Which GAs Prefer Which Books of Scripture? (Updated!)

I wrote a post last year that looked at which books of scripture members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve (Q15) quote from most in Conference. In an article published last week, Peggy Fletcher Stack briefly referred to my work in a discussion of the Book of Mormon taking priority over the Bible in Mormon thought. She specifically talked about the influence of Ezra Taft Benson, and it occurred to me that it would be easy to expand my post from just looking at the living members of the Q15 to including past members as well, so we could actually see what President Benson’s numbers looked like. In this post, I’ll look at which books of scripture members of the Q15 back through Spencer W. Kimball quoted most in Conference. Unfortunately, I can’t go farther back than that because the LDS Scripture Citation Index, from which I’m pulling data, only goes back as far as 1942, so Q15 members called before then have incomplete data. President Kimball was called to the Q15 in 1943, so he is the oldest member for whom I have complete data.

This graph shows what percentage of each Q15 member’s scriptural citations in Conference are to each of the five books of scripture in the LDS canon. Note that members are listed in order by calling date.

GA quotes of books of scripture raw pctLooking at President Benson compared to his contemporaries, it looks like Stack’s article was spot on in pointing out that he pushed the Book of Mormon in a unique way. Other than the occasional Marion G. Romney, with his penchant for quoting the D&C, almost everyone quoted the New Testament more than any other book. But Benson took 37% of his quotes from the Book of Mormon, when most others were taking no more than 20%. It’s also clear that he was part of a trend (or was perhaps pushing the trend). Things have changed so much that several living Q15 members quote the Book of Mormon more than any other book, some even more than Benson himself did (e.g., Elder Bednar at 45%).

A quick aside about the cause of the trend: In my last post, I pointed out that the timing of Benson’s famous talk “The Book of Mormon–Keystone of Our Religion” was wrong for it to be the cause of the move toward quoting the Book of Mormon more. He gave the talk after the change had already happened. Given, though, that he was clearly quoting more from the Book of Mormon even before the general shift, it seems likely that he was at least part of the cause of the shift, even if that one talk wasn’t responsible.

Getting back to the trend itself, here’s a graph showing how much each book of scripture has been quoted in Conference by all speakers, since 1942. (This is reproduced from my previous post.)

conference books of scripture quotedI adjusted each Q15 member’s percentages to compare them against the prevailing percentages in the years in which he served. For example, President Benson’s quoting of the Book of Mormon was more unusual, given that it occurred mostly in a time when the New Testament was generally quoted the most, than is Elder Bednar’s quoting of the Book of Mormon, given that it has occurred in a time when the Book of Mormon is generally quoted the most. As I did in my previous post, for this graph I calculated the percentage point difference between the Q15 member’s quoting of each book of scripture and the average percentage for all Conferences during the years in which he served.

GA quotes of books of scripture vs contemporary normsThis really highlights how much President Benson stands out: his +20 percentage point difference is the largest difference in either direction for the Book of Mormon, and his -22 point difference is the largest negative difference for the New Testament (although Howard W. Hunter has a larger absolute difference: +24). By contrast, someone like David B. Haight had opposite preferences: +21 for the New Testament and -15 for the Book of Mormon. Some other Q15 members show different patterns. For example, LeGrand Richards, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson all quote more from both the Old and the New Testaments more than contemporary norms, and less from all three books of latter-day scripture.

Another interesting pattern is that some Q15 members differ more from contemporary norms in general than others. Some members, like Bruce R. McConkie and Dallin H. Oaks, deviate very little. Others, like President Benson and Richard G. Scott, deviate a lot. This last graph shows each member’s absolute deviations from contemporary norms stacked on top of each other. I’ve kept the colors the same to hopefully make clear that what I’m doing here is just to take the bar lengths and stack them up, regardless of whether they represent positive or negative differences.

GA quotes of books of scripture abs diff vs contermporary normsI’m sorry this one is a little busy, as I’ve preserved a lot of information from the previous graph. Each Q15 member’s bar is broken up into sub-bars that show how much of his deviation is due to deviation in each particular book of scripture. I’ve also distinguished positive and negative deviations by putting a black border around sub-bars that are for negative deviations and leaving the positive deviations with no border. If this is all too much to digest, though, you can get the real message by just looking at the total bar length. President Benson stands out the most from his contemporary norms, with a total absolute deviation (i.e., bar length) of 61 percentage points. Matthew Cowley, Howard W. Hunter, and Thomas S. Monson also stand out as being different than contemporary norms. Dallin H. Oaks and M. Russell Ballard stand out as being very in line with contemporary norms. One other possible trend is that it looks like more recent Q15 members deviate less from their norms than do older members. It’s possible, though, that this is just an illusion caused by incomplete data, and it’s just that they’re (relatively) new in the quorum. It may be that as quorum members age, they fall more out of line with contemporary norms, so this illusion arises because we have only incomplete data for all living members of the Q15. Maybe I’ll look into that question in a future post.

17 thoughts on “Which GAs Prefer Which Books of Scripture? (Updated!)

  1. 1

    Cool! Has there been any change in tendency to cite scriptures over time? I know you broke it out by per-speaker data on citations, but that context would help me understand what’s going on in the second graph (the one you copied from your previous post).

