Help in Understanding
the Book of Mormon

By Grant Hardy
Meridian Magazine

The Challenge of Reading

Let’s face it. The Book of Mormon can be difficult to read. It is written in an older form of English, the stories are sometimes complicated, and there are dozens of names to keep straight (including four different Lehis, four Nephis, and four Jacobs).

Indeed, it may take years of seminary or gospel doctrine classes before Latter-day Saints are familiar with the basic structure of the Nephite record; knowing, for example, which books are from which plates, or that Moroni was the author of Mormon 8-9 while Moroni 7-9 was actually composed by Mormon. And all too often non-members are simply lost and bewildered.

The Book of Mormon is a carefully-constructed, inspired whole, even though it is easy to miss the larger structures, historical contexts, and interconnections.

Here’s a quick test of your scripture knowledge:
1. How old was Nephi when he wrote the book of First Nephi?

2. What are the three major wars in the book of Alma?

3. How many letters did Mormon include in his abridgment?

4. What were the main teachings of Jesus on the third day of his Nephite ministry?

5. Why is the book of Ether near the end of the Book of Mormon if the Jaredites lived before the Nephites?
The answers will appear in the paragraphs below, but for now it is enough to note that each of these questions has to do with how the Book of Mormon was written. If we can learn to see the scriptures as the products of authors who wrote from their individual circumstances and personalities, we will be able to read with greater understanding.

There are important literary units larger than single chapters.

For instance, the book of Alma, which is very long and can sometimes just seem like one battle after another, actually divides rather neatly into seven major sections:
A. The Amlicite Rebellion (2:1 - 3:20)

B. Alma 2 and the Nephite Reformation (4:6 - 16:21)

C. The Missionary Journeys of the Sons of Mosiah 2 (17:5 - 27:15)

D. Alma 2’s Mission to the Zoramites (31:1 - 35:14)

E. Alma 2’s Testimony to his Sons (35:15 - 42:31)

F. The Zoramite War (43:1 - 44:24)

G. The Amalickiahite Wars (46:1 - 62:41)
Once you are accustomed to seeing Alma in this way, it is easy to remember where particular sermons or conflicts fit in.
[That was the answer to question #2, but you can really impress your fellow ward members if you casually observe that the last of the Amalickiahite Wars was fought on two fronts simultaneously: Alma 52-55 and 59-62 take place in the east with Captain Moroni, while Alma 56-58 follows events on the western front with Helaman 2 and the stripling warriors.]
I’ve recently written a new book, Understanding the Book of Mormon.

In preparing for it, one striking discovery I made was the central role played by the narrators - Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni. The Book of Mormon is not simply an account of Nephite history; rather, it is Nephite history as seen through three particular individuals who were writing for readers many centuries in the future.

Narrative Analysis

Unlike the Hebrew Bible, where the narrators are anonymous, the writers of the Book of Mormon openly identify themselves and tell us often of their ambitions, their editorial labors, and their personal lives.

Like all authors who tell stories (including people writing family histories), Nephi could choose from a number of different narrative techniques. For instance, he had to decide when to quote directly and when to quote indirectly through paraphrase.

When do we first hear Nephi’s voice chronologically? Of course, we have been listening to Nephi from the opening words of 1st Nephi, “having been born of goodly parents . . . ,“ but that’s the mature, middle-aged Nephi speaking.
[Answer to question #1: in 2nd Nephi 5:26-34 we learn that the account we now know as First Nephi was written some thirty to forty years after his family left Jerusalem. If Nephi had been a teenager at the time, as seems likely, he is now writing in his forties or fifties.]
When does Nephi first quote his teenage self? As you may have guessed, this is at 1st Nephi 3:7 – “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded . . .,” which is a stirring, memorable declaration of faith.

By contrast, the first directly quoted words of Laman and Lemuel appear at 1st Nephi 4:31 – “How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands?” Even though we have already heard of their murmuring (1st Nephi 2:11), this quotation still comes as something of a shock. Not only are the brothers characteristically complaining and doubting, but they also are shown dismissing the words of an angel, apparently within minutes of his leaving. Laman and Lemuel seem to be hardened skeptics indeed.

The Book of Mormon is sometimes criticized as being didactic, with flat characters. This is true to some extent, but if Laman and Lemuel are flat, two-dimensional, entirely predictable figures, it is only because Nephi, as the narrator, has made them so.

And that makes Nephi a more rounded character. Remember that by the time Nephi composed the Small Plates, he was doing so in the full knowledge that life in the Promised Land had soured, that there had been an irreparable breach with those brothers, and that his closest relatives had spent years trying to kill each other. He wants to make it as clear as possible to his readers why things turned out the way they did, and he therefore simplifies what were undoubtedly many years of complex family interactions (note that he treats Laman and Lemuel almost as if they were a single person, even though siblings are always quite distinct). As a result, his readers are never in doubt as to who was right and who was wrong.

Each chapter in Understanding the Book of Mormon focuses on a specific compositional issue or technique that is characteristic of a particular narrator.

