An Introduction to the Book of Mormon
by Devery Scott Anderson
The Book of Mormon is one of four books of scripture accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon or LDS church). Even though the other books—the Holy Bible, Doctrine and Covenants (a compilation of revelations to founding prophet Joseph Smith), and Pearl of Great Price (additional revelations)—are sacred and important components of the LDS canon, members of the church believe, as Joseph Smith proclaimed, “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.”
Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon
Joseph Smith’s role in bringing the Book of Mormon to light began with his first major religious experience, later known as the “First Vision.” On this occasion, while praying for religious guidance in a grove near his home, he said he was visited by Jesus and forgiven of his sins. Later this vision was interpreted as a divine call to restore the true church of Christ to the earth, which Smith said had been lost through apostasy from the original teachings of Jesus’ apostles. According to Smith’s account, the work began when a heavenly messenger named “Moroni” appeared in a dream or vision. Moroni informed the seventeen-year-old Smith that an ancient record had been inscribed on metal plates that were gold-like in appearance and that these had been buried anciently in a hill near Smith’s home in upstate New York. This record was said to have been written by prophets who lived in ancient America. Moroni was, in fact, the last of those prophets and the one who buried the record in the hill centuries earlier while in the flesh. Although Smith did not immediately receive the plates, he began to focus his attention on preparing himself to receive and translate the record. Over the next four years, he met Moroni at the hill once a year to be subjected to tests of worthiness until the angel determined that Smith was ready to receive the record. On the morning of 23 September 1827, his wife waiting nearby, Smith received the plates from the angel.
Translating the Record
Although acceptance of this account lies strictly within the realm of faith, the dictation of the Book of Mormon manuscript is well documented. In the period immediately following September 1827, Smith appears to have done little with the record except to protect it from curious neighbors and those who wished to steal it. Indeed, not long after Smith said he had received the plates, those who knew him believed that he had something of value, and the neighbors themselves recounted attempts to steal this “Gold Bible.”
After dealing with such inconveniences for four months, Smith began his first attempt at “translation” in January 1828 by transcribing a few of the ancient characters from the plates. He identified the language as “Reformed Egyptian.” That same month, his scribe, Martin Harris, took a sample of the characters to Professor Charles Anthon in New York City for validation. Harris was considering financing publication of the Book of Mormon and sought confirmation of the genuineness of the ancient artifact. Although Harris and Anthon provided contradictory accounts of their experience, Harris was satisfied by what he heard and returned to upstate New York, enthused about continuing to assist Smith with time and funds. Between April and June 1828, Smith dictated 116 pages of manuscript, the portion of the record called the “Book of Lehi.” Unfortunately, these pages were stolen and never recovered after Harris, with Smith’s reluctant permission, borrowed and showed the manuscript to family and friends. The Book of Lehi, Smith learned by revelation, was not to be re-translated, as those who had stolen it were prepared to produce an altered copy for comparison and thereby ruin Smith’s credibility.
It would be nine months before Smith took up the translation again. He dictated a few pages in March 1829 but would not proceed further until 5 April when a school teacher named Oliver Cowdery came to Palmyra, New York, boarded with Smiths’ parents, and took an interest in the project. Two days later, the translation began in earnest and was finished by late June. With Cowdery’s arrival in Palmyra, and because the original Book of Mormon manuscript is in his handwriting, one can easily document the fact that the bulk of the published portion of the book was dictated over this two-month period. Those who witnessed the translation process described a scenario whereby Smith used “interpreters,” later referred to by the biblical terms urim and thummim (crystals or eyeglasses that Smith said were buried with the plates) to translate the first 116 pages, with Harris as scribe. For the remainder of the translation process, Smith used “seer stones” he himself had discovered years earlier. To translate by the later method, Smith would place an inverted top hat on a table, place the seer stone in the hat, bring his head down and look into the hat—shielding his eyes from outside light—and concentrate on the stone in order to render the inspired translation into English.
Prior to publication, Smith allowed certain friends and family members to feel the plates through a cloth covering or to feel their weight in a box. In addition, several special witnesses known as the “Three Witnesses” were granted a heavenly vision of the plates and the angel Moroni. An additional “Eight Witnesses” were shown the record by Smith, without a heavenly presence. Their signed testimonies appear in the Book of Mormon.
