Jeffrey R. Holland, “Daddy, Donna, and Nephi,” Ensign, Sep 1976, 7
When you start asking questions, the Book of Mormon comes alive.
“So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” (Neh. 8:8.) The key to reading any book is staying awake. That means, of course, that you will try to keep your eyes open and some reasonable portion of your blood circulating. But for real reading it means much more than that. Reading which will give you any return on your investment will be an exercise—Walt Whitman called it a gymnastic struggle 1—in which your mental and spiritual muscles are stretched and strengthened forever. This kind of reading means staying alert, attentive, and actively involved as you recreate the book in your own mind, page by page. Writing a good book is very hard work. Reading it well is not an easy thing either.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons we are commanded to read “the best books.” (D&C 88:118.) Anything less is usually not worth the effort. Low-level reading offers what President John Taylor once called “fried froth”—something on which you chew and chew but which finally leaves nothing to swallow—or worse yet, leaves something to swallow which weakens or defiles. 2
Surely the best of the “best books” are the scriptures, and it is not simply linguistic chance that the divine injunction is to “ponder” them. That word, in its English form, comes from a Latin root meaning weight—and the scriptures are the weightiest books we have. To ponder them suggests a slow and deliberate examination; indeed, there is no way to read the scriptures whimsically or superficially or quickly. They demand time, prayer, and honest meditation.
One of the things that strikes us as we begin to carefully ponder the Book of Mormon is the realization that it is, in the very best sense, exactly that—a book. Technically a book can be anything with a binding and two covers—blank sheets of paper, nonsense syllables, a collection of unrelated essays, or whatever—but we have been agreeing with Aristotle ever since he said it that a good book must have a calculated structure and development which gives a unified impact from beginning to end. 3 By this standard the Book of Mormon is not only a “good book”; it is a classic. In spite of the fact that it is written by a series of prophets who had different styles and different experiences, in spite of the fact that it has some unabridged materials mixed with others that have been greatly condensed, in spite of the fact that it has unique and irregular chronological sequences, it is a classic book—Aristotle’s kind of book: unified, whole, verses fitting with verses, chapters fitting with chapters, books fitting with books. It has these ideal qualities because it is the clear, compelling word of God, revealed through his chosen prophets.
Let’s take the first chapter of the first book of Nephi. This is probably the most familiar material in the book to most of us; and yet if we are not alert, we will miss much of its meaning, for it was very carefully written and must be read that way.
Let’s assume that a father is helping his twelve-year-old daughter get started in this first chapter. She is a delightful, fun-loving girl who has tried reading the Book of Mormon a few times but hasn’t been able to get too interested. We might overhear a conversation something like this:
Dad: O.K., sweetheart, let’s read the first chapter of the first book of Nephi. It’s only twenty verses long, less than two pages of print. Think about it as you read. Ask yourself questions.
Donna: What kind of questions?
Dad: Oh, questions like “Why should this be the first chapter of the book?” or “What does this verse have to do with that one?”
Donna: Well, I don’t know anything about those things but I do want to know why we don’t start off reading about those Jaredites. They were here first.
Dad: That’s exactly the kind of question to ask—and here you’ve waited at least a minute and a half to ask it. Now—when you begin to find the answers to questions like that—
Donna: Daddy! Surely you’re going to tell me the answers if I can finally think up the questions!
Dad: Tut, tut, Impatience. When you begin to find the answers to questions like that, the whole Book of Mormon will open up to you. You’ll find out why the Book of Ether should come exactly where it does when you read it very carefully. We’ll talk about that when we get to it, which is nearly the very end of the book. Now, let’s start reading.
Donna: Whatever you say, Dad. (Donna begins reading, silently. With a furrowed brow or two she makes it to the end of the first chapter.) O.K., I’ve read it.
Dad: Good. What do you think it says?
Donna: Daddy, I said I read it. I didn’t say I knew what it meant.
Dad: Well, then we have to read it again, only a little slower this time. And out loud. We’ll talk as we go.
Donna: Whatever you say, Dad. (Reading aloud) “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents. …”
Dad: Now why do you think Nephi starts his book like that?
