Words of Mormon

This was the next chapter on this list, but I actually went into this chapter with one particular segment in mind, since in a recent discussion via email I was asked to outline my thoughts on God’s relationship with time, and its implications for things like his omniscience, and a part of this chapter features. I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit.

Perhaps the first thing I found interesting on this occasion however is how strongly Mormon’s voice comes over at the very beginning:

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

(Words of Mormon 1-2)

If you think that sounds a bit depressing, welcome to Mormon. His is an interesting voice, because it contrasts so strongly with that of Nephi, who has been the voice most often heard in the chapters up till now. Yet it’s still different from Jacob, who also formed a contrast with Nephi. Nephi, while he does face his times of grief and disappointment (such as his reaction to a vision of the destruction of his descendants in 1 Nephi 15, or his own personal struggles in 2 Nephi 4), is fundamentally an optimistic, almost bombastic character. I’ve even joked with people, and to be honest I’m not really joking, that I don’t think I’d have liked him. That’s not a fault of Nephi, by the way, but perhaps simply a case of how different personalities respond to each other. Jacob, as I’ve written about before, seems to have faced struggles with feelings of personal inadequacy, and when he speaks, he speaks in a very different way from Nephi. Contrast their approach to the Final Judgment: Nephi speaks that he has faith ‘that I shall meet many souls spotless at [Christ’s] judgment-seat’ (2 Nephi 33:7), while Jacob – while righteous – mentally includes himself with the wicked by observing ‘we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness’ (2 Nephi 9:14, my emphasis).

Mormon takes a blunt, realistic approach:

And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;

Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen.

(Helaman 12:25-26)

Mormon is a lonely figure, fighting to preserve his people but knowing that they are doomed to lose and deserve to lose. For him, the story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a tragedy, hence here – the first time we really hear his voice – he opens up by stating that he has seen almost the entire annihilation of his people, and anticipates its completion soon. There is little room for optimism in his experience, much of which he actually hides from us (Mormon 2:18-19). He is not devoid of hope, although he is without hope for his people (Mormon 5:2). Rather much of his hope is very remote: that this book he is working on will do good, that some day it may help draw people to Christ, that day being fourteen centuries after he has written the work, with no one to even read it in the meantime. In some respect he had the opposite experience of Nephi. Nephi faced intense trials, but he and his people got to live ‘after the manner of happiness’ in his lifetime (2 Nephi 5:27), while part of what he felt grief over was a visionary experience about what would happen centuries later. Mormon had ‘been filled with sorrow … all my days’ (Mormon 2:19), while his hope was invested in the revelation of centuries later events.

So its particularly interesting that not only does Mormon’s voice come in at this stage, but its his voice that dominates the rest of the book and indeed the structure of the book as a whole. While he personally cannot be heard in the small plates, he chose to include them, and he now narrates the rest of the book until Mormon 7, something that often seems to be forgotten when people attribute an narrator’s statement to Alma or whoever, when it is Mormon speaking, and we really only hear the others in quotations Mormon has selected. Even Mormon 8 onwards, in which Moroni is the narrator, follows plans Mormon laid out (it is Mormon who states that the account of the Jaredites will be told, in Mosiah 28:19, even though it is Moroni who ultimately tells it). The Book of Mormon is a pessimist’s book. This is not to condemn optimism (I think President Hinckley, for instance, was a great advocate and example of the power of optimism, though he never let that become wishful thinking nor hinder him from speaking unpleasant truths), but it is interesting to think about.

Onto the other matter of time, God’s relationship to it, and omniscience. I’m not going to go into this in depth at this stage, since I plan to address it, and the crucial concept of ‘retrocausality’, in the future. I have already written about the concept of time and explicit examples of retrocausality within the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, and quote this when talking about Enos here, for anyone looking for further discussion of this right now. Suffice to say, there is a strain of philosophical thought, one which some LDS scholars have shared, that believe that complete divine foreknowledge and human agency are incompatible. We cannot truly have the ability to choose, this thought runs, if God already knows what we’re going to pick.

If the possibility of retrocausal events (that is, where the effects precede the cause, such as Enos being forgiven through the Atonement before it happened, or Lehi explicitly quoting John the Baptist centuries before he is born) is admitted, then such philosophical difficulties disappear. Causality, however, is a very strong assumption, and amongst those assuming causality applies universally, some (I’m thinking Blake Ostler, but others have too) have proposed that God is omniscient in the sense of knowing all things that exist. They then argue that future events that are dependent upon chance or choice, that is “contingent”, do not exist yet, and so God does not know them.