Publishing the First Edition
Understandably, Smith found it difficult to locate someone willing to publish the Book of Mormon. He negotiated with local publisher Egbert B. Grandin, who expressed his serious religious and financial misgivings. Judging from the local opposition to the book that already had been manifested, Grandin assumed the sales would be slight and that he would not be able to recover his costs. He changed his mind when Martin Harris mortgaged his farm and placed a $3,000 security note in his hand. Typesetting began on 29 August 1829. Two months earlier, on 11 June, Smith obtained the copyright for the book from the office of R. R. Lansing, clerk of the Northern District of New York. The printing and binding followed, completed the following spring, so that the book was finally advertised for sale on 26 March 1830. Eleven days later, on 6 April, the Church of Christ, as it was originally called, was officially organized with six members.
Content of the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon story takes place mainly between 600 B.C.and A.D. 421. The initial setting is Jerusalem where a prophet named “Lehi” is told by God to take his family and flee into the wilderness before the city is overthrown by Babylonians. The family lives in the wilderness for eight years while making preparations to sail to the “Promised Land,” identified by Joseph Smith as the ancient American continent. “Nephi,” a younger son of Lehi, builds a ship at the Lord’s command. He is also called to be a prophet and to keep records throughout this portion of Book of Mormon history.
Due to his righteousness and willingness to obey God, Nephi is favored over his two older, rebellious brothers, “Laman” and “Lemuel.” The brothers resent Nephi’s assumption of authority over them, which leads to a permanent separation after the death of their father, Lehi. Over the generations, the Nephites and Lamanites, as they are called, engage in battles as their populations grow. Between discussions of religion, which occupy much of the book, there are detailed accounts of these wars. The Nephites tend to go through cycles of pride, wickedness, and reconciliation with God, whereas the Lamanites generally remain wicked. However, the Lamanites do have a change of heart at one point and become more righteous than the Nephites.
The Book of Mormon is Christian in theology. It contains prophecies by ancient prophets foretelling the coming of God to earth as Jesus Christ and that his is the name by which salvation comes. The narrative culminates in Jesus’ appearance in ancient America soon after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. He delivers a version of the Sermon on the Mount and other biblical teachings that have become the most cherished portions of narrative for believers in the book.
After Jesus re-ascends into heaven and people resume their normal lives, they soon return to their old habits of sin and greed. By the end of the book, the Nephites have become wicked enough to deserve total annihilation. The Lamanites destroy them—all except for “Moroni,” son of the prophet “Mormon.” For twenty years following the last great battle, Moroni wanders alone, finishing his father’s record and his own portion of the book. He eventually buries the plates in the hill in upstate New York where Joseph Smith would come to live.
There are fifteen smaller books in the Book of Mormon, contained within an initial section identified as the “Small Plates of Nephi.” Following these, the “Large plates of Nephi” are said to have been kept by successive record-keeping prophets through generations and to have been condensed and abridged by Mormon. This is why the book carries his name.
Latter-day Saints and the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon has had a profound effect upon Latter-day Saints since the first converts to the movement accepted it in 1830. Its message is best conveyed in the subtitle added in 1982 as “another testament of Jesus Christ.” Its Christian teachings enhance its value to church members as an additional testimony for the Bible. Believers note that the two books together complement each other in providing God’s word, that the Book of Mormon also helps to clarify ambiguous passages in the Bible. LDS missionaries throughout the world, for the entire duration of the church’s history, can testify to the conversion power of the Book of Mormon. Practicing Latter-day Saints maintain a conviction of its spiritual message and how it enhances their personal spirituality. The latest statistics released by the LDS church reveal that the Book of Mormon has been translated into sixty-six languages and that nearly 116 million copies have been printed since the first edition of 1830.
Although there are unique features of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that set it apart from traditional Christianity, many of those features developed over time. Initially, there was more agreement than disagreement within the setting of frontier America’s primitive Christian movement. But the Book of Mormon provided an obstacle for other Christians, at the same time that it served as the tool for conversion of people from many other denominations. Whatever belief one may hold about the divine origin of the book, it has maintained a unique place in American history and in the hearts of those who accept it. Having endured scrutiny and the resulting praise and scorn of both admirers and critics for nearly 175 years, there remain millions today who believe in its message, as well as tens of thousands of new converts each year who embrace it for the first time. Believers, skeptics, and scholars study the book more-or-less enthusiastically, although each for a different reason. It remains the “keystone” of the Mormon religion.