Jana Riess: Why do Latter-day Saints ignore the Pearl of Great Price?

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Fiona Givens and Terryl Givens pose for a portrait at Deseret Book headquarters in 2012.

A few weeks ago, I was in a Deseret Book store in Utah and found the Scripture section predictably divided into four subsections: one bookshelf each for the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.

Within the D&C area’s dozens of offerings were two books — just two books! — devoted to the Pearl of Great Price, the other “standard work” of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A brief hodgepodge of several genres, it contains two books of scripture purporting to be written by Old Testament prophets (the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham), a historical reminiscence by Joseph Smith, a creedal statement from the early church and other miscellany.

The Pearl of Great Price is the only standard work to not receive at least a year in the church’s four-year study cycle: The Bible gets two years (one for the Hebrew Bible, one for the New Testament), the Book of Mormon gets one, and the D&C gets one. The Pearl of Great Price gets occasional references when some of its verses confirm or complement elements in the other, better known, standard works, but is otherwise understudied, underpreached and underutilized.

Maybe now that will start to change. Terryl Givens’ latest book, “The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture,” takes on the history and theology of this neglected volume, arguing that members of the church ignore it at their peril. — JKR

You’ve articulated so well something I have felt for a long time: The Pearl of Great Price is like the unwanted stepchild of the LDS canon. When and why did that happen?

It’s interesting — in the early 20th century we have a comment from Annie Clark Tanner who was reminiscing about growing up in Utah, and she says that in her Sunday school class they studied three texts: “The Voice of Warning” and “Key to Theology,” both by Parley P. Pratt, and the Pearl of Great Price. So at one point in the past it was considered a key text in theology, and part of its fortunes have to do with the shifting tide of theology in Mormonism. Metaphysics or speculative theology had a higher place then than they do now.

In the Pearl of Great Price, you find all the distinctive doctrines of the LDS faith. In recent years, the church has wanted to be seen as a more conventional denomination. Leaders have emphasized commonalities with other Christian churches rather than differences, and as a consequence, the Bible has taken on a greater role. Only since President (Ezra Taft) Benson has the Book of Mormon become more prominent.

Also, in the last decade or two, the relentless assaults on the validity and historicity of the Pearl of Great Price have made the church even more reluctant to make more of it. It’s a perfect storm. I would personally urge dropping the Old Testament (from the church’s four-year scripture cycle) and spending a whole year on the Pearl of Great Price.


As Simone Weil put it many years ago, the Old Testament is one of the major impediments to anyone embracing a Christian faith. And Mormons culturally, not doctrinally, are too wedded to infallibility to read the Old Testament profitably. Smith gave Latter-day Saints ample latitude to read the Old Testament discerningly, but they do not. Instead they employ intellectual gymnastics trying to justify the genocide in Canaan, etc.

I think you have to consider the sequence. Smith translates the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Mormon is replete with claims that the Bible is bereft of clarity and a fullness of the truth. The idea that “many plain and precious things” have been omitted is repeated some dozen times. And in a logical progression, he moves immediately after the Book of Mormon’s publication to revise the Old Testament.

And then immediately, as if he is learning right off the bat that parts of the Bible are beyond repair, he interpolates an entire book, the Book of Moses, which radically contests the canonical description of God. So it seems there that Smith has more than preached scriptural fallibility; he has enacted scriptural fallibility and supplemented scripture with a radically revisionist text. That is why the Book of Moses should have pride of place in both LDS evangelizing and doctrinal teaching.

Let’s play conjectural history. What would Mormon theology have looked like without the Pearl of Great Price?

It’d just be warmed-over Protestantism. Mormonism radically reconstitutes covenant theology, the entire cosmic framework upon which Mormonism rests. And it does this thoroughly and completely through the Pearl of Great Price. It is through both Abraham and Moses that we get the doctrine of premortal existence, the original instantiation of God’s covenant with the human race, which takes place in premortality in the Book of Abraham and again in the garden in the Book of Moses.

It is only in the Pearl of Great Price that we get a revised understanding of the nature of God as capable of suffering with humankind, and fully sharing in their pain, both at the level of the Father and the Son. It is in Enoch that we get the first glimpses of theosis, the potential divinization of humans. And then in some ways, most significant of all institutionally if not theologically, we get the whole Zion-building project modeled by Enoch and his city, which immediately and totally redefines Smith’s self-understanding.

