The Prophet Joseph Smith once wrote in his journal, “It was an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord.” (Joseph Smith, Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1:226.) One who must have felt that “awful responsibility” as much as any other in this world was Mormon, when at the tender age of ten years he was introduced to the weighty assignment that would be his.
After nearly a thousand years of Nephite history he was called of God to select and summarize the story of his people. That story tells in part of “peace in the land” and “all manner of miracles,” including the appearance and sermons of the resurrected Son of God.
But the story also contains the terror and depravity of that civilization gone awry, a dispensation concluding “without order and without mercy” in which women were fed on the flesh of their husbands and children were offered as sacrifice to dumb idols. In the end, Mormon’s was a painful and very lonely task.
Of the record Mormon helped to produce, the Prophet Joseph Smith said: “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.” (History of the Church, 4:461.) After long decades of darkness, the appearance of Mormon’s book would be one of the first contributions toward the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21) in preparation for the fullness of times. His task was as crucial in the eternal plan of salvation as it was unique.
One prevailing impression we have as we read of Mormon’s life and times is that he has been almost too modest, too brief (scarcely twelve pages) with the inspiration and insight of a man so uniquely chosen and prepared to write. Indeed, we are grateful that his son, Moroni, shared with us both his memories of and his personal correspondence with his father, which reveal Mormon’s great doctrinal strength, his humanity and hope, and his abiding devotion to his people. (See Moro. 7–9.)
While acknowledging our indebtedness to Moroni for including these wonderfully inspiring chapters, we nevertheless wonder what other great discourses we might have received from Mormon if the book he abridged or the times in which he lived had not restricted his hand and limited his opportunity to speak to us. What we do have from him—and thus what we come to know of him—is of the highest order and places him in the front ranks of ancient America’s prophetic voices.
We know that “every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose” in his premortal existence. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 365.) Perhaps that call has an effect on those men even in their earliest mortal years, for Mormon was recognized by his predecessor Ammaron as being “a sober child” and one “quick to observe.” (Morm. 1:2.) As a lad only ten years of age, Mormon received a charge from Ammaron that some fourteen years later he should “go to the land Antum, unto a hill which shall be called Shim” and there obtain the ancient and faithfully recorded history of his people. (Morm. 1:3.) It was a charge he accepted and faithfully fulfilled.
Under the guidance of his father, for whom he was named (see Morm. 1:5–6), young Mormon moved to the land of Zarahemla when he was eleven years of age and prepared for his prophetic role. But these were difficult times. After more than two hundred years of peace and righteousness introduced on the western hemisphere by the Savior himself, the civilization had now declined to the point where “both the people of Nephi and the Lamanites had become exceeding wicked one like unto another. … And there were none that were righteous save it were the disciples of Jesus.” (4 Ne. 1:45–46.) Indeed, that wickedness continued unchecked upon the whole of the land until even the disciples of Jesus, that last remnant of Christ’s ministry among the people, were taken away by the Lord:
“And the work of miracles and of healing did cease because of the iniquity of the people.
“There were no gifts from the Lord, and the Holy Ghost did not come upon any, because of their wickedness and unbelief.” (Morm. 1:13–14.)
Maintaining his integrity and faithful independence amidst such evil practice, Mormon was, at approximately the same age as the young prophet Joseph Smith, “visited of the Lord.” (Morm. 1:15.) Still in his teens, he tried valiantly to preach to his people, but because these people had willfully rebelled against their God and because their wickedness continued to run rampant, he was finally forbidden of God to speak. “My mouth was shut,” he records, “and I was forbidden that I should preach unto them … because of the hardness of their hearts.” (Morm. 1:16–17.)
Other, if less divine, opportunities for service were given to him. Like his ancestor Nephi, Mormon was also “large in stature” (Morm. 2:1), and with both a strong body and a resolute spirit he was chosen to lead the armies of the Nephite people—at the age of sixteen.
Even as Nephite blood flooded the battlefields, however, an army of domestic adversaries—thieves, robbers, murderers, and magicians—sheared the more private fabric of Nephite society. There was despair at home and abroad, and great sorrow among the people.
