Sidney B. Sperry: Student of the Book of Mormon


From the time I started my first classes at BYU in the early 1940s until his death in 1977, Sidney B. Sperry was my mentor, adviser, and exemplar. And, through his writings and my memory of him, he continues to share with me the gifts of a lively mind and persuasive faith.

His last book, a revised and enlarged 1970 edition of The Spirit of the Old Testament, replaced the 1940 edition I had used in my first classes with him. It was through this book that Dr. Sperry introduced many Church members to the great literary beauty of the scriptures, an aspect that most of us had before only vaguely sensed.

The interest that led Sidney Sperry to pursue a life of scriptural scholarship began when he was still in his teens. As a student at LDS High School in Salt Lake City, young Sidney heard of the Reverend Franklin S. Spalding’s attempt to discredit the Book of Abraham. And he made a mental note that he might someday undertake to defend the latter-day scriptures he saw under attack.

After graduating in mathematics and chemistry from the University of Utah, Sidney went to work for the Church School System. But still he longed to deepen his studies of scripture. When he first proposed going East to study biblical languages, he received warnings from many of his friends. After all, the “higher criticism” of the Bible then popular in the eastern schools might damage his faith. And how could he expect to start his graduate study without having taken even beginning courses in Hebrew or Akkadian?

But Sidney Sperry had both the aptitude and the determination to “start from scratch.” And by 1926, he had earned an M.A. degree in Old Testament languages and literature from the University of Chicago. Returning to the West, Brother Sperry became director of the Institute of Religion at the University of Idaho. But he continued his contact with the University of Chicago, finishing his dissertation while he taught. In 1931 Sidney Sperry became the first Latter-day Saint to receive a doctorate in biblical languages. He then went to Palestine, where he studied for a year with the American School of Oriental Research at Jerusalem. That experience helped him mature as a scholar in his own right and provided him with scholarly contacts which he maintained throughout his life.

There is little question that Dr. Sperry could have found fame among his colleagues through writing for professional journals. Instead, he chose to devote his knowledge of biblical languages, archaeology, and history to helping the Latter-day Saints. His faith in the divine origin of the scriptures, both ancient and modern, was absolute. In the course of his productive career, he produced one book each on the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the New Testament, and four books and many articles on the Old Testament.

Perhaps one of Brother Sperry’s most memorable contributions was his exploration and explanation of the Book of Mormon. One of his books presents an interesting survey of Book of Mormon teachings. But it also introduces one of Dr. Sperry’s most persuasive ideas—that the Book of Mormon is not only a great doctrinal work, but a literary masterpiece. According to Dr. Sperry, “great literature should have a great theme or subject. A petty, trivial, or commonplace theme, no matter how beautifully handled, ill adapts itself to the requirements of great literature because it is too narrow and limited in its outlook on life. Its content is too easily exhausted, it does not constantly give the exhilaration of new discovery by repeated examination.

“A given piece of literature must be beautifully expressed to be called great. Its diction and imagery should be well nigh faultless. If it has these qualities it has a good chance to survive.

“Great literature has the faculty of bringing into activity man’s whole being. The greater the scope of any literature—that is, the greater the number, variety, color and complexity of the impulses it arouses in man—the better its quality.” (The Spirit of the Old Testament, Salt Lake City: LDS Department of Education, 1940, p. 52; italics added.) Dr. Sperry was perhaps the first to suggest that the Book of Mormon—with its heroes and villains, its beautiful, poetic passages, and its theology centering on God’s love and our Savior’s redemptive sacrifice—amply qualifies as truly great literature.

Brother Sperry was a pioneer in identifying the various types of literary forms found in the Book of Mormon. He described the following sixteen distinct genres:

gospel

historical narrative

patriarchal blessing

allegory

epistle

memoir

symbolic prophecy

prayer

psalm

prophetic discourse

prophetic narrative

song

lamentation

oratory

prophetic dialogue

genealogy

Sidney Sperry often described 3 Nephi as the “American gospel”; he saw it as the very heart of the Book of Mormon, the overall purpose of which is to convince the world of the divinity of Jesus Christ. He was the first to call 2 Nephi 4:28–34 the “Psalm of Nephi.” [2 Ne. 4:28–34] And he pointed out that the Book of Mormon contains common elements of Hebrew poetry—synonymous parallelism, antithetic parallelism, and synthetic parallelism, for example.

According to his analysis, historical narrative, in the form of straightforward prose, accounts for over one-half of the total text of the Book of Mormon. But the book also contains prophetic discourse and symbolic prophecy (somewhat like the Book of Revelation). Brother Sperry’s observations show the improbability that an unlearned man could have created a work bearing all these facets of form and content. Indeed, he argued that Joseph Smith must have translated this scripture by divine power.

Perhaps Brother Sperry differed most with his learned colleagues in accepting divine revelation. He devoted a chapter in several books to explaining the history and function of the Urim and Thummim, the instrument of revelation used by Joseph Smith in translating the Book of Mormon. He showed that such an instrument had been available to prophets from the time of Moses to the time of John the Revelator, from the Tower of Babel to the Restoration.

In one of his earliest books, Dr. Sperry noted that the Book of Mormon greatly enhances our understanding of the Old and New Testaments, and indeed our concepts of their origins and transmission. His first work on this subject was in 1938 for the Adult Department of the Mutual Improvement Association. He observed that the Book of Mormon substantiates the historicity of the writings of Moses and of the prophets, particularly of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Malachi. He also found that the character of our Savior and the nature of his atonement in both the Old and New Testaments can be more fully understood with the help of teachings from the Book of Mormon. He deeply believed that the divine source of the teachings of Paul and the Apostles was the same as the source of prophetic teachings in the Book of Mormon.

