The Purpose of the Book of Mormon1
[p.1]He said he verily believed that an important epoch had arrived—that a great flood of light was about to burst upon the world … that a GOLDEN BIBLE had recently been dug from the earth … and that this would … settle all religious controversies and speedily bring on the glorious millennium.
—John A. Clark,2 rector of Palmyra, New York, Episcopal Church, 1826-28
There has been a long history of probing Joseph Smith’s probable motives for writing the Book of Mormon. Mario DePillis, a Catholic historian, has argued that Smith wanted to end sectarian fighting.3 Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar, concluded that Smith found or wanted to find Indian artifacts: “that the discovery or the desire for the discovery inspired the writing of the Book of Mormon.”4
However, neither view sufficiently considers the many statements Joseph Smith himself made about the purpose of the Book of Mormon. The History which he began dictating in 1838 is only moderately helpful, for by that time he had greatly modified his original theology. One must go back to the early period before and during the production of the Book of Mormon and the organization of the new church. Smith states the overall purpose for the new scripture on its title page, and the book’s goals are elaborated through its plot and character development. The Book of Mormon [p.2] offers support for Christian claims for the Bible, for Jesus Christ, and for God. It is intended to inspire faith and encourage faithfulness; to corroborate biblical facts, prophecies and doctrine. The book’s sources, the concerns it deals with, and the solutions it proposes all relate to this: to make the remaining descendants of the lost tribes of Israel (the American Indians) aware of their relationship with God and to convince Jews and gentiles that “Jesus is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself to all nations.”
The first ambition of the Book of Mormon was to provide proof: of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Bible, of itself. According to the Book of Mormon, God is unchanging in the way he relates to humanity (D&C 20:12, 17). He created men and women, gave them commandments, and gave his son to save the human race when Adam transgressed (vv. 18-20). It proves that God is merciful (1 Ne. 1:20) and inspires people in all generations to do his will and work (D&C 20:11). Jesus was sinless, suffered crucifixion, died, rose on the third day, ascended into heaven, now rules with God, and has secured salvation for the human race.
Not only is God unchanging but so is his message. The Book of Mormon is a witness for and proof of the truth of the biblical message (D&C 20:11). That message was the same in the pre-Christian era as it is now. People knew of his future mission long before Jesus came as Redeemer. The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi wrote of his foreknowledge of Jesus Christ and, to convince his posterity that this was true (2 Ne. 11:2-6), added the testimony of his brother Jacob as well as that of biblical Isaiah. The Book of Mormon thus witnesses to the reality of God and his message. It also provides for its own defense, its own witness. According to the book, an angel would deliver golden plates to Joseph Smith. Joseph would translate the characters inscribed upon them and thus produce a new record. Three witnesses would see the plates and then would know that their translated contents were true (27:12). Their testimony added to that of the Book of Mormon would stand as proof of God’s power and word (Ether 5:24). Joseph Smith would be ordained to bring to an unbelieving generation the message of the Book of Mormon; he would bring forth the Church of Christ. The three witnesses’ testimony would confirm both the message that Smith would bring and the new scripture he would translate (D&C 5:6-15).
The Book of Mormon would speak to native Americans, to Jews, to gentiles, to the world. It would inform the Indians5 of God’s [p.3] promises (D&C 3:20) and covenants with their ancestors, that they were members of the House of Israel (ibid.; Morm. 7:1-2). It would convince them of the error of their forbearers’ traditions and iniquity (Alma 37:8-9; Mosiah 28:1-2). If Indians were to learn how their Nephite-Lamanite ancestors slaughtered each other until only Lamanites were left, they might believe the gospel that missionaries would bring them (Morm. 5:9, 11, 14). The Book of Mormon would convince them that the message of the Bible is true; and when they believed the biblical message, they also would accept the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 13:39). When the Indians accepted the new scriptures, they would come to a knowledge of God and the redemption of Jesus Christ.6 The Book of Mormon would lead them to end their hatred of others, to befriend each other, and to stop their contentions (Alma 26:9). Their faith in Jesus and restored covenant with God would bring peace and thus fulfill God’s promises to Israel. In return the Indians would become a “delightsome people” (W of M 8).
The Book of Mormon would also help in bringing Jews to accept Jesus as Messiah. The Book of Mormon is a witness that the man they killed was Christ and God (Morm. 3:21). If they accept this, then God would restore them to their own land; for unbelief had kept them dispersed (5:14; 2 Ne. 15:15-18).7 The Book of Mormon would come into public view about the time that the Lord began that restoration, and it would hasten the day.