But as Mormon records, “Their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin.
“And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die. …
“The day of grace was past with them, both temporally and spiritually.” (Morm. 2:13–15.)
The theft of personal property naturally grew into more conquest of home and lands until Mormon watched these, his brothers and sisters, stand in open conflict against each other and fall in open rebellion against their God. The bodies of the dead were “heaped up as dung upon the face of the land.” (Morm. 2:15.)
In the midst of this kind of personal and public destruction, Mormon made his way to the hill Shim and obtained the plates of Nephi in fulfillment of Ammaron’s commandment. There on these ancient metal plates he would, over the weeks and months ahead, give “a full account of all the wickedness and abominations” of his people, for there was little else to record. Indeed, these scenes of wickedness and abomination had been before his eyes “ever since I have been sufficient to behold the ways of man.” (Morm. 2:18.) Nephite history in the fourth century A.D. was by every standard an unpleasant story to tell.
Striving to maintain what military defense he could, even as he recorded the inevitable demise of his people, Mormon urged that the Nephites “stand boldly” and defend “their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes.” (Morm. 2:23.) Although there was an occasional temporary gain, Mormon faced the most hopeless of all military tasks—fighting when “the strength of the Lord was not with us.” He records in his history, “Yea, we were left to ourselves, that the Spirit of the Lord did not abide in us; therefore we had become weak like unto our brethren.” (Morm. 2:26.)
As he fought against the enemy with sword and shield, he also tried to pierce the heart of his own people with strong testimony. But his cry was in vain. These people would not make that one crucial admission that the Lord God of Israel held the keys to their success. (See Morm. 3:2–3.) The warring would go on.
Both armies fought on in the feeble strength of the arm of flesh; and after two surprisingly successful defenses against Lamanite attacks, the Nephites “began to boast in their own strength.” (Morm. 3:9.) In utter despair Mormon threw down his weapons of war and vowed he would have no more to do with their cause. Though he “had loved them” (Morm. 3:12), he refused to lead their military forces and, by the Lord’s command, waited “as an idle witness” for total destruction. (Morm. 3:16.)
Yet at such moments of disappointment and frustration we learn something special about the heart and hunger of this man. His faith, his hope, and his charity were irrepressible. He could not abandon his own people. Notwithstanding their wickedness, he agreed once more to lead them. But some critical threshold had been passed. These people had decisively chosen darkness over light, evil over goodness, blood over benevolence. Prayer unto God “all day long” (Morm. 3:12) for that kind of soul was difficult indeed, but so Mormon prayed. Nevertheless, the judgments of God overtook his people and the degree of Nephite wickedness was equaled only by their loss of life.
Mormon records: “It is impossible for the tongue to describe, or for man to write a perfect description of the horrible scene of the blood and carnage which was among the people, both of the Nephites and of the Lamanites; and every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually.
“And there never had been so great wickedness among all the children of Lehi, nor even among all the house of Israel, according to the words of the Lord, as was among this people.” (Morm. 4:11–12.)
Undoubtedly it was in one of these times that Mormon wrote the painful letter to his son which Moroni recorded in his own book.
“My beloved son,” he writes, “I am laboring with [the Nephites] continually; and when I speak the word of God with sharpness they tremble and anger against me; and when I use no sharpness they harden their hearts against it. …
“They have no fear of death; and they have lost their love, one towards another; and they thirst after blood and revenge continually.” (Moro. 9:1, 4–5.)
But Mormon’s remarkable and indomitable spirit prevails. He holds to faith, hope, and charity, and to the miraculous intervention of angels and heavenly priesthood powers, as a prophet always will. Indeed, he loved his people with a “perfect love” that “casteth out all fear.” (Moro. 8:16.) He would simply try once again.
“And now, my beloved son,” he writes, “notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; … for we have a labor to perform.” (Moro. 9:6.)
