Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
Mormon and Moroni–The Final Struggle
Following Jesus’ visit to America, the Nephites are said to have entered a millennial-like period of unity under the leadership of the twelve disciples. However, their golden era is short-lived; for as with the Puritans of New England, the second generation is less committed than their parents and the third generation even less so. Despite the Nephites’ ultimate decline, the narrative might have lingered for a time on this period of Nephite theocracy since it touches on Smith’s view of his and his followers’ immediate future. Instead, the leisurely pace of the previous narration is contrasted by the speed with which this era is passed over. The narrative covers a period of about 167 years (A.D. 34 to 201) in twenty-three verses (4 Ne. 1:1-23), then devotes twenty-six verses (vv. 23-49) to the decline and fall of the Nephites, which takes another 120 years (A.D. 201 to A.D. 321). A devoted student of the Book of Mormon, the late Sidney B. Sperry, complained that this brevity was “unfortunate” and “vexing.”1 Likely, Smith’s creativity was not sufficient to supply the needed narrative. Besides, as a prophet of doom, the period of millennial bliss was less important to him than the story’s tragic ending.
After a two-year ministry, the twelve disciples succeed in converting the entire Nephite nation and establishing a theocratic government—themselves at the head—in contrast to the sectionalization and secularizing philosophy of America’s Jacksonians. The opponents of Andrew Jackson, whether National Republicans, anti-Masons, or former Federalists, insisted on a strong central government and promoted the notion of a national religion in keeping with their Puritan roots; hence, they resisted the more democratic, pluralistic tendencies of the Jacksonians. Even so, the Book of Mormon’s position is more radical than the Federalist or even the Puritan version. It does not simply advocate that political leaders should be religious; rather, it proposes that ideally, political leaders are charismatically inspired. Indeed, it echoes Seeker Roger Williams’s criticism of the Puritan theocracy as illegitimate because it was not administered by apostles.2
Another aspect of the Nephite theocracy contrasts with the Puritan system. While Puritans viewed individualism, capitalism, and acquisitiveness with disdain, they never attempted to overturn or radicalize the mercantilism that sustained their own community. The Nephite twelve, on the other hand, administer a system of social and economic equality whereby “they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Ne. 1:3). Smith was undoubtedly familiar with the various utopian and communal experiments of his day, some of which were located in western New York. His uncle Jason Mack had organized a community of believers in New Brunswick, Canada, “for the purpose of assisting poor persons.”3 These communal experiments relied on a radical interpretation of Acts 2:43-44 and 4:32 as their justification, in which the apostles order the members to turn over their surplus to the poor. The Book of Mormon gives few details about the Nephite economic system, but the version Smith later developed for his followers included elements of communitarianism and capitalism (Doctrine and Covenants 42; hereafter D&C). Yet, despite Smith’s compromise, the Mormon experiment—like those of the other communal groups—proved unsuccessful.4
Under the administration of the twelve disciples, the Nephites enjoy social and political harmony: “There was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. … There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (1:15, 17). This period of social and economic harmony continues until the second generation when the seeds of spiritual decay take root and self-identified Lamanites reappear (1:18-20). About A.D. 201, the theocratic government gives way to the second and third generations’ hunger for wealth (vv. 22-23). Like the Puritan leader Increase Mather, Mormon comments on this and assigns “pride” and the “wearing of costly apparel” as causes for the downfall of the theocracy (v. 24).5 “From that time forth,” Mormon writes, “they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them. And they began to be divided into classes” (vv. 25-26).
Ecclesiastical unity gives way to splinter churches, all of which compete with the true Church of Christ (1:26), even reintroducing open communion in some cases, “administer[ing] that which was sacred unto him to whom it had been forbidden because of unworthiness” (v. 27). One church denies Christ and persecutes true believers, seeking to kill the three immortalized Nephite disciples (vv. 29-33).
About A.D. 231, a “great division” leaves the Nephites segregated from the Lamanites and the ancient hatred rekindled (1:35-39). Between about A.D. 244 and 260, the wicked part of Nephite population becomes more numerous and powerful than those who are righteous, and Freemasonry reappears: “And it came to pass that the wicked part of the people began again to build up the secret oaths and combinations of Gadianton” (vv. 40-42). By A.D. 300, both Lamanites and Nephites have become “exceeding wicked one like unto another” (v. 45). At this time, “the robbers of Gadianton did spread over all the face of the land” (v. 46). Finally, “there were none that were righteous save it were the disciples of Jesus” (v. 46). Thus, the Nephite civilization’s fall and its subsequent destruction is the result of four factors, all of which were favorite anti-Masonic/anti-Jackson themes: (1) the ascendancy of “secret combinations,” (2) the rejection of religious leadership, (3) the loss of social and political equality, and (4) the fragmentation of a centralized government.6
During this period, the plates of Nephi change hands four times before Mormon takes possession of them and becomes their editor. About A.D. 110, Nephi, one of the disciples of Jesus, gives the record to his son Amos (vv. 18, 19). Eighty-four years later, Amos hands the record to his son Amos II (vv. 20, 21). Amos II lives another 111 years before handing the record to his brother Ammaron (v. 47). About A.D. 320, Ammaron, “being constrained by the Holy Ghost, did hide up the records which were sacred—yea, even all the sacred records which had been handed down from generation to generation, which were sacred” (v. 48). Following Samuel the Lamanite’s formula for avoiding slippery treasures, Ammaron “did hide them up unto the Lord that they might come again unto the remnant of the house of Jacob according to the prophecies and the promises of the Lord” (v. 49; cf. Hel. 13:18).
