The front matter to the Book of Mormon has a variety of different origins. As discussed, the title page is part of the plates, and as the 2014 LDS edition is careful to note, “is part of the sacred text”. The testimony of the three and eight witnesses is obviously not part of the original plates, but has been included in every single edition of the Book of Mormon ever produced, is called for within the text itself, and as discussed one of the testimonies relates another revelatory experience in and of itself. The testimony of Joseph Smith is a more recent addition, not integral to the Book itself, but its contents are a selection of material taken from Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price, and so is still regarded as scriptural. However, the “Introduction” and the “Brief Explanation of the Book of Mormon” are study helps, the first being added as recently as the 1981 LDS edition, and are not part of the sacred text. It’s for that reason that it should be seen as fairly uncontroversial when they are changed to reflect our different understanding of the text. An example of this would be the change in the introduction from the Lamanites being described as the “principal ancestors of the American Indians” in the 1981 texts to “among the ancestors of the American Indians”, reflecting increased readings that saw the Book of Mormon events as occurring within a more limited geographical area than earlier readers believed. The 2014 LDS edition is in general more careful to distinguish between such study aids and parts of the sacred text itself (hence many of the book headings – which are original and part of the inspired text itself – are now in non-italicised text, which chapter headings, which are purely a study aid and added in 1981 are kept italicised).
However, while the introduction may not be part of the sacred text proper it is worth reading and considering. Reading it today several things really came to mind, a couple of which I’ve written about fairly recently.
The first is the description that:
It puts forth the doctrines of the gospel, outlines the plan of salvation, and tells men what they must do to gain peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come.
As I recently commented in a brief article about the role of the Book of Mormon, “the Book of Mormon has a relentless focus on the most important and basic matters”. The Book of Mormon constantly returns to what might be thought of as the most basic principles, and experience of living, the gospel: faith in God, repentance of sins, baptism for the remission of sins, sanctification, and the basic challenge of trying to endure in faith and righteousness through the challenges that life throws at us. When it addresses “big” matters, they tend to be the ones that are central to our very experience of the Gospel and our own salvation, such as the fall, the Atonement of Christ, and the resurrection and final judgment. Indeed, the Book of Mormon has a particular aptitude for summarising the core thrust of the entire gospel into rather brief passages, such as in 3 Nephi 27:13-20, or in the likes of 2 Nephi 31. And since our perspective of the relative importance of different appendages of the gospel can easily become skewed (as President Oaks mentions here), I think the Book of Mormon’s sense of doctrinal priorities can serve as a corrective to our own, helping us to refocus on those very things that bring “peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come”.
The introduction also shares Joseph Smith’s well known quote, 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”. One could easily speak at length of any of the three major elements in that quotation, and plenty of people have. That last element, however, made me think of another thing I recently wrote about in the article I mention earlier, in which I mention my own experience that there is a power in the Book of Mormon, a powerful devotional effect in which I stated that when I read the Book of Mormon more consistently that “I am closer to the Spirit, repent more readily, am more obedient, and find it easier to resist temptation”. I mention there that this is a power that goes beyond the words on the page, although we have to read those words to gain access to it. Reading Joseph Smith’s quotation, however, helps me to realise another crucial part to accessing that power: “abiding by its precepts“. It is when we seek to not only read, but to obey God’s word as found in scripture, that the power found therein flows most strongly into our life.
The final paragraph of the introduction also stood out to me today:
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.
The Book of Mormon – and the process by which we gain a knowledge of its truth – points to wider truths, as a sign “[p]roving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old” (Doctrine & Covenants 20:11). I’ve written about this topic elsewhere (Chapter 5 of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, for those who are interested), but to summarise, the Book of Mormon is both a sign from God and a means he employs in the broader work he is engaged “in these last days”. It, and the spiritual experience we gain from engaging with and seeking confirmation of the truth of the book, are a key to a wider and (for the moment) invisible world.