Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
Moroni tells readers that he has abridged “the twenty and four plates which were found by the people of Limhi, which is called the Book of Ether” (Ether 1:2; cf. Mosiah 8:9; 28:17-19). The book is named after the last prophet of the Jaredites, Ether, who like Moroni witnesses his people’s war of total annihilation. In fact, the parallels between the two stories are so striking, down to the last battle occurring at the same hill, that Mormon writer B. H. Roberts wondered: “Is all this sober history? … Or is it a wonder-tale of an immature mind, unconscious of what a test he is laying on human credulity?”1 It is puzzling why Smith would add a repetitive story to the Book of Mormon, but it does emphasize the overall theme of his work, which is that Americans must repent or be destroyed.
Like the American colonists, the Nephites were mystified by the ruins and burial mounds they discovered in the land of “many waters” (Mosiah 8:8). When translated by Mosiah II, the plates reveal “an account of the people who were destroyed … back to the building of the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people and they were scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth” (Mosiah 28:17; cf. Gen. 11:1-9). Even so, Mormon withholds details of the people’s migration to the New World as well as the cause of their destruction, although he promises that an “account shall be written hereafter” (Mosiah 28:19). Alma instructs Helaman to withhold the Jaredite record because it contains the oaths, signs, and covenants of the “secret combinations” which brought the Jaredites to destruction (Alma 37:27, 32). Logically, the Jaredite account should have been written by Mormon rather than Moroni, and the Jaredite record was evidently not included in the “few things” Mormon commanded his son to write (Morm. 8:1). At the time he finishes his father’s record, Moroni has not contemplated writing more and apologizes for the brevity of his account, stating that he would have given a more complete account of the Nephite destruction “if I had room upon the plates, but I have not; and ore I have none” (Morm. 8:5). In other words, the inclusion of Ether is spontaneous and unplanned. One should perhaps interpret Mormon’s promise that the Jaredite history would be “written hereafter” (Mosiah 28:19), not as a reference to himself or Moroni, but rather as a separate project that might be performed at a later date by Smith or some other latter-day prophet. Thus, Moroni writes that his abridgement of the Jaredite record is being prepared by the command of God (Ether 4:4), although also in fulfillment of his father’s wishes.
While Alma disclosed his and Helaman’s reason for censoring the Jaredite record, Moroni gives a different reason, stating that Mosiah had withheld the vision of the pre-mortal Jesus because God had “forbidden” its release “until after that he [Jesus] should be lifted up upon the cross” (4:1). Apparently, Smith realized the need to explain why the Nephites were unaware of this vision. Yet, even after the crucifixion, the Nephite prophets remain unaware of this vision or the content of the Jaredite record. Jesus worries about whether his disciple Nephi will record the prophecies of Malachi, but he neither refers to the brother of Jared nor mentions Ether’s record. This likely is because Smith had not yet worked out the details for the Jaredite story. Even so, Moroni can only offer an abridgement of the record because God instructs him that a full account “shall not go forth unto the Gentiles until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord” (4:6).
The Book of Ether explains how the western hemisphere was repopulated after the Flood, which according to the account occurred through the dispersion following the confusion of language at Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Although the ten tribe theory was popular, it was sometimes challenged by those who believed that the Indians had come to America from Babel. When British theologian Thomas Thorowgood published Jews in America in 1650, he was attacked by fellow scholar Sir Hamon l’Estrange, who two years later published his Americans no Jewes; or, Improbabilities that the Americans are of that Race (London, 1652). L’Estrange argued that a good number of the similarities to which Thorowgood pointed were present in other cultures and were not uniquely common to just Jews and Indians. Some of the similarities, he said, such as the legends about a creation and a flood, may have been transported by a colony from the tower of Babel.
The debate between the two theories continued into Joseph Smith’s day, as is evident from the review in the Utica [New York] Christian Repository (May 1825) of Ethan Smith’s 1823 edition of View of the Hebrews.2 The reviewer suggested that the author should separate Indian traits that could be considered strictly Jewish from those which might be considered older and of a more general patriarchal origin.
Few tried to reconcile the two theories, however. Thorowgood and Ethan Smith were excited by the millennial implications of evidence for the ten tribes in the American Indian but discounted the migration from Babel theory because they based their arguments on Second Esdras 13:41, which says the ten tribes traveled to a far country “where never mankind dwelt.” Ethan Smith interpreted this passage to be a reference to America, “a land where no man dwelt since the flood.”3
Writers who did not follow the ten tribe theory and were therefore free from the restriction imposed by the Esdras passage could and did postulate two migrations to ancient America. Congregational minister Samuel Mather, in his book, An Attempt to Shew, that America Must Be Known to the Ancients (Boston, 1773), argued that North America “was probably inhabited not long after the dispersion of those numerous families, who were separated in consequence of the unhappy affair at Babel.”4 Mather speculated that a second wave of colonists could have arrived, possibly from northern Europe or Asia, via the Bering Strait or that Phoenicians could have reached America by ship.5 In other words, Joseph Smith was following a not altogether unexpected path in dictating a history of the Jaredite migration from the “great tower” (1:3).
Although arranged chronologically, Moroni’s abridgment of Jaredite history offers little information about dates. Unlike the Nephite account, there is no complex dating system. Instead, as in Genesis, Moroni begins with a genealogy of thirty names that spans the entire Jaredite era. The remainder of his account follows that genealogy, beginning with Jared, who journeyed to the western hemisphere “from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people” (1:33). This event, described in Genesis 11:1-9, was generally believed in Smith’s day to have occurred about 2,247 B.C.6
The main character of the story is curiously unnamed and referred to only as “the brother of Jared.” Why would this important character go unidentified? This becomes even more notable when Moroni names Pagag as the first-born son of Jared’s brother (6:25). Presently, no one has offered a completely satisfactory explanation for this lapse. However, it was not long before the missing name was supplied extracanonically. In 1835, Oliver Cowdery disclosed that Smith had identified Jared’s brother as “Moriancumer,” a name that appears elsewhere in the Jaredite record (Ether 2:13).7 In 1892, George Reynolds claimed that Smith had revealed the full name as Mahonri Moriancumer.8
In many ways, Jared’s brother reminds one of Nephi in that Jared guides his family through a wilderness, has a vision of the pre-mortal Jesus, and crosses the ocean to populate a wilderness. Like Nephi, Jared’s brother is described as being “a large and mighty man, and a man highly favored of the Lord” (1:34; cf. 1 Ne. 1:1; 2:16). However, in contrast to Nephi and his brothers, Jared and his brother work in harmony and cooperation, suggesting the Smith family before the death of Alvin or an idealized family that is reunited in the millennium. Harmony is achieved largely because Jared submits to his brother’s spiritual leadership, much as Alvin did for Joseph.
Jared requests his brother to ask God not to confound their language, a request that is granted (1:34-35). Again, at Jared’s behest, his brother asks God not to confound the language of their friends, and this too is granted (vv. 36-37). Finally, Jared requests his brother to ask God what part of the world they should inhabit, hoping that “the Lord will carry us forth into a land which is choice above all the earth” (v. 38). Accordingly, God commands Jared’s brother, Jared, and some friends to gather their families and “go … down into the valley which is northward” (v. 42). Before departing, God commands them to gather their flocks, Noah-like, “male and female, of every kind; and also of the seed of the earth of every kind” (v. 41).
As instructed, the group journeys northward from Babel to the designated valley, the name of which was “Nimrod, being called after the mighty hunter” (2:1). In naming this valley, the inspiration was probably Genesis 10:8-10, which says of Nimrod: “He began to be a mighty one in the earth … a mighty hunter before the Lord. … And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel.” From this location, the Jaredite party will soon begin its long journey to the New World. Smith, too, at this time, was preparing to leave the Susquehanna Valley where his father-in-law, himself a mighty hunter, had both influence and power over him.