  2. 2

    Sorry, Abu Casey, I’m not sure I understand your question. Do you mean any change in tendency to cite scriptures at all (i.e., total number of scripture cites per talk or per Conference)? The second graph definitely doesn’t capture that, if that’s what you’re getting at.

  3. 3

    Yes, total number of scripture cites. I’m just wondering how that changes over time, as it would provide some more context for what’s happening in the second graph.

  4. 4

    Do you have the data comparing Presidents Kimball, Benson, Hunter, hinckley, and Monson before and after they became the Prophet. I am wondering if being the Prophet leads to a shift in message and what scriptures one cites.

  5. 5

    Ziff: I appreciate you diving into this data. I agree that breaking it out by book illustrates some important trends. Perhaps in a future post you could dig deeper. It would be interesting to know, for instance, how well the list of scripture mastery verses in seminary correlates with the passages cited most often in general conference. Maybe the scriptures quoted most often in conference changes over time. Does the top 500 list change each decade because new apostles and prophets are called or because the church has to tailor its message to ever-evolving conditions in the world? Analyzing trends at that level might also complicate some of your distinctions between books of scripture. For example, were conference speakers in previous decades more likely to cite the New Testament when quoting from the Sermon on the Mount, whereas since 1980 they have preferred the strikingly similar chapters in Third Nephi? In other words, you might want to identify parallel passages between the Bible and restoration scriptures, as means of conducting a more controlled experiment, and determine whether certain or more recent general authorities are in fact favoring Book of Mormon verses over ones in the Bible that say more or less the same thing.

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  7. 7

    Daniel, I don’t, but that’s one thing I was thinking of looking at in the future–how different Q15 members’ patterns of which books they cite change over time. So hopefully I’ll get to that! The data will just be slightly more tedious to collect. 🙂

    sterflu, I like your idea of a controlled experiment. It sounds like a complaint I’ve heard one of my sisters make that when we Mormons cite something in the Bible, if there’s any opportunity to have the citation point to the Book of Mormon (because it’s in an Isaiah quote in 2 Nephi, because it’s in the repeat of the Sermon on the Mount, etc.), we’ll take it. It wouldn’t be surprising if, like you said, this tendency has actually changed over time.

  8. 8

    Thanks, Ziff! I wasn’t expecting such a dramatic shift. And I’d definitely second sterflu’s experiment idea. I’d love to see those results!

  9. 9

    Very interesting. I had a thought a while ago about the relation between GAs quoting scripture versus quoting each other in their GC talks. It’d take quite a bit of effort, but whoever wants to beat me to figuring out “which GAs prefer which GAs” is welcome to ; )

  10. 10

    That’s a great suggestion, newby. I’ve actually thought about looking at it, but I’ve been deterred by the fact that getting the data would be so much harder. For scripture citations, it has all already been handily collected for me. For GAs quoting GAs, I would actually have to figure out how to get it myself. And I’m lazy. 🙂

  11. 11

    I find these analyses absolutely fascinating; thank you, Ziff!

    I wonder if preferring the citation of the BOM version of the sermon on the mount, for eg, is a policy or unwritten order thing or what. It seems a shame, from an ecumenical pov.

    I’m also struck by how (relatively) short the list of men called since 1943 is!

  12. 12

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It is fascinating. I find it interesting to see such a decline in interest in the new testament from past attention.

    Good work.

  13. Pingback: Which GAs Prefer Which Books of Scripture? (Take 3) | Zelophehad’s Daughters

  14. 14

    Thanks, Shannon and James! And Shannon, I totally agree: it’s so strange to see how few Q15 members we get when extending the cutoff back that far. It really highlights how long they typically serve for.

    Also, if anyone’s interested in a related analysis, David Evans over at T&S looked at which speakers quoted different types of sources in the last Conference (scripture, high authority LDS, low authority LDS, non-LDS) as a function of what position the speaker held. A really interesting post!

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2015/02/they-spoke-in-general-conference-as-ones-that-had-authority/

  15. 15

    Thanks for your time and help in looking at this data Ziff. I have also been shocked to see how much lower the use of NT references have become. (Shown between your post and the one at Times and Seasons.) I am not upset to see the Book of Mormon being used, but it is important to me that we not lose the sight of Christ and the Atonement.

  16. 16

    Interesting Ziff. I’ve been studying the historical context of the New Testament texts and thought about a question this morning that I thought would be a good question for the one and only Ziff. Then I stumbled on to this post, which is basically a macro view of my question…

    As scholarship over the last 100 years has shown, several of the books of scripture attributed to Paul were in fact not written by him but were later forgeries (or pseudonymous to put it more gently). Generally accepted books in this category among scholars include Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. I’d be interested to know if there is any difference in how often these books of scripture are cited by GAs, which might thereby imply that the GAs are aware of such historical unreliability.

    Perhaps the data set isn’t big enough to draw any conclusions though.

  17. 17

    Thanks, juliathepoet!

    I think you’re exactly right, Greg, that your question could be answered (or at least looked at) with the data from the LDSSCI. I’ve only taken data at the book level, but they’ve got data all the way down to the verse level, so you could certainly look at whether those books are cited less over time. Unfortunately, I suspect you might also be right that there aren’t enough references to those later epistles to begin with to draw any solid conclusions.

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