Poor Teaching and the Historicity of the Book of Mormon

This morning, on my Zion email list where I discuss things Mormon with my closest online friends, a member pointed out that many saints “never had a real testimony to begin with.” He was speaking of those poor souls who accept the nonsense that the Book of Mormon is true only in the sense that it contains many inspired truths, but that it is not historical and that there never was an actual Lehi colony as related in First Nephi.

I responded by writing this:

Absolutely true! But we must not misunderstand the extent of the problem of false doctrine, and the importance of good teaching. Many people who do not have strong testimonies have been retarded in their spiritual growth by false doctrine that they were taught and embraced as non-Mormon Christians before they joined the Church, and by inadequate instruction since they became members of the Savior’s true Church. How many talks in Sacrament Meeting do we hear each Sunday that fail to teach correct doctrine from the scriptures? How many lessons do we hear that wander far afield from the scriptures they are supposed to focus on? Ineffective teaching is a big problem in the Church, especially in the most important meeting that many saints attend as their only gospel instruction: Sacrament Meeting. Many of our apostles have spoken on this problem of poor teaching in General Conference. Some of it has been quite recent.

Consider these words of Elder Jeffrey Holland in a recent General Conference:

When crises come in our lives–and they will–the philosophies of men interlaced with a few scriptures and poems just won’t do. Are we really nurturing our youth and our new members in a way that will sustain them when the stresses of life appear? Or are we giving them a kind of theological Twinkie–spiritually empty calories? President John Taylor once called such teaching “fried froth,” the kind of thing you could eat all day and yet finish feeling totally unsatisfied. –Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, General Conference, April 1998

He made the point, and other prophets have recently made the point in General Conference, that our retention problem with new members is partly and perhaps largely the result of people coming to Church and not being spiritually fed. They are not being taught the scriptures. They are not learning true doctrine at Church. Instead, they are being fed a lot of feel-good stories with bits and pieces of personal “testimony” that consist largely of telling Church stories about “when I was on vacation” or “when I was on my mission” or “when we first moved into the ward” or “when I met Elder So-and-so” or “I knew a woman once who…” and so forth. All of these personal stories are good. We need them to “liken the scriptures unto ourselves.” But they are of little use in building testimonies if we leave out or under emphasize the “scriptures” part of that phrase. Telling Church stories is no better than stories about “what I did on my vacation” unless we teach the underlying scriptures and doctrines that we are supposed to be learning from such stories.

Next time you are at Church, listen carefully. Judge for yourselves how effectively we saints are teaching the underlying doctrine contained in the scriptures. From my experience we are not doing very well. It is far too obvious from those who speak in our meetings that many or perhaps even most of us are not spending much time studying the scriptures daily as our leaders have asked us to do. As a result the teaching is inadequate. And we are partly to blame for the poor testimonies that leave new members and poorly converted born-in-the-Church members exposed and vulnerable to such false ideas as the non-historicity of the Book of Mormon.


16 Responses to Poor Teaching and the Historicity of the Book of Mormon

  1. The trouble is, if the Book of Mormon is not an ancient record, then either Joseph Smith was delusional or a liar. In either case, the Church is not the official organization of Jesus Christ as it claims because it is based upon either a delusion or a lie. A true Church cannot be built upon a foundation of delusions or lies.

    The Savior said it another way on a number of occasions. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, and an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit. A false church is worse than no church at all.

  2. Steve EM says:

    If someone is brought to Christ by reading the BofM what difference does it make if they think it’s revealed allegory or real events? Do we really need a CofJCofLDS of the historical BofM separate from a CofJCofLDS of the revealed allegory Bof M? It seems JS is considered a prophet both camps. For the record, I lean towards historicity, due to the physical plates and witnesses you mention, but this issue is pretty low on my totem pole.

  3. Perhaps you are right that the Book of Mormon is not “history” in the sense that we use that term today. But when I discuss Book of Mormon “historicity,” I am talking about whether or not the events recorded in the Book of Mormon really happened.

