Peter Osborn & Cory Crawford. Encyclopedia of Religious and Spiritual Development. Editor: Elizabeth M Dowling & W. George Scarlett, Sage Reference, 2006.
The Book of Mormon is a compilation of Scripture considered sacred, along with the Bible, by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). It contains the writings of ancient prophets who documented their revelations from God concerning the spiritual well-being of their people. Members of the LDS faith have inherited the nickname “Mormons” because of their belief that this book is additional Scripture existing alongside the Bible. It forms the foundation of Latter-Day Saint doctrine, and constitutes for Mormons, along with the Old and New Testaments, another witness to the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Origins of the Book of Mormon
In 1823 the young Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of the Mormon faith, reported visitations by heavenly beings, who told him of the whereabouts of metal plates buried in upstate New York. Etched onto these gold plates were the writings of prophets who lived on the American continents more than a thousand years before. Smith was instructed by the heavenly beings to unearth the plates and translate them into English. Once he obtained the plates, Smith dictated the translation to one of a number of scribes. According to those who witnessed the process, when resuming translation after a hiatus of any length, he resumed where he left off from the previous session without repetitions or gaps. After the translation was finished, the angelic messenger took back the plates, although not until they had been shown to 11 men and 1 woman. Their witness can be read in the opening pages of modern editions of the Book of Mormon as “The Testimony of the Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses.”
In 1830, Grandin published the first edition of the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, New York. Since then, the book has been issued in numerous editions and has been translated from English into more than 100 languages.
Content of the Book of Mormon
The primary narrative of the Book of Mormon opens in Jerusalem ca. 600 B.C.E. A prophet named Lehi (not mentioned in the Old Testament), was instructed by God to warn the people of Jerusalem of the imminent Babylonian catastrophe, just as the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was doing. In order to escape the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of its inhabitants, Lehi was commanded by God to leave the city and take his family into the desert. After traveling through the desert for many years, they made their way to the coast of the Arabian Sea. Lehi’s family built a boat and sailed for a land of promise, the then-unknown Americas.
Lehi died not long after their arrival in the promised land, and his children split into two groups, named after two of his sons, Nephi and Laman. The “Nephites” remained for the most part obedient to the commandments of God, and successions of prophets were chosen from among them to provide the people with continued revelations from God. The “Lamanites,” on the other hand, were characteristically wicked and violent. The Nephites later met up with another group that had fled Israel at the same time as Lehi, called the Mulekites after their leader Mulek, a son of King Zedekiah of Jerusalem. The Nephites were also made aware of the records of another people, the Jaredites, who had fled Mesopotamia at the time of the Tower of Babel and arrived, also by ship, in roughly the same geographical area as the Nephites. The Jaredite record indicated that the entire nation was eventually destroyed by infighting resulting from their wickedness. The last prophet of the Book of Mormon, Moroni, included a condensed version of the Jaredite account on the plates obtained by Joseph Smith.
The Book of Mormon is an abridgement of the records kept on metal plates by the prophets of the Nephites, who wrote until roughly C.E. 420. Mormon, the second-to-last prophet, edited this abridgement and summarized the history and teachings contained on the records available to him. This abridgement included the history from the plates kept by Nephi, son of Lehi, and his descendants, and spanned nearly 1,000 years. The climax of the narrative is the appearance and ministry of Jesus Christ, following his crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem, to the Nephites in the Americas. In the Bible, Jesus says, “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16 KJV). Jesus Christ’s ministry to the Nephites is thus seen as a fulfillment of that biblical prophecy, the Nephites being among the other “sheep” that were not in Jerusalem during the time of Christ’s ministry there.
The centuries immediately following Jesus Christ’s appearance in the Americas were dominated by peace between the Nephites and Lamanites. However, this peace would not last, and ultimately the entire Nephite nation would be annihilated by the Lamanites in a great battle that occurred ca. C.E. 400. The last Nephite prophet to write on the plates, Moroni, buried the record to protect them from being destroyed by the Lamanites, and the records remained hidden until they were uncovered by Joseph Smith.
The Book of Mormon Today
While certain aspects of the emergence of the Book of Mormon undoubtedly seem fantastic, such as angelic visitations, buried plates of gold, and so on, there are other factors found in the book, like the complex literary features characteristic of Hebrew writing, largely unknown in Joseph Smith’s day, that support its authenticity. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints funds ongoing research into the historicity of the account through linguistic, historical, archaeological, and other analyses, it is not the academic witness that is paramount to members of the LDS Church. A promise written by the last prophet, Moroni, in the final pages of the book summarizes the place of the book in Mormon spirituality.
Speaking of the Book of Mormon, Moroni says, “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:4-5). Readers of the Book of Mormon are encouraged by its authors, and by members of the Mormon Church, to make its authenticity and truthfulness a matter of spiritual reflection and meditation because of the central role that the Book of Mormon plays in LDS doctrine and practice.
In the introduction to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith is quoted saying that it is the “keystone” of the Mormon religion. If one were to believe in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, he or she would also believe that its translator, Joseph Smith, was chosen as a prophet of God. Conversely, if one were to regard the Book of Mormon as inauthentic, he or she would necessarily disregard Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God and also the claims of the LDS church as the true church of Jesus Christ. The debate about these controversial doctrines of the LDS Church (i.e., modern-day prophets and Christian Scripture not found in the Bible), hinges on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
The powerful influence of the Book of Mormon on the worship of members of the LDS church can be seen in the way that the church proselytizes and how church services are conducted. Young LDS men and women, usually between the ages of 19 and 26, are encouraged by the church to serve full-time missions throughout the world. The message of these missionaries regards primarily the teachings of the Book of Mormon and how it compares to the Bible as another witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Little children who attend Sunday services at LDS meetinghouses hear stories from the Book of Mormon and are taught about the history of the Nephite and Lamanite people together with biblical stories and events. Mormon adolescents worldwide attend daily Church-sponsored classes called “seminary,” in which they study the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and other doctrines of the LDS Church.
The Book of Mormon holds a unique place in contemporary discussion of religiosity and spirituality. For believers of the book’s authenticity, the Book of Mormon serves as a foundation of faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God and the savior of the world, and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as the “Lord’s kingdom once again established on the earth” (Introduction to the Book of Mormon). For critics, it serves only as evidence of the imagination of Joseph Smith, that he was the literal author of the book (as opposed to its translator) and that all other doctrines of the LDS Church not found in the Bible are incorrect. Regardless of one’s opinion of its authenticity, it must be recognized that the Book of Mormon has affected and continues to affect the spiritual and religious development of millions of people throughout the world, and stands as the centerpiece of one of the fastest-growing religions today.