PROVO — One of the reasons behind The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' decision to film the Book of Mormon videos stemmed from greater need and opportunity.
A few years ago, if you did an online search for the term "Book of Mormon," you would find a lot of links to "The Book of Mormon Musical." It was important to the LDS Church to help online searchers find a better and more accessible explanation of this sacred scripture, said Rob Jex, a product manager for the LDS Church, speaking at Saturday's Book of Mormon Central 2018 conference.
"Part of this project is based on the fact that we want to give people searching for the Book of Mormon a real knowledge of what the Book of Mormon is, what it contains, what it teaches, what it's about, not just what others might want to tell our story for us," Jex said.
As part of his presentation, Jex showed exclusive images and a pre-release trailer that generated quite a buzz among a large crowd gathered in the Utah Valley Convention Center. The church hopes the videos will be visually appealing, strengthen faith and create greater interest in the scriptures. If all goes well, stories from the first 18 chapters of I Nephi could be released in September just before the next general conference, and will be available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
As the trailer ended, Jex asked a question that sparked a gleeful applause — "Is anyone excited to see these videos?"
"I would characterize the reaction as enthusiastic," Jex said later. "Most of the comments were of appreciation in nature. 'Thank you for sharing; we're glad the church is doing this; we are excited to see these.'"
The sneak peek of the church's Book of Mormon videos was one of several highlights at the annual Book of Mormon Central conference, which carried the theme "Experience the Book of Mormon" and had more than 500 attendees from Canada, the United States and Mexico.
Since its launch in 2015, BookofMormonCentral.org has witnessed a steady increase in email subscribers and web traffic. Kirk Magleby, director of Book of Mormon Central, anticipates the trend to continue.
"This is the largest conference we've had so far and the most ambitious," Magleby said. "We are growing, maturing, and our audience is getting much larger. … We believe the Book of Mormon deserves to be understood and appreciated by millions and tens of millions of people all over the world. We won’t be content until we’ve reached those kinds of numbers. We are well on our way."
The conference included several scholarly presentations, virtual reality tours of ancient scriptural locations, an art contest and gallery, a re-created Bedouin tent, a full-scale replica of E.B. Grandin's printing press, and displays featuring ancient Roman plates and replica artifacts of the Book of Mormon.
Book of Mormon Central (BMC) also confirmed that the new interactive digital scriptures app announced last August at its Chiasmus Jubilee is indeed coming. The major project will allow users to quickly access videos, artwork, charts, maps, dictionaries, articles and other features while reading the scriptures. The app is designed to enrich the scripture study experience. The LDS Church has authorized Book of Mormon Central to use the Book of Mormon text to create the app.
In its scope and complexity, Magleby compared the digital scriptures app project to the Joseph Smith Papers project. There is not yet a release date for the app, but a first version is expected within the next year or two, Magleby said.
"We are convinced that 10 years from now, our kids will probably learn the scriptures through virtual experiences," Magleby said. "From the beginning (of BMC), the mission of the organization has been to publish the scriptures in such a way that we can engage the rising generation in the media they prefer, video, online, apps, and so forth, combining the very best of communication capabilities we have with the very best scholarship. It's a huge project."
Other conference speakers, including members of BYU's ancient scripture faculty, gave presentations on topics ranging from stylometry among Book of Mormon authors to the book's translation and printing and Book of Mormon geography.
Matt Roper, a research scholar at BMC, and Paul Fields, a statistics expert, co-delivered a textual analysis of 28 different authors found in the Book of Mormon, showing diversity in their writing styles and offering evidence that Joseph Smith could not have written such a book.
"The evidence simply shows that the Book of Mormon is the product of multiple authors. … It is a complex document," Fields said. "For it to have been created by one man or woman, he or she would have to keep track of at least 28 styles and 28 sentiments and used them consistently and congruently throughout the entire document. That would have been extremely difficult to do and highly unlikely that an uneducated, frontier farm boy could have done that, even if he had a little help from his friends."
LDS author and popular speaker John Bytheway centered his remarks on Jesus Christ's New Testament Parable of the Sower. He expounded on the parable by drawing upon insightful, garden-related teachings — preparing the soil, planting seeds that take root, weeding and fertilizing — from prophets in the Book of Mormon.
Bytheway said "God likes gardens," referring to a quote from the late apostle Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who spoke of the "Three Gardens of God — the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Garden of the Empty Tomb, where Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene." Bytheway said he probably learns more by pondering these ideas while working in his garden than he would by simply reading.
"I love the Book of Mormon for things like this that it can teach us," Bytheway said.
Kate Christiansen, a 20-year-old BYU student, appreciated the way Bytheway connected teachings from the Bible and Book of Mormon. It was one of many things she enjoyed about the conference. She was also fascinated by the virtual reality tours and overall scholarship that has deepened her love of the Book of Mormon.
"There is just so much stuff," Christensen said. "The Book of Mormon, on its own, is obviously very good, nice to study, and it’s very uplifting. But when you get to see all these things, like the facts and the supporting evidences, and meet with all these people who have studied the gospel so much, it makes my testimony so much stronger. You can see how the Bible and the Book of Mormon line up, and all these deeper, doctrinal things, like the chiasmus. … They’ve only found things that further support the church, and I love that."
Joseph Cramer, from Salt Lake City, came to the conference in part to support his brother-in-law, John. W. Welch. He was impressed by the size of the gathering.
"I think the most interesting thing is simply the number of people here showing interest in the Book of Mormon," Cramer said. "It is reason as well as faith that brings us together. It's powerful."
Before giving his own presentation, "Book of Mormon Geography: A Powerful Backdrop to the Book's Message," author and BYU professor of ancient scripture Tyler Griffin was excited to see so many people from various backgrounds come together to explore the Book of Mormon.
"It’s fascinating to me to have this kind of venue where people can explore all these different angles on the book and walk away edified and feeling like you want to be better," Griffin said.
Griffin liked everything he saw at the conference but would like to see more interaction, opportunities to ask questions and open dialogue in the future.
"I think it would be fun to have more questions time, with mics, with a panel of different people about geography, culture, politics, linguistics or contemporary literature, where you can really explore as a group of attendees picking the brains of people who spent thousands of hours studying these topics. So more open dialogue, less presentation, more interaction."
In between presentations, attendees gathered around a table in the display area to see David Baird's replica Book of Mormon artifacts, which he started creating 20 years ago: a recreated Liahona, the sword of Laban, the gold plates and a breastplate with the Urim and Thummim, among others.
Baird first created his Liahona out of a brass ball "with curious workmanship" to help a friend teaching in his LDS ward's deacon's quorum. His replica Book of Mormon compass went on to win the grand prize for metal work in one of the first LDS Church's worldwide art competitions, Baird said.
"It's been an ongoing, fascinating project. I like to take them around and show people," Baird said. "I am particularly excited when they invite me to something like this."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Rob Jex's job title. Jex is a product manager for the LDS Church, not director of scriptures coordination. For clarification, an earlier version of this article said Book of Mormon Central's project to create a digital scriptures app was officially licensed by the LDS Church. The church has not officially licensed the scripture app, but has licensed the use of the LDS scriptures to Book of Mormon Central.