    There are some unfaithful saints who believe that the events recorded in the Book of Mormon did not really happen and that the people mentioned in the Book of Mormon are no more real than any other fictional characters. These doubters who have not done the things necessary to obtain a testimony actually believe that the whole Book of Mormon is an “inspired allegory” or parable which is true only in the sense that some inspiring truths are presented in much the same way that Aesop’s Fables presents some truths. In other words, the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fiction, and Joseph Smith was either delusional or lying about the gold plates and the events surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

    Of course, if that is so, then Joseph Smith was not a true prophet but psychotic or a collosal fraud and the Church is false rather than true.

  4. Steve says:

    The Book of Mormon is not a History of the Ancient American Inhabitents. It’s only 531 pages long in our current edition or 588 pages in the First Edition. It covers a period of History from 600BC to 400AD… thats over 1000 years, and that doesnt count the time covered in the book of Ether. On Average that comes to less than two pages per year of History… Even I do better at keeping a record of my personal history, and I’m anything but valient in keeping a journal.
    If you think that the book is a Historical account, you are sadly mistaken. If the Missionaries introduced it to you as such, I appologize for their doing so. This Book is what the world needs to help them come unto Christ. Studying the past wont do that for you. Living by the precepts taught here will bring you closer to God and his Christ faster than any other book out there, the Bible included.

  5. Jonah the giant whale says:

    I am confused, how can you have a testimony of the truth of the Book of Mormon but not believe in the book at the same time? I think you are fooling your self if you are telling yourself you can.

  6. jcobabe says:

    Elder Dallin H. Oaks effectively closed this issue more than ten years ago. But then, what does he know about the Book of Mormon?

    A transcript of Elder Oaks’ FARMS speech: Historicity of the Book of Mormon

  7. Stephen says:

    Ok, we know that the Bible has some issues since it provides different dates and timelines for the same things (comparing Kings to Chronicles will do wonders for anyone who is certain that the Bible is a word for word …).

    Yet we all accept it as the word of God.

    Interesting, isn’t it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s simple: either Joseph Smith lied or he didn’t. If the Book of Mormon is not a history, it’s based on fraud. Some people just want to be more scrupulous than others. Some have more integrity and would not wish to follow a nefarious leader. I see what John is saying.

  9. Steve EM says:


    Merry Christmas. I’m concerned from this and other posts, you’re on the road to apostasy which orthodoxy always seems to lead. You’re sounding a lot like most folks on that sad exmo board (“if all the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit in my mind, I’m out of here? attitude). Rigid belief systems are not the essence of faith and often kill faith. As the church grows, maintaining a rigid belief system is impossible anyway, so why bother? I’m glad the church has moved anyway from rigid doctrine, much of which comes from suspect sources such as the KFD and Nibley anyway, and moved towards more preaching basic faith and repentance which everyone needs.

    BTW, it’s not our place to add questions to the temple recommend interview. Doing so places you in the camp of those who would deny recommends to the overweight, those who don’t exercise regularly, bearded or long haired men, people who eat meat daily, the tattooed, cold caffeine or blood sausage consumers, etc.

    Does it bother anyone today that whiskey got the early Mormons to Utah? Why be so hard on those who see the BofM in a different light than you? Good luck in your journey and, again, Merry Christmas.

  10. lisab says:

    Tell me how, Clark. (I’m now the teacher development teacher in my ward.)

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Eric, I can understand the bit about doctrine being weakly taught at church. As much as I’ve praised the decision to focus on prophets of the church in PH/RS, I’m not sure that the lessons have been done as well as they could have been. I’d have preferred a few sermons given in full rather than the paragraph quotes. Further I’d have loved if the first three lessons were more histories of the prophets rather than the watered down intro we get.

    Having said that though I think a lot we call doctrine is more speculative than we might think. I also think that a problem with too much focus on doctrine is that we forget the basics of the gospel and the fact that lessons ought fundamentally be crying repentance and getting us to change our lives. That is, I tend to think lessons should focus on practical changes in our lives.

    While I know a lot of people have criticized the Sunday School lessons, I actually think the manuals of the last few years are great. Go back and look at the manuals from the 70’s or 80’s. Ugh. Focusing in on the scriptures and largely reading them is a great idea. There’s a lot of doctrine in the scriptures and if people don’t get them, it’s largely the teachers and the class’ fault. (IMO)

    I think the bigger problem is the teacher preparation class and how it is so rarely focused on in wards. I think a lot of people could be drastically better teachers with just a little help.

