I plan to study the Book of Mormon more in depth this year, as we study it in Gospel Doctrine. Something I’m learning, is that as Grant Hardy said, when you take the Book of Mormon seriously and dive deep, not just the way LDS do traditionally in a devotional way, but also the way you would another literary work, the literary and textual analysis, you are deeply and sometimes surprisingly and unexpectedly rewarded. Today I write about the interesting phrase “straight and narrow way”.
The phrase appears three times in the Book of Mormon, the first by Lehi describing the path to the Tree of Life in his dream, covered in this this week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson.
1 Nephi 8:20
20 And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
A lot of my research comes from two good articles published through the Maxwell Institute Straight (Not Strait) and Narrow by John Welch and Was the Path Nephi Saw “Strait and Narrow” or “Straight and Narrow” by Royal Skousen.
Should it be strait or straight?
Usage in Scripture
The phrase “strait/straight and narrow” does not appear in the Bible, though the foundation in Matthew 7:13,14 is obvious.
13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
This word strait in this verse properly retains the original Greek word stenos and the poetic structure of the original Greek. Stenos means narrow or strait, which we don’t use much in modern English but means narrow or constricted.
The earliest edition we have of the Book of Mormon, 1830 version and all versions up through 1981, had the three occurrences of the phrase as “straight and narrow”. They were changed to “strait and narrow” in 1981. The original manuscript has them all as strait, however, this does not shed any light into the issue, because all spellings of the word strait and straight were spelled “strait” in the original manuscript. Since there were many misspellings in that version and some obvious words meant as “straight” were spelled as “strait”, it’s impossible to know the true intent.
Looking at other usages within the Book of Mormon gives the best explanation as to which was meant. “Straight and narrow” also appears in 2 Nephi 31:18 and 19 and Helaman 3:29. The word straight/strait as a descriptor of the path or way or course is also used several times.
Skousen and Welch both argue that the many verses in the Book of Mormon giving greater context to this issue point to a proper interpretation as “straight”. In Alma 7:9, Alma tells the people of Gideon to walk in the Lord’s paths, “which are straight” and v. 20 that the Lord “cannot walk in crooked paths.” Several references are to a “straight course” with obvious allusions to direction, which culminate in the “straight and narrow course” reference of Helaman 3:29.
2 Ne 9:41 is the best example of this. Jacob is the author of this verse, and as Lehi’s son, and considering the importance of Lehi’s dream as spiritual foundation for the Nephite group, it’s clear he was drawing directly on Lehi’s earlier description. Notice also Jacob brings in the gate, tying this back to Matthew 7:14 even more directly.
41 O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.
It’s unknown exactly how the phrase “strait and narrow” originated, but it is assumed to have evolved from the King James Bible English translation of Matthew 7. We see several instances in religious writings in the 1600’s and beyond.
How that evolved to “straight and narrow” is interesting. Occurrences of this phrase started in the 1600’s also, and it’s assumed it first evolved as a conflation of strait and straight. Over time, doctrinal meaning was attached to the phrase, though it never appears in the Bible. Especially, attaching it to verses like Isaiah 59:8 “they have made them crooked paths”. According to John Welch, the circulation of the phrase was greatly increased due to the 1678 work Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This was one of the most popular Christian theological writings of the day, and well known by Joseph Smith and his religious peers in the early 1800’s.
The way thou must go…is as straight as a rule can make it…Are there no turnings or windings, by which a stranger may lose his way? Yes, there are many ways butt down upon this; and they are crooked and wide: But thus thou mayst distinguish the right from the wrong, the Right only being straight and narrow.
So, starting around the 1700’s, the more common phrase to use in sermons and gospel writings was “straight and narrow” not “strait and narrow”, even though “strait and narrow” was the obvious Bible foundation of the phrase.
Both phrases can make sense. Strait and narrow is a tautology (use of redundant words), meaning narrow and narrow, but is used for its poetic value and reference to the KJV scripture. Straight and narrow also makes sense.
Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine wrote:
The course leading to eternal life is both strait and straight. It is straight because it has an invariable direction – always it is the same. There are no diversions, crooked paths, or tangents leading to the kingdom of God. It is strait because it is narrow and restricted, a course where full obedience to the full law is required. Straightness has reference to direction, straitness to width. The gate is strait; the path is both strait and straight.
It’s interesting to note that outside of this reference, Bruce R. McConkie always used “strait and narrow” in his writings both before and after the 1981 change. Bruce R. McConkie of course is known for leading the 1981 scripture publications, writing chapter headings, and managing other changes, which the change straight to strait would be one. So, conspiracy theory: McConkie was the one who preferred strait over straight and changed it himself.
Joseph Smith Translation
We don’t know exactly how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. There are many theories. We have several accounts such that we know a seerstone and hat was involved and we assume the Gold Plates had some purpose, though we know they were not required in the way that a traditional, literal translation would require. The only statement we have from Joseph is that it was done by the power of God.
Some LDS believe in a very tight translation, meaning the exact words were given to him to recite to the scribe. In this case, God must have made the phrase “strait/straight and narrow” appear to Joseph, though we may never know exactly which.
Some scholars believe in a very loose translation, with Joseph having the prophetic right to use his own words and possibly even providing exegesis, extrapolating additional text and doctrinal understanding.
Other scholars believe in a multi-faceted model based on the evidence (historical and textual) that suggest it was both tight and loose, at different times.
Critics believe the Book of Mormon was created entirely in the mind of Joseph Smith (with a minority believing it was some sort of conspiracy with others or other texts involved).
The case of “straight and narrow” is not simple to explain for any of these groups.
Tight translation. Why would God use a phrase based on a conflation of the term strait in the King James, and is it likely that Lehi, pre-KJV, would have used that phrase?
Loose translation. It makes sense that Joseph would insert that phrase, but why would it keep occurring throughout the Book of Mormon as a theme, unless he was manipulating the text?
Critics. How does Joseph weave together fairly complex usages of this through the Book of Mormon, showing dependencies on prior authors and figures in the Book of Mormon, that seem to a bit more complex and surprisingly consistent than expected, given the book’s origin and author.
So, in conclusion, I enjoyed studying this topic, and I give thanks to Skousen and Welch for their work. I think it’s interesting to see the evolution of the term straight and narrow. I think this episode is a minor strike against antiquity in the Book of Mormon but also a minor hit for evidence of complexity beyond Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon.