Bassett's Latter-day Commentary on the Book of Mormon

Review of K. Douglas Bassett, comp. Latter-day Commentary on the Book of Mormon: Insights from Prophets, Church Leaders, and Scholars. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 1999. ii + 539 pp. $25.95.

Bassett’s Latter-day Commentary on the
Book of Mormon

Reviewed by Ronald W. Asay

It is important that readers of K. Douglas Bassett’s commentary on the
Book of Mormon pay attention to his introduction. Here he explains that his book
came about “more by accident than by design” (p. iii). Over a period
of years, as he taught Book of Mormon classes in seminary and at Brigham Young
University, he collected supplementary materials and distributed them to his classes.
Ultimately his materials became so large and popular that he was encouraged to
publish them, which he did as the Latter-day Commentary on the Book of Mormon.
Most of his quotations are from General Authorities, but some are from other credible
sources such as presidents of the United States, prominent Latter-day Saint authors
and educators, and some scholars outside our community, such as C. S. Lewis. The
compiler presents virtually no commentary of his own. However, he never intended
to be original, only to provide inspiring and uncontroversial illumination to
the text.

Because it evolved somewhat randomly, the book is distinctly different
from the typical commentary, which is crafted over a relatively short period of
time and in a directed, organized fashion. Strictly speaking, this is not in fact
a commentary on the Book of Mormon at all but rather a collection of modern references
and quotations attached to key words and ideas of the Book of Mormon. However,
with few exceptions, these modern authors were not discussing the verses of scripture
to which Bassett attaches these quotations. Thus they are not truly in context
and are only indirectly a commentary. This unique approach has inherent strengths
and weaknesses. One problem is that church leaders have not commented directly
on a majority of the Book of Mormon. Granted, many authorities discuss the fulness
of the gospel contained in this scripture, but gaps are created by the absence
of direct commentary on many segments of the Book of Mormon itself.

For example, the book of Alma contains many notable stories and events.
However, the following all pass without direct commentary: Alma’s encounter
with Nehor; his many missionary excursions to the apostate Nephite groups; the
conversions and teachings of Amulek and Zeezrom, along with their miraculous healings
and rescues; the missionary experiences of the sons of Mosiah and the conversion
of the Lamanites; Ammon’s discussion of the natural man; Alma’s instructions
to his sons Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton; and Moroni’s battles and dealings
with his people and with Pahoran. It is almost possible to read this entire section
of the commentary without realizing that it has anything to do with the book of

A few more of many possible examples may serve to illustrate these observations.
In 2 Nephi 1:4, after Lehi’s party arrives in the promised land, Lehi makes
the remarkable statement: “I have seen a vision, in which I know that Jerusalem
is destroyed; and had we remained in Jerusalem we should also have perished.”
Bassett presents no material about the historical fact of Jerusalem’s destruction
nor about Lehi’s vision or leadership in this context.

Likewise, for this verse, “And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and
I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not
built of so many precious things” (2 Nephi 5:16), Bassett makes not even
the slightest comment about temples and temple building. Later, Abinadi emerges
from two years of hiding to finish his ministry among the people of Noah. This
entire chapter (Mosiah 12), containing many quotations from the prophet as well
as the rationalizations and questions from Noah’s priests, is omitted from
the commentary. Similarly, Abinadi’s compelling sermon on the mission of
Christ in Mosiah 16—which resulted in the conversion of Alma—goes
without notice.

If this pattern of omissions and gaps is consistent throughout the book,
then what does it contain? Bassett’s apparent aim, one in which I think
he succeeds very well, is to relate material from the Book of Mormon to the conditions
of today and to the advice of current leaders. Necessarily, he takes a certain
amount of poetic license to insert points and commentary that might not strictly
follow from the text. For instance, going back to Alma, while little information
is included about the historical material and in fact about most of the doctrines
of that great book, Bassett selects topics from the book of Alma—such as
adultery (pp. 330-32), the second death (pp. 341-43), military service
(pp. 353-56), righteous mothers (pp. 359-64), sustaining church leaders
(pp. 366-70), and the plan of happiness (p. 345)—and appends quotations
from a variety of sources elaborating on these ideas. This is the pattern throughout
the book, and some wonderful citations are included.