Those in Smith’s day who believed that the first settlers of America came from the tower of Babel were uncertain which of Noah’s sons they would be descended from. The Book of Mormon does not give a direct answer to this problem, but there are indications that Ham was the intended progenitor. Babel’s founder, Nimrod, was a descendant of Ham (Gen. 10:6, 8). In justifying slavery, many in Smith’s day connected Africans with Ham’s curse (Gen. 9:20-27) and/or Cain’s curse (Gen. 4:9-15),9 as did Smith himself (Abr. 1:21-27). This connection would explain why the Jaredites are said to have brought with them some records containing oaths which had been handed down from Cain (Ether 8:9, 15). Additionally, some early Mormons seem to have believed that Jaredites were Hamites.10 If Smith made this connection while dictating the Jaredite migration story, he may have done so in accordance with the belief expressed in Adam Clarke’s commentary of the Bible: “The Hamites in general, like the Canaanites of old, were a seafaring race, and sooner arrived at civilization and the luxuries of life than their simpler pastoral and agricultural brethren of the other two families.”11
In the valley of Nimrod, Jared’s group, again in Noah-like fashion, make further preparations for their journey by gathering foul and fish. The transportation of fresh- water fish is particularly troubling, although the record indicates that they “did also prepare a vessel, in which they did carry them, the fish of the waters” (2:2). The conveyance of a fish tank for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles over various terrain would have been difficult at best. They also collected “deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee” (2:3).12 Why Moroni draws specific attention to the honey bee is intriguing. Perhaps Smith knew of the ongoing debate over the origin of the bee in America, specifically whether they were indigenous or of Old World extraction.13 Early Mormon convert W. W. Phelps was aware of this debate. “Before the flood,” he wrote in 1833, “bees might have been in every part of the world, but since Noah left them on the other side of the Atlantic, unless brought by man they would not have been able to cross it.”14 Phelps cited the Book of Mormon’s mention of “deseret” as the resolution to a “great mystery.” However, the presence of the honey bee in the New World dates to after European colonization.15
Like Moses, God appears to Jared’s brother “in a cloud” (2:4; cf. Exod. 24:16; 34:5) and commands him to “go forth into the wilderness, yea, into that quarter where there never had man been” (2:5). The phraseology comes from Second Esdras 13:41, which states that the ten tribes would “go forth into a further country, where never mankind dwelt.” Like Ethan Smith, Joseph Smith interpreted the Esdras passage as a reference to America but inserted it into another context. The similarity of the two phrases was noted by B. H. Roberts, who observed several parallels between the migration of the Jaredites and that of the ten tribes as outlined in Second Esdras: both are religiously motivated, both groups enter valleys at the commencement of their journeys (Ether 1:42; 2:1; cf. 2 Esd. 13:43), both apparently travel north between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, both cross water barriers (Ether 2:6-7, 13; cf. 2 Esd. 13:40, 43-44), both trips take years, and both groups travel to uninhabited lands.16 Like the children of Israel in their exodus from Egypt, “the Lord did go before [the Jaredites] as he stood in a cloud, and gave directions whither they should travel” (2:5; cf. Exod. 13:21).
Moroni breaks into the narrative at this point and announces the Jaredites’ final destination and explains God’s decree upon the New World. Moroni writes: “And it came to pass that they did travel in the wilderness, and did build barges, in which they did cross many waters, being directed continually by the hand of the Lord. And the Lord would not suffer that they should stop beyond the sea in the wilderness, but he would that they should come forth even unto the land of promise” (2:7).17 Moroni informs that God “had sworn in his wrath unto the brother of Jared, that whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fulness of his wrath should come upon them” (2:8). Moroni cannot help but draw a moral for Jacksonian America:
And this cometh unto you, O ye Gentiles, that ye may know the decrees of God—that ye may repent, and not continue in your iniquities until the fulness come, that ye may not bring down the fulness of the wrath of God upon you as the inhabitants of the land have hitherto done. Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written. (2:11-12)
In time, Jared’s party arrives at “that great sea which divideth the lands” (2:13). No directions are given, but the Pacific Ocean is implied, according to most interpreters.18 Setting up camp near the water’s edge, the group names the place Moriancumer. It will not be a short stay. After four years, God appears in a cloud and reproaches Jared’s brother for not remembering to call upon God, warning that “my Spirit will not always strive with man” (2:14-15). These words, taken from Genesis 6:3, set the tone for the voyage that follows. Additionally, one cannot ignore the parallel to Smith’s four-year delay in getting the plates and subsequent chastisement by the angel.
Transoceanic migration to America is consistent with what was believed in Smith’s day by those who rejected the Bering Strait theory. Theorists argued that it would have been impossible for tropical animals to migrate through the arctic zone.19 As early as 1761, Frenchman Pierre de Charlevoix argued that after the Flood, people could have sailed to America from the tower of Babel since they would have retained the knowledge of ship building.20 “Who can seriously believe,” he wrote, “that Noah … the builder and pilot of the greatest ship that ever was … should not have communicated to those of his descendants who survived him, and by whose means he was to execute the order of the great Creator, to people the universe, I say, who can believe he should not have communicated to them the art of sailing upon an ocean.”21 The Book of Mormon reflects the same reasoning where God commands Jared’s brother: “Go to work and build, after the manner of barges which ye have hitherto built” (2:16). Later, Moroni comments that the Jaredite barges “were tight like unto the ark of Noah” (6:7). He gives other details about these primitive vessels:
And they were small, and they were light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water. And they were built after the manner that they were exceeding tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; … and the ends thereof were peaked; … and the length thereof was the length of a tree; and the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish. (2:16-17)
After constructing eight of these air-tight barges,22 Jared’s brother presents God with two problems: light and ventilation. Concerning ventilation, God commands: “Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and when thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air. And if it be so that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood” (2:20).23 The use of two air holes, one on the top and another on the bottom, implies that the barges rolled in the ocean, which would seem to be an unworkable construction.
Another complaint of Jared’s brother was that without light, it would be impossible to “steer” the vessels (2:19). This implies the use of a rudder, although, without sail or compass, one wonders how such a devise could be operated from inside an airtight vessel. God chooses not to solve the problem but instead asks Jared’s brother to offer his own suggestion, stipulating that windows and fire are not options. Windows would be “dashed in pieces” by the waves (v. 23)24 and fire in an air-tight compartment would be deadly. So, the ancient prophet is left to his own ingenuity to solve the lighting problem.
This predicament can be seen as a metaphor for Smith’s own situation, believing that he had been called to bring the light of the gospel to a darkened world but left to his own devices regarding how to accomplish this mission. Jared’s brother ascends a mountain where he “did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass” (3:1); then prays: “O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires. … Therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea” (vv. 2, 4). Likewise, as the stone in Smith’s hat shone in the darkness, Smith hoped that God would accept his solution and similarly touch the work he had created.
God touches each stone and, for a moment, “the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord” (3:6), which caused him to fall to the ground with fear. “Never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast; for were it not so ye could not have seen my finger” (3:9). Then the pre-mortal Jesus appears in full view, declaring that he is both Father and Son, that he created all humankind in his own image (3:14-15). “Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit,” he explains, “and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh” (3:16). Protestants generally believe that God is a spirit, but that he would be a spirit in the same sense as a disembodied soul would have surprised even the modalists.
