How Useful Is the Book of Mormon (to LDS leaders)?

I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book. (Joseph Smith, Documentary History of the Church 4:461)

Following the conversation about the Book of Mormon last week, I want to return and report about a little analysis that I did of the number of citations by LDS General Authorities of the Book of Mormon.

There was a suggestion that only a hundredth of the Book of Mormon was worthwhile. I tend to agree with that assessment from the ex-Mormon atheistic standpoint, but what about from the LDS standpoint? How valuable are the different parts of the Book of Mormon to believers?

Here and there in the Book of Mormon we’re reminded about how hard it is to engrave writing on metal plates, so we’re told that the records were written in Nephite shorthand (i.e. Reformed Egyptian), and only the most sacred parts were included.

And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. (Mormon 9:32-33)

Now behold, it came to pass that I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people in word, (and I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates) … (Jacob 4:1)

I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. (1 Nephi 19:6)

Yet anyone who has taken the time to read the Book of Mormon knows that it’s chock full of wars and bloodshed that don’t seem very sacred or useful to promote Mormonism. It also seems verbose in the extreme, full of trite phrases like “and it came to pass” and circumlocutions.

That list of scriptural citations by LDS leaders mentioned earlier provides us with the opportunity to objectively test that impression that the Book of Mormon is largely filler. I think it’s reasonable to use the number of citations as a measure of how useful a Book of Mormon passage is to an LDS audience. Of course some of the least used chapters may have a purpose (e.g. progressing the narrative) that doesn’t lend itself to citation. All the same, if LDS leaders have cited a chapter only a few times in history, it lends credence to the popular impression that there are parts that could have been safely left out without damaging the purpose of the book.

First I created a histogram of the number of citations per chapter. Note that the citations counted come from “speakers in LDS General Conference between 1942 and the present, and those cited by speakers recorded in the Journal of Discourses between 1839 and 1886 [, and] citations in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith“.

As you can see, many of the chapters received very few citations in all that time while a few received many.

The next chart might be a little hard to interpret, but highlights some interesting facts. I ordered the chapters by the number of citations from most to fewest and measured the running total of citations. It produced a satisfying logarithmic curve.

Here are a few remarkable facts:

  • Far and away the most cited chapter (2 Nephi 2) has over 3% of the citations.
  • The top ten chapters (4% of the chapters) have 22% of the citations.
  • The top 36 chapters have garnered over 50% of the citations. The Book of Mormon could have been one seventh as long and still be 50% as effective.
  • Half of the chapters contribute almost 90% of the citations. The Book of Mormon could be half as long and remain 90% as useful!

Here are the top ten chapters:

Book Chapter Citations
2 Nephi 2 488
Moroni 10 372
Moroni 7 365
3 Nephi 11 344
2 Nephi 9 326
Alma 34 313
Alma 5 303
3 Nephi 27 297
Mosiah 3 281
Mosiah 4 276

And the bottom 14:

Book Chapter Citations
2 Nephi 7 1
2 Nephi 14 1
2 Nephi 16 1
2 Nephi 17 1
2 Nephi 23 1
Mosiah 19 1
Mosiah 22 1
Alma 55 1
2 Nephi 20 0
Mosiah 20 0
Alma 52 0
Alma 59 0
Helaman 1 0
3 Nephi 3 0

I am amazed that in all that history, there are six chapters that have received zero citations. How useless!

Even the Bible (as far as it is translated correctly) seems more useful to LDS leaders. As I noticed earlier:

The KJV Bible has 783,137 words. The BoM has 268,163. So the Bible is cited 0.074 times per word. The BoM is cited 0.058 times per word. So word-for-word, the BoM is only 78% as valuable as the Bible in Mormonism.

It would be interesting to see a verse-by-verse analysis instead of looking solely by chapter. I suspect that there are a handful of verses that receive the most citations. A finer grained analysis might show that the truly valuable portion of the Book of Mormon is even smaller than this analysis has shown, but verse data is harder to come by (i.e. I didn’t want to do the data entry).

So aside from its role in the foundational claims of Mormonism (which has largely been supplanted in importance by the 1838 account of Joseph Smith’s first vision), It seems that LDS leaders have found only a small portion of the Book of Mormon to be of much use. The Book of Mormon is crying out for a Reader’s Digest version.

26 thoughts on “How Useful Is the Book of Mormon (to LDS leaders)?

  1. Oh I’m sorry but I couldn’t be bothered to read all that because in the end, they just change / update the Book of Mormon to suit their arguments anyway.

  2. can’t we just have a cliff’s notes version?

    srsly, though, i think the “living” D&C is most useful to the LDS leadership than is the BoM.

  3. Suz, I’m sure the analysis isn’t for everyone. I aimed it at a rather niche market. 😉

    I want to point out, however, that while there have been a few changes that make a doctrinal difference (e.g. 1 Nephi 11:18-21), most of the changes didn’t make much of a difference doctrinally. The vast majority of the significant changes were things like grammar fixes, spelling changes, and making the narrative sound less like it was being told by a backwoods farmer.