While I’m sure many of the people making this argument are well-intentioned, I reject this conclusion. For one thing, what future events are not “contingent”, when we move beyond the bounds of astronomy and geology? This version of omniscience knows very little of the future, especially when we factor in how many choices are in turn dependent on the outcome of the choices before that, and before that. In its crassest form, this idea was put to me by an advocate as “God does not know what people are having for breakfast tomorrow”, and while some advocates may shy away from that description, I do think its an inevitable consequence. Now factor in that someone’s decision on what to have for breakfast may be influenced by what they decided to have the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and may in turn be influenced by parents who were influenced by a lifetime’s worth of breakfast decisions, and so on for countless generations. And this is a comparatively small decision (though perhaps with significant consequences, should someone fifteen generations back choke on a kipper)! What of the big ones? How could any long term view be remotely accurate?

This sits at odds with what we learn in this chapter. Firstly, Mormon outright states that ‘the Lord knoweth all things which are to come’ (v. 7). But beyond this explicit statement that God’s knowledge does include the future, there is the demonstration of it in this chapter, for Mormon makes this comment in reference to the inspiration he is receiving to include the small plates in with his record (as Nephi was similar inspired to begin writing it). Here it is particularly interesting, because it appears Mormon was actually inspired to break his record at this point to make this note, since he hadn’t written the rest of the record yet: note that verse 5 talks about how he ‘shall take’ the remainder of his record from the plates of Nephi (future tense) and in verse 9 states that ‘now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record’. Words of Mormon thus breaks the account at a specific point, namely the small plates being given to King Benjamin, and transitions smoothly into the establishing of peace in the land (see Words of Mormon 18 and Mosiah 1:1).

Why is this significant? Because the material prior to Mosiah was lost, part of the 116 missing pages. The small plates were the inspired solution to this issue. But with Words of Mormon, they cover precisely the right amount of material. If Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had stopped translating a week or so earlier, the transition would not be remotely as smooth. Had they been able to continue translating for another week or so, and so lost the first parts of our current book of Mosiah, then a great deal of sense would have been lost. In other words, the inspiration that prompted the writing and the inclusion of the small plates, and the writing of Words of Mormon to integrate them into the book, foresaw not only that a portion would be lost, but precisely at which point they would be lost fourteen hundred years before they were actually lost. Were 106 pages or 126 pages lost, things would read very differently.

Now factor in all the decisions that affect the precise circumstances of this episode: not only when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began their work, and ended their work, but every single time they decided when to begin their working day and when they decided to end it. Also every decision that led to them meeting when and where they did. Every decision, in fact, that Joseph and Martin made that led up to that specific moment at that place in the manuscript at that time. And then beyond that, every decision of every single one of their ancestors that factored into where they lived, where they moved too, who they reproduced with, and so on, involving many thousands of people, over many many generations, for over a thousand years. The very mortal existences of this chain of ancestors is “contingent”, relying as it does on the decisions of people in each and every generation. God shows that he knows and takes into account all of this.

As said, I plan to address the concept of God’s relationship with time in a future post beyond what I have already done, and while there’s undoubtedly much we don’t know about in this area, and much we maybe aren’t in a position to understand, believe that we can learn enough to resolve any philosophical difficulties between God’s omniscience and our agency. However, as to the actuality of God’s foreknowledge, I believe this chapter both states and demonstrates that he truly ‘knoweth all things which are to come’.

2020 Edit:

I’m keeping this fairly brief, as the original post was a) fairly recently (within the last year) and b) quite extensive.

I’ve already commented on the character aspect. Just to add to that, while my 2020 “Come Follow Me” reading may have led me to have a greater empathy and understanding for Nephi, Mormon is still a character I feel almost instinctively in tune with. I’m not even entirely sure for all the reasons why, but I do feel he is one of the greatest men in the book (and not simply because he authored most of it), and always appreciate returning to his voice.

I was struck by his comment about why he personally liked the contents of the small plates:

And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass

(Words of Mormon 1:4)

Mormon, looking back with some centuries, was able to see many of the events that the small plates prophesied of came to pass. This wasn’t just pleasing in and of itself, but was added reassurance that the events it prophesied of that went beyond his era would also come to pass. As I read this, I reflected on those times in my life where the spirit has shown me something which would happen, or where I’ve seen prophecy fulfilled, and how remembering such experiences can build our confidence and trust in God’s promises that are yet to happen.

