Overview of the Book of Mormon

For a blog about the Book of Mormon, I haven’t actually delved too deeply into the book yet.  In the next few months I plan to journal my way through it from a textual analytical perspective (but don’t worry, I’ll take regular breaks to talk about some other topics, such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead that I just read).  But before I can do that, here’s a rough outline that plot my course.

Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon is organized into smaller books, and for the most part they read chronologically like a novel.  I’ll be starting at the beginning, although for a few reasons that’s not actually the chronological written order.  By now you’re already aware of the 116 lost pages that would have been the beginning; the present six first books were an attempt to recreate that content, but, as we’ll see, scholarship suggests it was in fact the last portion of the book written.  Mormons today don’t know for sure, even though the Book of Mormon is less than 200 years old, their textual history is a mess because Joseph Smith put the original manuscripts in the cornerstone of the Navou House in 1841 where it was found heavily damaged when the time capsule was opened years later (strangely, every missionary I’ve ever asked about the original manuscripts has apparently never even considered what happened to them).

First, the so-called “Small Plates of Nephi”:

  • First Book of Nephi
  • Second Book of Nephi
  • Book of Jacob
  • Book of Enos
  • Book of Jarom
  • Book of Omni

As mentioned, these first books were the second draft of the content lost in the missing pages (originally

illustration from the Book of Mormon

Lehi and his people arrive at the promised land

the book of Lehi, Nephi’s father), and were probably the last produced by Joseph Smith and a scribe.  There are striking differences between this material and the books that follow, others have pointed out that this portion reads like a “black hole” compared to the rest.  The writer seems to apologize for things that he knew were included before but are absent now (eg: “And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father.” 1 Nephi 8:29), like an extensive genealogy table (1 Nephi 6:1) or few of any other names for that matter.  For instance, all the kings are conveniently called “Nephi” regardless of what their name actually was.

After establishing the time and place, Jerusalem at the reign of Zedekiah, the text references no historical dates or locations after the main character leaves the Holy Land for the duration of the lost pages.  The story follows Nephi’s family to the New World while the author persists in writing in the first person, frequently crediting himself with the phrase “I, Nephi”, and by the end of 2 Nephi seemed to be struggling to take up space, using filler like 22 chapters of Isaiah copied verbatim from the KJV.

The author seems insistent on reminding us of details usually omitted from ancient literature (how many books of the Bible name their author at all, let alone with such repetition?), emphasizing the plates that this text was allegedly written on more often than someone chiseling on brass would care to repeat.  The eponymous books from Jacob to Omni follow these plates as they’re passed down from father to son, plus others not named in the titles.  The constant mentioning of the plates gets even more ridiculous here, as they waste space to mention “the plates are small” (Jarom 1:14) and “these plates are full” (Omni 1:30, who melodramatically appears to chisel this on his deathbed), details which would be unnecessary to anyone actually reading the plates in front of them.  No, it’s not a miracle that this author knew none of today’s Mormons would be able to see these plates, it points to Joseph Smith as the author, well aware that no plates ever existed to be seen.

  • Words of Mormon

Interestingly enough, the Book of Mormon doesn’t always read like somebody just making it up as he goes along (which is problematic since it expects us to believe that ancient writers are chiseling freeform in brass, presumably with divine inspiration keeping them from needing an eraser).  It doesn’t just have evidence of editing, it has an editor who inserts comments, first Mormon, then his son Moroni.  Both are basically Joseph Smith projecting himself into the book to change its course, then close it.  In Words of Mormon, Joseph Smith addresses the lost pages in-story, letting us know we’ve just read an “abridgment” and that next we’ll resume reading from the “Large Plates of Nephi.”

  • Book of Mosiah
  • Book of Alma
  • Book of Helamon
  • Third Nephi
  • Fourth Nephi

At this point, we’ve moved beyond the lost pages, and there are noticeable differences.  For starters, the narrative shifts to the 3rd person.  Kings start to have unique names, historical dates resume (Mosiah 6:4), and the first New World place names appear.  A good case can be made that this is where Joseph Smith resumed following the distress (his words, “All is lost!  All is lost!”) of the lost pages because of discrepancies that would arise over when King Benjamin died, which would be changed in every new edition after 1837.

You can tell that Joseph Smith starts to relax a little more now that the threat is over.  The story starts to focus on the topics that Smith was fond of: kings, wars, and battles, which could only be hinted at in the previous section since he couldn’t recall all of the specific details.  Even the structure of the text becomes more creative, with more complex literary devices like chiasmus.

3 Nephi contains the story of Christ visiting the Nephites, which is basically a godsend in clarifying 19th century doctrinal disputes (“there shall be no disputations among you.” 3 Nephi 11:22) like the exact procedure of baptism (11:22-27) or what exactly to name the church (27:3-5).  The rest is plagiarized mostly from the Gospel of Matthew, but with some of Malachi thrown in for good measure.  After that, the story follows the Nephite civilization to their demise.

  • Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon, not to be confused with the Book of Mormon.  Once again, the editor Mormon interrupts the broadcast with some comments about the arrangement of the narrative.  Obviously, if the first pages hadn’t gone missing, we wouldn’t have the explanatory book, Words of Mormon, but this second insertion into the text seems planned.  Like before, plates pass from father to son, and an abrupt change to the narrative follows.

  • The Book of Ether

At this point the editor guides us to the “Plates of Ether”, a short account of the Jaredites, yet another group of travelers who find their way to the Americas, but much earlier (after the Tower of Babel, which is interesting to note here that Joseph Smith taught that Adam and Eve lived in Missouri, from which civilization moved to the Middle East via Noah’s Ark, and now back again already).

I think of the Book of Ether as Joseph Smith’s “do over” book.  The story of the Jaredites is essentially a compressed retelling of the whole Book of Mormon, compiled by the last living member of a New World civilization before his death (sorry, should have given a spoiler alert).  It seems to function as a practice run or outline before Joseph Smith could no longer put off reconstructing the lost pages from memory.  It could also be a way for him to include materials he liked but ultimately couldn’t use in the main story for various reasons.  For instance, the Jaredite’s oceanic crossing contains technical descriptions lacking in the Nephite version.  Joseph Smith is also noticeably more involved in this narrative, as his editor Mormon inserts himself into the text periodically.  By this time, some manuscripts had already been in limited circulation among his peers, and possibly after some feedback he seems to be trying too hard to give his story credibility as an ancient text; for instance, he borrows a Biblical device and drops a made-up foreign-language word like “deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee” (Ether 2:3)

  • Book of Moroni

The ever-present editor returns one final time, now as his son Moroni, to wrap up the book.  Moroni settles one final doctrinal dispute that was apparently overlooked when Jesus visited, and gives a conclusive answer on infant baptism (it’s bad, Moroni 8:8-15).  By this time, Joseph Smith had been psychologically manipulating people for years, and he closes his book with some of his most advanced tactics.  

And that’s it.  Not much literary diversity, just a lot of narrative and some letters from the editor, no books of proverbs, poetry, or prophecy.  A few doctrinal settlements in line with mainstream Protestantism, but not really any distinct Mormon theology either, which would come later from the mouth of Joseph Smith acting as prophet.  Yet this is the book that gave him the opening and clout to start a religious movement that has become a force to be reckoned with.  This seems like a pretty damaging synopsis already, but it will actually get more fun as we go along.  

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