For the first time since the record began, it is not handed to a successor to be the custodian of it but is hidden to come forth at a later time. The reason for this becomes apparent as one examines the details of Mormon’s life. When Mormon emerges from his role as editor to tell about himself, one finds that, in many ways, his life parallels that of Joseph Smith.
Mormon was named after his father (Morm. 1:5), and when Mormon was about ten years old, Ammaron came to him and told him where the plates were located, giving him instructions about them. “I perceive that thou art a sober child, and art quick to observe,” Ammaron says to Mormon. “Therefore, when ye are about twenty and four years old I would that ye should … go to the land Antum, unto a hill which shall be called Shim; and there have I deposited unto the Lord all the sacred engravings concerning this people. And behold, ye shall take the plates of Nephi unto yourself, and the remainder shall ye leave in the place where they are; and ye shall engrave on the plates of Nephi all the things that ye have observed concerning this people” (vv. 2-4).7 While Smith was a different age than Mormon when he retrieved the record (Mormon was “about” twenty-four, Smith twenty-one), the similarity in storyline is apparent.
Meanwhile, “I, being eleven years old,” Mormon reports, “was carried by my father into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla” (1:6). Although Smith’s father was not the one who conveyed him southward, Joseph Jr. was ten or eleven when his family moved south from Norwich, Vermont, to Palmyra, New York. Considering the pain Joseph Jr. suffered during the trip due to being forced to walk on an injured leg, he may have wished that his father had been there to help carry him.
Mormon arrives in the south in time to witness a war between the Nephites and Lamanites “in the borders of Zarahemla, by the waters of Sidon” (1:8-10). In this war involving more than 30,000 Nephite soldiers, the Lamanites are defeated (v. 11). Perhaps Smith had in mind the war with the Seminoles, 1817-18, and their defeat by Jackson’s army. Following the Lamanites’ defeat, the Nephites enjoy four years of peace (v. 12).
Like Smith, Mormon lives in an era of apostasy: “And there were no gifts from the Lord, and the Holy Ghost did not come upon any, because of their wickedness and unbelief” (1:14). The prevalence of apostasy and disbelief is such that “the Lord did take away his beloved disciples, and the work of miracles did cease because of the iniquity of the people” (v. 13). Even so, Mormon has previously informed readers that he is a “disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (3 Ne. 5:13). Like the apostle Paul, Mormon has become a disciple charismatically: “I, being fifteen years of age and being somewhat of a sober mind, therefore I was visited of the Lord, and tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus” (1:15). In his 1832 history, Smith said his first vision occurred in 1821 when he was fifteen.8 If based on Smith’s visionary experience, Mormon’s description may be assumed to contain the core of the experience that Smith later expanded and made more concrete.
Like Smith, Mormon lives at a time of “secret combinations” and slippery treasures: “These Gadianton robbers, who were among the Lamanites, did infest the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof began to hide up their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again” (1:18). Mormon may well be describing Smith’s day when he writes, “And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land, even unto the fulfilling of all the words of Abinadi, and also Samuel the Lamanite” (v. 19).9
At the tender age of sixteen, Mormon, who is “large in stature,” is appointed general of all the Nephite armies (2:1-2). Smith was large for his age but of course had no military experience at age sixteen. The reason Mormon is so prematurely commissioned is probably the need to get him back into the northern land where the plates are hidden, the pretext being a flight from the Lamanites in a final struggle. Despite the difference in timing, Mormon’s military career probably reflects the author’s own aspiration to become an apostle-general to lead Indian-gentile forces against America and establish the government of the New Jerusalem.
When Mormon is seventeen, the Lamanites “did frighten” his armies that “they would not fight, and they begin to retreat towards the north countries” (2:3). The Lamanites drive the armies from one fortified city to another until the entire Nephite population gathers “in one body” in the land of Joshua (vv. 4-7). Mormon reports that the land is “filled with robbers and with Lamanites” and that “it was one complete revolution throughout all the face of the land” (v. 8).
About A.D. 330, Aaron, king of the Lamanites, and an army of 44,000 attack Mormon’s army of 42,000, but Mormon drives the Lamanites out and establishes a peace that lasts fifteen years (2:9, 16). Mormon is at first joyful to see “a mourning and a lamentation in all the land” (v. 10) but quickly discovers that his joy is misplaced, “for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, … but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned” and “the day of grace was passed with them, both temporally and spiritually” (vv. 13, 15).
About A.D. 345, Mormon and his armies leave the land of Joshua and retreat farther north to the land of Jashon, evidently situated in the Great Lakes region. This retreat consists of thousands of miles but is necessary to bring Mormon into the area where the plates will be deposited. “And now, the city of Jashon was near the land where Ammaron had deposited the records unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed” (2:17). Mormon is about thirty-four years old when he removes the plates from the hill, about ten years after Ammaron instructed him to do so, perhaps reflecting Smith’s own delay in getting the plates.
Mormon removes the plates from the hill Shim and begins recording the “wickedness and abominations” of the Nephites (2:17-18). One hears Smith’s voice when Mormon laments: “For behold, a continual scene of wickedness and abominations has been before mine eyes ever since I have been sufficient [old enough] to behold the ways of men. And wo is me because of their wickedness; for my heart has been filled with sorrow because of their wickedness, all my days; nevertheless, I know that I shall be lifted up at the last day” (vv. 18-19). Describing his feelings prior to his first vision, Smith wrote in 1832 that the hypocrisy of the religious world “was a grief to my soul” and “I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.”10 Nevertheless, Smith received a promise of eternal life.
