Mormon: The Man and the Book, Part 2


“I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people,” wrote the prophet Mormon. (W of M 1:5.) And as he repeats that statement again and again (see Hel. 3:14, 3 Ne. 5:8, 3 Ne. 26:6), we sense something of the task he faced in abridging a thousand years of Nephite history in order to give us the Book of Mormon in our time.

Mormon was ten years old when Ammaron told him of the hiding place of the Nephite records and charged the young boy to “remember the things that ye have observed concerning this people” and “engrave on the plates of Nephi” everything he would see. (Morm. 1:3–4.) If Mormon had merely obeyed that original instruction from Ammaron it would have been challenge enough for any historian, for the story Mormon had to write was the long, terrible tale of the destruction of his people.

But Mormon went beyond Ammaron’s admonition and prepared another record, abridging the entire history of his people. Why did he prepare this abridgement in which he wrote only “the hundredth part” of the original record which had been kept?

In the book of 3 Nephi, Mormon explains: “I have made my record of these things according to the record of Nephi, which was engraven on the plates which were called the plates of Nephi.

“And behold, I do make the record on plates which I have made with mine own hands. …

“And it hath become expedient that I, according to the will of God, that the prayers of those who have gone hence, who were the holy ones, should be fulfilled according to their faith, should make a record of these things which have been done—

“Yea, a small record of that which hath taken place from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem, even down until the present time.” (3 Ne. 5:10–11, 14–15; italics added.)

Mormon may not have known why he was to make the separate, shorter account. He was following the will of God, and knew that the work of abridgement he was doing would answer the prayers of his faithful forefathers.

And when he found the small plates of Nephi, he joined them with his own abridgement, because “they are choice unto me; and I know they will be choice unto my brethren.” (W of M 1:6.) He was once again acting out of faith, for he confessed, “And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will.” (W of M 1:7.) These and other experiences like them tell us much about the faith of the man.

It should also be clear that Mormon does not claim his abridgement will give equal time or equal emphasis to all historical events. He was not working at a flat-rate, assessing every event to be the equivalent of every other. For example, an account of war and civil disorder covering just a little over a dozen years is given nearly sixty pages of documentation (Alma 43–62), while the most righteous period in all of Nephite history—the two hundred years of peace and purity which prevailed after Christ’s appearance in the New World—receives less than two pages of review. (4 Ne. 1.)

Is Mormon, the Nephite soldier, preoccupied with these tragic warring cycles that began so early and were still recurring in his own day? Or is there perhaps something in the war accounts which our generation—or a later one—must learn, prompting Mormon to stress it?

Is it, on the other hand, impossible—for whatever reason—to write of perfect righteousness? Some events in the Nephite experience were indeed so sacred that “tongue cannot speak the words … neither can they be uttered by man.” (3 Ne. 19:32–34.)

In any case, the selection of material from so many years and so many records was a private and inspired one. Mormon, too, undoubtedly received “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Ne. 28:30) as he prepared material so important for us to receive.

The thoroughness of the records from which Mormon drew his material is impressively revealed in the long passages of direct quotation which he was able to extract, such as King Benjamin’s address, Abinadi’s pointed call to repentance, Alma’s missionary messages and detailed counsel to his three sons, Ammon’s conversations among the Lamanites, Amulek’s doctrinal discourses, the later Nephi’s prophecies and words of warning, Samuel the Lamanite’s declaration, and of course the detailed instruction given by the Savior himself. These and many other passages, running into scores of pages, are quoted by Mormon in the language and expression of those who uttered them. Surely only the limitations of time and space and the priorities given him by the Spirit kept him from giving us more. (See, for example, Alma 11:46, Alma 13:31.)

This attention to verbal detail simply confirms what we already know—that record keeping was a very serious matter to the Nephites. During Christ’s visit to the Nephites he reminded them that every designated teaching and testimony had to be recorded.

