And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved.
And they must come according to the words which shall be established by the mouth of the Lamb; and the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the records of thy seed, as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb; wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth.
This passage neatly describes how the Book of Mormon and Bible will work together: that the Book of Mormon will confirm the truth of the Bible, will restore those things that were omitted, and that both in unity will teach of Christ, of our need for him, and how to come to him.
I am struck, however, by the first line of verse 41: ‘and they must come to him according to the words which shall be established by the mouth of the lamb’. They, I take it, has reference to the ‘all men’ who ‘must come unto him, or they cannot be saved’ of the preceding lines. We must not only come to Christ, but we must come to him in the prescribed way; a way, fortunately, that we can find in his word in the scriptures.
This chapter, of course, famously speaks about plain and precious things being removed from what is obviously the Bible (although the Book of Mormon prophets themselves don’t tend to use that term: in fact it’s only used in the Book of Mormon in one chapter, 2 Nephi 29, which is about Gentile reactions to the Book of Mormon). However, over the years I’ve seen several misconceptions about this process that appears to cause some to value the Bible less than they should, or even regard it as superfluous. So it’s worth noting the following details:
1) The records – which include the Old Testament, and ‘the records … of the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ (1 Nephi 13:39, 24), the Book of Mormon being ahead of its time in recognising the Jewishness of the New Testament – pass ‘in purity’ from the Jews to the Gentiles, via the hands of the apostles (vv. 25-26).
This strongly suggests that this process principally affected the New Testament, and not the Old, since the records were only affected once they passed out of Jewish hands, but the latter also remained in said hands, where it is known as the Tanakh, an acronym of the Torah (the Law), the Nevii’m (the Prophets), and the Ketuvim (the Writings). While arranged in a different order the contents of the Tanakh are not appreciably different from that of the Protestant Old Testament, and thus does not appear to have been altered by post-Jewish hands.
This idea might surprise some Latter-day Saints, since it is sometimes appealed to as a reason that the Old Testament is less plain about Christ than, say, the Book of Mormon. However, as I detail in chapter 4 of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, the Book of Mormon itself appears to supply a different explanation for that fact.
2) The other thing to note is the process is chiefly one of omission: ‘many plain and precious things’ (including ‘many covenants’) are taken away from the gospel and the book (vv. 26, 28). The problem is thus not principally one of things being added or altered. Hence the problem in v. 29: the ‘Gentiles’ ‘stumble’, because what is left is hard to understand without the missing bits (whereas previously it ‘was plain unto the understanding of the children of men’, not because what is left is false or unreliable.
It’s important to understand this because this shows both why the book is of ‘great worth’ (v. 23) and gets to the relationship between the Book of Mormon and other later scripture and the Bible: one more of completion, not supercession. The Book of Mormon records exist to supply the lost plain and precious things, to convince the world that the Bible is true and ultimately to form one record (vv. 39-41). Those who take Nephi’s vision as a reason to ignore or not read the Bible (as I’ve heard some do) misunderstand what is being described here, and end up doing the opposite of what the Book of Mormon writers would urge them to do.
3) Then there’s the issue of the ‘great and abominable church’ (v. 6 onwards), which is the guilty party both in terms of excising the plain and precious things from the records, and for ‘destroy[ing] the saints of God, and bring[ing] them down into captivity’.
Many of the early members of the Church, who were from a Protestant background, read this in line with Protestant readings of the Book of Revelation, and thus saw the ‘great and abominable church’ as the Roman Catholic church. There’s several problems with this:
- While arguments over canon would persist (indeed they still do – the Catholic & Orthodox canons are larger than the Protestant ones), the contents of the New Testament were largely established long before the Papacy established its primacy over the Western Church.
- This approach relies upon a very protestant view of history, which appears to be less than accurate, and which I think causes many Latter-day Saints to ‘misread’ the Reformation. This is not to say some of the reformers didn’t have a point (I am very sympathetic to the likes of Tyndale), but – as I discuss somewhat in chapter four of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible – from the perspective of the Book of Mormon the core theological precepts of the reformation were steps in the wrong direction: salvation by faith alone, sola scriptura, the denial of any need for specific priesthood authority, the denial of the need for sacraments (funnily, we use the protestant term of ‘ordinances’, but mean something closer to the catholic concept) and what constitute said sacraments (for instance, marriage), and things like predestinationism. Such things were not a move in the direction of truth, but a step further into apostasy. It should be noted that Christ’s words to Joseph at the first vision were about the churches of Joseph’s day, while Joseph himself made some interesting comments about the Catholic church near the end of his life. Likewise, of more recent efforts to exclude books from the biblical canon, perhaps one of the most notable came not from the Catholic church, but from Martin Luther,* who was very hostile to the book of James.
- Furthermore, upon a closer reading, the concept of the ‘great and abominable church’ appears to be more expansive than referring to any one human organisation, let alone an organisation akin to what we now call a Church (where that word is used in the Bible, it is invariably translating a term meaning ‘congregation’ or ‘community’, as in the Greek ecclesia or Hebrew qahal, which presumably would be how Nephi meant it too). 1 Nephi 14:10 states that: “Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.” In this, the division between the Church of the devil and the Church of the Lamb appears more as a cosmic division, in which one must belong to one or the other, and not human organisation. Thus the ‘great and abominable church’ can encompasses all groups and movements that seek to persecute the church and lead people astray.
Now of course that doesn’t negate the idea that there may be more specific referents for the ‘great and abominable church’ in 1 Nephi 13. As I was reading this today, however, it dawned on me that there is one human agency that seems to have filled this role at times, persecuting the saints – destroying them and taking them captive – in the early centuries of the Christian era, and which at times mandated the destruction of Christian holy books. That organisation being The Roman Empire itself. While obviously not the sole referent (both in view of 1 Nephi 14:10, and the persistence of mentions of the ‘great and abominable church’ into clearly post-Roman times in 1 Nephi 13), events like the Diocletianic persecution do seem to fit into that role.
* For those predisposed to laud him, it should also be noted that Martin Luther was (or at least became; earlier he had more humane views) rabidly antisemitic, even by the standards of the time. He succeeded in getting Jews expelled from Saxony in 1537, gave “warning[s]” against the Jews in his sermons, and wrote two principal antisemitic works: Vom Schem Hamphoras (Shem HaMephorash being the rabbinic term for the hidden name of God), and On the Jews and their Lies, in which he advocated a range of anti-Jewish measures and which includes the infamous line “We are at fault in not slaying them”. As one might imagine, he was a popular source of quotations in the 1930s-40s.