The Nephites continue their march northward to the land of Shem where they fortify the city of Shem (2:20-21). Similar to General Moroni in an earlier day, Mormon urges his people to “stand boldly before the Lamanites and fight for their wives, and their children, and their houses, and their homes” (v. 23; cf. Alma 43:45-47). Mormon has an army of 30,000 that withstands a Lamanite force of 50,000 (v. 25). Despite this success, Mormon knows that “the strength of the Lord was not with us; yea, we were left to ourselves, that the Spirit of the Lord did not abide in us; therefore we had become weak like unto our brethren” (v. 26).
In about three year’s time (A.D. 346-349), Mormon manages to drive the Lamanites and the Gadianton robbers far enough back that he can retake the “lands of our inheritance” (2:27). Yet, the very next year, Mormon will be forced to sign a treaty giving the Lamanites the entire land southward (vv. 28-29). Still, the treaty provides ten years of peace, during which time the Nephites fortify the area of the narrow pass (i.e., the Isthmus of Panama) against a possible Lamanite invasion (3:1, 5). Mormon also tries to prepare his people spiritually, but fails to do so (vv. 2-3). At the end of the ten years (A.D. 360), Mormon receives an epistle from the Lamanite king declaring an intention to attack (3:4). A surprise attack would have been more advantageous, as the Lamanites learn when they are defeated by Mormon and driven back into their own lands (v. 7). Returning a year later (A.D. 362), the invaders meet a similar fate. The Nephites boast of their success and think about taking revenge on the Lamanites. Many of the Nephites enter into Masonic-like oaths, swearing “before the heavens” and “by the throne of God” to avenge the blood of their fathers (3:9-10). Mormon states that they “had sworn by all that had been forbidden them by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 14; cf. 3 Ne. 12:33-37). The word of the Lord then comes to Mormon, saying: “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay; and because this people repented not after I had delivered them, behold, they shall be cut off from the face of the earth” (3:15; cf. 4:4; Alma 43:46-47; D&C 98:23-48). As the Nephites contemplate revenge, they are unaware that this will result in their utter destruction within twenty-five years. Mormon refuses to be the aggressor and resigns his command to become an “idle witness” to the Nephites’ “wickedness and abominations” (vv. 11, 16).
About A.D. 363, the Nephites launch an unsuccessful offensive against the Lamanites. Mormon editorializes: “The judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished” (4:5). After a four-year struggle, the Nephites manage to drive the Lamanites out of their lands (v. 15), but in another eight years (A.D. 375), the Lamanites return with an army that seems innumerable (v. 17). From this point on, the history becomes one of retreat and annihilation: “And from this time forth, did the Nephites gain no power over the Lamanites, but began to be swept off by them even as a dew before the sun” (v. 18). The Nephites are approaching their last struggle.
The dire circumstances cause Mormon to be concerned about the sacred records: “And now I, Mormon, seeing that the Lamanites were about to overthrow the land, therefore I did go to the hill Shim, and did take up all the records which Ammaron had hid up unto the Lord” (4:23). Mormon keeps these records in his immediate possession for almost ten years, while all the time in retreat and risking capture by the Lamanites (4:16; 6:5). Mormon “repented of the oath” he made when he foreswore his military command (5:1-2) and takes it up again, although without any illusion about the outcome. “I was without hope,” Mormon says, “for I knew the judgments of the Lord which should come upon them” (v. 2). Nevertheless, under his leadership, the Nephites maintain the line against the Lamanite encroachment near Jordan (vv. 3-5).
About A.D. 380, the Lamanites bring the full force of their military against the Nephites. The Nephites flee (5:6). The swiftness of the attack and Nephite retreat was frightful: “We did again take to flight, and those whose flight was swifter than the Lamanites’ did escape, and those whose flight did not exceed the Lamanites’ were swept down and destroyed” (v. 7). One wonders how, in such a situation, Mormon manages to perform his duties as commander of the army while at the same time transporting the entire sacred repository.
Nevertheless, the editor interrupts the narrative to address latter-day readers, stating that he has received a “commandment” from God to make his record of the destruction of his people and to hide it up “unto the Lord” to “come forth in his own due time” (5:12). One purpose of the record is to warn America of a similar destruction by Indians, at which time the gentiles will be “counted as naught among them” (5:9). If Americans forget the source of their blessings, God will remember his covenant and restore the Indians to their lands (vv. 14, 20). Mormon reiterates Jesus’ jeremiad:
And then, O ye Gentiles, how can ye stand before the power of God, except ye shall repent and turn from your evil ways? Know ye not that ye are in the hands of God? … Therefore, repent ye, … lest a remnant of the seed of Jacob [the Indian] shall go forth among you as a lion, and tear you in pieces, and there is none to deliver. (5:22-23, 24; cf. 3 Ne. 20:16; 21:12)
Mormon then resumes his record of the destruction of the Nephites. Writing an epistle to the king of the Lamanites, he asks that his people be granted time to gather “unto the land of Cumorah, by a hill which was called Cumorah, and there we could give them battle” (6:2). Not many enemies give their foes four years to regroup and prepare for a battle in a place of their choosing, but the Lamanite king grants Mormon’s request (vv. 3, 5). The ability of the Nephites to prepare for their last stand enables Smith to move his narrative to a dramatic conclusion.
