The Book of Mormon as Literature

Review of James T. Duke. The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon. Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2004. xii + 328 pp., with bibliography and index. $24.95.

The Book of Mormon as Literature

Reviewed by Richard Dilworth Rust

James Duke has performed a labor of love and deep devotion to the Book of Mormon in producing The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon. A professor at Brigham Young University for four decades, Duke specialized in the sociology of religion and also taught courses on the Book of Mormon. His treatment of this scripture obviously comes out of many years of study, pondering, and effort.

As its title suggests, the book is an extensive compendium
of literary elements or forms, as Duke calls them, that cumulatively reveal the
Book of Mormon to be a great literary masterpiece. Duke’s work is, in effect,
an encyclopedic presentation of themes, sermons, rhetorical structures, and the
like. He treats ninety different terms, typically defining them, providing
examples of them, and then listing their occurrences.

Duke developed his understanding of literary forms from
books like Sidney B. Sperry’s Our Book of Mormon (1947), Wilfred G. E. Watson’s Traditional Techniques in
Classical Hebrew Verse
(1994), and Hugh W.
Pinnock’s Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in
the Book of Mormon
(1999). The book,
however, that had the most profound influence on Duke and that is cited
repeatedly is Donald W. Parry’s The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted
according to Parallelistic Patterns
1998). In a number of respects, Duke’s work is an amplification of Parry’s in
that Duke frequently cites and enumerates Parry’s patterns and then adds to

The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon is made up primarily of many lists that Duke hopes
others will use for further exploration. His interpretation is often limited to
pointing out that a pattern is beautiful and likely serves to help make the
relevant passages memorable. Duke desires that what he has provided will
encourage others to explore the Book of Mormon, especially in academic
settings. As he says in his introduction, “Universities and colleges have
long had a tradition of teaching one or more courses in ‘The Bible as
Literature.’ Such courses are usually found in the English Department. However,
to my knowledge no university has yet offered a course in ‘The Book of Mormon
as Literature.’ My fondest wish would be that the present book would advance
the recognition of the greatness of the literature found in the Book of Mormon”
(p. 5). James Duke will be pleased to know that Charles Swift is now
teaching “The Book of Mormon as Sacred Literature” as a new class for
the honors program at Brigham Young University.

Duke confesses he is not trained in literary interpretation
and thus makes minor errors such as calling some formulations using
“like” or “as” similes when they are rather simply
comparisons of like qualities. However, he counterbalances this by the
thoroughness of his lists, by the depth of his study, and by his infectious
love of the Book of Mormon. The spirit in which he has approached this work is
a model for serious Latter-day Saint students of the Book of Mormon.

In his conclusion, Duke makes one statement that reveals
what is probably a stumbling block to many in considering the Book of Mormon as
a literary work: “I make no claim that literary style is as important as
the spiritual content of the prophetic messages. In a sense, literary style is
fluff, or the frosting on the cake” (p. 311). Duke then backs away
from this view, though, saying: “Literary style helps people to pay
attention to the message, remember it, and feel a sense of spirituality as well
as beauty. So literary style is really not fluff after all, but an essential
ingredient in communicating God’s message to his children” (p. 312).
I would add that literary style is not just the frosting on the cake called the
Book of Mormon—it is an essential part of the cake. Plato had it right:
truth, goodness, and beauty are three parts of a whole. “That which is of
God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually” (Moroni 7:13). Mormon
the poet knew exactly what he was talking about: Truth, that “which is of
God,” employs beauty (it “inviteth and enticeth”) to do good.
Latter-day Saints appropriately sing, “Beautiful words of love / Coming
from God above.”[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way:
“The Father, the Spirit, and the Son . . . stand respectively
for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty. These
three are equal. . . . The world is not painted, or adorned, but is
from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but
Beauty is the creator of the universe.”[2] My hope and expectation is that faithful scholars in the future will build on what James Duke and others
have done to reveal more perfectly how form and content are integrated in the
Book of Mormon to create a spiritual masterpiece made so in part by its
literary aspects.


[1]     “Oh, Holy Words of Truth and Love,” Hymns, no. 271.

[2]     Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” in Essays: Second Series (Boston: Munroe, 1844), 7.