Joseph Smith also wanted gentiles to accept Jesus as Savior. Like Jews, gentiles had to be convinced that the Bible was true (1 Ne. 13:39). If they were to know of God’s decree, come to repentance, and be kept from following the dismal example of previous generations, then they had to learn how the unbelieving rebellion of the Indians’ forefathers had led to their destruction (Ether 2:11). Once convinced, gentiles would perform a two-fold mission for Jesus. They would use the Nephite reports of Jesus’ messages given during his post-resurrection appearances in American to convince Jews that he was their Redeemer (Morm. 5:9, 14-15; D&C 14:10). At the same time they would also convert the Indians.
Clearly Smith had an inclusive vision. In the face of impending judgment (Morm. 3:20-22), the Book of Mormon was intended to save people by leading them to repentance and preparing them to meet God. Smith wanted them to look to the Messiah, obey him, be faithful to him, and choose eternal life instead of eternal death [p.4] (2 Ne. 2:28-30). Through faith in Jesus Christ, Smith hoped to see people reconciled to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (1 Ne. 6:4; 2 Ne. 35:23). The Book of Mormon is saturated with talk of Jesus Christ so that people could know “to what source they might look for a remission of their sins” (v. 26). The Book of Mormon settles doctrinal differences among those who accept the Christ it presents. Mormon’s purpose is to make clear the true doctrine and to dissolve doctrinal disputes by explaining the gospel of Christ (D&C 10:46-63). Existing churches would continue their strife because they misunderstood and misinterpreted the Bible (vv. 46-63), but the Book of Mormon would inaugurate the reestablishment of the true church of Christ (11:16; 18:13).8
The power of this restored church would be great. The view of the Book of Mormon is that when the church is accepted, the thousand-year reign of Jesus would come. In the millennial view all depended on restoring the lost ten tribes of Israel and the return of the dispersed tribe of Judah to its homeland. The Book of Mormon describes in detail the conditions to prevail at the time of this restoration. No one would mistake the signs (2 Ne. 25:15-20). When Indians, Jews, and gentiles were persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, then the Lord would bring Israel’s lost tribes back from their hiding places (Morm. 5:12). American Indians were a segment broken off from these ten tribes. Through the Book of Mormon’s message, the Indians would rejoin their kinsmen. The Lord’s promise to the patriarch, Joseph in Egypt, would thus be fulfilled (2 Ne. 25:11).
The right kind of leader was required to carry out this ambitious program, and the career of that leader was sketched in the Book of Mormon. Accordingly, the biblical Joseph was said to have been promised that a “seer” would come named after him, who would be like Moses in the eyes of God (2 Ne. 3:6-7, 15), blessed to teach the Indians of God’s covenants. He would be able use the Book of Mormon to convince the Indians of the message he would bring. This seer’s father would also be known as Joseph. Joseph Smith, Jr., was then specifically declared to be the one ordained to bring God’s word to his generation. God’s word would be heard only through Smith: “a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle (D&C 21:1).9
During the Book of Mormon translation, Smith heard himself declared as the one ordained to bring God’s word to his generation, and that word would be heard only through him (D&C 5:6, 10). His [p.5] position was spelled out by Book of Mormon prophet Moroni: “everything which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ.… Nothing that is good denieth the Christ, but acknowledgeth that he is” (Moro. 7:16; 10:6). On the other hand, anything that “persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God … is of the devil” (7:17). Smith’s own desire to promote the message of Jesus, therefore, was assurance that his work was God’s work.
Smith knew himself to be a servant of Christ. But those who judged him the devil’s servant remembered the Smith family’s past activities as money diggers and their hopes for a profit from sales of the Book of Mormon.10 Smith admitted that he had thought of using the gold plates for personal gain. He was “tempted of the advisary and sought the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the Commandment that I would have an eye singled to the glory of God,” he said in 1832.11 Having a history of pre-Columbian America might “be interesting to every man” and the possibility seemed to inspire further thoughts of “gain … and income from such a valuable history. Surely, thought he, every man will seize with eagerness, this knowledge, and this incalculable income will be mine.”12 An angel rebuffed Smith’s initial efforts to get the plates because “they are not deposited here for the sake of accumulating gain and wealth for the glory of this world; they were sealed by the prayer of faith, and because of the knowledge which they contain they are of no worth among the children of men, only for their knowledge.”13
Perhaps Smith never fully conquered the impulse to use his book for personal advantage, but his intention to defend God is equally—perhaps more—a factor in this early period. The stories and theology in the Book of Mormon constitute a defense of Jesus. The circumstances leading to this particular defense, as well as to the form it took, are found in Smith’s own time and place in American history.