At nearly seventy-five years of age, Mormon decides to make his own record of the rise and fall of the Nephite nation. Then—“knowing it to be the last struggle of my people”—he hides the entire repository, except for his own record, in the hill Cumorah (6:6). When the Lamanites finally come upon the land of Cumorah (about A.D. 385) and the Nephites are decimated, Mormon views the carnage from the top of the hill. The next morning, there are only twenty-four survivors, including a seriously wounded Mormon and his son Moroni (v. 11). As Mormon prepares to hand his record to Moroni, he describes the enormity of the slaughter (vv. 11-15). Although his claim that 230,000 Nephite soldiers were killed in the battle seems an exaggeration. One student of Book of Mormon demographics has labeled the numbers “highly improbable,”11 while another has allowed for a total Nephite population of “about 1.6 million people” but wonders, “Where could all the additional people have come from?”12 Some writers speculate that the Nephite nation somehow incorporated Asian peoples into their culture, although the Nephites never mention them. Smith believed, along with Ethan Smith and others, that all Indians were of Hebrew origin.13
While Mormon’s numbers seem implausible, they nevertheless approach the estimates of nineteenth-century antiquarians. Henry Brackenridge, for instance, estimated that the mound builders of eastern North America before their annihilation occupied more than “5,000 cities at once full of people” and that “cities similar to those of ancient Mexico, of several hundred thousand souls … have existed in this country.”14
The Nephites’ demise in the “land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” (6:4) is consistent with the belief in Smith’s day that the mound builders were destroyed by the Indians’ ancestors in the Great Lakes Region. This explained the fortifications and burial mounds in the area, especially in western New York and Ohio. Brackenridge also exaggerated when he said in 1813: “The barrows, or general receptacles of the dead, … are, in fact, to be found in almost every cornfield in the western country.”15 This was the prevailing perception.
Thomas Jefferson demonstrated that skeletal remains in the mounds were deposited at various times rather than at once,16 yet the mound-builder myth continued to capture the public’s imagination. In describing a mound near Ridgway, Genesee County, New York, containing piles of skeletons, future governor DeWitt Clinton speculated in 1817 that they had been “deposited there by their conquerors.”17 The Palmyra Register stated on 21 January 1818 that the mound builders were “killed in battle, and hastily buried.”18 Unitarian clergyman Thaddeus Harris believed the mounds contained bodies of warriors. “The smaller mounds on the great plains are filled with bones,” he wrote, “laid in various directions, in an equal state of decay, and appear to be piled over heaps of slain after some great battle.”19
Ohio was well known for ancient burial mounds. In 1820, Caleb Atwater, postmaster of Circleville, Ohio, published in the Archaeologia Americana his “Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States.” In one mound, he reported, was “a great quantity of human bones,” undoubtedly “the remains of those who had been slain in some great and destructive battle. First, because they belonged to persons who had attained their full size; … and secondly, they were here in the utmost confusion, as if buried in a hurry.” Atwater concluded that his state was “nothing but one vast cemetery of the beings of past ages.”20
Some nineteenth-century writers thought the mound builders—like the Nephites—had white skin. Ethan Smith referred to James Adair’s 1775 remark that “the Indians have their tradition, that in the nation from which they originally came, all were of one color.”21 That color, Smith announced, is known to the Indians, who “have brought down a tradition, that their former ancestors, away in a distant region from which they came, were white.”22 In 1816, the Philadelphia Port Folio reported: “It is a very general opinion, prevailing in the western country, that there is ample proof that the country in general was once inhabited by a civilized and agricultural people” who were eventually destroyed by the Indians.23 “It is a current opinion,” the periodical continued, “that the first inhabitants of the western country were white people.”24 One Indian tradition reportedly held that “Kentucky had once been inhabited by white people, but that they were exterminated by the Indians.”25 John Yates and Joseph Moulton in their 1824 History of the State of New York argued that the mounds and fortifications were constructed by a white race.26
Smith’s adoption of the myth is not surprising, considering its power and utility in warning Jacksonian America of its fate. The mound builder myth was rooted deep in the psyche of its creators, for it was an outgrowth of the values, assumptions, and fears of early nineteenth-century Americans. It was not simply an interpretation of past events, but a reflection of their present situation. The myth reinforced their prejudice against Native Americans and justified their fear of possible revenge. With a burial mound in nearly every corn field, so it seemed, the Book of Mormon’s jeremiad to America—repent or be destroyed—was all the more plausible. What happened once could happen again. If America remained unrepentant, Mormon warned, God would unleash the Indians upon them and destroy them just as the Lamanites had destroyed the Nephites (3 Ne. 20:15-21; Morm. 5:22-24).