Donna: Maybe he’s a nice man.
Dad: Maybe. What else?
Donna: Maybe it’s going to be about his family.
Dad: Maybe. What else?
Donna: Maybe he wants us to know who is telling the story.
Dad: Maybe. What else?
Donna: Daddy! This could go on all night and I have school tomorrow. If I read this slowly in class my teacher would bean me. Now let me read it clear through and don’t stop me unless I ask you something. O.K.?
Dad: O.K. (Donna reads the chapter aloud. Slowly. With one eye on her father.)
Dad: Good. Now. What does that chapter say?
Donna: (With a wry smile because she had known he was going to ask her that question) It’s about a man named Lehi who has a vision and warns his people about their destruction. But they don’t like him.
Dad: (With a wry smile because he had known she was going to read more thoughtfully) Terrific! What do we call a man like Lehi?
Donna: A prophet.
Dad: What did he do that brought the vision?
Donna: I don’t know. It doesn’t say.
Dad: Yes it does. Look. In verse 5.
Donna: (Reading) Oh. He prayed. I didn’t notice that. I guess I turned the page too fast. It’s kind of hidden there near the bottom, you know.
Dad: That’s O.K., honey. You’re not the only one moving too fast to remember to get the prayer worked in.
Dad: Nothing. Now exactly what did Lehi see in his vision?
Donna: He saw that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed.
Dad: Hold on! You’re going too fast. How did he see that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed?
Donna: (Rereading) Well, some heavenly messengers brought him a book and he read it.
Dad: Can you tell who the heavenly messengers are?
Donna: I think one of them sounds like Jesus.
Dad: I think he does, too. Now you said that when Lehi tries to tell the people about Jerusalem being destroyed, they don’t like it. What do they do?
Donna: (Rereading) They get mad and make fun of him.
Dad: How mad do they get?
Donna: Well, finally they try to kill him.
Dad: Let’s just put down on paper a little outline of this chapter. I think it would look something like this:
a prophet prays
has a vision
sees heavenly messengers (apparently including Jesus)
receives a book
is rejected by most of the people
Now that’s a rough outline of the story you described in chapter 1. Does it look at all familiar to you?
Donna: I don’t believe so.
Dad: Think about it.
Donna: Well, it does sort of sound like Joseph Smith’s experience. Hey! It sounds a lot like Joseph Smith’s experience. That’s neat. Why is that, Daddy?
Dad: Terrific comments! It seems to me one possible answer to your question is that all prophets usually have some very similar experiences. In any case one thing we know they have in common is receiving revelation from the Lord. Joseph Smith once said that revelation is the rock on which the Church of Jesus Christ will always be built and there would never be any salvation without it. 4 I think we’re going to find, Donna, that this whole book will be one long revelation about revelation. And Jesus is going to be at the center of it all. These first 20 verses tell an awfully lot about what is to follow. You can’t do much better than that in an opening chapter.
And maybe there’s another reason for having the Book of Mormon begin like this. Maybe it helps in its own way to teach that if we accept Lehi and the Book of Mormon, we surely have to accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of God. On the other hand, when we accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, we must accept and faithfully live by the teachings of this book which he helped bring forth.
In a way, Donna, this record is not only the testimony of Nephi and Alma and Mormon and Moroni, but it is also the testimony of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball. Maybe that’s why the Church wasn’t even organized until the Book of Mormon was completely translated and published. The Prophet Joseph Smith once called it “the keystone of our religion,” 5 and I think most of us do not yet understand how essential the Book of Mormon was to everything that would happen after Moroni handed those plates over to the seventeen-year-old Prophet. When I think of what the Church has become since Joseph’s first vision and the delivery of this book I want to shout with Lehi in verse 14: “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty.” [1 Ne. 1:14] Donna, I love this book with all my heart and I know it’s the word of God.
Donna: Daddy, I’ve never heard you talk like this before.
Dad: Well, I’ve never had my twelve-year-old daughter read the Book of Mormon to me before.