1. Nearly every statement in this chapter, with the exception of conclusions or transitions, is in the Book of Mormon and Smith’s early revelations through April 1830. The references cited all include words, phrases, and clauses expressing purpose or result. A Mormon account of the goals for the Book of Mormon is B. H. Roberts’s New Witness for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1926), 2:61-68.
5. The term “Indian” does not occur in the Book of Mormon, but it is synonymous with “Lamanite.” Lamanites were descended from Laman, the older brother of Nephi. Laman scorned his father’s reliance upon the gifts of the spirit and was passed over in favor of Nephi when their father, Lehi, consecrated a successor to the priesthood. The resulting enmity between Lamanites and Nephites led to the total destruction of the Nephites. The surviving Lamanites were cursed with a dark skin because of their unbelief and became ancestors of native Americans.
6. Smith thought that the Book of Mormon would benefit native Americans (Jarom 2, Enos 14:15, Morm. 8:14-16, Moro. 1:4, D&C 3:20). He was certain they would believe the Book of Mormon (Morm. 7:9) when they first were convinced of the truth of the Bible (1 Ne. 13:39). Smith felt that current missionary efforts among the Indians were ineffective. He had Enos say of Nephite attempts to evangelize the Lamanites: “at the present our strugglings were vain in restoring them to the true faith” (vss. 14-15). W. W. Phelps, editor of the first Mormon newspaper, explained that neither Jews nor Indians could be converted “by ministers, though the Gentiles are,” but they would be willing to convert when the Messiah returned (The Evening and the Morning Star, Aug. 1832, 5).
8. 2 Nephi 3 shows that Smith began the Book of Mormon the second time, after losing the first 116 manuscript pages of the translation, intent on forming a church. Smith is predicted as the one promised to bring back the descendants of his biblical predecessor, Joseph of Egypt, to the Lord. Like Moses, Smith would lead a nation (2 Ne. 3:7-11). The two books of Nephi replaced the lost 116-page manuscript. Evidence from these portions of the Book of Mormon make it clear that Smith meant to found a church, and this intention is even more certain when the revelations given during the translation period (March-June 1829) are considered.
9. The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) is a compilation of revelations given to Joseph Smith. First published in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835, the D&C was a revision and enlargement of the Book of Commandments (Independence, MO: W. W. Phelps & Co., 1833). Unless otherwise noted, the citations will be from the 1921 edition published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses, agreed that Smith was the “man who is not learned” of Isaiah 29 but not that he was the choice seer. The seer was to be a descendant of Lehi through [p.7]the youngest son, Joseph (2 Ne. 3), from whom the Indians descended, and the choice seer was to come from the Indians. An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO, 1887), 26-27.
10. David Marks, a Free-will Baptist evangelist, stayed at the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr., on 29 March 1830 in Fayette, New York, just a week before the organization of the church. Marks saw two or three of Whitmer’s sons and others who told him about seeing the golden plates and spoke of the just-published Book of Mormon. Recalled Marks, “Five thousand copies were published—and they said the angel told Smith to sell the book at a price which was one dollar and eight cents per copy more than the cost, that they might have the temporal profit, as well as the spiritual.” See The Life of David Marks to the 26th Year of His Age (Limerick, ME: Office of the Morning Star, 1831), 341.
12. Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, Messenger and Advocate, July 1835, 157. This is part of a series of letters presenting a brief history of the church, written with Smith’s cooperation. David Marks, The Life of David Marks to the 26th Year of His Age (Limerick, ME: Office of the Morning Star, 1831), demonstrated that the impression created by the Book of Mormon on those who had heard it seemed to offer insights into Indian antiquities. “When I was in Ohio, I had quite a curiosity to know the origin of the numerous mounds and remains of ancient fortifications that abound in that section of the country; but could not find that any thing satisfactory was known on the subject. Having been told, that the ‘Book of Mormon‘ gave a history of them, and of their authors, some desire was created in my mind to see the book, that I might learn the above particulars” (341).