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BYU advertising professor Jeff Sheets spoke on Thursday at Education Week about a social experiment he led to help people around the world experience the Book of Mormon.
The idea originated before the debut of “The Book of Mormon” musical on Broadway, when Sheets worked with the advertising arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and urged the Church to “lean into” the musical rather than hiding from it.
The first step was taking out an ad in the Playbill for the popular show, which went on to win nine Tony Awards, but Sheets wanted to take it a step further and give people the chance to experience the book for themselves.
After several years of development, an experiment was created to hand people in the street a single page from the Book of Mormon and ask them to look for references to God and Jesus Christ.
Some of the original locations Sheets went to included Chicago, London, Hawaii and Cape Town, South Africa. The experiment has since expanded to be used as a missionary tool in many other places, including most recently Paris, where the first non-English experiment was conducted.
“The Book of Mormon speaks for itself,” Sheets said. “We try to explain it but we don’t let the book speak. Get the book in (people’s) hands.”
As it says on the cover, the Book of Mormon is “another testament of Jesus Christ,” and has the sole purpose of persuading people to come unto Christ, according to Sheets.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve was part of the committee where the experiment originated and said, “We need to let the book do its job.”
The result of the experiment was a collection of 531 highlighted pages and quotes from 531 individuals, one for each page of the English version of the Book of Mormon.
Sheets used the pattern of conversion described in Alma 32 from the Book of Mormon as he shared some of the quotes and stories from the experiment.
“Alma chapter 32 came to life,” Sheets said. “Experimenting and planting a seed was exactly what happened when you gave people an opportunity to look for themselves.”
Kate G., from Australia, read page 184 in Mosiah 19, and described her experience with the passage. “It was one of the first pages of scripture I have ever read. I think that a book like this one can help people find answers in their life when they feel like they are in darkness. I’m so grateful to have been part of this experiment. I’ve been in the dark and needed a little more light in my life.”
Rafi M., a Muslim from the United Kingdom, said the experiment was the first time he read Christian scripture. “I think the page was good; it’s definitely good. It shows that God is a God of miracles, not a God of punishment. He’s merciful, He does miracles, and He wants to help us. I believe that God is that way. He wants to help us.”
One of the main purposes of the experiment, and Sheets’ talk, was to help people see the Book of Mormon “through new eyes.”
“How do we read the book?” Sheets asked. “When we read it, what are we looking for?”
Sheets said if people are creative and different in their approach to the Book of Mormon, they can increase their understanding of it and learn new ways to bring it into others’ lives.
The goal was not to “baptize the next day,” according to Sheets, but to help people feel something. Instead of telling people what the Book of Mormon is about, he wants to know what they feel and see when they read it.
The pages were given to people passing by at random, with no pre-selected passages or filtering based on the person. Sheets said the experiment works best when conducted in a place where people go to mull and ponder, such as a park or market, as opposed to a busy thoroughfare with commuters.
“What if we paused and let God speak to us for a minute amidst all the problems?” Sheets asked.
Miriam C., from Brazil, had an experience with God when she was 19 and her father passed away. She said she felt God tell her that while her earthly father was gone, she would always have a Heavenly Father.
“I had forgotten until I read this page,” Miriam said. “Reading this book lets people remember those experiences.”
Danny T. from Texas said reading a page was like he was listening to a familiar song, but he couldn’t remember what it was called or who it was by.
Sylvanus M., a refugee from Benin in West Africa, read about God blessing people with freedom in the Book of Mormon and knew what it felt like to pray for freedom in an oppressed country.
The presentation ended with a video showing all 531 people’s faces with the page they marked. Sheets had pages from the Book of Mormon by the door for audience members to take and do the experiment for themselves.
He said the California Oakland-San Francisco Mission is one of the missions that has conducted the experiment and the Church is currently working on a digital version of the project.
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