“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book”[ii]
Joseph Smith, Jr.
The previous article discussed Joseph Smith and the translation of The Book of Mormon. This article discusses the book itself.
So, what is The Book of Mormon? To start with, the full title of the book is The Book of Mormon Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The book is a volume of scripture similar to the Bible. Like the Bible it is comprised of “books” – the writings of various prophets expressing the will of the Lord to people whose willingness to obey what the Lord said varied wildly.
If it’s just like the Bible, then why do we need it? It’s another witness of the divinity of Christ. In Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, he re-stated the Old Testament dictum that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.”[iii] We have had the Bible and now we have the Book of Mormon which both bear witness of the divinity of Christ.
The Book of Mormon teaches of Christ on nearly every page. As Nephi, the first prophet of the Book of Mormon, states “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”[iv]
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sees the Book of Mormon as the fulfillment of prophecy. It is Isaiah’s “voice from the dust”,[v] and “sealed book”[vi] (see the story of Martin Harris’ encounter with Dr. Charles Anton in the previous article), and the stick of Joseph referenced by Ezekiel.[vii]
The importance of the Book of Mormon to the Church cannot be overstated. Joseph Smith’s description of the book as the “keystone of our religion” is apt. Like the arch a keystone supports, the Church would crumble without it. If the Book of Mormon is not the word of God, then Joseph Smith was a master con-man whose fraud continues to this day, and all the millions of people who have professed a belief in his teachings are either credulous dupes or cynical perpetuators of the fraud. If, on the other hand, the Book of Mormon is the word of God, then it was translated as Joseph Smith said it was, which means that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and the Church has a modern imprimatur from God.
The Book of Mormon is an abridgement of sacred writings generated over a thousand years by prophets living in the Americas. The records were selected, edited, and compiled mostly by the prophet Mormon (after whom the book is named). The project was completed by Mormon’s son Moroni (the same Moroni who gave them to Joseph Smith). After Moroni finished his father’s work, he added two things: The Book of Ether, which relates the story of the Jaredites (see below), and the Book of Moroni, which contains letters and sermons which Mormon gave to his son along with procedures for ordinances such as baptism and the administration of the sacrament.
The Book of Mormon was not created for the people it talks about. It was written for the people who lived in the time it was brought to light – our time. The prophet Mormon was compiling it as his nation was sliding towards oblivion. His enemies would have destroyed the writings if they had found them. His son Moroni added his contributions and buried the plates to preserve them, and there they remained for 1400 years, until he showed them to Joseph Smith.
So, what’s in the book? Wonderful things. The Book of Mormon relates the rise and fall of two civilizations on the American continent. The earlier civilization, known as the Jaredites, began as a number of family groups who came out from the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel under the guidance of a prophet known only as the brother of Jared. This prophet guided them to the sea shore where the Lord instructed them to build boats in which he would carry them over the sea to the land of promise. While the Jaredites were building the boats, the brother of Jared went to the Lord with two problems: because the boats were airtight, 1) it was dark and 2) the people in them would suffocate and die.[viii]
The Lord told them how to solve the problem of the air: Drill holes in the top and bottom of the boat, and stop them up. When the air gets foul, open which ever plug is on top. If water comes in, you’re underwater, plug it back up.[ix]
For light, the Lord told the brother of Jared to come back with a suggestion. They couldn’t have fire – they’d be going up and down on waves and diving beneath them – but he should come up with something.[x] The prophet melted sixteen clear, small, stones (two for each boat) out of a rock and brought them to the Lord, and asked him to touch them so that they would shine in the darkness.[xi] The Lord agreed, and when he reached out to touch the stones, “the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord; and it was as the finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood; and the brother of Jared fell down before the Lord, for he was struck with fear.”[xii] When the Lord asked him what had happened, the brother of Jared replied that he had seen the Lord’s finger, and was afraid he would be struck down “for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood”[xiii].
The Lord responded that faith had enabled the brother of Jared to see the finger, and the fact that he would eventually take on a mortal body. He then revealed his spirit body to the brother of Jared, and introduced himself as Jesus Christ.[xiv]
After this revelation, the brother of Jared took the lit stones down off the mountain and put them in the boats. After preparing stores for themselves and their flocks for the voyage, the Jaredites boarded the boats, and the Lord conveyed them across the ocean. The remainder of the Book of Ether reports a cycle of righteous and wicked kings among the Jaredites. They war and intrigue against each other until finally, in a last calamitous battle, the Jaredite nation destroys itself completely. The Book of Ether reports that the lone survivor was one of the kings, who had been warned by the prophet Ether that if he did not repent of his sins, he would live to see his lands taken over by another people.[xv] The Book of Mormon records the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Book of Omni.[xvi]
The other major civilization described by the Book of Mormon is the family of Lehi. Lehi was a prophet who lived near Jerusalem in 600 BC. Lehi warned the people of Jerusalem about the imminent Babylonian invasion. When the people tried to kill him, the Lord instructed Lehi to leave and take his family – comprised of his wife, Sariah, his sons Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi, and an unspecified number of daughters – out of the city. 1 Nephi, the first book in the Book of Mormon, is the story of their travels in the wilderness until they came to the seashore, where they built a boat, and were guided by the Lord to the Americas.
