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:
And the bottom 14:
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.