To ignore the connection between the mound builder myth and the Book of Mormon is to reduce the power of its message. It was a connection that early Mormon missionaries exploited. Shortly after the Book of Mormon’s publication, David Marks visited the Ohio mounds and, like many, wondered who built them. When he was told that “the ‘Book of Mormon’ gave a history of them, [and] of their authors,” he became anxious to get a copy even though he doubted its historicity.27 In 1834, Boston’s Unitarian reported that the Mormons “suppose the mounds throughout the western states, which have heretofore excited so much curiosity, are the remains of the cities of the Nephites and Lamanites.”28 Edward Strut Abdy wrote in 1835 that “the mounds of earth, which, as they now exist in that part of the country, have given rise to so much interest and speculation, are referred to, by the preachers of the Mormon faith, as proofs of the existence of these theocratic tribes.”29 Mormon elder Charles Thompson added in an 1841 pamphlet that similarities between Nephite fortifications and those found throughout the Great Lakes Region were “sufficient to show to the public that the people whose history is contained in the Book of Mormon, are the authors of these works.”30
Joseph Smith claimed that the burial mounds in the region contained the bodies of destroyed Nephites when, on 4 June 1834 during a trip through Illinois with a company of Mormons, he wrote to his wife that he and others had been “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls and their bones, as proof of its divine authenticity.”31 The previous day Smith made an inspired declaration about a skeleton they had unearthed from an Indian burial mound, saying it was that of “Zelph”—“a white Lamanite” and “a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains. … He was killed … during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.”32
It was, in fact, in the vicinity of Manchester, New York, that the last stand of the Nephites was said to have taken place about A.D. 385, according to Smith. In 1835, under Smith’s supervision, Oliver Cowdery included in his account of early Mormon history a description of the Manchester hill from which Smith took the gold plates, including the following: “At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former … [and] between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed. … [Mormon] deposited … all the records in this same hill, Cumorah.”33 In 1842, Smith described his interviews with the angel on the hill’s summit as “Glad tidings from Cumorah!” (D&C 128:20). Similar statements from his associates indicate that Cumorah was located in western New York, not in Central America as some have suggested.34 Despite the long distance between Panama and New York, neither Smith nor his followers saw this as a problem until 1885 when the Reverend M. T. Lamb made it an issue.35 Hemispheric geography had come part and parcel with Smith’s adaptation of the mound builder myth, including the assumption that the South American and Mexican ruins were built by the same white-skinned agriculturalists who had built the earth works in North America and who destroyed by the ancestors of the Great Lakes tribes.36
Returning to Mormon’s account, one learns that some Nephites “dissented over unto the Lamanites” (6:15), which contradicts the previously unqualified predictions that they would be “utterly destroyed”(Mosiah 12:8; Alma 9:24; Hel. 7:24; 15:17). Later, Smith corrects this where, in dictating the replacement portion of the book, he has Lehi tell his son Joseph that his “seed shall not utterly be destroyed” (3:2-3).37
When Mormon closes his account, he reminds latter-day Indians that they are Israelites, that they must repent, and that they “must lay down [their] weapons of war, and delight no more in the shedding of blood, and take them not again, save it be that God shall command you” (7:2-4; emphasis added). Of course, the possibility that latter-day Indians might take up arms is left open, but it would be appropriate only if instructed to by God through Smith. Mormon states that he has made his record so that the Indians might more easily believe in the Bible and thereby accept the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 9). After declaring that the Indians are “a remnant of the seed of Jacob” and of the “first covenant,” Mormon promises that it will be well with them on judgment day if they submit to baptism (v. 10). With this, his account concludes, and he turns the record over to Moroni.
For reasons not entirely clear, Moroni waits sixteen years before finishing the history (8:1, 6). When he finally writes, he says he intends to be brief, declaring: “I have but few things to write, which things I have been commanded by my father” (v. 1). He complains that there is little room left for writing on the plates and that he has no means of making more plates (v. 5). Yet, he continues for another fifty-five pages (first edition pages), finishing his father’s record and adding two more books: the Book of Ether, which is a history of the Jaredites, and his own book. Concerning the final battle and the death of his father, Moroni writes:
And now it came to pass that after the great and tremendous battle at Cumorah, behold, the Nephites who had escaped into the country southward were hunted by the Lamanites, until they were all destroyed. And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people. … And whether they will slay me, I know not. Therefore I will write and hide up the records in the earth; and whither I go it mattereth not. … I am alone … I have not friends nor whither to go. (8:2-4)
Smith may have identified with this situation. His brother Alvin had died, his family was divided over religion, former friends had become enemies, and he was living with his in-laws, who disapproved of him, as did the Methodists and others in Harmony. Smith may have become alienated from his own feelings and realized that he did not have any real connection to other people. His secret mission to save his family and the world and to assume the prophetic mantle insured that his feelings of “otherness” and “aloneness” would continue.
The remainder of Mormon’s section of the Book of Mormon (8:14-9:37) consists of Moroni’s closing exhortation, including a statement to future readers that seems well suited to those who had attempted to steal the gold plates: “The plates thereof are of no worth, because of the commandment of the Lord. For he truly saith that no one shall have them to get gain; but the record thereof is of great worth” (8:14). To those who threatened Smith with physical harm, saying “show unto me [the plates], or ye shall be smitten,” Moroni warns that there are consequences to seeking what is “forbidden of the Lord” (8:18-20).
The fact that Smith withheld the plates from public view was a point of contention in Harmony. Isaac Hale said that in that case, the plates should be removed from the house—which is to say that the box should be removed from the house—and that “if he did not, I was determined to see it.”38 Others in Harmony said that Smith promised to show them the plates and then changed his mind.39 If Smith did make any such statements, it could have been diversionary because he seemed to have had no intention of showing his enemies the plates.
Moroni describes what America will be like when the Book of Mormon appears, offering several predictions. First, “it shall come in a day when it shall be said that miracles are done away. … Yea, it shall come in a day when the power of God shall be denied, and churches become defiled and [will] be lifted up in the pride of their hearts” (8:26, 28). True, Smith lived in a day when miracles were denied by deists, skeptics, and rationalists; but it was also a time when revivalists were experiencing visions, speaking in tongues, and healing the sick. Smith likely referred to the rejection of a specific kind of miracle—the coming forth of new revelation.