Take the following example: “I will go and do the things which
the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto
the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish
the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7). In connection with this
familiar scripture, Bassett quotes George Q. Cannon:

There are some people who seem to have the idea that rebellion and disobedience
are evidences of independence and of manhood. Well, I am glad to know that, so
far as I am concerned, I never took that view. I always felt that I was just as
independent in being obedient, and I know I felt much better than I could possibly
feel if I were disobedient. It is not necessary to be disobedient to show independence.
. . . I suppose each one of us is fond of having his own way. I know I am. I am
willing to confess that I like to have my own way. But I do not like my own way
well enough to want it in opposition to [the leaders of the Church]. (pp. 12-13)

What an interesting and appropriate idea—one that I certainly would
never have stumbled onto if left to my own devices. Although not typical of the
usual commentary on this particular verse, Cannon’s words are very applicable
and illustrate a strength of Bassett’s approach.

Another example is his reference to 2 Nephi 4:5-6 (pp. 98-100).
In this scripture, Lehi indicates that parents, in this case Laman and Lemuel,
have a responsibility to bring up their children in the Lord’s way. Bassett
quotes David O. McKay, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Spencer W. Kimball extensively
on this issue. The insightful and inspiring selections are from conference reports
and the Ensign, available to most readers, but also from the Tokyo Area Conference
Report, August 1975, and Treasures of Life, by President McKay. Several selections
are also included from less well-known authors, in this case Merlin R. Lybbert
and Anne G. Wirthlin, both authors of Ensign articles. From Lybbert comes this

This teaching is to be done before a child reaches the age of accountability,
and while innocent and sin-free. This is protected time for parents to teach the
principles and ordinances of salvation to their children without interference
from Satan. . . . During these formative, innocent years, a child may learn wrong
behavior; but such is not the result of Satan’s temptations, but comes from
the wrong teachings and the bad example of others. (p. 100)

These are a few of many highly successful illustrations of Bassett’s
novel approach. In other instances I felt that the true message of a verse was
sacrificed somewhat in order to draw a lesson that was slightly contrived. For
example, when Lehi sent his sons back to Jerusalem, Sariah was unhappy with her
husband. Her feelings were later recorded by her son Nephi: “For she had
supposed that we had perished in the wilderness; and she also had complained against
my father, telling him that he was a visionary man; saying: Behold thou hast led
us forth from the land of our inheritance, and my sons are no more, and we perish
in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 5:2). Lehi responded without anger and was able
to comfort his wife by reminding her that what he had done was the result of instructions
received in a vision from God. Subsequently, both rejoiced in the return of their
sons with the brass plates. The Book of Mormon reveals little about the relationship
between these great parents, but Bassett spends several pages (pp. 19-23)
and quotes counsel from seven different church leaders illustrating the tender
relationship that should exist between husband and wife. Certainly this is pertinent
to us in this day of spousal abuse and marital contention, and the quotations
contain sage and timely advice. However, this is the only commentary given for
the entire chapter. The compiler makes no mention of Lehi’s reading of the
brass plates and their contents nor of his discovery of his own genealogy contained

A similar example is found in 1 Nephi 18:16. En route to the promised
land, Nephi was bound by his brothers. While he lay captive and miserable, hungry,
bruised, and thirsty, he recalled: “Nevertheless, I did look unto my God,
and I did praise him all the day long; and I did not murmur against the Lord because
of mine afflictions.” We can derive many lessons from Nephi’s steadfastness
and patience. Bassett takes this opportunity to quote several latter-day prophets
about the need for sustaining our church leaders without murmuring. For example,
he quotes from Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball:

