Despite my criticism about the underwhelming way Joseph Smith started out the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi is actually one of my favorite sections. There’s no other piece in all of literature that’s ever been written in the same method as the so-called “Small Plates of Nephi.” The major distinctions that set 1st and 2nd Nephi apart from the rest of the Book of Mormon are:
Joseph Smith had already told this story once before, then finished his complete book , and backtracked to re-tell the beginning again, replacing the content from the 116 pages Martin Harris lost. It seems he was applying Jesus’ principle of the first being last and the last being first quite literally to his creative writing method. I would go so far as to say that if not for this incident, the Book of Mormon would not have become the phenomenon that it is today. Its original beginning would have probably exposed Joseph Smith’s development into an experienced writer, and certainly wouldn’t have contained more sophisticated elements like intertwining plotlines and foreshadowing (like the Jaredites), which he only did here because he already knew what would happen later. Starting out with polished writing has also been advantageous to other sacred texts, like the Urantia Book and the Qu’ran, which were written backwards or out of order respectively. If there’s anything to be learned here by aspiring authors, it would be to go back and re-write the beginning after you finish your novel to make it an instant hit. The fact that most Mormons aren’t even aware of the order their book was actually written is probably the only thing keeping many of them in the faith.
The Most Source Diversity
While Joseph Smith didn’t seem to have a detailed plot outline when he first started (the 116 lost pages caused him to tighten his plotting later), one thing that’s apparent was that he always intended his book to be an analogue to the Bible:
And because my words shall hiss forth—many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.
2 Nephi 29:3
It’s not by accident that an oceanic crossing parallels the flood narrative and also the Exodus in the beginning of each book, the chronicles of kings and judges at about the same place as Judges, Kings, and Chronicles, or the visitation of Christ at the same place as the Gospels, followed by paraphrasing of Paul at the end. It seems Joseph Smith was concurrently reading through the Bible for inspiration for his dictation, and one can see a residual influence of Biblical materials from the point after he passes them in his reading. By the time he gets to the re-write in 1 Nephi, he’s clearly read the entire Bible and the Apocrypha. Nephi is, after all, the only section to plagiarize from the Apocrypha–the name “Nephi” is even derived from 2 Maccabees 1:36! 1 Nephi also has some of the broadest variety of quotations from the Bible, and the dreams of Lehi and his son Nephi are apparently his Apocalypse, written last but not at the end of the book (Lehi’s dream is also copied from a dream had by Joseph Smith’s father, but that’s a story for another day). While Joseph Smith seemed largely uninterested in the poetry of the Bible (even declaring Song of Solomon non-canonical), the only original composition of poetry in the Book of Mormon is the Song of Nephi (2 Nephi 4:16-35), probably an analogue to the Song of Moses in Exodus.
A Sign of Things to Come
Nephi is an important change in direction in Mormon revelation. The reader can visibly see Joseph Smith’s loss of interest in his project of translating supposed gold plates and his newfound interest in re-writing the Bible. Every single mention of the Mormon-specific wordprint “plain and precious things”, referring to doctrines supposedly edited out of the Bible, are limited to 1 Nephi.
And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.
1 Nephi 13:26
He actually commences this new project within the pages of 1 Nephi, re-working 2 chapters of Isaiah (48 & 49) near the end. He devotes even more space for his revision of Isaiah in 2 Nephi (chapters 6-8, 12-27), and the remainder of the book is his commentary on these passages. His methodology here is exactly the same that he would employ on his “inspired” Bible translation, omitting the words italicized in the KJV and adding new phrases periodically. As if the Book of Mormon didn’t have enough occurrences of “And it came to pass”, he even adds one not found in the original text of Isaiah!
The Most Doctrine-changing Corrections
Out of the thousands of changes to the text since the first edition, the weight of the major doctrine-altering corrections are found in the books of Nephi. One of Joseph Smith’s primary motivations evident in the Book of Mormon was to provide clear proof-texts for Protestant doctrines that it seems Smith wanted to believe, but didn’t think were supported strongly enough in the Bible, such as the Trinity. Joseph Smith unmistakably started to lean towards Modalism by mistake at the end of the Book of Mormon, calling Jesus “Jehovah” in the last verse (Moroni 10:34), and this trend continued seamlessly into 1 Nephi, and even into his “translation” of the Bible which followed soon after. Observe these important Modalistic prooftexts which were edited out in the 1837 edition and every new edition thereafter:
And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of flesh. 1 Nephi 11:18
And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! I Nephi 11:21
And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea,the Everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record. 1 Nephi 11:32
And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall bestablish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved. I Nephi 13:40
Another unique characteristic of 1 Nephi is postdiction, or prophecies written after the fact. It looks as if knowing what would come up ahead in the plot gave Joseph Smith the idea to foretell events he knew would happen in history as well. While he had already used this method to predict Biblical events like the virgin birth (Alma 7:10), now he started to predict events in American history, like Columbus and colonialism (1 Nephi 13:12), even referring to mother England as “mother Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:17).