  12. GeorgeD says:

    Elcder Oaks says we have got to take the Book of Mormon for what it says it is. It starts out “I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…”

    I take that to mean that there was a Nephi and everything else that ensures.

  13. Eric says:

    I agree with what you are saying. But I think the problems go all the way near the top. We seem to becoming doctrinally weak as a church. I feel the curriculum has become very weak. But also General Conference. I might give Elder Monson as an example. He is very entertaining to listen to and tells some touching stories. But many of his talks are like ‘random stories that sort of relate to service’, or ‘some experiences that are about faith’. I do feel that a ‘back to basics’ approach may be wise at this time and perhaps what the Lord intends. But I am struggling to remember the last strong doctrinal lesson/talk was that I heard. Most things have to do with practices other that doctrine it seems.

  14. John, I’m talking about a seventy who quoted an apostle. Not Hinckley but definitely more authoritative than a bishop. In a mail correspondence, I was assured that church policy from the top down was that my ambivalence about Book of Mormon historicity was no grounds for denying me a temple recommend or any church calling.

    In my view, you’re being a bit too stark about historicity. Many of the books in the Bible were probably not written by the people they claim to be written by. Does that make them false or fraudulent? I can’t offer you a specific hypothesis about the Book of Mormon, since I don’t have one. I’m not committed to the idea that it’s ahistorical; I’ve just got a testimony which allows that possibility. But I can say that if Joseph Smith did God’s will by writing a pseudepigraphic book of scripture in the voice of ancient prophets but teaching the divine message needed for the modern era, I accept that.

    The value of the book for me, after all, isn’t in its account of the historical details of Lehi, etc. I don’t know those folks, and nobody can even tell me where they were supposed to have lived. It just doesn’t add anything to my understanding of the world if I think of them as real, as compared to divine symbols. In either case, they are real to me only through my reading.

    But I disagree strongly with some of what you have to say; in my view, the Book of Mormon couldn’t possibly be a satanic deception. It brought me to Christ and converted me. Satan wouldn’t do that, I think. I absolutely believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and that subsequent leaders have the same calling. But my view is that prophets do what God asks them to do, and I don’t know for sure that God never asks them to write pseudepigraphic historical fiction as scripture.

  15. Roasted Tomatoes said:

    “I’ve been told by the highest authority that a testimony of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is unnecessary for a temple recommend.”

    You mean that President Hinckley actually told you this? Or are you speaking of your stake president or Bishop?

    Clearly, if the Book of Mormon is not historical, then Joseph Smith was either lying about its origins or deluded himself. In either case, the whole Mormon faith is based upon a foundational lie. It is a great fraud, a hoax, a satanic deception of the highest magnitude.

    The Book of Mormon itself claims to be a genuine historical record of an ancient people who actually inhabited the Americas. If there is any other truth in its pages, it is more than cancelled out by the lie within it that it is an actually record, that there really was a Lehi colony.

    I would rather be an atheist or an agnostic than one who believes in a religion based upon a lie. Such a religion has to be satanic if there actually is a being such as Satan. And if we can believe the “truth” in the Book of Mormon, there certainly is. If we cannot believe that “truth” in the Book of Mormon, then why should we believe anything else in the book?

    Those who disbelieve in the historicity of the Book of Mormon may be able to get a temple recommend, but in my opinion that is an example of great doctrinal confusion. A person who does not believe that the Book of Mormon is historical, does not believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, nor does he believe the current Church leaders are. Simply stated, he does not have a testimony of the gospel. And I believe that there are temple recommend questions that ask us about such things. A stake president or a Bishop who would sign a temple recommend of someone who denies the historicity of the Book of Mormon is way out of line, in my opinion, unless there are extenuating circumstances that only he is aware of such as inspiration that the loss of testimony is only temporary and will be corrected by temple attendence.

    Denying the historicity of the Book of Mormon is denying that the Prophet Joseph was a true prophet or that the Church is true.

  16. Actually, my personal openness to an ahistorical but sacred Book of Mormon came precisely from spending several years reading the book seriously.

    This idea has never harmed me that I’m aware of. I’ve been told by the highest authority that a testimony of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is unnecessary for a temple recommend.

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