For the benefit of a future translator, God gives Jared’s brother two stones, which are presumably different from the sixteen chosen for light, and declares: “Behold, these two stones will I give unto thee, and ye shall seal them up also with the things which ye shall write. … Wherefore I will cause in my own due time that these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write” (3:23, 24). Curiously, this is a much different origin for the “magic spectacles,” or “interpreters” as Moroni calls them (4:5), from what was given in Mosiah 28:14. There it was explained that Mosiah translated by means of “two stones” that were in his possession and had been “handed down from generation to generation.” Ammon calls Mosiah’s stones “interpreters” (Mosiah 8:13),25 and there is no mention of Jaredite stones. In fact, the introduction of Mosiah as a seer anticipates the discovery of the Jaredite plates by Limhi’s people. It is because Mosiah has the interpreters and is long practiced in their use that the plates are brought to him.26
After receiving the two stones, God shows Jared’s brother “all the inhabitants of the earth which had been, and also all that would be; and he withheld them not from his sight, even unto the ends of the earth” (3:25). After Jared’s brother descends from the mount, God instructs him to make a record of his visions and revelations and to “seal them up” and allow no one to see them “until the time cometh that I shall glorify my name in the flesh” by being “lifted up upon the cross” (3:21; 4:1). The Jaredite plates are not physically sealed, as David Whitmer and Martin Harris would affirm in their visions of the plates,27 but are closed in the sense that “no one can interpret them; for ye shall write them in a language that they cannot be read” (3:22). God uses the word “seal” similarly, meaning to “hide” or “preserve,” when he commands Jared’s brother to “seal up the two stones” with “the things which ye shall write” (vv. 23, 28). Moroni ends his book by stating that he is about to “seal up these records” (Moro. 10:2).
This is the vision, contained in the Jaredite history, that is supposed to be held back until after Jesus’ crucifixion (3:21; 4:1-2). As previously noted, Mosiah violates the prohibition by translating the entire record for his people without any apparent restriction (Mosiah 28:11-19), and Alma, about twenty years later, gives only one reason for suppressing the record, which is because it contains information about secret combinations (Alma 37:21, 27, 29). Interestingly, no Nephite prophet besides Moroni quotes from the Jaredite record or refers to Jared and his brother, nor does Jesus when he appears in America.
Yet, Moroni is told he cannot give a full account of the ancient seer’s vision in his abridgment. Instead, he copies it elsewhere on Mormon’s plates and seals it up to come forth in a later day if the gentiles repent (4:4-7). In commenting on how the Book of Mormon will come forth, Nephi will state that “the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof” (2 Ne. 27:7). While neither Moroni nor Smith revealed the size of the sealed portion of Mormon’s plates, Orson Pratt said it was “about two-thirds” of the total gathering of plates,28 which Smith claimed was “something near six inches in thickness”—again grossly contradicting Moroni’s complaint that there was little space and a lack of materials for making new plates (Morm. 8:5).29
To those in the last days who might reject the Book of Mormon, God through Moroni warns that they shall be “accursed” (4:8). Conversely, anyone who wants to know the truth of the book is promised that “because of my Spirit he shall know that these things are true; for it persuadeth men to do good. And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me; for good cometh of none save it be of me. I am the same that leadeth men to all good” (4:11-12). In other words, since all good comes from God, and the Book of Mormon tries to persuade humankind to be righteous, it follows that the Book of Mormon is true, independent of its historicity. This statement, together with a similar one in Moroni 7,30 provides a glimpse into Smith’s psyche, particularly the manner by which he might rationalize the use of deception. Although he felt inspired as he dictated the text, he would have known that there weren’t any gold plates, and hence, no Nephites and no Jaredites. Still, he was dictating spiritual truths despite the absence of historical authenticity.
To latter-day gentiles who believe the Book of Mormon, the Lord promises to show “greater things, the knowledge of which is hid up because of unbelief” (4:13). To latter-day Indians, the Lord declares that when they “rend that veil of unbelief” and begin to call upon God in the name of Jesus “with a broken heart and a contrite spirit,” they will see that God has remembered his covenant with them (v. 15). The prophecies of John will begin to unfold (v. 16) and the appearance of the Book of Mormon will be a sign that “ye may know that the work of the Father has commenced upon all the face of the land” (v. 17).
Speaking directly to the future translator, Moroni states that he has recorded the revelations of the brother of Jared in the sealed portion “according to my memory” and commands Smith to “touch them not in order that ye may translate” (5:1; cf. 4:5). Moroni then picks up the theme expressed in Smith’s March 1829 revelation to Martin Harris—the need for three witnesses—declaring:
And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work; and unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; therefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true. And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day. (5:2-4)
The March 1829 revelation used similar language in promising that “three shall know of a surety that these things are true” (Doctrine and Covenants 5:12//Book of Commandments 4:4; hereafter D&C and BofC) and that the three would view the plates by the “power” of God (D&C 5:13//BofC 4:4). It is difficult to determine who Smith had in mind at this point for his witnesses. Readers familiar with the “Testimony of Three Witnesses” will want to integrate their knowledge of the June 1829 vision into the text of Ether. But there is nothing in the text to anticipate the appearance of an angel or the voice of God to the witnesses, only that Smith would show the gold plates to three individuals who would see them by the power of God.
Resuming his abridgement of “the record of Jared and his brother” (6:1), Moroni continues to describe the Jaredites’ preparations for the long sea voyage. Jared’s brother places one of the sixteen shining stones at each end of the eight vessels (v. 2). When they have loaded the food and animals, they finally launch and are thereafter driven by a “furious wind” towards the promised land for 344 days (vv. 5-11). Skeptics have wondered how—barring divine intervention—all eight vessels could stay together and land at the same place and same time, for which no answer has been offerred.31
After landing, the Jaredites become farmers, who spread throughout the land (6:13). Here the text imparts enough information that readers can estimate the size of Jared’s party: Jared and his “four sons” (Jacom, Gilgah, Mahah, and Orihah), Jared’s brother and his “sons and daughters,” and Jared’s friends, who “were in number about twenty and two souls” (vv. 14-16). From this data, a student of the Book of Mormon concluded that a “respectable number” had immigrated to the New World in the eight tiny barges.32 Nevertheless, the group had a limited gene pool, which raises a question of its long-term viability.
After an unspecified lapse of time, an aged Jared and his brother call their families and friends together (6:19), at which time the people ask that one of their sons be anointed king (v. 22). The patriarchs find this proposition “grievous,” saying it will lead to “captivity” (v. 23). Nevertheless, the people choose Pagag, the first-born son of Jared’s brother. When Pagag declines (v. 25), they ask one of Jared’s sons, Orihah, who agrees (6:26-27).
Under Orihah, the people become “exceedingly rich” (6:28-30). At the conclusion of a long and successful reign, Orihah appoints Kib, one of his youngest sons, to be his successor (7:3). Throughout this account, the first-born inheritance rights (primogeniture) are consistently ignored in favor of succession by a later-born son, a pattern that reflects the Smith family’s dynamic. It is also a chronologically shorter route through Jaredite history.
At age thirty-two, Kib’s son Corihor rebels against him, founds a rival city in the land of Nehor, and draws “away many people after him” (7:4). For this, Smith relies on two names previously used for evil characters in his account of Nephite history: Korihor, the anti-Christ, and Nehor, founder of the Universalist sect. After gathering an army, Corihor invades the land of Moron (a variant of Moroni), taking his father captive (v. 5).
In his old age and still in captivity, Kib fathers a son named Shule (7:7-10) who grows up with an understandable grudge against his older brother. Shule makes steel swords with ore he extracts from the hill Ephraim and then gathers an army (v. 9). He invades Nehor, captures Corihor, and re-establishes his father as ruler of the kingdom. For this valiant deed, Kib bestows the kingdom upon Shule (v. 10). An unexpected twist occurs when Corihor repents and is given an office in the restored government (v. 13).