So for Nephi I examine characterization and scriptural interpretation.

Mormon is represented by chapters on competing agendas, embedded documents, parallel narratives, and the pattern of prophecy and fulfillment.

And Moroni’s books are approached through his sense of audience and his use of allusion.
[Answer to question #3: Mormon incorporated six letters into his abridgment, all but one of them within a block of eight chapters at the end of the book of Alma (chapters 54-61); in my own book I come up with a hypothesis about why that happened. Extra credit if you remembered that Moroni also included two letters from his father Mormon.]
History and Literature

Latter-day Saints treasure the Book of Mormon as an actual historical record. In fact, my approach is intended to encourage Mormons to take the Nephite record even more seriously as history, constantly asking them to reflect on the events behind the stories, what is included and omitted, and how the backgrounds of the narrators color the way they perceive specific incidents.

Where, though, will that leave non-Mormons, who almost by definition reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon and generally view it as religious fiction from nineteenth-century America? It is almost as if believers and non-believers have been reading two different books.

This is unfortunate since both parties can agree that the Book of Mormon is one of the most significant texts in American religious history, yet they tend to see different things: Joseph Smith, revivalism, and anti-masonry on the one hand, as opposed to prophecy and the gospel of Jesus Christ on the other.

In Understanding the Book of Mormon, I suggest that it might be useful to bracket the question of Joseph Smith temporarily and instead concentrate on the text itself. Regardless of what one assumes about the origins of the book, all readers can analyze its structure and literary techniques in similar ways.

For instance, a close reading of the Book of Mormon reveals that Mormon and Moroni have somewhat different perspectives - Mormon is a conscientious historian who believes that the facts themselves can persuade his readers, while Moroni tends to think that historical evidence is less important than the witness of the Spirit - and these observations hold whether one believes (as I do) that they were actual historical individuals, or whether one sees them as fictional narrators.
[Answer to question #5: the record of the Jaredites was discovered by Limhi’s people at Mosiah 8 and then translated by King Mosiah (Mosiah 28). At that point in the narrative (28:19), Mormon promised that he would eventually provide a synopsis, but apparently he found it difficult to fit the Jaredite material into the overall scheme he had for his history of the Nephites (remember, the Jaredites were not even from the House of Israel). Mormon died before the task was completed and left it to his son, Moroni, who had a somewhat less rigorous conception of history. Moroni included the book of Ether as a sort of appendix to his father’s work.]
Although there are many possible approaches to the Book of Mormon, unless you read it as a narrative, you’re not really reading it. It’s not Gospel Principles (though that is also a fine book). Every sermon and every story in the Book of Mormon is embedded in a larger historical context and was deliberately chosen and edited by prophetic narrators. Coming to know Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni as individuals is essential to understanding their work. The more we learn to recognize the voices and handiwork of Nephi and his successors, the more engaging and inspiring their testimonies are. At least that has been my experience.

Talking to Non-believers

Of course, ideally, we want all readers of the Book of Mormon to approach it with a spiritually-open heart and pray about its truth, just as Moroni urges in Moroni 10:4.

Yet there are some who are simply curious or interested for academic reasons. At my own university, where I am one of only two LDS faculty members, I regularly have opportunities to teach about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. I try to do so accurately and sympathetically, and because my own faith is so important to me, I want to be respectful to the beliefs of others. There are many who have the same attitude toward Mormonism.

If some people want to read the Book of Mormon as fiction or as world scripture, I welcome that. I think the book is impressive from any perspective.

Some historians have been eager to analyze it in nineteenth-century terms. Yet it is important for even non-believers to take the book on its own terms, and for scholars to apply to it the tools of literary criticism, which can enrich the understanding of outsiders and saints alike.

One of the lessons of 3rd Nephi is that scholarship and faith are not necessarily at odds with each other. In 3rd Nephi 23:6-14, Jesus emphasized the importance of keeping full, accurate records. Yet at 3rd Nephi 26:11, when Mormon, the meticulous historian, was about to write a full account of Jesus’ words to the Nephites, the Lord forbid it and told him that it was also important for his readers to exercise faith.
[If you’ve made it this far, here is the answer to question #4, which was something of a trick. Even though Mormon tells us that Jesus taught the people “for the space of three days” (3rd Nephi 26:13), he never gives us any of Christ’s teachings from the third day; this was just at the point when he was told not to pass on a full account. So instead, at 3rd Nephi 27-28 Mormon substitutes some instructions that the resurrected Christ gave to the Nephite twelve at some later, unspecified date. Fortunately for us, they included information about the name of the church and one of the clearest definitions of the gospel in all of scripture.]
The main point of my new book is not to prove that Joseph Smith couldn’t have written the Book of Mormon or to try convince non-members of its historical claims; rather, I simply argue that the book is much more interesting than many people have assumed, and that a close reading of its form and content can yield valuable insights.

Sometimes even as Latter-day Saints, reading from a position of faith, we have not always been aware of all the strengths of our scriptures.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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