HOW WAS THE BOOK OF MORMON USED BY THE EARLY SAINTS?
When the Book of Mormon was first translated and published, it was brand new to the entire world. Its doctrines, messages, personalities, and details were all in need of rediscovery. Even the Prophet Joseph Smith, the instrument through which God transmitted this record, does not appear to have fully assimilated all its complexities and nuances, for he rarely quoted from the Book of Mormon (as one might expect had he written the book).
What the Book of Mormon meant to the Saints from 1830 to 1846, therefore, makes an intriguing study. What did they see in this amazing book? Which sections did they quote from? Which passages did they emphasize? Grant Underwood's prize-winning "Book of Mormon Usage in Early LDS Theology," reprinted from Dialogue, where it won the Silver Foundation Writing Contest for 1984, provides some answers to these kinds of questions.
For example, the principal theological themes (in decreasing order of frequency) for which the Book of Mormon was cited in the sources that Underwood surveys are (1) the restoration of Israel, (2) the wickedness of Christendom in 1830, (3) the atonement, (4) the mission of Joseph Smith, (5) the first principles of the Gospel, (6) a concern for holiness, and (7) revelation and spiritual gifts. Prophetic sections of the book, especially in 2 Nephi 25-33 and 3 Nephi 16-21, account for the vast majority of verses quoted. On the other hand, scriptures like King Benjamin's speech (which are used so frequently today) were still virtually undiscovered.
Underwood's paper, with its numerous charts, graphs, and long appendix, is available on the attached order sheet. It provides a good point of departure for understanding the learning of the Saints in the early years of the Church, as well as for reflecting on how we today use the Book of Mormon for religious inspiration and instruction.