The overthrow of the father by a son and the father’s subsequent restoration by a younger son who is rewarded with the throne while his father is still alive is a reoccurring theme in Ether. It virtually repeats in the story of Omer (8:1-8) and appears, although in a disguised form, in several additional stories (7:11-27; 8:9-15; 13:22-24). Not unlike Nephi’s rivalry with his brothers over his father’s visions, the frequency with which this scenario is played out suggests that, for Smith, it was an issue. Applied to his own situation, Smith wanted to see his father restored as family patriarch but also wanted his father’s blessing to succeed him.
After a long reign, Shule turns the kingdom over to his son Omer (8:1). Omer has a son, Jared, who rebels against Omer and succeeds in dividing the kingdom (v. 2). After gaining sufficient strength, Jared wages war against his father and defeats him (v. 3). While in captivity, Omer fathers two additional sons, Esrom and Coriantumr.33 In time, they raise an army, defeat Jared, and restore Omer to the throne (vv. 4-6). Although angry with their older brother, they spare Jared’s life (v. 6)—a mistake because Jared secretly continues to plot his father’s overthrow.
Inspired by the “secret plans” of the ancients whereby they “did obtain kingdoms and great glory” (8:9), Jared’s daughter approaches her father with a plot to assassinate her grandfather Omer. She will seduce Akish, a friend of Omer, and when Akish requests her hand in marriage, Jared will give his permission on condition that Akish produce Omer’s head. Like Salome who danced for the head of John the Baptist, Jared’s daughter dances before Akish (8:10-12; cf. Matt. 14:6-12). When Akish responds as anticipated, a “secret combination” is formed to “overthrow the kingdom of Omer” (8:9-18; 9:1). After gathering all of Jared’s “kinsfolk,” Akish administers a Masonic-like oath of secrecy: “And … they all swore unto [Akish], by the God of heaven, and also by the heavens, and also by the earth, and by their heads, that whoso should vary from the assistance which Akish desired should lose his head; and whoso should divulge whatsoever thing Akish made known unto them, the same should lose his life” (v. 14). These oaths were the very ones that Jesus withheld from the Nephites (3 Ne. 12:33-37//Matt. 5:33-37; see also Morm. 3:9-10, 14).
The statement that Akish “did administer unto them the oaths … handed down even from Cain, who was a murderer from the beginning” (8:15), finds parallel in anti-Masonic rhetoric. The Reverend Peter Sanborn explained Masonry’s “real origin” by saying that “the truth may be, that the first grand arch mason, was Satan; the first secret lodge, in Eden, between him and Eve. … Cain, like Nimrod, rebelled against the priesthood and government of Adam; he, with Tubal Cain, no doubt, were masons.”34 Moroni states that he does not “write the manner of their oaths and combinations, for it hath been made known unto me that they are had among all people and they are had among the Lamanites” (8:20).35 Moroni knows that his latter-day readers will be familiar with the secret oaths to which he alludes. These Masonic-like oaths, Moroni declares, “have caused the destruction of this people [the Jaredites] … and also the destruction of the people of Nephi” (8:21). He warns latter-day readers: “Whatsoever nation shall uphold such secret combinations, to get power and gain, until they shall spread over the nation, behold, they shall be destroyed” (v. 22). Speaking directly to later Americans, Moroni explains the purpose of his writing:
Wherefore, O ye Gentiles, it is wisdom in God that these things be shown unto you, that thereby ye may repent of your sins, and suffer not that these murderous combinations shall get above you, which are built up to get power and gain—and the work, yea, even the work of destruction come upon you, yea, even the sword of the justice of the Eternal God shall fall upon you, to your overthrow and destruction if ye shall suffer these things to be. (8:23)
The timing of Moroni’s warning was propitious. Andrew Jackson was the U.S. president and his political party was gaining in strength. When one considers the intensity of the anti-Masonic agitation following Jackson’s election, including the accusation that Jackson’s party was the “Masonic party,”36 it is not surprising that Moroni’s plural description of “secret combinations” switches to the singular when warning his readers: “Wherefore, the Lord commandeth you, when ye shall see these things come among you that ye shall awake to a sense of your awful situation, because of this secret combination which shall be among you; or wo be unto it, because of the blood of them who have been slain; for they cry from the dust for vengeance upon it, and also upon those who build it up” (8:24; emphasis added). Here there is a sense of urgency. The Book of Mormon understands the “awful situation” that threatens to destroy America, Moroni previously having said that his record would come forth “in a day … of secret combinations” (Morm. 8:27). Thus, many first readers did not have difficulty associating Moroni’s warning with their modern circumstances.37
Moroni further warns that a political combination “seeketh to overthrow the freedom of all lands, nations, and countries” (8:25). This is consistent with anti-Masonic rhetoric. As an anti-Mason declared in 1829, “[Masonry] is directly calculated to overturn every religion, and every civil government on earth.”38 According to anti-Masons, New York governor DeWitt Clinton had admitted as early as 1825 that Masonry was dangerous because “it has conspired against all governments.”39
Perhaps fearing a Masonic reprisal, Smith issues a warning through Moroni that “the Lord will not suffer that the blood of the saints, which shall be shed by them, shall always cry unto him from the ground for vengeance upon them and yet he avenge them not” (8:22). They have “hardened the hearts of men,” Moroni continues, “that they have murdered the prophets, and stoned them, and cast them out from the beginning” (v. 25). As previously suggested, it appears that Smith harbored resentment against the Masons who were court officials when Smith was brought to trial in South Bainbridge.40 Later, when his brother Hyrum has legal difficulties in Manchester, Joseph warns him to “beware of the Freemasons.”41 In a subsequent revelation, Smith is told to flee to Ohio, for “the enemy in secret chambers seeketh your lives” (D&C 38:28). Consistent with the Book of Mormon, Joseph feared that his most dangerous opposition could be the Masons. Moreover, his plan to establish a new government and a New Jerusalem by leading an army of Israel against unrepentant gentiles would be resisted by the U.S. government, which he believed to be under the control of a “secret combination.”
Omer is warned in a dream of Akish’s plot, and Omer and his family travel many days into the wilderness until they “came over and passed by the hill of Shim, and came over by the place where the Nephites were destroyed, and from thence eastward, and came to a place which was called Ablom, by the seashore” (9:2-3). Mormon apostle Orson Pratt believed that this location was “probably on the shore of the New England States.”42
With Omer in exile, Jared assumes the throne (9:4), but not for long because, in a traitorous turn of events, the secret society assassinates him and places Akish on the throne (vv. 5-6). Akish is a cruel leader who acts out of jealousy, imprisoning one of his sons and slowly starving him to death (v. 7). Another of his sons, Nimrah (a variant of Nimrod),43 and a small number of men defect and join Omer in Ablom (vv. 8-9). After a period of civil war between Akish and the defectors in which only thirty people survive, Omer is for the second time restored to the throne (vv. 10-13).
Once again, note the father-son dynamic in the stories of Omer, Jared, and Akish and their possible relevance to the Smith family. In this instance, when Omer abdicates his throne, he could represent Joseph Sr. Jared may represent Smith’s older brother Alvin, who is replaced through death by Hyrum (Akish), who is a Presbyterian, is aligned with his mother, and is a Mason. Another possible scenario suggests that Omer represents the good father, while Akish the bad. In this case, the good father is restored to the throne through an alliance with the alter ego’s sons. Moreover, the evil father is overthrown because he mistreats his sons. The starvation of one son recalls the Smith family’s near starvation in Norwich as well as their lean years in Manchester.
