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Ezra Taft Benson, the only Mormon apostle ever to serve in a U.S. Cabinet, was known as a forceful foe of communism and a dedicated disciple of conservatism.

Benson's most enduring religious legacy, however, may be his dramatic reordering of LDS scriptural priorities.

In a word, Benson — during his 50-plus years as an LDS authority, including 8½ as president — elevated the faith's signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, to its pre-eminence in the LDS canon, so that leaders and members alike now quote and read it more often than the Bible.

This year, as members of the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints study the statements and sermons of Benson, they may not fully recognize what some have called a "revolution" in the LDS view of scripture.

"Mormons have developed a kind of amnesia towards the Bible since 1980," says Philip Barlow, a Utah State University historian. "It really has changed the consciousness of Mormons. They don't bear testimony of the truthfulness of the Bible much these days, but really specify the Book of Mormon."

And when Latter-day Saints talk about their scriptural heroes, he says, they are not talking about Noah, Gideon or David, but rather Nephi, Alma, and Moroni— figures from the faith's unique text.

Some LDS apostles quote from the Mormon book much more than the Bible. Richard G. Scott and David A. Bednar do so more than twice as much, according to a survey of LDS General Conference addresses conducted by a researcher at the Mormon blog Zelophehad's Daughters.

The reason, some say, can be found in the ministry of an Idaho farm boy who grew up to be Mormonism's 13th "prophet, seer and revelator."

How, though, does this emphasis affect LDS efforts to be considered Christians? How is the Christ of Mormon scriptures different?

Bible-believing Christians • As a young man, Mormon founder Joseph Smith was well-versed in biblical Christianity. He established the LDS Church in 1830, shortly after he produced the Book of Mormon, which he said he translated from gold plates left behind by a band of believers who journeyed from the Middle East and settled on the American continent. Much of its language and teachings mirrored the King James Bible.

The new scripture became a touchstone of the new religion, convincing converts of Smith's prophetic powers and that the heavens remained open. Still, the charismatic leader and all first-generation Mormons were a "Bible-conscious people," Barlow says, who reserved the term "scriptures" for the Bible alone.

"The Book of Mormon seemed in its earliest decades to be more important among Mormons for its existence, signaling that God had spoken again, than for its specific content," Barlow writes in the new preface to his groundbreaking book, "Mormons and the Bible." "Smith's use of the Bible and his wider notion of revelation and 'translation' served not so much to establish for all time the correctness of a given text, but as the building blocks for his incipient religion."

Smith rarely preached from the new text, instead drawing sermons from the Bible verses he knew best.

This pattern continued for LDS authorities through most of the 20th century, including the famed Mormon writer James E. Talmage, an apostle who taught, Barlow says, that the Bible was the "first among equals and foremost of the standard works."

It changed when Benson stepped into LDS leadership, says Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.

As a child, Mason says, the future prophet "fell in love with the book."

During Benson's decades as an apostle, the wisdom of this LDS scripture was a recurrent theme and a constant source of quotes.

"Benson didn't just give one talk on the Book of Mormon," says Mason, who is working on a biography of the LDS patriot-president. "He gave multiple talks on it, saying the same thing over and over. He had a laserlike focus on it, sending a clear message about the agenda of the church."

Patriotic piety • What Benson saw in the book was both pious and political.

He found in it a strong sense "of America's providential role in the world," Mason says. "God had chosen America and set it apart, not just as a political entity but with a profound spirituality in preparation for the coming of Christ."

The Mormon leader also detected what he argued were "close and detailed parallels" between the LDS scripture's condemnation of "secret combinations" — mysterious groups that attempt to undermine the righteous through deception — and the evils of postwar communism, Mason says. "He saw the fight against communism as a godly, religious cause ... and the duty of priesthood holders."

Benson, who served as secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration, gave a copy of the Mormon scripture to the president, the biographer says, with "passages underlined."

In the 1970s, the then-apostle began to preach more explicitly about the Book of Mormon's Christian message and, by the next decade, Benson emphasized the religious themes over the political.

"He continued to say that the scripture would combat false ideologies," Mason says, "but first and foremost it would bring people to Christ and offer a kind of spiritual protection for individuals and families."

Daily reading would invite the Holy Spirit into believers' lives. At the same time, Benson reiterated the importance of "following the prophet," Mason says, "which elevated the power of the presidency."

When Gordon B. Hinckley became the faith's 15th president in 1995, Mason says, "he glided quite easily into that role."

By then, the Book of Mormon had eclipsed the Bible in LDS usage and daily study.

In July 2005, Hinckley challenged every Mormon to read the LDS scripture from cover to cover by year's end. The membership responded enthusiastically, burying their heads in the book on buses and listening to CDs in the shower to complete the 531-page task.

The popular prophet issued no such call to read the entire Bible — but that doesn't mean Mormons have forsaken Jesus Christ.

To make precisely that point, the LDS Church, in 1982, added a subtitle to the Book of Mormon, calling it "Another Testament of Jesus Christ."

A subtle difference • The Christian Savior is the central figure in the Book of Mormon, which tells of Jesus' visit to the Americas after his death in Jerusalem. He preaches essentially the same doctrines as in the Old World and sets up a church.

So what is missing? The Judaic setting, for starters, along with the condemnation of hypocrisy and the open-endedness of an itinerant rabbi.

In the Mormon text, Jesus arrives to find a civilization virtually destroyed, Mason says. "It is a tabula rasa. This view of Jesus doesn't have the same kind of depth and texture."

The Book of Mormon gives just one record of Jesus' sojourn in the Americas, unlike the four New Testament Gospels, says Julie M. Smith, an LDS New Testament scholar in Austin, Texas. "Christ doesn't interact with individuals to the same extent or with women. There are no exorcisms. It's generally a really different portrait than in the Bible."

By focusing primarily on the unique LDS scripture, says Smith, author of the recent "Search, Ponder and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels," "Mormons lose a Jesus who interacts with so many people on margins of society, either because of gender, ethnicity, poverty, illness or marital status."

Beyond that, the LDS faithful "lose a link to the larger Christian world," Smith says. "It might be hard to convey to others the centrality with which we hold Jesus Christ if we are not as conversant with the stories of his mortal ministry."

The Mormon scholar notes the General Conference survey, showing current LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson quotes the New Testament more than other Mormon leaders (nearly half his scriptural notations come from that volume).

"This didn't surprise me at all," Smith says, "since his talks focus so much on concern for the poor and forgotten, which is also a major theme in Luke's Gospel in particular."

The Mormon text and the New Testament, which adult members are studying this year in Sunday school, need to go hand in hand, says Eric Huntsman, an ancient scripture scholar at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.

"The Bible gives facts. The Book of Mormon gives doctrine. The Spirit gives the application," Huntsman says, paraphrasing an LDS authority. "We need [the scriptures], then a personal witness."

Huntsman, who has written several books on the New Testament, believes Mormons would do well to read through the Gospels beginning at Christmas and ending on Easter.

The Book of Mormon's subtitle presupposes that there's a "first testament," he says. "And that we are reading it."

Just not as much as that other "testament."

Twitter: @religiongal —

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We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

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