Giving the Nephites such crystal clear prophecies like these and also the name of the virgin Mary (Alma 7:10) or John the Revelator (1 Nephi 14:27) really point out the magician-nature of Joseph Smith. After all, these names were useless to a civilization far removed on another continent, and the future of American history was irrelevant to a people that would die out a thousand years before any colonies were established. This information is absolutely meaningless to anybody except Joseph Smith’s contemporaries, the Americans to whom the Book of Mormon was targeted, and only reflect his flair for showmanship.
Retroactive clairvoyance is similarly deployed in other fraudulent holy books. The Bhavishya Purana is an open system Hindu text that evolved over thousands of years, to the point that it included postdicted “prophecies” about Muhammad, British colonialism, and even Queen Victoria. We can determine the close of this text occurs in the 19th century, when it ceases to predict any further future occurrences. Similarly, the Bhagavata Purana and others predict “Lord Buddha” by name, but this is clearly a tactic devised to bring Buddhists back into the fold of Hinduism. Rather than helping the case for the Book of Mormon, these postdictions are a damaging nail in its coffin of credibility. Just like the Bhavishya Purana, these remarkably specific prophecies go only up to the point in history when they were actually written, and fall short of predicting anything after Joseph Smith’s restoration (1 Nephi 15:13).
The irony is that the Book of Mormon failed to deliver any prophecies that would have been useful to Joseph Smith’s church, among other things important events like the founding prophet’s death or the Mormon migration to Utah. These so-called predictions were designed to inspire awe and make people believe in the Book of Mormon, and were not valuable for any other reason. This is a marked deviation in the Judeo-Christian philosophy on prophecy, in which predictions are cautionary or instructive. Joseph Smith’s view of predicting the future was not actually prophecy, but rather magic. Ultimately, he was just a cheap magician.
1 Nephi doesn’t just summarize Joseph Smith’s version of American history up to the 19th century, it presents his view of American Exceptionalism. He saw America as God’s country with a special blessing, and particularly of note, that the white people shall inherit the earth:
And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain. 1 Nephi 13:15
Colonizing America had a psychological effect on Christian settlers. The Old World was mentioned throughout the Bible, with parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe being represented, but the New World was mysteriously overlooked, seemingly God-forsaken. Proto-fundamentalists in the 19th century sincerely searched the scriptures for any reference that could remotely suggest another world, and they felt they had found their solution in an obscure phrase, “the isles of the sea.” Joseph Smith took this vague expression and created an affirmative doctrine out of it:
But great are the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the isles of the sea; wherefore as it says isles, there must needs be more than this, and they are inhabited also by our brethren. 2 Nephi 10:21
All of the appearances of this phrase in the Book of Mormon are exclusive to Nephi, he even inserts it into his first lengthy quote from Isaiah (1 Nephi 21:8), from which he probably originally picked up the phrase. His stream of consciousness is evident in the narrative flow, as he starts postdiction in 1 Nephi chapter 10 and stops in chapter 14. After this follows several chapters of wholly original narrative, unusually lacking in Biblical wordprints, quotes, or paraphrases. Then, in chapter 19 he picks up the “isles of the sea” phrase and carries that obsessively throughout the rest of 1 & 2 Nephi.
Nephi drips with American Exceptionalism, claiming that America is the best country on earth and was taken by God from the native Americans to be given to the Colonists:
Nevertheless, thou beholdest that the Gentiles who have gone forth out of captivity, and have been lifted up by the power of God above all other nations, upon the face of the land which is choice above all other lands, which is the land that the Lord God hath covenanted with thy father that his seed should have for the land of their inheritance; wherefore, thou seest that the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy the mixture of thy seed, which are among thy brethren. 1 Nephi 13:30
This was actually a very prevalent belief at the time, but one couldn’t say the Book of Mormon is original in any of its message. Just like Joseph Smith tried to augment theologies that he felt were too weak in the Bible, here he’s simply trying to provide a scriptural justification for beliefs his neighbors already held. It’s no wonder Mormonism has been so successful (in America, at least; in the rest of world it’s made little progress, which is equally unsurprising), since it was designed to be compatible with the folk religion of his day. In this way, Mormonism is perhaps the most American religion in the world, and this is why American Christians continue to convert to it on a daily basis.