The Spirit of Christ could yet lead this people if they would permit it to do so, and by his light they could yet “lay hold on every good thing.” (Moro. 7:21.) Even in the midst of these wicked days there was an opportunity to repent, a message delivered by the very angels of heaven. In the midst of his people’s abject wickedness, Mormon reminds his son that, in the past, “by the ministering of angels, and by every word which proceeded forth out of the mouth of God, men began to exercise faith in Christ; and thus by faith, they did lay hold on every good thing.” (Moro. 7:25.)
And what God did in the past, he would do now: “Have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men? Or has he withheld the power of the Holy Ghost from them? Or will he, so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man upon the face thereof to be saved?
“Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men.” (Moro. 7:36–37.)
What a remarkable message to be delivered in what we know were frightful and unfaithful times! We wonder what miracles might have been wrought, even at that late hour, if congregations of Nephite saints had claimed the privileges which could have been theirs. But they did not choose to claim them and so, for them, the day of miracles did indeed cease.
Gradually, inevitably, inexorably the Nephites lost men, women, children, property, and possessions to the increasingly powerful Lamanites; they “began to be swept off by them even as a dew before the sun.” (Morm. 4:18.) And as Nephite women and children were being sacrificed to Lamanite idols (Morm. 4:21), Mormon once again took command of the Nephite army, though he knew it was in vain and would be the last time.
“I was without hope,” he said, “for I knew the judgments of the Lord which should come upon them; for they repented not of their iniquities, but did struggle for their lives without calling upon that Being who created them.” (Morm. 5:2.)
Mormon achieved some temporary victories and maintained some temporary positions, but ultimately the Lamanites moved upon them in numbers so vast that “they did tread the people of the Nephites under their feet.” (Morm. 5:6.)
In solitude and sorrow Mormon withdrew from the horde and wrote to an audience yet unborn but certain to receive his record. For Jew, Lamanite, and Gentile he describes the destruction of what had once been “a delightsome people,” a nation who once had “Christ for their shepherd.” (Morm. 5:17.) Now he records that “they are led about by Satan, even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves, without sail or anchor, or without anything wherewith to steer her; and even as she is, so are they.” (Morm. 5:18.)
At Mormon’s request, the Lamanites let the Nephites gather in the land of Cumorah (Morm. 6:2–4) to wage “the last struggle” of these peoples. (Morm. 6:6.) Mormon, now old and hoping only to protect the record, hid in the Hill Cumorah all the plates with which he had been entrusted, save the brief abridged record that he gave to his son Moroni. (Morm. 6:6.) In fearful anticipation and finally horrible realization, Mormon and Moroni fought as the remaining Nephite men, women, and children fell before the oncoming armies of the Lamanites. Mormon himself fell wounded, but his life, for a time, was spared as the Lamanite armies swept on. Only he, Moroni, and twenty-two other Nephites remained; 230,000 of their nation had fallen.
The scope and significance of that horrible slaughter may be seen more readily when we realize that the great American Civil War of the 1860s, the costliest war, in terms of human life, that the United States has ever known, took the lives of 140,000 men in a five-year period. Here, 230,000 fell in a single day.
Looking out over that carnage, Mormon cried:
“O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! …
“O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen!
“But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return.” (Morm. 6:17, 19–20.)
As his own death approached, Mormon concluded his record with one great and final testimony.
To the mighty remnant of the house of Israel he testified that they must come to know that they are God’s covenant people. They must come to know that repentance is the only course to salvation.
They must come to know that war must cease and the peace of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only victory over death and the grave.
If indeed the great remnant of the house of Israel will lay hold upon his record and the gospel of Jesus Christ which it teaches, then, he promises, “it shall be well with you.”
Having seen a devastating day of judgment upon his own people, Mormon closed his weary eyes, seeking the rest of the valiant and the consolation of the saints. But to his eternal credit—and for our eternal good—he left behind a testament which would one day speak “out of the dust” and “hiss forth from generation to generation.” (Moro. 10:27–28.) It would be in every way “a marvellous work and a wonder.” (Isa. 29:14.)
Jeffrey R. Holland, commissioner of Church Education, lives in the Bountiful Forty-fourth Ward, Bountiful Utah Central Stake.