  4. By popular demand, :) here is the tl;dr version:

    The top ten chapters (4% of the chapters) have 22% of the citations.

    The top 36 chapters have garnered over 50% of the citations. The Book of Mormon could have been one seventh as long and still be 50% as effective.

    Half of the chapters contribute almost 90% of the citations. The Book of Mormon could be half as long and remain 90% as useful!

  5. Jonathan: Yes, a lot of the fixes are grammatical and spelling, etc, but let’s not forget some other significant changes such as the one from “white and delightsome” to “pure and delightsome” (see 2 Ne 30:6)

    It bothers me that this most perfect book–more perfect than the Bible–is having its narrative changed. Spelling, grammar, I can forgive I suppose, but its narrative?

    Just compared yr scripture references between my 1950 BoM and my 1981 BoM and they were the same–what was the original wording, out of curiosity?

  6. I have a list photographic facsimiles of various editions of the Book of Mormon if you’re curious about changes that have been made. (Shh! that site is kind of a secret so far.)

    And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin which which thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh. […] And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? (1 Nephi 11:18,21, 1830 Palmyra edition, emphasis added)

    Apparently, the original printed Book of Mormon was even more ambiguous about the nature of the Godhead.

  7. Great research – thanks for putting in all that work. Maybe there is someone with some data parsing skills out there who could help get the verse level data.

  8. I think most people who grow up in the Church are so used to how the Book of Mormon frames biblical passages and doctrines that they are unable to point to specific instances of where the Book of Mormon actually is shedding additional light on the Book of Mormon. And the majority of converts to the LDS Church from other Christian denominations are too unfamiliar with the Bible to do the mental exercise in reverse.

    So, by and large, most Mormons are going to be hard-pressed to identify places where the Book of Mormon is actually making a difference on biblical theology. But that doesn’t mean the stuff isn’t in there.

  9. “Shedding light on the Bible,” I meant.

    By the way, any chance of getting an email subscribe feature for follow up comments, and new posts?

  10. You’re probably right, Seth, though I think the Book of Mormon is a lot closer to Protestant theology than modern LDS theology. Aside from the purported ancient American history, the one doctrine that seems new to the Book of Mormon that I can think of are the passages that state that “God would cease to be God” if he didn’t uphold justice or if he changed. What kinds of things did you have in mind?

    BTW, if any admins are listening, the Subscribe2 plugin should allow us to subscribe by email, perhaps boosting participation a bit.

  11. Number crunching… We all know that large chunks of the Bible feature in the Book of Mormon, but does that feature in the calculation at all? 3 Nephi is largely to be found in Matthew. NB – Actually GAs talk about the Book of Mormon frequently.

  12. hjhj,

    That’s a valid point. If anyone could provide a list of chapters that are primarily biblical quotations, I’ll recalc while leaving those out. I suspect that it wouldn’t affect the results much because the chunks aren’t really that large.

    Also, define “frequently” and “talk about”.

  13. Boring. Can’t believe so many of you “Non-believers” waste so much of your time with stuff like this. If you don’t want anything to do with the LDS faith, then why allocate so much of your time talking about it…?? You guys are plain silly, and retarded.

  14. Eric — also note that this is a blog on the big, wide Internet. To put this in perspective, keep in mind that there are thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of hobbyist blogs on obscure topics you’d probably find incomprehensibly boring.

    If you find this topic so boring, you might want to ask yourself why you bothered to read it (and leave a comment about how boring it is). Do you waste your time making this sort of comments on all of the blogs out there that you find uninteresting? I don’t waste mine like that. To people whose interests I find dull, I say: “To each his own.”

    And, seriously, if you realize that you do find this topic interesting, you’re certainly welcome to contribute substantive comment. But you’re not welcome to call other commenters “silly and retarded.”

  15. “What decade are we in that its considered appropriate to use ‘retarded’ as a broad pejorative?”

    My guess is that eric is still in his second decade, or a very short way into his third…

  16. If you want really low stats, have a look at some sections of the D&C and POGP. The Book of Moses must get the lowest stats out of all the books. I wouldn’t be surprised if certain sections of the D&C have never been quoted.

    p.s. Regarding “retarded”, it’s not appropriate IMHO. It’s a disability.

  17. “If anyone could provide a list of chapters that are primarily biblical quotations, Ill recalc while leaving those out.”

    Off the top of my head, a lot of 3 Nephi is Matthew, and Isaiah in 1 Nephi 20 & 21, 2 Nephi 7,8, 12-24 (that’s 14/33 chapters, nearly half) – there are probably other bits in there. But they are large. And that’s only the chapters marked “compared X [in the Bible]”

    For obvious reasons, the original material will be quoted.

    “Also, define frequently and talk about.”

    Pure guesstimate here, but it seems like about half the talks mention the Book of Mormon, if only in passing. The story of Helaman’s warriors is one that get mentioned, as do stories about the origin of the BoM.

    I think if you went back around 60 years you’d find it didn’t appear much, but now it appears quite often in talks.

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