Second, “it shall come in a day when the blood of saints shall cry unto the Lord, because of secret combinations and the works of darkness” (8:27). Anti-Masons spoke of the “works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11) performed in secrecy, and they utilized the image of blood crying from the ground (Gen. 4:10; Rev. 6:10; 19:2).40 By 1830, William Morgan was joined by other anti-Masonic martyrs and suspected victims of foul play. The Reverend Lebbeus Armstrong declared in 1830 that “many of the numerous murders which have polluted this, and other lands, with blood, which horrid deeds have been palmed on some innocent, or unknown persons, have been really the bloody fruits of masonic executions.”41 He added: “It is awfully to be feared, that when the light of eternity shall shine on the deeds of darkness, and every secret thing shall be brought into judgment, it will then be found, that many of the sudden deaths in the world have been the result of masonic VENGEANCE.”42
Third, the Book of Mormon will appear “when leaders of churches and teachers shall … [sink] even to the envying of them who belong to their churches. … O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God?” (8:28, 38). Note that the concern is for the corruption of the church rather than for a total apostasy, consistent with Smith’s March 1829 revelation referring to a “reformation” (Book of Commandments 4:5) and the May 1829 revelation describing “the church” as already being in existence (D&C 10:53-56).
Fourth, “it shall come in a day when there shall be heard of fires, and tempests, and vapors of smoke in foreign lands; and there shall also be heard of wars, rumors of wars, and earthquakes in divers places” (8:29-30). These signs would accompany both the Book of Mormon and, according to the New Testament, Jesus’ second advent as well (Matt. 24:6-7; cf. D&C 45:26). Smith did not date the Second Coming, but he expected that it would take place in the very near future. His early revelations noted the nearness of the parousia (D&C 33:18; 34:7, 12; 35:15, 27; 38:8; 39:24; 41:4).
In a letter to the Colesville Saints, dated 2 December 1830, Smith expressed his belief that “destructions are at our doors and they soon will be in the houses of the wicked, and they that know not God. Yea lift up your heads and rejoice for your redemption draweth nigh. … Behold the prophecies of the Book of Mormon are fulfilling as fast as time can bring it about.”43 On 4 January 1833, he wrote to the American Revivalist, and Rochester Observer:
I am prepared to say by the authority of Jesus Christ, that not many years shall pass away before the United States shall present such a scene of bloodshed as has not a parallel in the history of our nation. Pestilence hail famine and earthquake will sweep the wicked of this generation from off the face of this Land to open and prepare the way for the return of the lost tribes of Israel from the north country. … The hour of his Judgment is come. Repent ye Repent ye and embrace the everlasting Covenant and flee to Zion [Missouri] before the overflowing scourge overtake you. For there are those now living upon the earth whose eyes shall not be closed in death until they see all these things which I have spoken fulfilled.44
Fifth, “it shall come in a day when there shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth; there shall be murders, and robbing, and lying, and deceivings, and whoredoms, and all manner of abominations” (8:31). This is followed by a description of the Universalists: those who “will say, Do this, or do that, and it mattereth not, for the Lord will uphold such at the last day” (v. 31). Roundly condemning those who excuse such sins, Moroni declares: “But wo unto such for they are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity” (v. 31).
Sixth, “it shall come in a day when there shall be churches built up that shall say: Come unto me, and for your money you shall be forgiven of your sins” (8:32). While some might see a reference to the Catholic sale of indulgences, it is likely more generalized rhetoric against exploitative tendencies Smith observed in some sectarian churches. “O ye wicked and perverse and stiffnecked people, why have ye built up churches unto yourselves to get gain?” (v. 33) Moroni continues. “Why have ye transfigured the holy word of God, that ye might bring damnation to your souls?” (v. 33). Again, rather than accusing the Catholic church of altering the Bible, as Smith will later do (1 Ne. 13), he condemns the “churches” for spiritualizing the text, particularly with regard to the gathering of Israel in the last days. Thus, Moroni can state: “Behold, look ye unto the revelations of God; for behold, the time cometh at that day when all these things must be fulfilled” (v. 33; cf. vv. 21-22). Speaking to his latter-day audience, Moroni asks:
Why do ye build up your secret abominations to get gain, and cause that widows should mourn before the Lord, and also orphans to mourn before the Lord, and also the blood of their fathers and their husbands to cry unto the Lord from the ground, for vengeance upon your heads? Behold, the sword of vengeance hangeth over you; and the time soon cometh that he avengeth the blood of the saints upon you, for he will not suffer their cries any longer. (8:40-41)
For the first readers of the Book of Mormon concerned about the propagation of Freemasonry, there was a subtle irony here. The central figure in Masonic lore, Hiram Abiff, was said to have been “a widow’s son,” and the Masonic sign of “grief and distress” included the words: “O Lord, my God! is there no help for the widow’s son?”45 Although Masonry claimed “to receive the sufferings of the widow and the orphan,” Presbyterian minister Nathan N. Whiting of Waterville, New York, reversed the image by charging that the murder of William Morgan had produced an “agonized widow” and the “lamentations of the fatherless children.”46
Moroni also specifically addresses those who will reject the Book of Mormon because the day of spiritual gifts, revelations, and miracles is past: “Behold I say unto you, he that denieth these things knoweth not the gospel of Christ” (9:8). This probably refers to the anti-revivalists who, like Alexander Campbell, believed that gifts and miracles were “confined to the apostolic age, and to only a portion of the saints who lived in that age.”47 Drawing on Hebrews 13:8 and James 1:17 as proof-texts, Moroni offers an apologetic for the continuation of miracles in the last days:
For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing? (Morm. 9:9)
Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever. (Heb. 13:8) … with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (James 1:17)
Moroni argues that if God had ceased to be a god of miracles, he would be changeable and therefore no god at all (9:19). If miracles have ceased, he continues, it is because of the sin and lack of faith of the people (v. 20). Moroni quotes Jesus’ words to the three Nephite disciples, which Mormon had not thought to record in 3 Nephi, that come from the Gospel of Mark. In fact, the passage is a second-century addition to Mark48:
Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature; … And these signs shall follow them that believe—in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover. (Morm. 9:22, 24)
Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. … And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:15—18)
Based on this evidence, Moroni counsels readers not to deny miracles. “Who will despise the works of the Lord?” he asks. “Who will despise the children of Christ?” (9:26). By extension, anyone who rejects the miracle of Smith’s own mission, including translating the Book of Mormon, will be under a similar condemnation: “Behold, all ye who are despisers of the works of the Lord, for ye shall wonder and perish” (v. 26).