Donna: Whillikers! It’s past 10:00! We’ve been talking more than forty-five minutes on one little chapter. I’ve got to get to bed. You’re going to bean me.
Dad: I doubt it. But then I might. Scurry, Abish.
Donna: Abish? Who’s Abish?
Dad: Just someone I read about once. Scoot! Now! Pronto!
With a kiss and a hug for her dad, Donna dashes off to bed, more assuredly on her way to a testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and the reality of the restoration than she realizes.
Of course, what Donna’s father knows—and what she is about to find out—is that every chapter is charged with meaning, often many meanings, and always meanings that illuminate and inspire. As Donna drops deeply into sleep let’s stay a bit longer with her dad, who sits thinking, not wishing to have this special experience end.
With the idea of revelation so clearly suggested in the first chapter, it is not startling to find it bubbling to the surface on virtually every page of the first book of Nephi. Chapter 2 begins, “The Lord spake unto my father, yea, even in a dream, and said. …” [1 Ne. 2:1] In verse two the message is reinforced—“The Lord commanded my father” [1 Ne. 2:2]—and by verses 16 and 19, the circle has widened to include Nephi: “The Lord … did visit me” and “the Lord spake unto me,” he says. [1 Ne. 2:16, 19]
More revelation comes in the chapters which follow. Lehi tells his son, “I have dreamed a dream, in the which the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem.” (1 Ne. 3:2.) When fulfilling this commandment presents some difficulties for the brothers, “an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them.” (1 Ne. 3:29.) Going into Jerusalem alone, Nephi is “led by the Spirit,” and in his most difficult hour he records, “I was constrained by the Spirit.” (1 Ne. 4:6, 10.) Ultimately a man is killed before Nephi can obtain the object of his quest—the written revelations of God. In so chilling a way, Nephi and his readers are taught the absolute necessity—even the life-and-death necessity—of holy scripture. Without it, entire nations would dwindle and perish in unbelief.
So five chapters conclude: dreams, prophecies, records, the voice of God, visions, angels, spiritual promptings—revelation heaped upon revelation, verse after verse. In these first few pages any serious reader must come to grips with the fundamental issue of man’s ability to receive divine direction from God. In this book that proposition comes forcefully and it comes first. To one who is not willing to believe that a heavenly father directs the affairs of his children here on earth, the Book of Mormon will simply have nothing more to say. Of course when the reader is willing to go on, he is then led to some of the most magnificent revelations ever recorded, including Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life (which tree is successfully reached only by clinging to the word of God) and Nephi’s own remarkable vision of events from the birth of Christ to the end of the world. As the first book of Nephi closes, Jehovah asks through Isaiah, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel. Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” (1 Ne. 21:15–16.) The Book of Mormon teaches, both by what it is and what it says, that Jehovah will never forget us.
I think it is also important to note that through these chapters we are repeatedly taught our role in the process of revelation. Starting with Lehi’s first prayer and moving through Nephi’s later pondering, we are led to some of the most detailed scriptural accounts we have of how revelation may be received. For example, in chapters 11–15 Nephi is continually commanded by the Spirit of the Lord or an angel to “Look!” “Look,” the Spirit invites, and Nephi sees the same symbols as his father saw in vision. “Look,” the Spirit directs, and he learns the meaning of those things. “Look,” the Spirit cries, and Nephi sees the fate of a nation and the end of the world. “Look,” the Spirit commands nearly a dozen times in less than half as many pages. [1 Ne. 11–15] Could it be that this short imperative is also crucial to what will—or won’t—happen as we read the rest of the book? “Look,” the angels of heaven seem to be declaring to us. “Use your eyes and save your souls. Read the revelations of God. Open your understanding to see a world of dreams, visions, prophecies, and promptings.” Surely the only thing more tragic than not reading the scriptures is not wanting to. Jesus wept over those who had eyes and yet would not see. (Matt. 13:9–17.)