Apostasy often begins with criticism of current leaders. Apostasy usually
begins with questions and doubt and criticism. . . . They allege love for the
gospel and the Church but charge that leaders are a little “off the beam”!
He generally wants all the blessings of the Church: membership, its priesthood,
its temple privileges, and expects them from the leaders of the Church, though
at the same time claiming that those same leaders have departed from the path.
(p. 58)

Such counsel is clearly wise and appropriate to our day and time. But
does it follow from this verse and context? Probably not, but again, this volume
is not strictly a commentary on the Book of Mormon. Rather it is a commentary
on living the gospel today, the topics being stimulated by situations in the lives
of men and women living long ago and reflecting to some degree Bassett’s
interests and biases. The success of this approach depends on what readers are
looking for in this commentary. If they are searching for the traditional contextual
interpretation and some historical analysis, then they will be disappointed. If
they are looking for modern-day scriptural commentary that dovetails with many
of the daily life lessons of the Book of Mormon, then they will often be delighted.

It is not true, however, that Bassett includes no doctrinal or historical
commentary, only that it is inconsistently present. For example, the “Isaiah
chapters” of 2 Nephi 11-24 are handled very well. Bassett selects
verses from these chapters that are of particular interest to Latter-day Saint
readers and then references a wide variety of standard commentaries. These include
primarily Isaiah Plain and Simple, by Hoyt W. Brewster Jr.; Isaiah: Prophet, Seer,
and Poet,
by Victor L. Ludlow; Book of Mormon Compendium, by Sidney B. Sperry;
Book of Mormon Student Manual; Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, by
Robert L. Millet and Joseph Fielding McConkie, along with several conference reports,
Ensign articles, and selected quotations from other church leaders. Although by
no means comprehensive, the twenty-two pages he devotes to these chapters contain
excellent discussions of difficult material. In particular, he covers very nicely
the prophecies regarding the stem of Jesse, the root of Jesse, and their respective
roles in the last days (pp. 144-45).

One problem with the format of the book is that many sections of the
Book of Mormon lack direct commentary and list only references. Often these are
the longer, more comprehensive citations, and as such are perhaps the very ones
that would be most useful. Thus readers are required to go to another source if
they wish to find the quotation. Compounding this problem, many of these are from
valuable but rarer sources, such as The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, The Doctrinal
Foundation: Papers from the Second Annual Book of Mormon Symposium; Behold the
Lamb of God,
by J. Reuben Clark Jr.; Crusader for Righteousness, by Melvin J.
Ballard; and CES symposia, BYU devotionals, and other addresses. For readers with
access to GospeLink or other similar electronic collations, this is not a serious
problem, but for the substantial number of readers without such access, the obscurity
of these sources and many like them constitutes a difficult obstacle to their
use. Even for those who have these resources, the advantage of having this commentary
at hand is that the quotations it does contain are immediately available. Its
utility is certainly lessened if one must go to other sources to find information
that may or may not prove to be worth the search.

The lack of any index makes this book very difficult to use as a reference.
I found it nearly impossible to find quotations I wished to read again or to search
for a particular topic or author. In our computer era, such an omission seems
to be an oversight that could easily have been corrected.

The majority of the material is aimed at helping the reader change behaviorally.
Many pages of insightful counsel regarding the need for forgiveness, love, giving
of material things, not judging, serving others, and being a good spouse are presented.
Bassett treats some passages eruditely and establishes points of doctrine using
references not commonly cited. Other verses that have little doctrinal importance
but lend themselves to moral or ethical lessons are referred to exhaustively.

Given its incomplete coverage, perhaps the proper use of this book would
be to read it along with the Book of Mormon, not so much to help explain a difficult
passage as to add relevance. In this mission the compiler succeeds. In fact, this
is a remarkable compilation of bits and pieces of the spoken word that would otherwise
escape the notice of most of us. Remarkably, Bassett found enough material over
the years to provide commentary on a very large portion of the Book of Mormon.
Although some deficiencies characterize his approach, the volume is nonetheless
a valuable addition to the study of how this scripture can apply to and modify
our lives.