Omer anoints Emer, a son born to him in old age, who will enjoy sixty-two years of peace and prosperity (9:14-21). Here the story is interrupted so that the various animals in existence among the Jaredites can be listed, including “all manner of” cattle, oxen, cows, sheep, swine, goats, horses, asses, elephants, and the ever mysterious “cureloms” and “cumoms” (vv. 18-19). In Smith’s day, there was some confusion about which animals might have been indigenous to the New World and which had been brought to America by Europeans. Scholars in the early nineteenth century knew that oxen, cows, asses, sheep, domesticated goats and swine, and horses had been imported, but the average person was unaware of this.44 For example, the Reverend Solomon Spaulding erred in placing horses in his romance novel about pre-Columbian Indians.45 The horses said to be present in Jaredite times are present when the Nephites arrive (1 Ne. 18:25) and are used to pull “chariots” (Alma 18:9-10; 20:6; 3 Ne. 3:22), which is a further anachronism.46
Many people believed that elephant-like creatures roamed America not too far into the distant past due to reports of the discovery of elephant, or more precisely mammoth, bones in the vicinity of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley.47 One skeleton was discovered in New Jersey in the early 1820s and was taken to New York’s Lyceum of Natural History.48 Probably the best-known discovery occurred in 1801 in New York when Charles W. Peale excavated and reconstructed an entire mammoth skeleton which stood for viewing in the “Mammoth Room” of Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia.49 Evidently, since elephants are not mentioned in the Book of Mormon during Nephite times, Smith believed that they had became extinct in America about the time the Jaredites were destroyed. In addition to the Jaredite elephants, there may be an attempt to explain prehistoric sloths and bison in what are designated cureloms and cumoms and said to have been beasts of burden.
After reigning in righteousness, Emer is succeeded by son Coriantum, then grandson Com, who is murdered by his son Heth, who had “embrace[d] the secret plans again of old” (9:21, 24-25, 26). During Heth’s reign, God sends prophets to declare repentance unto the people and warn them of the approach of a “great famine” (9:28), but Heth banishes the prophets from his kingdom. Like Joseph of old, some of the prophets end up being cast into pits and left to perish (v. 29; cf. Gen. 37:15-28). The predicted famine is sudden and cruel, killing Heth and “all his household” except his son Shez, who becomes the king (10:1-4).
Three generations of Shez’s descendants—Riplakish, Morianton, and Kim—succeed him and reign unrighteously (10:4-13). Kim’s brother rebels against him and places him in captivity (v. 14). In prison, Kim fathers Levi, who after the death of his father raises an army and retakes the kingdom to reign righteously for many years (vv. 15-16).
Four generations—Corom, Kish, Lib, and Hearthom—succeed Levi (10:16-18). After Hearthom reigns for twenty-four years, his kingdom is taken from him by an unnamed usurper (v. 30). Five generations of Hearthom’s descendants—Heth, Aaron, Amnigaddah, Coriantum, and Com—are born in captivity (v. 31). Com manages to draw away half the kingdom, then launches a protracted war against King Amgid to unite the kingdom under his rule (v. 32). During Com’s reign, “there began to be robbers in the land; and they adopted the old plans, and administered oaths after the manner of the ancients, and sought again to destroy the kingdom” (v. 33). God sends prophets among the people who predict destruction, but they are rejected (11:1-3). Near the end of his life, Com fathers Shiblom, who becomes king (v. 4).50
Shiblom’s brother rebels against him, seeks his overthrow, and seeks to execute the prophets who predict that “there should be a great destruction among them, such an one as never had been upon the face of the earth, and their bones should become as heaps of earth upon the face of the land except they should repent of their wickedness” (11:6). Because of the prevalence of “wicked combinations,” the people ignore the warning (v. 7). In the ensuing war, Shiblom is killed, while his son Seth is brought into captivity (11:9). Ahah, Seth’s wicked son, reigns briefly. His equally wicked son Ethem succeeds him (vv. 9-11). How Ahah is able to gain control of the kingdom and pass it on to his son is not explained.
Again, the prophets warn the people of imminent destruction unless they repent (11:12), but the prophets are again rejected (v. 13). Ethem’s wicked son Moron attains the throne but loses half the kingdom to a “secret combination which was built up to get power and gain” (v. 15). After many years, Moron reunites the kingdom by force (v. 16). However, he controls the kingdom only briefly before a “mighty man”—a descendant of the brother of Jared—organizes a rebellion against him and sends him into captivity (vv. 17-18).
Again, the prophets cry “utter destruction” (11:20). Alluding to the Nephites, they predict that following the Jaredite destruction, “the Lord God would send or bring forth another people to possess the land, by his power, after the manner by which he brought their fathers” (v. 21). But again, the people reject the warning “because of their secret society and wicked abominations” (v. 22).
Moron and his son Coriantor spend their entire lives in captivity (11:19). Coriantor’s son Ether becomes the prophet during the days of King Coriantumr, whose lineage is not given (v. 23). Ether prophesies to the people, “for he could not be restrained because of the Spirit of the Lord which was in him” (12:2). He warns them of impending destruction (v. 3) but is rejected because, as Moroni interjects, people cannot believe the “great and marvelous things” he prophesies which they lack the faith in to see (v. 5).
Moroni continues with his own sermon on faith, borrowing passages from the New Testament. He begins: “I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen” (v. 6//Heb. 11:1). “Dispute not because ye see not,” he continues, “for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (v. 6//1 Pet. 1:7). Drawing on faith-promoting stories from the Old Testament as they are summarized in Hebrews chapter 11, Moroni substitutes events from Nephite and Jaredite history (12:7-22). His sermon is designed to encourage latter-day faithful to seek their own visionary experiences. Where previously he promised that three special witnesses would see the gold plates “by the power of God” (5:3), he now exhorts readers to exercise faith and become witnesses, for God has “prepared a way that thereby others might be partakers of the heavenly gift, that they might hope for those things which they have not seen … if ye will but have faith” (12:8-9//Heb. 3:1). In this respect, the brother of Jared is a model for latter-day charismatics to follow.
Concerning the visions and revelations of the Jaredite prophet, Moroni has already declared: “And in that day that [the gentiles] shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations” (4:6-7). Where this promise is held out for others to obtain their own theophanies, it will not be long before, on 27 December 1832, Joseph Smith will dictate to the Kirtland, Ohio, elders a revelation telling them to “sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you” (D&C 88:68). Later, on 27 June 1839, in Nauvoo, Illinois, Smith will again instruct the leading elders that it is their “privilege to receive the other Comforter [John 14:16] … [which] is no more or less than the Lord Jesus Christ himself; and this is the sum and substance of the whole matter, that when any man obtains this last Comforter he will have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend him, or appear unto him from time to time. … And the Lord will teach him face to face [that] he may have a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of God, and this is the state and place the ancient saints arrived at when they had such glorious visions.”51 In Jared’s brother, the ideal to which all saints should strive, one may also find the stimulus for Joseph Smith’s later expansion of his first vision.
As at the conclusion of his father’s record, Moroni notes his weakness in writing and fears that “the Gentiles will mock at these things” (12:23; cf. Morm. 9:31-34). Reflecting Smith’s own insecurities about writing, Moroni says: “Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; … wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words” (12:23, 25). But God warns Smith’s potential critics, “Fools mock, but they shall mourn” (12:26), reminding scoffers that they too have deficiencies: “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble” (v. 27). Alluding to Paul’s famous sermon, God exhorts the gentiles to have faith, hope, and charity (v. 28//1 Cor. 13:13). This inspires Moroni to sermonize at length on this very topic of faith, hope, charity, and grace (12:29-41).
Moroni alludes to an unknown source: “Wherefore, I know by this thing which thou [God] hast said, that if the Gentiles have not charity, because of our weakness, that thou wilt prove them, and take away their talent, yea, even that which they have received, and give unto them who shall have more abundantly” (12:35). Of course, the latter reference is to Jesus’ parable of the servant who buried his talent in the ground (Matt. 25:15-30). Moroni’s use of the parable is to another end, to warn America not to reject the Mormon gospel. If they do, God will take away the promised land and give it to the Indians. Moroni soon expands on this subject in his discussion of the American New Jerusalem (Ether 13).