I also can’t finish without quoting a bit of verse 11, since it touches on one of the recurring themes in this blog:

… And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

One of the standards by which we shall be judged in the final judgment is by the contents of the scriptural books, including the Book of Mormon, those things which are “the word of God which is written”. Now this is not our initial relationship with those books: when any of us come into contact with the books of scripture for the first time, we are left to judge and determine whether they are true and correct and from God. But when we gain a testimony or a witness that they are, then that relationship changes. Then they become a standard against which we are to measure our lives and our understanding, and we are out of sync with the contents of holy writ, then it is our understanding or conduct that we need to give urgent consideration to changing.

“The word of God which is written” is not the sum total of that which we shall be judged by, of course: God continues to reveal more, some generally – some of which is added to the written word, for his word never ends – and much personally, for we all need a living connection with God. But that portion which God has caused to be recorded and sent forth is important, and will be raised as a witness for or against us. This is a message the Book of Mormon repeats on several occasions and it is one we need today, for so many of the approaches to scripture that find favour today reverse that proper relationship. They sift through the contents of scripture, affirming that which they already believe, but discarding whatever is uncomfortable or which they do not understand. Such approaches place the reader into the position of judge and the scriptures as judged. They assume the modern scholar already has greater access to the mind of God, and knows it better than the word of God.

Yet we shall find, as the Book of Mormon teaches, that at the great and last day that our own mind will not be the measuring rod by which we shall be judged. But the scriptures shall be. There is much for us to learn, much that God has yet to reveal to us, and much for us to learn from the things that he has already revealed to us. If we approach the scriptures in humility, prepared to let our ideas and lives be challenged and even judged by his word, we may be surprised at what we can learn if we do not discard his word.

2 Nephi 33

And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.

(2 Nephi 33:10)

This verse always sticks out to me as I consider myself a recipient of this promise. There was a time in my life when, though I knew God existed, I became confused about everything else, and really felt I didn’t know which way was up or which way was down. I continued to read the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, but I did not know they were true. Yet I continued to read them, and many other things, as I really wanted to know one way or the other (after all, I felt my soul was at stake), and if you want to find something out you have to put some effort and research into it. You can’t expect ultimate answers if you can’t be bothered to do more than cursory reading.

In any case the concept of prophets made sense to me; it made sense that if God expected us to do his will, he had to communicate it somehow. Of course, then there’s the question of which prophets. And I remember one night contemplating “well, Islam has Muhammad – maybe Islam has it right”.

It was at that very moment – and I do not know whether I somehow had already known it, but didn’t know I knew it, or if I was taught it in that very moment – that I realised we needed a Messiah to reconcile justice and mercy, and that that Messiah was Jesus Christ. Which narrowed down my options a bit.

What struck me, in years to come and reflecting upon that experience, was that the very terminology in which this insight struck me comes from the Book of Mormon (Alma 42 is a good example). While I did not yet know whether to believe the Book of Mormon, reading it brought me to Christ. And in time – now that I knew Jesus was the Christ – I came to believe and gain a witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Though I did not believe “in these words”, I read them and they taught me of Christ, and then “believ[ing] in Christ [I did] believe in these words”.

2020 edit:

And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.

Verse 1 caught my attention right from the beginning. It’s not the only time this sort of sentiment will appear in the Book of Mormon (Moroni expresses something similar in Ether 12). There’s some subtle differences though: Moroni was comparing his words to those of the brother of Jared, who apparently did manage to capture power in his writing, while Nephi almost takes it as given that speaking (at least of the gospel) is more powerful, because to the role and power of the Holy Ghost. Yet I see no reason why the Holy Ghost cannot do the same for writing, indeed I know he can, since I have felt the Holy Ghost do that as I’ve read inspired writings. Nephi doesn’t quite describe it as a universal law, however, but writes rather of his own experience and his ability to express inspiration in speech and writing. That accords with what Moroni says and my own perception: we have different gifts, and some are particularly gifted in speech, others in writing, and some find it easier to communicate via the spirit in one medium than in the other.