“And it came to pass that he said unto Nephi: Bring forth the record which ye have kept.

“And when Nephi had brought forth the records, and laid them before him, he cast his eyes upon them and said:

“Verily I say unto you, I commanded my servant Samuel, the Lamanite, that he should testify unto this people, that at the day that the Father should glorify his name in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should appear unto many, and should minister unto them. And he said unto them: Was it not so?

“And his disciples answered him and said: Yea, Lord, Samuel did prophesy according to thy words, and they were all fulfilled.

“And Jesus said unto them: How be it that ye have not written this thing, that many saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them?

“And it came to pass that Nephi remembered that this thing had not been written.

“And it came to pass that Jesus commanded that it should be written; therefore it was written according as he commanded.

“And now it came to pass that when Jesus had expounded all the scriptures in one, which they had written, he commanded them that they should teach the things which he had expounded unto them.” (3 Ne. 23:7–14.)

Such prophetic sermons and discourses were available to generation after generation only because Mormon’s predecessors had so faithfully recorded them in detail.

Of course it is possible that some of the passages Mormon gives us were not taken from any written record but were revealed directly to him. For example, we know we receive the major portion of Abinadi’s preaching from Alma’s account of it. (Mosiah 17:4.) But who recorded Abinadi’s final testimony after Alma had fled from Noah’s assassins? Perhaps some bystander preserved it (or even some court recorder taking minutes of the execution), but perhaps, too, it was revealed directly to Mormon or another historian.

In this same vein it would seem that the beautiful prayer of the Savior recorded in 3 Nephi 19 may or may not have been heard (or recorded) by those who were present. The scripture says that “Jesus departed out of the midst of them, and went a little way off from them” and there prayed to his Father. (3 Ne. 19:19.)

Someone might have heard that prayer and recorded it (compare 3 Ne. 19:33), or the Master may have repeated it a second time for the historical record. But another possibility for such private declarations running throughout the Book of Mormon is that the Spirit simply revealed in every necessary detail what Mormon—and we—needed to know. Obviously nothing was to be lost which would be essential to the latter-day message, no matter how privately it may have been uttered initially.

In the midst of this historical review, Mormon was not hesitant to interject an occasional editorial discourse of his own. Frequently the detailed recounting of earlier days which were, time and again, so much like his own brought out the flame in his own pen—or rather, his own stylus.

For example, after writing what must have been eleven frustrating chapters of the book of Helaman, Mormon boldly inserts his own feelings into the twelfth chapter and cries out against “the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men.” (Hel. 12:1.) Indeed, he says that man is “less than the dust of the earth” (Hel. 12:7)—not at all in the sense that man is without value to God, but rather because “the dust of the earth, moveth hither and thither, to the dividing asunder, at the command of our great and everlasting God.” (Hel. 12:8.) Hills, mountains, seas, earth—all obey his voice. But man does not obey his voice; in willfulness and pride he tramples under foot the words of the Holy One.

In a great, painful lamentation Mormon mourns in earlier generations the sins that brought destruction to his own: men “do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; … they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.” (Hel. 12:6.) And Mormon pleads with a future generation to change that pattern.

In perhaps no other chapter does Mormon more forcefully use what comes to be his most reliable editorial technique—the use of a phrase such as “and thus we can behold,” or “and thus we see.” (Compare, for example, Alma 24:30 and Hel. 3:27–29 for other samples of this practice.)

Besides the “and thus we see” device it is not likely that many literary flourishes survived the intense condensation and editing Mormon employed in cutting 99 percent of the material he had been given. “And thus we see” and “it came to pass” were more necessary than literary in the edited passages, allowing Mormon to focus on important points while moving very rapidly over geographical terrain, years of elapsed time, and extensive prophetic discourse.

