of a book that I now find racist, bigoted, and deceiving. But had I not had these experiences, I would not feel as strongly about my convictions as I do now. It is all part of the intricacy that is my lived experience, and, to me, it is beautiful.