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Christians technically aren't supposed to have a "Canon within the canon" (i.e. a subset of Scripture that is somehow "more scriptural" then everything else) but in practical effect, we do. If someone is interested in learning the Christian faith, nine times out of ten, someone will say, "Read the Book of John," if not actually just whip out John 3:16 and start quoting. (Very few, for example, would say 'start with Leviticus'. The truly erudite would say, "Read the Book of Romans," but I digress...)

So, I've read through Mormon exhibits that tell me about the journey of Lehi & Nephi, of the battle that Helaman fought, and of the final burial of the Scriptures by Moroni - but what I want to know is this - what is the "core teaching" of the Book of Mormon that would be the most fair for me to evaluate? Not to discount the remainder of the LDS scriptures, but is there a "go-to text" that should be looked at first?

In other words, what is the abridged "canon within the canon" of the Book of Mormon? Where do I begin when the guys in the white shirts say, "read this?"

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The answer you chose is a good one, when I was a missionary I started people with 3rd Nephi 11. However, the first scripture we typically read together was actually James 1:5. –  Eric Jun 11 '13 at 17:34

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If any such "unofficial canon within a canon" existed in the Book of Mormon, it would have to be in 3rd Nephi, from chapter 11 to approximately chapter 28. This is from the record of Nephi, a distant descendant of the Nephi from the beginning of the book, who lived through a time period that our modern calendar counts as the 0030s AD: the time of Christ's mortal ministry, his death and resurrection.

This part of the record recounts how, at some point soon after the resurrection of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, (the exact time frame is not given, but it is said to be "in the ending of" the same year,) the resurrected Lord appeared to the people of the Nephites. He spent some time among them, teaching them about the principles of the Gospel and how the Law of Moses had been fulfilled in him, re-organizing the church among them in light of this fundamental shift in the law, and blessing and healing all who came unto him.

In fact, if "the guys in the white shirts" do come by and visit you, it's quite likely that 3rd Nephi chapter 11 will be one of the first things they invite you to read. This section of the narrative is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and spiritual parts of the Book of Mormon.

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From the very title page:

... And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations— ...

...to the last page of the record (Moroni 10:32-33):

32 Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

... the Book of Mormon espouses the doctrine of Christ: His gospel, ministry, and everlasting Atonement:

For another instance, 2 Nephi 33:10:

10 And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.

However, the overall focal point would be in 3 Nephi, chapters 11-28, which records the Savior's ministry upon the American continent. I have seldom seen Book of Mormon passages referenced in an introductory setting more than those which directly speak of Jesus' gospel: faith, repentance, etc.

The Book of Mormon repeats the same doctrine over and over but in different ways... so it's hard to pinpoint a specific verse to answer your question. Typically, missionaries will probably invite you to read in 3 Nephi about Jesus' visit to the Americas, or in 2 Nephi 31 where Nephi preaches on faith, repentance, baptism, and remission of sins.

Which passage missionaries assign people to read is chosen on an individual basis. To explain Christianity in a nutshell, they would probably refer you to John 3:16 in the Bible (it is an excellent verse) -- to explain Mormonism in a nutshell, it varies between any of these types of passages, depending on who you are and your situation.

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Two ways to determine prominent LDS scriptures are the "scripture mastery" lists and citation data from General Conference sermons.

Scripture Mastery

The LDS seminary program encourages youth to increase familiarity with the scriptures by memorizing select passages. This "scripture mastery" program specifies 25 passages in each of the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants. Not that this is somehow a canonical list of the most important verses in scripture, but I suspect the list was chosen based on doctrinal relevance, frequency of use in sermons, etc. So, the Book of Mormon Scripture Mastery list is a good place to start.

References in General Conference

One practical measure of prominence is the frequency with which scriptures are quoted in General Conference. The Passages of Scripture Most Cited in General Conference, 1942 – 2004 was compiled using citation data from http://scriptures.byu.edu/. This list includes passages from not limited to the Book of Mormon.

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