I was fascinated by the fact that Smith’s code name during the church’s time of persecution was Enoch. I didn’t realize he felt that kind of affinity.

Yes. Until that moment, Smith is effectively just a restorationist in the mold of Alexander Campbell. But once the Book of Moses comes out, he immediately shifts his focus to the project of building a Zion community in a way without any significant precedent in Christian history. So none of those dimensions which are actually vital to the theology and practice of Mormonism are found in the Book of Mormon itself.

So the Pearl of Great Price is responsible for Mormons’ concepts of Zion, the suffering God, and humans’ premortal life and postmortal divinity. That’s a lot. How, then, was its 1880 canonization such a nonevent?

There’s no parallel to the canonization of the Pearl of Great Price; it was utterly unlike the canonizations of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, which were elaborate, transparent, public processes.

The Pearl of Great Price’s canonization was a parenthetical within a parenthetical, but that probably signifies something almost the complete opposite of what it might suggest. To read the transcript of the solemn assembly in October 1880, an objective historian would be forgiven for thinking that the church just tried to slip that in unobtrusively: It’s appended to a parenthetical indicating support for a revision to the D&C.

But I believe the reason it transpired with so little fanfare was because by 1880, the Pearl of Great Price had already become de facto scripture for the Latter-day Saints. This is largely through the citing of the Pearl of Great Price by Orson Pratt in General Conferences. He was by far its most enthusiastic and vigorous proponent.

So it becomes canon, and then what happens to it?

It goes through numerous iterations, but its four essential elements remain the same: the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, the Joseph Smith story and the Articles of Faith.

OK, the elephant in the room. What are Mormons to do with the Book of Abraham?

I would make two major points about the Book of Abraham. The first is that as early as 1913, the intelligentsia and leadership alike of the LDS Church acknowledged that Smith had failed to meet the standards of contemporary scholarship regarding his translation efforts.

In 1913, the Improvement Era published a series of responses by a dozen leading intellectuals in the church, including B.H. Roberts, John Evans, J.M. Sjodahl, and others. And they were unanimous that he had failed as a translator but succeeded as a prophet. This is highly significant. If we want to give this the name of the “catalyst theory” of revelation, it gives evidence that the church effectively embraced that theory 100 years ago.

Quick clarification: By “catalyst theory,” you mean that the glyph is just providing the impetus for some revelatory experience on Smith’s part, and it’s not supposed to be taken literally?

Precisely. And it’s not that different from the kind of experience that Smith had with the plates as well, since the record indicates that Smith wasn’t actually looking at the plates when he translated the Book of Mormon.

The second major point the book attempts to make relative to the Book of Abraham is that following the example of the 1913 voices, Latter-day Saints would do well to have a much more capacious understanding of how prophecy and revelation work.

But the church itself has promoted a pretty literal or limited understanding of what “translation” means.

I think the church has shifted gears. The Gospel Topics page on the Book of Abraham makes this point. We have heard occasional voices from General Conference in recent years that we need to detach ourselves from the fallacy of prophetic infallibility.

But this calls upon the membership of the church to embrace a reversal of the function that the Book of Abraham serves in their paradigms. Rather than trying to insert the Book of Abraham into narrowly defined categories of how revelation should work, it might serve as a case study for exploding the concept altogether.

It is significant that Smith was fairly unique in religious thought for employing the word “translate” to mean the translation of an immortal being, and there is a congruence there with what is underlying Smith’s thinking. You’re taking what is historical and corruptible and transforming it, saving it from oblivion.

How does the Pearl of Great Price affect the temple liturgy?

We know that Smith was immersed in the study of the Book of Abraham and its translation in the exact same period when he is developing his temple theology. His explanation of the facsimiles is largely temple-centered. So again, it’s not clear — and we may never know — what if any actual correlation exists between the papyrus from which Smith was working and the temple theology that emerges.

What we do know is that Smith is reading the papyrus and he is reading the facsimiles in such a way as to fill in the last pieces of the mosaic in ways that will constitute the last stage of his temple theology. Most Latter-day Saints would also believe it is not coincidence. As Hugh Nibley pointed out so voluminously, the genre from which those papyri undoubtedly come — The Book of the Dead and related documents — are centrally preoccupied with questions pertaining to the human ascent from mortality. So there’s certainly a fittedness and congruence in relation to the temple.

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