Is the Book of Mormon’s sexual and physical violence enough to be banned?

Problematic passages appear in the Torah and the Quran, too, but religious scholar says context matters in all literature and scripture.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actors dressed as soldiers and "stripling warriors" film a scene for the Book of Mormon Videos in 2022. A Latter-day Saint scholar says “context matters a great deal" in all literature, including sacred texts.

If the Bible needed to be banned from a number of Davis County elementary and middle schools for its passages on violence and sex, why not the scripture sacred to members of Utah’s predominant faith?

After all, the Book of Mormon, the signature text of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also has troubling scenes that could be considered “pornographic” or “indecent” under the Utah Legislature’s definition.

And now someone has done just that, requesting that the school district review this volume as well.

While members of the Davis committee determined that the Bible did not violate state law, they did deem the “vulgarity or violence” in the religious book inappropriate for grade schoolers and middle schoolers.

There are some obvious and familiar examples of sexual and physical violence (beyond wars) in the Latter-day Saint scripture, including:

• Nephi chops off Laban’s head (1 Nephi 4).

• Jacob condemns polygamy and concubinage (Jacob 2).

• Ammon kills some robbers and cuts off the arms of others. (Alma 17).

• Morianton beats a “maid servant” (Alma 50).

• Nephites rape and murder prisoners of war (Moroni 9).

Latter-day Saints believe the Book of Mormon stems from gold plates church founder Joseph Smith unearthed and translated. The volume centers primarily around two Israelite civilizations living in the ancient Americas. One derived from a single family who fled from Jerusalem around 600 B.C. and eventually splintered into two groups, known as Nephites and Lamanites.

The Book of Mormon is “not particularly graphic,” said Grant Hardy, a Latter-day Saint professor of history and religious studies at the University of North Carolina Asheville, “but kids tend to gravitate to the graphic parts that are there.”

Even so, Hardy does not advocate removing such religious texts from school libraries.

‘Context matters’ in all books

(Rick Bowmer | AP) The Book of Mormon, the signature scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Young people, in consultation with their parents and teachers, should be able to determine for themselves what to read or not read,” said Hardy, whose latest book, “The Annotated Book of Mormon,is due out in August. “The decision of which books to make available should not be left to the most conservative, vocal, easily offended parents in the school district.”

With literature and scripture, he said, “context matters a great deal, along with the chance to independently assess an author’s values and sensibilities.”

Hardy’s goal with Mormonism’s foundational scripture has long been “to help readers better perceive the context and connections in specific passages.”

Sacred texts, especially those from long ago, he said, “are often problematic for modern readers, but their historical and cultural significance makes them important to read and make widely available,”

Readers sometimes can “be offended or upset by what they read — not just sex and violence, but accounts of evil, cruelty or injustice — and come away with a stronger moral sense,” Hardy said. “They can also learn to see characters in more nuanced ways.”

What’s in the Torah?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cantor Wendy Bat-Sarah and Rabbi Samuel Spector at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City in 2019.

So far, there have been no calls to remove the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Quran, from Davis County school libraries, said spokesperson Chris Williams.

But there are plenty of scandalous episodes in the Torah, according to Rabbi Samuel Spector of Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami.

He acknowledged multiple instances in the Jewish text, including a Levite’s concubine, Lot impregnating his daughters and the rape of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob.

But Spector said these stories are open to interpretation, which is why Torah volumes often include commentaries.

“Having those books in libraries is good,” the rabbi said. “Having uncomfortable conversations is important. I don’t mind having young students read it.”

The Bible is “the most influential book that has ever been created in human history,” Spector said, quipping, “It’s been on the bestseller list for over 3,000 years.”

He gets “fearful” hearing that books and ideas are being banned, given the history of such movements.

Critics of book removals, though, “have a good point,” Spector said, noting the dangers of a double standard.

“If we are going to start banning books, how can we apply the standard to those other books and not the Bible?”

What about the Quran?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Muslim Imam Shuaib Din speaks at a vigil in 2023.

Unlike the Bible and Book of Mormon, Islam’s holy book is primarily about God’s attributes and instructions about how to behave.

The Quran has some historical accounts of certain prophets and peoples, said Shuaib Din, imam at Utah Islamic Center, and warnings about consequences for unbelievers, including threats of violence.

But there is “nothing sexual in the Quran,” Din said. “Verses that do address the issue are so veiled, you would feel comfortable reciting those verses in a family setting.”

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