Brother Sperry deplored the theory of some Bible scholars which held that the writers of ancient records could have spoken only out of the experience of their own times and cultures. In its extreme form, this higher criticism argued that Moses could not have written the books of Moses, that Isaiah could not have written all of the book of Isaiah, and that the Bible was a great book inspired only in a rather vague way. Sidney Sperry testified that the process of revelation does satisfactorily explain the origin of scriptural prophecies. And he accepted the ancient writers as prophets and dependable witnesses of Jesus Christ and his gospel. A key point in his arguments was that “the Book of Mormon record, whose age antedates the Exile (588 B.C.) affirms the persistent Jewish tradition that Moses wrote five books. …

“The mention of Adam and Eve, ‘our first parents,’ in the Book of Mormon tends to confirm the Biblical accounts of the parents of the race. Modern criticism has generally rated the patriarchal predecessors of Abraham as mythical or legendary figures and of no special importance. …

“The Book of Mormon affirms … that Israel was a record-keeping people from the very earliest times. It strikingly confirms the traditions of the Hebrew people that Moses did write five books and becomes a witness to the fact that the Old Testament stories about the patriarchs and the early history of the tribes of Israel are more reliable than generally supposed.” (Sidney B. Sperry, Ancient Records Testify in Papyrus and Stone, Salt Lake City: MIA Boards of the LDS Church, 1938, pp. 231–32.)

Dr. Sperry’s faith in the Book of Mormon provided him with answers to several questions biblical scholars have found problematical. He saw Lehi’s reference to “the five books of Moses” (1 Ne. 5:11) as confirmation of Moses’ authorship. The Book of Mormon patriarchs and prophets also confirm the historicity of Adam and Eve, Melchizedek, and Abraham. The Creation was no legend, and the biblical patriarchs were historical ancestors, not fictitious heroes.

He suggested that the Book of Mormon also resolves the question of the historical and doctrinal integrity of the book of Isaiah. Dr. Sperry stressed that the Isaiah text in the Book of Mormon deviates from the King James version because it comes from an earlier and possibly more correct text.

In Our Book of Mormon, Brother Sperry set the two renditions of the Beatitudes in parallel columns to highlight their similarities and also their differences. He also pointed to helpful clarifications in the Book of Mormon version—for example, that the poor in spirit, those in mourning, and others could be blessed only as they would come unto the Lord. (See 3 Ne. 12:2–3.)

The fact that wording in many passages of the Book of Mormon is almost identical to the King James Version has been used by some critics to argue against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Dr. Sperry countered that Joseph Smith undoubtedly referred to the King James Version when he came to a familiar passage, correcting when necessary.

Critics have also pointed to the similarity between Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 12:4–11 and 13:4–8 [1 Cor. 12:4–11; 1 Cor. 13:4–8] and those in Moroni 10:8–17 and 7:45–46. [Moro. 10:8–17; Moro. 7:45–46] Here, Brother Sperry proposed that Paul and the Nephite prophet had access to a common body of teaching, whose original author was Christ. To support this explanation, he reminded his readers that the Book of Mormon teaches that man has had the doctrines of Jesus from the earliest ages. (See Jacob 4:4–6.)

In the same vein, he described the organization and workings of the Church of Jesus Christ among the Book of Mormon peoples and highlighted the theme of the importance of righteousness found in the Book of Mormon. Some of Dr. Sperry’s learned colleagues hypothesized that the “unknown” writer of Deuteronomy held a unique philosophy that “the righteous are blessed, but the wicked are cursed.” According to Sidney Sperry, no philosophy is more universal in the Book of Mormon. (See 1 Ne. 17:33–35.)

Another characteristic he found in the Book of Mormon “is the warm personal relation existing between God and His people. To the Nephite branch of Israel, God was not a remote being, shut off from men by an impenetrable veil and acting only through secondary causes and impersonal laws. He was a living, personal, dynamic being who entered into a covenant relationship with these people even as with the ancient Hebrews. The idea of a covenant between God and His people is expressed upwards of one hundred and fifteen times in the Nephite record. The close relationship existing between the Nephites and their God enabled them more completely to understand the conduct which God required. … We may use much of their religious teaching just as it stands, because it expresses eternal principles of righteousness.” (Our Book of Mormon, p. 299.)

Sidney B. Sperry constantly portrayed to me the qualities of gentleness, kindness, and consideration, as well as honesty, frankness, and fairness. So it is not surprising to me that one of the longest chapters in one of his books reviews Book of Mormon teachings on personal goodness. With many quotations from scripture, Dr. Sperry illustrates the admonishments of prophets and patriarchs to such virtues as love in the family, charity and generosity in the community, humility and honesty in civic and political service. These he contrasts with the hard-heartedness, greed, pride, and guile so often displayed.

Besides his books, Brother Sperry wrote numerous articles, gave many lectures, answered hundreds of letters, and received thousands of visitors who had questions. Some of the lecture programs he launched are still conducted at BYU.

The interest that really began back in LDS High School became a consuming life’s work for this gentle scholar, Sidney B. Sperry. His was a pioneering work, a work that has laid a foundation of understanding for future generations. His considerable talents, his faith and dedication, his mind and heart and imagination—these were his gifts to the Latter-day Saints.

[photos] (Top) Sidney Sperry in his office at Brigham Young University, where he taught for many years. (Right) Brother Sperry, left, and Hugh Nibley examine ancient documents.

[photo] Sidney Sperry, left, in the early 1930s, while studying at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem.

Ellis T. Rasmussen, former dean of religious instruction at Brigham Young University, is a stake patriarch in the Orem Utah Sharon West Stake.