The story is punctuated by tension between the brothers. The older brothers (Laman and Lemuel) were quite happy with their civilized lifestyle, and didn’t actually believe their fathers teachings. Bailing out of the city at a moment’s notice, based on a dream their father had was not part of their plan. The younger brothers (Sam and Nephi) believed their father and obeyed his commands without complaining.
One example of this division is an event which took place in 1 Nephi 3. The Lord commanded Lehi to send his sons back to Jerusalem (several days journey from where they were) to obtain plates which contained the scriptures and other records they would need to preserve their civilization once they arrived at the promised land. These plates were in the keeping of Laban – a powerful member of the ruling class in Jerusalem.
From the beginning of the journey back, Laman and Lemuel complained about the orders and their father. When the plan ran into difficulties, they took it out physically on their younger brothers.[xvii]
Eventually, the plates were obtained by Nephi who found Laban drunk in the street, killed him after a fair amount of soul searching, and assumed his identity to trick Laban’s staff into giving him the plates.[xviii]
Once the family reaches the Americas, the split grows wider. Once Lehi dies, the family splits into the two factions by which they are known for the rest of the Book of Mormon: the Nephites and the Lamanites. The Book of Mormon is told from the point of view of the Nephites who followed the same cycle of righteousness followed by wickedness we saw in the Book of Ether.
The highlight of the Book of Mormon takes place in 3 Nephi. At the death of Christ, the Nephites and Lamanites are wracked by a series of natural disasters followed by three days of impenetrable darkness.[xix] At the end of these three days, the resurrected Christ appears and ministers to them.[xx] He preaches the Sermon on the Mount, blesses them, heals their sick, and ministers to their children. While he was among them, he chose twelve especially righteous men as disciples to run the church, and gave them their choice of a reward. All but three of them chose to be reunited with him once they had lived out a normal lifespan. Those three made the same choice as John the Beloved and chose to remain on the earth as ministers until Christ’s millennial return.[xxi]
After the departure of Christ, the inhabitants of the new world lived in peace for 200 years. There were no divisions among them, “nor any manner of
-ites.”[xxii] After the 200 years were done, people began to abandon the teachings of Christ, and things began to go downhill. One group who left the church called themselves the Lamanites, and the old divisions began again. By about AD 320 the entire civilization was sliding over the edge into apostasy and wickedness.
The prophet Mormon, who compiled the Book of Mormon, narrates the end of the Nephite nation. His writings form an internal Book of Mormon. The people had grown so wicked that they would not listen when he tried to teach them, and, at one point, the Lord forbade him to try because they had willfully rebelled against God.[xxiii] Mormon’s writings tear at the heart, because you watch this man of God desperately trying to save his people. A people so far gone into wickedness and nihilism that they weren’t interested in survival, much less salvation.
The final battle took place at a location called Cumorah in about AD 384. Mormon lists by name 11 commanders of 10,000 who fell along with their commands – wiped out to a man – along with his 10,000 and those of his son Moroni. He also states that “there were ten more who did fall by the sword, with their ten-thousand each[.]”[xxiv] There is no count of the Lamanite casualties, but of the nearly a quarter million Nephites who marched to that final battle, 24 escaped alive.
After the death of Mormon, Moroni completes the project of compiling the plates, adds the Book of Ether and his own writings, and buries them. This was completed in about AD 420.
That’s the bare plot, but it doesn’t do justice to what the book is. Intertwined with the narrative are the teachings of Christ. The book discusses faith, moral agency, the fall of Adam, the atonement of Christ, and many other principles – sometimes putting them in terms clearer than what the Bible describes.
So, what is the Book of Mormon? To the believers, it is another testament of Jesus Christ. It contains His gospel, and His promises to our day. It is also a warning – that God will not always strive with man. Sometimes, when we are sufficiently unwilling to listen his voice, he withdraws and leaves us to the natural consequences of our actions.
[ii] History of the Church 4:461
[xx] 3 Nephi 11 – 26
I have removed the “Mormons in the Mist” title because the Prophet has asked that we not use the term “Mormons” to refer to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.