Something else seems to be happening in these opening chapters of Donna’s Book of Mormon, something which suggests not only that chapters are linked within books but that books are linked to other books to make a unified whole. Somewhere along the way we realize that there is, in this first book of Nephi, a repeated series of confrontations and alternatives. Nephi is one kind of son; Laman is another. Lehi is one kind of local leader; his relative Laban is another, and so on. Our twelve-year-old may think this looks like an advertisement for a boxing match or the table of contents in a legal textbook but a list of these alternatives might include:
And Satan is eventually conquered, bound “for the space of many years.” (1 Ne. 11:26.) Along such a path of choices and alternatives Nephi comes, prayerfully, and with some difficulty, through the wilderness of mortal life. He and his little band of faithful followers seem reconciled to the fact that there will probably be opposition to every good effort they make.
“Opposition in all things.” That has a familiar ring to it. And we start reading in the second book of Nephi one of the greatest scriptural discourses of which we have record on “opposition in all things,” dramatized in the fall of Adam, the atonement of Christ, and the fundamental issue of free agency which involves us in the effect of both. (See 2 Ne. 2:11.)
I am sure Lehi could have given a mighty sermon (or a patriarchal blessing) on opposition and agency somewhere back in the first book of Nephi, but how much more powerful it is for his sons—and readers—to have lived through fifty pages of such confrontations and alternatives before they hear it. The faithful few in this little group have had about as much “opposition in all things” as they can stand, but it has taught them something about themselves, a fallen world, the plan of God, and the exercise of choice. It has surely taught them a great deal about the Messiah who would come, withstand all opposition from the beginning to the end of the world, and give “liberty and eternal life” to any who wish freedom from the galling chains of hell.
It seems, then, that all the hardships of the first book of Nephi have had the purpose of pointing us toward the second book of Nephi and the figure of Christ which entirely dominates that book. Those thirty-three chapters testify of Christ’s role in our mortal journey, drawing heavily on Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah and the events surrounding the coming forth of our latter-day witness of his divinity, the Book of Mormon. The second book of Nephi then concludes with Nephi’s majestic “doctrine of Christ” sermon, his final testimony to generations yet unborn. At Nephi’s death Jacob enters to warn against sins which will take us away from Christ—pride, riches, sexual immorality, even the direct influence of an anti-Christ such as Sherem. And so the book goes on.
Why does Alma 31, a chapter on the self-righteous “prayerful” Zoramites, follow Alma 30, a chapter on Korihor, the most unrighteous, un-prayerful anti-Christ in the book? What do either of these chapters—or rather both of them—have to do with Alma 32, that masterful lesson of faith? Why is a peculiar little chapter like Alma 33, an unknown sermon from Zenos, inserted between two masterpieces like Alma 32 and Alma 34? Is it also a masterpiece, linking the other two? And what do all of these (Alma 30 through Alma 34) have to do with the “strictness of the word” in Alma 35 and Alma’s intensely personal counsel to his sons in Alma 36 through 42? [Alma 36–42]
Or what contribution does 3 Nephi 11 [3 Ne. 11] make to the Book of Mormon’s “Sermon on the Mount” (3 Ne. 12, 3 Ne. 13, 3 Ne. 14)? What sense does “building on a rock” provide the brackets to that whole sermon? Why does a lesson on the sacrament (3 Ne. 18) follow that special experience Christ has with little children in 3 Nephi 17? [3 Ne. 17] And what does the great need for the Holy Ghost (3 Ne. 19) have to do with either of those preceding chapters?
Before we know it dawn peeks out of the east on Dad and his book, though it seems to have been a night without darkness. Words charged with meaning. Doctrines of salvation. Lengthy prophetic segments constructed like works of art. Book after book controlled and condensed into the “most correct book on earth,” a book with just one message, that Jesus is the Christ and there is no other way. It is by every worthy standard a great book, a classic book, a book of books. It is the word of God and the keystone of our religion. We ought to drink constantly at its fountain like the thirsty children we are.
P.S. Why is the Book of Ether positioned exactly where it is?
[illustrations] Illustrated by Parry Merkley
1. Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas,” Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose (New York: Modern Library, 1950), p. 515.
3. Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941). See “Metaphysics,” especially Book X, pp. 834–50 passim, and “Poetics,” p. 1,463.