Moroni asks God to give the gentiles “grace, that they might have charity” toward his writings (12:36). God responds, “If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore, thy garments shall be made clean” (v. 37). Moroni bids farewell to his latter-day readers, both gentile and Indian, “until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood” (12:38; cf. Morm. 9:35; Mosiah 2:27). This repeated theme reflects the Puritan concern for community purity, yet it also reveals a motivation for the Book of Mormon in a sense of duty toward others, a belief that one’s own salvation is tied to that of others.
Now Moroni returns to his account of Ether’s preaching, summarizing the prophet’s words about God’s future plans for America. Assuming a universal flood, Ether teaches that “after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord” (13:2). He declares that America is “the place of the New Jerusalem, which should come down out of heaven, and the holy sanctuary of the Lord” (v. 3). Predicting that the old Jerusalem would, in the last days, be “built up again, a holy city unto the Lord,” he argues that the old city cannot be the New Jerusalem “for it had been in a time of old” (v. 5). Parting from a mainstream interpretation that the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21:2 will be the rebuilt original Jerusalem, the old Puritan vision of a New Jerusalem in America is revived.52
Moroni had earlier hinted that the gentiles would lose America to the Indian (12:35), and he now quotes Ether’s prophecy that “a New Jerusalem should be built upon this land, unto the remnant of the seed of Joseph” (13:6), meaning the Indian. From Ether: “Wherefore, the remnant of the house of Joseph shall be built upon this land; and it shall be a land of their inheritance; and they shall build up a holy city unto the Lord, like unto the Jerusalem of old; and they shall no more be confounded, until the end come when the earth shall pass away” (v. 8). Referring to the preeminence of the New Jerusalem over the old one and their positions in a chronological succession of events, Ether declares that the scripture will be fulfilled that says, “There are they who were first, who shall be last; and there are they who were last, who shall be first” (v. 12; cf. Matt. 19:30). This means that the American New Jerusalem will precede the restoration of the Jews to Palestine.
Smith next introduces the concept that the two Jerusalems have heavenly counterparts. Borrowing from Revelation, Ether declares that “there shall be a new heaven and a new earth,” a time when “all things have become new” (13:9; cf. Rev. 21:1, 5), adding: “And then cometh the New Jerusalem” (v. 10). This distinction is between a New Jerusalem that will “come down out of heaven” (v. 3) and one that will be “built” or “built up” (vv. 6, 8). The same is apparently true of the old Jerusalem, for Ether also declares: “And then also cometh the Jerusalem of old” (v. 11). The heavenly New Jerusalem is said to consist of those “whose garments are white through the blood of the Lamb … [and] who are numbered among the remnant of the seed of Joseph, who were of the house of Israel” (v. 10)—in other words, the righteous gentiles and Lamanites. The heavenly old Jerusalem consists of those who “have been washed in the blood of the Lamb … who were scattered and gathered in from the four quarters of the earth, and from the north countries” (v. 11), meaning the Jews and the lost ten tribes. Thus, Smith draws on the Puritan idea of a visible and invisible church, or in this case, both heavenly and earthy Jerusalems.53
Moroni breaks in to note that he was about to write more about this but was forbidden by God (13:13). He returns to his history, stating that Ether is rejected and cast out by the people, upon which he hides “in the cavity of a rock” (v. 13) and only comes out to make nightly observations. In this cave, Ether will make a record of the final destruction of the Jaredite people.
In the same year that Ether is banished, a war breaks out as secret combinations seek to destroy King Coriantumr (13:15, 18). In the following year, Ether is commanded by God to prophesy to Coriantumr that God will spare his people on condition of repentance, “otherwise they should be destroyed, and all his household save it were himself” (v. 21). Ether adds an element to the prediction that was unforeseen at the time Smith dictated the Book of Mosiah, that Coriantumr would “live to see the fulfilling of the prophecies which had been spoken concerning another people receiving the land for their inheritance; and Coriantumr should receive a burial by them; and every soul should be destroyed save it were Coriantumr” (v. 21).
When Smith dictates the replacement for the lost portion of the Book of Mormon in June 1829, he will fulfill Ether’s prediction by having Coriantumr “discovered by the people of Zarahemla” and dwell with them for “nine moons,” during which time they will learn about the origin and destruction of the Jaredites (Omni 1:20-22). This creates a problem because prior to the discovery of the Jaredite record and its subsequent translation by King Mosiah II, the Nephites were mystified about the meaning of the bones and ruins they discovered in the north country (Mosiah 28:17-18). It is a curious situation for people who previously had contact with Coriantumr.54
In any case, Coriantumr refuses to repent and seeks Ether’s life, which forces the prophet to return to the safety of his cave (v. 22). Three years after his encounter with Ether, Coriantumr is defeated, brought into captivity by Shared—a variant of Jared (13:23)—and is soon restored to his throne by the familiar story of his sons rising to defeat the usurper (v. 24). Nevertheless, the entire nation becomes engulfed in a civil war as the Jaredite nation splinters into competing “bands” seeking control of the government (v. 25).
Within two years Coriantumr is replaced on the throne by Shared’s brother Gilead,55 who is supported by the secret combinations (13:27-31; 14:1-8). Gilead’s underworld affiliation proves disastrous because he is murdered by his high priest (14:9), the coup presumably having been arranged by Lib, the leader of the secret society, who then kills the high priest and assumes the throne himself (v. 10).
After spending two years in the wilderness, Coriantumr attacks Lib in Moron, causing Lib to escape to the eastern seashore (14:7, 11-12). In the ensuing battle, Lib is killed and immediately replaced by his brother Shiz, a warrior who is widely feared (14:16-23). During the battle with Shiz, Coriantumr receives “many deep wounds,” faints from loss of blood, and is “carried away as though he were dead” (v. 30).
While recuperating and reflecting on the words of Ether and the enormity of the destruction that has resulted in the deaths of “about two millions” of his people (15:2), Coriantumr is finally moved to repent. In a letter to Shiz, Coriantumr offers to abdicate for the sake of peace (vv. 3-4). When Shiz demands that Coriantumr give himself up to be executed, Coriantumr’s people become angry and withdraw the offer (vv. 5-6). The ensuing confrontation results in Coriantumr’s flight to the waters of Ripliancum, “which, by interpretation, is large, or to exceed all” (v. 8), evidently a reference to the Great Lakes. Here the two forces camp and, on the following day, engage in battle, during which Coriantumr again faints from loss of blood (vv. 8-9). Nevertheless, Coriantumr prevails and Shiz flees southward to Ogath (v. 10).56 Coriantumr’s forces set up camp near the Hill Ramah,57 which Moroni states “was that same hill where my father Mormon did hide up the records unto the Lord” (v. 11).
The final battle is postponed four years while the two armies prepare by “gathering together the people, that they might get all who were upon the face of the land” (15:14). When the armies meet, it is near the hill that was located about three miles south of the Smiths’ farm. This conflict lasts eight days. Each night the air is filled with lamentations, mourning, and howling (15:16, 17). A comparison with the biblical Ramah is irresistible at this point. Ramah was the scene of several wars between Israel and Judah (1 Kings 15:17, 21, 22; 2 Chron. 16:1, 5, 6) and the place where exiles were collected before being taken to Babylon (Jer. 31:15; 40:1). The following passage in Jeremiah was quoted in Matthew to apply to Herod’s slaughter of infants: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not” (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:18). At the Hill Ramah, according to Moroni’s abridgement, “they took up a howling and a lamentation for the loss of the slain of their people” (Ether 15:16). Thus, Smith chose a fitting name for this hill.58
After the second day of battle, Coriantumr writes to Shiz to again offer him the kingdom if he will spare the people (15:18). But Shiz rejects the offer and continues fighting. Moroni comments: “And behold, the Spirit of the Lord had ceased striving with them, and Satan had full power over the hearts of the people; for they were given up unto the hardness of their hearts, and the blindness of their minds that they might be destroyed” (v. 19). After five days of fighting, Coriantumr’s army is reduced to fifty-two, Shiz’s to sixty-nine (v. 23). On the following day, these numbers are cut nearly in half (v. 25).
