In 1981, the Book of Mormon was printed in the edition currently in circulation today. Under the radar of most non-Mormons, even its title was revised, to the now familiar “Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” This edition was to usher in a new public relations-driven mission which would effectively change the Latter-day Saint image and double the church’s size outside the U.S. in the next few decades.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been fond of the LDS church’s version of the Book of Mormon. Although it has a plethora of useful cross-references and footnotes (usually, but I could write another entry on some of the references that are deliberately and suspiciously left uncited), its double-column format and tiny margins don’t leave enough space for my hands-on method of analysis. That’s not surprising, really, most other religions I’ve encountered aren’t as accommodating with their sacred texts as I’m accustomed to with the Bible. I just may have outgrown my wide margin NIV, but it looks like Zondervan discontinued that model anyway, in favor of an edition with a full blank page for note taking. On the other end of the spectrum, Muslims discourage writing anything in the Qur’an, which I believe is a major impediment to Islamic scholarship. Baha’i publications are serviceable but limited to a single edition of each, many times just a cherry-picked anthology. The ISKCON edition of the Bhavagad Gita is useful in that it has Hindi, English, and Swami Prabhupada’s commentary for each verse, but it doesn’t leave much room for anything but his concentrated focus. The Bible has been subject to much more extensive critical analysis than any other sacred text on earth, yet even when other religions seem to promote study, their publications have confined parameters outside of which the faithful do not venture.
On a recent visit to the local temple’s visitor’s center to ask some questions, I brought my own copy of the Book of Mormon that I use for research. I had found a reader-friendly edition online which is exactly the same text, just in single-column paragraph form; it still doesn’t meet my needs, but the version that would doesn’t exist in print (I hope to change that someday). Despite my having been flipping through this edition to read passages, and even using its fore edge to demonstrate my Biblical analog theory, after we’d been discussing for a half hour the sister interrupted me to inquire what book I was using. She was noticeably surprised when I told her it was the Book of Mormon.
At that moment, I was suddenly aware of how foreign this was to them, and how much of an outsider it made me. Go to most churches and (aside from pew Bibles) you’ll see people carrying diverse translations of the Bible in a wide range of editions from various publishers; it’s unusual for two people to have the exact same Bible by coincidence. You couldn’t tell people in your church to turn to 1 Chronicles 1 and expect any of them to be on the same page number. At the temple, however, one is surrounded by translations of the Book of Mormon in dozens of languages, yet they still
look uniform. The text is different for each language, but the fonts and formats are all the same. In fact, the primary differences in the versions carried by the missionaries and visiting Mormons seem to be symbols of status. Only prospective converts ever use the cheap, free copies. Initiated members have at the very least the hardcover edition, but more likely a “triple” combination (Book of Mormon+Doctrines & Coventants+Pearl of Great Price), and others a “quad” (the triple with the Bible). The most well-to-do, of course, have the deluxe leather bound quad with their name engraved. Even though the shape and size may vary, their configurations are homogenous, with identical typeset and printing common to all of them. Every page is alike in every one of them, so that Ether chapter 8 is always on page 500. Every English Book of Mormon was the same, except mine of course.
When the title was changed in the 80’s, the LDS church began a campaign to re-brand themselves and their sacred texts, so that Mormons now have a cultic loyalty to their brand that borders on fetishism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now a corporate logo with worldwide recognition, displayed prominently on
employee elder name tags, publications, and buildings. The Book of Mormon is no longer a book in the traditional sense: words transmitted through a physical medium, that could exist hypothetically in print, in speech, or even in memory. Instead, the Book of Mormon is a household name product, and its loyal customers refuse any generic facsimile, no matter that all the contents inside are the same.
Mormons certainly aren’t the only ones who do this, of course. Jehovah’s Witnesses are as fanatically loyal to their Awake! and Watchtower magazines, not to mention their own branded translation of the Bible. Hare Krishnas visibly recoil if I mention the Gandhi or Vivekananda translations of the Bhagavad Gita. Baha’i scriptures are published with a uniform trade dress in ersatz King James English, and even though none of the Bab’s major works have been translated or printed in full in any language (not even the original Arabic or Farsi), Baha’is I’ve encountered are hesitant if not reluctant to read unofficial, provisional or modernized translations available online because they are lacking the Universal House of Justice “stamp” of approval. And while translations of the Qur’an are abundant in English, every self-respecting Muslim knows that the only real version is the standardized Arabic text.
They all seem to feel a sense of comfort and familiarity from their preferred brand, the same way I can flip through a bargain box of comic books and stop every time I see the DC comics logo while paying little attention to Marvel or other companies. DC knew the power of their brand recognition, which is why they retained the DC “bullet” logo for nearly 30 years, only changing it for a major event; and why they’ve almost never altered the Superman logo, except for minor tweaks. As a comic collector, I can completely understand the psychological propensity to want to accumulate a line of books of uniform design, which is essentially a cult, or religious following. But preferring a religion isn’t like buying DC over Marvel or Coke over Pepsi; loyalty of this extent not only prevents the consumer from examining any alternatives, it also prevents them from any serious inquiry into their own faith. Like a faithful customer who eats a certain food brand because that company tells them it’s good for them, but never independently researches a consumer report or outside nutritional information, these fetishists don’t approach their sacred books with the same critical questions that have long been standard to Biblical scholarship.