There’s an element of a general writers dilemma here too, however, that applies beyond the writing of inspired works. I have felt frustration myself that some of the things I write simply can’t quite express – and certainly not with the same power or emotion – the things in my head. Sometimes the words just seem dead on the page, compared to the metaphorical vision in my mind. I’m sure I’m not the only writer to face this problem. It’s reassuring in part that despite Nephi and Moroni’s own assessment of their writing skills, their works are some of the writing that I’ve felt have both an emotional and a spiritual impact upon me.

I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.

Verse 6 is an example of this: simple, plain, yet powerful. But when reading it today I was also struck by the power of his statement that Christ “hath redeemed my soul from hell”. For some reason when I talk about wanting to avoid hell in Church settings people tend to laugh. It struck me when reading this today that one shortcoming of the modern heresy that there is no hell is that it robs Christ of the credit for one of the things he saves us from. We talk about salvation, and Christ being our Saviour, and forget these are terms with a reference: to be saved is to be saved from something. There are lots of things that Christ saves us from, different ways in which he is our Saviour, but surely two of the biggest (especially according to passages like 2 Nephi 9) are death and hell. If we deny hell, we deny that Christ can or has saved us from it.

And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.

And it speaketh harshly against sin, according to the plainness of the truth; wherefore, no man will be angry at the words which I have written save he shall be of the spirit of the devil.

I really felt like quoting verses 4 and 5 here, and I’m not entirely sure why. I think it’s a powerful summary not just of the value that Nephi saw in his words, but the value which is in his words. I also see an interesting balance: on one hand the words persuade us to do good and believe in Christ, in a rather gentle description, but on the other they speak harshly against sin. Yet it’s just such a balance that is encapsulated by the character of God himself, as described by Joseph Smith in the oft-selectively quoted description that:

Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.

As to Nephi’s words about the final judgment, thee’s two observations that really come to mind every time I read this passage. One is the way in which his description (and not only his, but Jacob’s, Alma the Younger’s and Mormon’s) captures his own personality:

I have charity for my people, and great faith in Christ that I shall meet many souls spotless at his judgment-seat.

I have charity for the Jew—I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came.

I also have charity for the Gentiles. But behold, for none of these can I hope except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation.

(2 Nephi 33:7-9)

It’s not that he is teaching different doctrine from Jacob, Alma or Mormon. What I find interesting is how their personalities shape their emotional attitude and description of the same truths. Jacob mentally includes himself with the wicked, Mormon is grimly realistic. Nephi however expresses optimism: he has “great faith in Christ that I shall meet many souls spotless at his judgment-seat”, and in verse 12 speaks of praying that “many of us, if not all, may be saved in his kingdom at that great and last day”. But Nephi is also uncompromising about the truth, and so why expressing these hopes he also doesn’t back away from the fact that this salvation is only possible through “the strait path” of the gospel, which must be followed.

The other detail I can’t help but reflect on in this chapter is Nephi’s statement in verse 11:

And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.

Again, Nephi is not the only one to say this: Moroni also speaks of meeting us before the judgment-bar (Moroni 10:27). It causes me to reflect on who else we’ll meet as witnesses at that point, and on whether we’ll end up being witnesses for anyone else.

Finally, there’s Nephi’s very last words in the Book of Mormon, which encapsulate so much of the journey Nephi has been on, and his approach:

For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at the judgment bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey. Amen.

(2 Nephi 33:15, my emphasis)

We’ve seen throughout 1st Nephi that there is this cycle of commandments being given, and then commandments obeyed, and throughout Nephi has been consistently obedient. But it’s more than just a choice: he must obey.

That’s not to say he was denying he had agency. I remember a similar discussion I had with an acquaintance, in which I expressed that I must do some task, and they were of the opinion that I was somehow failing to appreciate or utilise my agency. But what I was trying to express, however badly, was what I think Nephi expresses here. When you know who God is, and he tells you to do something, then the question goes beyond agency. Sure, you still have it, and mortal weaknesses may cause us to fall short, but at the same time when God says jump the only possible answer is “how high?”. To outright say “no” may be possible, but it feels unthinkable.

And it’s funny: for many years – even when beginning my reading this year – I’ve often said I didn’t think I’d have liked Nephi if I’d known him. There are other personalities in the scriptures that I find myself much more naturally in sympathy with. Yet upon this year’s reading, and especially upon reading, reflecting upon and writing upon this last chapter, I feel a little differently now.

I think at last we understand one another, Frodo Baggins.