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Two 19th century books that upended Christianity

In the 19th century, two intensely spiritual souls in their 20s brought out books that reshaped Christianity. Both were rural folks, working in obscurity. Both struggled with spelling and grammar.

Both would also die young, before seeing the breathtaking success of what they’d started.

The two books were produced at breakneck speed. Both would eventually sell millions upon millions of copies and be translated into dozens upon dozens of languages.

The Prophet Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
The Prophet Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.

One book was the Book of Mormon, of course, brought to light by Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The other, “The Story of a Soul,” was the work of Therese of Lisieux, a little Carmelite nun from a convent in the French provinces. Today she's a saint.

In an introduction to his English version of “The Story of a Soul,” John Beevers, the translator, struggles to explain the other-worldly success of Therese’s book. As I read his piece, written in 1957, it struck me that everything he was saying about “The Story of a Soul,” Mormons had been saying about the Book of Mormon for almost 200 years.

His view of “The Story of a Soul” makes a stunning case for the wonders of the Book of Mormon.

First, Beevers says “The Story of a Soul” is “not a great literary work.” He says, “It often happens that anyone reading (the book) for the first time will be unimpressed and may even find it distasteful because it is written in the idiom of an age which, though near to us in time, is emotionally far distant from us. But it is very certain that this reader will not forget it and that, one day, he will return to it."

“Once read,” Beevers says, “it cannot be forgotten.”

He goes on to say that the universal appeal of the book is staggering. “Simple ill-educated people and great scholars read it,” he says. “Men and women of every race and of every kind of intelligence and education succumb to it.”

A portrait of Saint Therese of Lisieux shown in 2015 in Belgium.
A portrait of Saint Therese of Lisieux shown in 2015 in Belgium.

He calls that a “baffling phenomenon” and marvels that the book's “influence deepens and widens every year.”

He writes: “We go wrong, I think, because we judge it by normal and natural standards. But it is not a normal or natural book. It is abnormal because it is a supernatural book. When we read it, its obvious faults mean nothing. They are unimportant and irrelevant.”

He concludes by saying that beneath the book’s verbal “infelicities” there burns “a fierce exultant flame of holy passion which grips the reader.”

It is that last thought of Beevers that strikes a chord with me. As stoic Westerners, many of us tend to read the prose of the Book of Mormon in an understated, dry-eyed manner. But beneath the lines runs a torrent of fervor and zeal. We feel it, but seldom call it to the surface. If you open yourself up to it, however, reading the Book of Mormon can feel like mounting a great stallion and galloping at a dizzying clip. Just as people return time and again to thrill rides, readers return to the Book of Mormon and Catholics return to “The Story of a Soul” for the rush, to feel tapped into a power and velocity we could never generate on our own.

We crave, as Beevers says, that "fierce, exultant flame of holy passion."