On the seventh day, these “large and mighty men” meet in battle, but after three hours they “fainted with the loss of blood” (15:26, 27). One discerns that Smith is reaching for a dramatic conclusion. In fact, Coriantumr’s men recover and flee, whereupon Shiz and his men recover and pursue them (v. 28) until, overtaking them the next day, all but Coriantumr and Shiz are killed (vv. 28-29). While Coriantumr leans on the end of his sword to rest, Shiz lies nearby on the ground unconscious from “loss of blood” (vv. 29-30). Gathering strength, Coriantumr delivers the coup de grace and “smote off the head of Shiz” (v. 30). This is followed by one of the most arresting images in the Book of Mormon. The headless Shiz “raised upon his hands and fell; and after that he had struggled for breath, he died” (v. 31).
Skeptics of the Book of Mormon have observed that in humans, body movement is impossible once the brain has been severed from the spinal cord. While apologists have offered several unlikely explanations,59 one should not overlook the various improbabilities surrounding the decapitation, including the many dramatic flourishes. Shiz’s rising up and struggling for breath fits well with the equally doubtful assertion that the combatants had fainted from “loss of blood” and then revived and continued fighting.60 Both events are physiologically improbable but are included to emphasize the theme in verse 22 that Shiz and his men were “drunken with anger.” The simplest explanation is that the account comes from someone who was unfamiliar with warfare and decapitation in particular.
One should also note that with the dramatic confrontation between Coriantumr and Shiz, the narrative has come full circle, ending where it began—with the decapitation of a wicked, defenseless, drunken man. Thus, the Book of Mormon begins with Nephi beheading Laban, whose death is intended to prevent the Nephite nation from perishing in unbelief, while the Jaredite story ends with the beheading of Shiz, which finalizes the destruction of an entire nation.
In keeping with the dramatic conclusion to the Jaredite story, Coriantumr also “fell to the earth and became as if he had no life” (15:32). This is where Smith leaves Coriantumr. The implication of Ether’s prediction (13:20-21) is that the Jaredite warrior will survive his wounds and live long enough to have contact with the Nephites, implying that Jaredite history spanned more than 1,600 years.
That both nations meet their demise in Smith’s neighborhood at the same hill is a striking coincidence, especially considering the fact that there would not have been any special military advantage for doing so. The role that “secret combinations” plays in the destruction of both nations makes it more than fortuitous that they would be destroyed in the middle of what would become a hotbed of anti-Masonic agitation. Indeed, the hill was located in the same county from which the anti-Masonic martyr William Morgan was abducted in 1826 and where his abductors were later tried in 1828.
God commands Ether to “go forth” from his cave and observe the destruction and carnage. Viewing the scene, Ether “beheld that the words of the Lord had all been fulfilled” (15:33), then he finishes his record. It remains unexplained how Ether obtained details of the battles he describes—the places involved, the numbers killed, the contents of Coriantumr’s letters to Shiz, Shiz’s response, that Coriantumr leaned upon his sword before cutting off Shiz’s head, and Shiz raising himself up on his hands. Such specifics could not have been learned from nightly observations. These questions would have been answered only if Ether came to Coriantumr’s aid and subsequently interviewed him. But he does not. Instead, Moroni states that Ether takes the plates and “hid them in a manner that the people of Limhi did find them” (15:33).
Moroni concludes his account with Ether’s last words: “Whether the Lord will that I be translated, or that I suffer the will of the Lord in the flesh, it mattereth not, if it so be that I am saved in the kingdom of God. Amen” (15:34). To Smith and his early followers who were likewise uncertain about whether they might die in a holy war or be translated at Jesus’ millennial advent, Ether’s encouragement was for patience.
4. [Samuel Mather], An Attempt to Shew, that America Must be Known to the Ancients (Boston, 1773), 13. Mather’s book was discussed in New York as late as 1814 (see The New-York Magazine, and General Repository of Useful Knowledge 1 [July 1814]: 154-56).
8. Juvenile Instructor 27 (1 May 1892): 282; see also Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (Fall 1993): 159, n. 20; and “Hypertextual Book of Mormon Study,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 (Winter 1996): 202.
9. See J. Oliver Boswell, Slavery, Segregation, and Scripture (Grand Rapids, 1964); and Caroline Shanks, “The Biblical Anti-Slavery Argument of the Decade 1830-1840,” Journal of Negro History 15 (1931): 132-57; and Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). For a discussion and other references, see Lester E. Bush Jr., “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview,” in Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, eds. Lester E. Bush Jr. and Armand L. Mauss (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1984), 59-60, 99-100, nn. 22 and 23.
10. On 1 May 1843, the Times and Seasons reported the discovery of metal plates and a skeleton within a mound near Kinderhook, Illinois. Mormons believed that a record of the Jaredites had been found and announced that it was “additional testimony to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” Although the plates were forgeries, Joseph Smith, according to William Clayton, “translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found, and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” Parley P. Pratt said the plates “are small and filled with engravings in Egyptian language and contain the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah.” For a discussion of the Kinderhook plates, together with the statements of Smith and Pratt, see Stanley B. Kimball, “Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax,” Ensign (Aug. 1981): 66-74.
15. See Mark L. Winston, The Biology of the Honey Bee (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987). Some writers stress that of the “seven references to bees or honey in the Book of Mormon, … they all belong to the Old World” (Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Deseret and the World of the Jaredites [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft Publishing Co., 1952], 189). The references are: 1 Ne. 17:5; 18:6; 2 Ne. 17:15, 18, 22; 26:25; Ether 2:3. Whereas it is true that “deseret” is mentioned only as something the Jaredites took with them to the sea, there is no reason to think they would have discarded the honey bee from “whatsoever beast or animal or fowl that they should carry with them” (Ether 6:4). Nibley’s reference to bees and the bee-god in the Books of Chilam Balam (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982], 231-32) seems strained. The books were compiled in the sixteenth century, composed in the Mayan language in roman script, and contain Spanish corruptions. After the Spanish conquest, the Maya became enthusiastic beekeepers. Moreover, the newly introduced honey bee may have replaced the honey-making wasp, which seems to have been indigenous to Coba (see William J. Folan, Ellan R. Kintz, and Laraine A. Fletcher, Coba: A Classic Maya Metropolis [New York: Academic Press, 1983], 40).
17. Based partly on Ether 2:6-7, Nibley suggests that Jared’s party crossed more than one body of water and built barges on more than one occasion (Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 177-78). In fact, where Moroni summarizes the ultimate destination of Jared’s party (2:6-12), it appears, when he returns to his narrative (v. 13), that two bodies of water have been crossed. Nibley thinks the “many waters” (v. 6) refers to an Asiaa sea, but Ether uses the same term to refer to the Jaredite transoceanic crossing (6:7). Nibley also sees a wilderness “beyond” the Asian sea (v. 7), but this verse is better understood from the speaker’s position in America since Moroni has broken the narrative to offer his commentary.
19. See the Columbian Historian (New Richmond, OH), 17 June 1824, 9, which suggests that animals were brought through the arctic zone by divine agency. Domingo Juarros rejected the idea of tropical animals migrating across the arctic region and felt that a transoceanic crossing was unavoidable, perhaps shortly after the tower of Babel episode (Domingo Juarros, A Statistical and Commercial History of the Kingdom of Guatemala, trans. J[ohn]. Baily [London, 1823], 208-209).