But some of the more traditional literary forms can be found in the unedited, uncondensed materials, such as the sermons Mormon quoted verbatim. The ancient Semitic device called “chiasmus” was often preserved by Mormon in his quotations of major doctrinal discourses. As John Welch first pointed out, the Book of Mormon follows the pattern of the Hebrew prophets wherein things are frequently said twice, except the second time it is said in reverse order.

For a single example from Mormon’s work, note how effectively he preserves King Benjamin’s use of the chiasm (see Mosiah 5:10–12):

a

And now … whosoever shall not take upon him the name of Christ

 

b

must be called by some other name;

 

c

therefore, he findeth himself on the left hand of God.

 

d

I would that ye should remember also, that this is the name …

 

e

that never should be blotted out,

 

f

except it be through transgression;

 

f

therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress,

 

e

that the name be not blotted out of your hearts. …

 

d

I would that ye should remember to retain the name …

 

c

that ye are not found on the left hand of God,

 

b

but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called,

a

and also, the name by which he shall call you.

(See John Welch’s discussions of chiasmus in New Era, Feb. 1972, p. 6; and Ensign, Sept. 1977, p. 46.)

Of course, in addition to the great service Mormon rendered to us, some benefit was returned directly to him, as with all service. The theological bread he cast upon the water returned to further open his own spiritual eyes and understanding. With a mixture of admiration and sympathy we see him wrestle, for example, with the records of Third Nephi, wherein he finds recorded the doctrine of translated beings.

He writes of the three disciples who could rend prisons in two, who could escape the deepest earthen pits, who could three times withstand the flames of an open furnace, and who then could play with wild beasts as one would play with a nursing lamb. But “whether they were mortal or immortal, from the day of their transfiguration, I know not,” Mormon says. (3 Ne. 28:17.) Concerned about his lack of understanding, Mormon “inquired of the Lord,” and recorded that “since I wrote … the Lord … hath made it manifest unto me that … there was a change wrought upon their bodies.” (3 Ne. 28:37–38.) Indeed he comes, 350 years after their transfiguration, to the moment when he is visited by these three Nephite disciples whose nature he had so faithfully prayed to comprehend.

“I was about to write the names of those who were never to taste of death, but the Lord forbade; therefore I write them not, for they are hid from the world.

“But behold, I have seen them, and they have ministered unto me.” (3 Ne. 28:25–26.) Mormon was learning even while he taught.

In this latter-day dispensation we see, through Mormon’s work, great prophets and great principles, mighty doctrines and disciples from an earlier and eternally important time. Mormon provided for us—if we include the 116 pages of his message which were lost—an introduction to every major Nephite prophet and message from Lehi to the end of the Nephite world.

It is a story of a people that soared to great celestial heights—“surely there could not be a happier people” (4 Ne. 1:16)—and dipped to dismal, satanic lows—“they have become strong in their perversion” (Moro. 9:19). But through it all beats the cadence of an insistent message—that God does speak to men, that he does minister to his children, and that his Beloved Son will bring all things—including our willful souls—under his gentle rule if we so desire it.

These great prophetic profiles, images, and doctrines of the Nephite faithful reach out to us and beckon as we read of them through Mormon’s hand. The alternative to heeding that message is the grisly end which Mormon personally witnessed and passed on in ominous warning.

Because of his “most correct book,” we, too, increase our faith, hope, and charity. We, too, increase our personal theological understanding as Mormon did. After pondering over these pages, we also feel spiritually ministered to by ancient Nephite disciples, by being touched with the same Spirit that guided them. For every human soul and for every mortal season, it is that book which will bring us “nearer to God by abiding its precepts, than by any other book.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 4:461.)

Through Isaiah the Lord said, “I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder.” (Isa. 29:14.) Today we can read the book that helps fulfill that prophecy; and in its pages, we can meet the great prophet Mormon, whom the Lord chose to write that marvellous work.

[illustration] Illustrated by Gary Smith

Jeffrey R. Holland, commissioner of Church Education, lives in the Bountiful Forty-fourth Ward, Bountiful Utah Central Stake.