Moroni challenges a faithless, hypocritical Christendom to repent and “come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him [Phil. 2:12]. … Strip yourselves of all uncleanness. … See that ye are not baptized unworthily; see that ye partake not of the sacrament of Christ unworthily” (9:27-29). Smith’s concern for ecclesiastical purity may indicate that he is beginning to consider the possibility of something more than a reformation, an actual church rather than an invisible one; but even here, the implication is at best ambiguous.
To head off the criticisms of rationalists and deists, Moroni concludes by advising readers not to condemn him or his father because of their imperfections (9:31). Moroni had earlier warned: “And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. … Therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire” (8:17). It is interesting to note that Smith blames potential textual errors on the ancient writers rather than on the translator. The translation “shall be done by the power of God” (8:17), he emphasizes.49 In addition to human limitations, Moroni assigns possible lapses to defects in language:
And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfections in our record. But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof. (9:32-34)
This apologetic was directed, in part, toward those who knew that Professor Anthon had not been able to decipher the script Harris had shown him. While Anthon’s inability to read the characters proved to Harris that Smith had superior ability, more educated critics would interpret this differently. Smith can now explain that Anthon had failed because the Egyptian characters had been altered by the Nephites and would have been unrecognizable to scholars. They could be interpreted only by the power of God and through Smith’s seer stone.
Moroni closes by stating that he and his father wrote their accounts that “we may rid our garments of the blood of our brethren, who have dwindled in unbelief” (9:35; cf. Acts 20:26-27). It was perhaps a similar burden and responsibility that had led Smith to commence his mission. Expressing concern for the Lamanites, Moroni states that “all the saints who have dwelt in the land” had prayed for the latter-day “restoration” of the Indian “to the knowledge of Christ” (9:36; cf. 8:25; D&C 10:46).
Moroni’s last wish, therefore, is that “the Lord Jesus Christ grant that their prayers may be answered according to their faith; and may God the Father remember the covenant which he hath made with the house of Israel; and may he bless them forever, through faith on the name of Jesus Christ. Amen” (9:37). By remembering the covenant with the house of Israel, God will give the land of America to the Indian. In this way, Moroni finishes his father’s record with a call both to faith and to arms.
3. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for many Generations (Liverpool, Eng.: S. W. Richards, 1853), 52 (see Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003], 1:248; hereafter EMD).
4. Leonard J. Arrington, “Early Mormon Communitarianism: The Law of Consecration and Stewardship,” Western Humanities Review 7 (Autumn 1953): 342-43, recognizes the mediatory nature of Smith’s version. See also Lyndon W. Cook, Joseph Smith and the Law of Consecration (Provo, UT: Grandin Book Co., 1985), 8; and Vogel, Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism, 173-75.
5. Increase Mather, An Earnest Exhortation to the Inhabitants of New-England, To hearken to the voice of God in his late and present Dispensations (Boston, 1676), . See also Christine Leigh Heyrman, “The Fashion Among More Superior People: Charity and Social Change in Provincial New England, 1700-1740,” American Quarterly (Summer 1982): 107-25.
7. The hill Shim, one is later told, was near Hill Cumorah (Ether 4:23; 9:3). Perhaps Smith had in mind Miner’s Hill, situated about three miles north of Cumorah on the same road, into which his father had dug a tunnel in the mid-1820s.
11. John C. Kunich, “Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes,” in Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 259.
13. For example, Joseph Smith told an itinerant minister in 1835 that the angel who revealed the gold plates to him “said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham” (Joseph Smith, journal, 9 Nov. 1835, LDS Church Archives [EMD 1:44]). See also Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), vii.
20. Caleb Atwater, “Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States,” Archaeologia Americana: Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society 1 (1820): 179. Atwater’s statement about Ohio being a “vast cemetery” is quoted in John V. N. Yates and Joseph W. Moulton, History of the State of New-York (New York, 1824), 20.
31. Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 2nd. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co.; Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 345-46.
32. Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols., 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1948), 2:79-80 (cf. Times and Seasons 6 [1 Jan. 1846]: 1076). Onandagus is no doubt inspired by the Onondaga Indians of central New York State. Kenneth W. Godfrey argues that those who refer to the Zelph incident as evidence against the Limited Tehuantepec Theory of Book of Mormon geography do so “on inconclusive grounds” (Kenneth W. Godfrey, “The Zelph Story,” Brigham Young University Studies 29 [Spring 1989]: 31-56). Godfrey’s oft-cited essay, however, contains many inaccuracies, not the least of which is his suggestion that Smith’s history was emended to exclude references to “the Nephites” and “the Hill Cumorah,” possibly at Smith’s instigation (47). However, these alterations were made sometime after publication of the Zelph story in the Times and Seasons in 1846 and, hence, without Smith’s participation. His assertion that “the earlier accounts do not expressly identify Zelph with the Nephites, as do the later accounts” (42) is equally false. Within months of the return of Smith and his men to Kirtland, Ohio, E. D. Howe reported that after disinterment of the bones, “Smith made a speech, prophesying or declaring that they were the remains of a celebrated General among the Nephites, mentioning his name and the battle in which he was slain, some 1500 years ago” (E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834], 159). Godfrey equivocates about every key word in the Zelph accounts, but his questioning of “the plains of the Nephites” in Smith’s letter to Emma is especially strained. “Evidently these plains were in some respect associated with, or comparable to, the battlefields of the Nephites,” Godfrey argues, “but beyond this it is unclear what Joseph meant by this expression” (46). The balance of the sentence, that they were standing on the mounds of that “once beloved people of the Lord” and “picking up their skulls and their bones” as “proof” of the Book of Mormon’s “divine authenticity,” makes it abundantly clear that Smith intended “the plains of the Nephites” to be understood literally.