23. Regarding Nibley’s reading that each Jaredite vessel was constructed with a false bottom and top that, when submerged for long periods, could be unstopped to flood the cabin with pressurized air (Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1976], 276-81), there is nothing in the text to suggest an air chamber. Ether 2:20 states that the air hole needs to be plugged when water threatens to rush in. Moreover, Nibley’s idea of an air-conditioning system defies the laws of physics. It (1) ignores the principle of buoyancy, described in Ether 2:16, because air-tight vessels could not dive deep enough to cause the necessary pressure without taking on water in special chambers like a submarine and (2) no matter how deep a vessel after Nibley’s design is submerged, the pressure in the compartments would always be equal to the pressure in the living space and hence, would not create pressurized air.
24. Smith evidently did not think to make the glass thicker than the window panes with which he was familiar. However, the making of glass “windows” during the third millennium B.C. is highly improbable. Nibley’s reference to “Egyptian glass beads,” which date “from the end of the third millennium B.C.,” is a long way from proving Mesopotamians made glass from molten rock or constructed glass windows (see Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites, 213-15).
26. Rather than accept such incongruities as evidence that Smith is the author of the story, some writers have proposed various creative theories. See, for example, Sidney B. Sperry, Answers to Book of Mormon Questions (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967), 13-19.
28. Orson Pratt, discourse delivered in Salt Lake City, 13 April 1856, in Brigham Young et al., Journal of Discourses of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Albert Carrington et al., 1853-86), 3:347.
34. P[eter]. Sanborn, Minutes of an Address Delivered Before the Anti-Masonic Convention of Reading, Mass., January 15, 1829 (Boston, 1829), 16. See also my discussion in “Echoes of Anti-Masonry: A Rejoinder to Critics of the Anti-Masonic Thesis,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 287-89.
35. Moroni’s claim that the oaths are identical through time (Ether 8:20-21)—among Jaredites, Nephites, and latter-day “secret combinations”—deserves additional comment. This was not a new assumption that was unique to the Book of Mormon, for there were New Yorkers who claimed an ancient Masonic history in America. John V. N. Yates and Joseph W. Moulton, in their History of the State of New York (New York, 1824), stated: “Travelers describe certain private societies among the Indians which apparently resemble our lodges of freemasons. Their rules of government and admission of members are said to be the same. … They have different degrees in the order. The ceremonies of initiation, and the mode of passing from one degree to another, would create astonishment in the mind of an enlightened spectator. … We receive the information from Governor Clinton, to whom it was communicated by a respectable Indian preacher, who received the signs of the mystery from a Menonie chief. … They are said to have secret signs, and pretend that the institution has existed from eternity” (55-56). Publication of this book was announced in the Wayne Sentinel, 20 April 1825.
36. See Wayne Sentinel, 9 Apr. 1830. The association of Jacksonians with Masonry persisted in New York to reappear as an issue in the 1830 state elections as is evident from a Wayne County anti-Masonic broadside, dated November 1830, which unequivocally referred to the “Jacksonian Masonic Republican [Party]” (quoted in Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961], 26, n. 16).
44. Abraham Rees, The Cyclopaedia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, 41 vols. (Philadelphia, [1805-25]), states that neither the horse nor the ox was in America before the Spanish (s.v. “America”); James Bentley Gordon, An Historical and Geographical Memoir of the North-American Continent (Dublin, 1820), 35-36, names the horse, ox, ass, cow, sheep, and hog as Spanish imports; Lewis C[aleb]. Beck, A Gazetteer of the State of Illinois and Missouri (Albany, 1823), 41, mentions the erroneous belief that the horse is indigenous to America.
46. John L. Sorenson suggests that Smith translated the ancient word for “deer” as “horse” (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; and Provo, UT: FARMS, 1985], 295-96). For a review of Sorenson’s arguments, see Deanne G. Matheny, “Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” in Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 305-10. See also Sorenson’s response to Matheny in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 344-48.
47. Th[omas]. Ashe, Memoirs of Mammoth, Various Other Extraordinary and Stupendous Bones, of Incognita, or Non-Descript Animals, Found in the Vicinity of the Ohio, Wabash, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Osage, and Read Rivers, &c. &c. (Liverpool, 1806).
49. See Rembrandt Peale, Account of the Skeleton of the Mammoth (London, 1802); An Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth (London, 1803); and Port Folio (Philadelphia; new series) 4 (7 Nov. 1807): 295-96. Both Peale’s museum and the mammoth skeleton are discussed in Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1947), 2:137-44.
56. The name may be derived from Og and Gath in the Old Testament. In light of the Jaredites’ relatively large stature (Mosiah 8:10), the statement in Joshua 12:4 is perhaps relevant: “And the coast of Og king of Bashan, which was of the remnant of the giants …”
59. Some apologists suggest that the text describes a partial severance of the head, arguing that the blow on Shiz’s neck was delivered by an exhausted Coriantumr with a sword that had become dull through use in the preceding seven-day battle (e.g., George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, ed. Philip C. Reynolds, 7 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955-61], 6:201). These writers overturn the clear meaning of the text, insisting that the phrase “smote off” in Ether 15:30 should be understood as “figurative rather than strictly literal.” But the fact that Shiz raises himself up on his hands implies that he had been lying face down, which brings the question of how a cut could be deep enough to cause death but shallow enough not to severe the spinal cord. Other writers suggest that Coriantumr’s sword passed “through the base of the skull, at the level of the midbrain” (M. Gary Hadfield, “Neuropathology and the Scriptures,” BYU Studies 33 : 324-25). This interpretation fails to appreciate the point made by the former apologists, that Coriantumr was fatigued and might have had a dull sword. A third interpretation combines these two theories, suggesting that the cut went through the base of the skull only “fifty or sixty percent,” causing an involuntary flexing of the arms (Gary M. Hadfield and John W. Welch, “The ‘Decapitation’ of Shiz,” FARMS Update, No. 97 [Nov. 1994]). This fails to overcome the clear meaning of “smote off,” which is supported by other Book of Mormon texts (1 Ne. 4:18; Alma 17:37, 38; 18:16, 20; 44:13). Their use of the King James Version of Judges 5:26, which says that Jael “smote off” someone’s head when she, in fact, only hit someone with a hammer, is inappropriate since it is based on a mistranslation. The fact was mentioned by Adam Clarke: “The original does not warrant this translation; nor is it supported by fact” (The Holy Bible … With a Commentary and Critical Notes, s.v., Judges 5:26). Moreover, the Hadfield-Welch rigidity hypothesis also fails since decerebrate rigidity does not usually begin for several minutes after separation of the upper brain center from the brain stem and spinal cord and is characterized by a clinching of the teeth, which precludes Shiz’s gasping for breath (see C. S. Sherrington, “Decerebrate Rigidity, and Reflex Coordination of Movements,” Journal of Psychology 22 : 319; and A. B. Baker and L. H. Baker, Clinical Neurology, 3 vols. [New York: Harper and Row, 1975], 1:65).
60. Commenting on a similar claim in Alma 57:25, that 200 of Helaman’s 2,060 stripling warriors recovered after “faint[ing] because of the loss of blood,” surgeon Robert Patterson states: “The epic tale of the stripling warriors and their miraculous recovery from life-threatening trauma would appear, to the rational mind, highly unlikely or even outright impossible. Hundreds of people, even fit young males, simply do not get up and walk away after experiencing Class 4 hypovolemic shock. Perhaps even Joseph Smith, uneducated as he was, did not appreciate the improbability of Helaman’s narrative” (Robert Patterson, “Helaman’s Stripling Warriors and the Principles of Hypovolemic Shock,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35 [Winter 2002]: 141.