34. One of the speculative apologists is John L. Sorenson, who has written that Cumorah was located about eighty-five miles northwest of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the Tuxtla Mountain chain near Tres Zapotes in south-central Veracruz (John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; and Provo, UT: FARMS, 1985], 347-50). This suggestion is problematic. Mormon describes the region around Cumorah as “a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” (Morm. 6:4). Helaman 3:4 describes it as a land with “large bodies of water and many rivers,” stating that it is located “an exceeding great distance” into the land northward. Traditionally, these two passages of the Book of Mormon have been thought to point to the Great Lakes Region. By comparison, Tres Zapotes is not “an exceeding great distance” from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Some writers have proposed two lands of many waters and lakes: one the land of Cumorah—which they say is the Papaloapan Lagoon System just west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec—the other farther west and north in the Valley of Mexico (Ibid., 267). The Book of Mormon gives no indication that such a division was implied. If this were the case, one would expect Mormon, the editor, to explicitly distinguish the area of many waters in Helaman 3:4 from the more famous “land of many waters” of Cumorah.
David A. Palmer argues that “it would be fruitless to argue over how far an ‘exceeding great distance’ was to a Nephite” (In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico [Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1981], 79). But if eighty-five miles or so to Tres Zapotes is “an exceeding great distance” to a Nephite, then what about the 120 miles across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which the Book of Mormon describes as “only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite” (Alma 22:32)? Or what about the 155 miles from Kaminaljuyu (Nephi) to Santa Rosa (Zarahemla), spoken of as being a short distance apart?
Along with the two-Cumorah theory comes the problem of explaining how the plates (not to mention the entire Nephite library) came to be in New York thousands of miles from their supposed location in Central America. (For the story of Smith, Cowdery, and others seeing the Nephite library inside the New York hill, see EMD 3:379-82.) John A. Widtsoe suggested that the plates could have been “moved from place to place by divine help” (John A. Widtsoe, “Is Book of Mormon Geography Known?” Improvement Era 53 [July 1950]: 547). But the more popular explanation is that “Moroni carried the plates by himself to the Palmyra, New York area and buried them there” (Palmer, In Search of Cumorah, 20; and Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 44). This explanation is problematic because Moroni makes it clear that he buried the plates in the vicinity of the Nephites’ destruction, not 2,000 miles away in some remote region. When Moroni begins writing sixteen years after the Nephites’ destruction, we learn that he remained in the area to observe the activities of the Lamanites, at risk of being captured (Morm. 8:1-13). Uncertain about his future, Moroni buries the plates (8:3-4). When he returns twenty years later, he observes the “exceedingly fierce” wars among the Lamanites and declares: “I make not myself known to the Lamanites lest they should destroy me” (Moro. 1:1-2). After writing his final exhortation, he bids farewell: “And I seal up these records … I soon go to rest in the paradise of God” (10:2, 34). Thus, Moroni is old and ready to die when he hides the plates in the same hill around which the Nephites were destroyed. On these and other difficulties facing the new geographers, see Earl M. Wunderli, “Critique of a Limited Geography for Book of Mormon Events,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35 (Fall 2002): 161-97.
35. See M. T. Lamb, The Golden Bible; or, The Book of Mormon. Is it from God? (Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Herald, 1885), 96-106, 205-6, 308-16. See also Vogel and Metcalfe, American Apocrypha, viii-ix.
40. See, e.g., Lebbeus Armstrong, Masonry Proved to Be a Work of Darkness, Repugnant to the Christian Religion; and Inimical to a Republican Government [New York, 1830], 3, 11; P[eter]. Sanborn, Minutes of an Address Delivered Before the Anti-Masonic Convention of Reading, Mass., January 15, 1829 (Boston, 1829), 5, 6, 8, 9, 13, 15, 17, 18; Henry Brown, A Narrative of the Anti-Masonik Excitement, in the Western Part of the State of New York, During the Years 1826, ’7, ’8 and a Part of 1829 (Batavia, NY, 1829), 153.
41. Armstrong, Masonry Proved to Be a Work of Darkness, 11. Armstrong also suspected “the execution of [a] penalty in a lodge-room, or personal dispatch by poison, or assassination, as the ghosts of the murdered Artemas Kenedy, near Boston, the poisoned Simmons, of Albany, and a host of others, would, doubtless, testify now, were they permitted to speak” (ibid.).
44. See Jessee, Personal Writings, 298. Cf. Smith, History of the Church, 1:315-16. The last paragraph of Smith’s letter, which includes the words here quoted, was published in the American Revivalist, and Rochester Observer on 2 Feb. 1833. In a subsequent letter, dated 12 February 1833, Smith complained that his previous letter had been shortened and mentioned that it was written “by the commandment of God” (Jessee, Personal Writings, 299).
47. Quoted in Joseph W. White, “The Influence of Sidney Rigdon upon the Theology of Mormonism,” M.A. thesis, University of Southern California, 1947, 127. See also Royal Humbert, ed., A Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961), 67-70.