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Book of Mormon Lesson #1: “The Keystone of Our Religion” (Sunday School)

Posted by joespencer on December 25, 2011

Well, somewhat last minute, I’ve decided to write lesson notes for this year. There are, already, very productive notes for the Book of Mormon lessons available, but I thought I’d add my thoughts as well. The Book of Mormon is the focus of all my work—spiritual, academic, theological, instructional, etc.—and I’ve decided to welcome the responsibility that will keep me writing about it all through the year.

And so here we go with the first lesson, an introductory affair with the title “The Keystone of Our Religion.” But how to introduce this book of books?

The official lesson begins, after the obligatory discussion of Joseph Smith’s statement that the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion, with the title page. It’s a very good place to start, and something I don’t think I’ll be able to get beyond in this first post.

The Book of Mormon, an account written by the hand of Mormon upon plates taken from the plates of Nephi.

First things first: “written by the hand of Mormon.” From the very first sentence of this book, we’re being told to keep an eye on who’s writing. That, I think, is very important. When we read the Old Testament—take, for instance, the five books “of Moses”—we haven’t any idea who’s doing the writing. It’s clear, when reading Genesis through Deuteronomy, that it isn’t Moses writing, but then who’s doing it? We can bury ourselves in questions of authorship while working on Old Testament texts, as Bible scholars have been doing for many years, or we can simply ignore such questions to see what we can learn from the texts, as biblical theologians have been doing for many more years. But when it comes to the Book of Mormon, we’re constantly being alerted to who’s writing, to the circumstances under which they’re doing it, and to the reasons with which they assume their task. It seems we’re meant to pay attention to that. (I’ll add parenthetically that there’s a very good book that introduces the three major authors of the Book of Mormon in terms of their various interests, methods, and themes. I highly recommend it: Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon.

Second: “plates taken from the plates of Nephi.” This book has to be understood as an abridgement at every turn. We’re quite used to saying that, of course, but I wonder if we take it quite seriously enough. Once we get to Mormon’s (and Moroni’s) contributions to this record, we’re dealing with a text that is meant to be indexed to an unknown and, for the moment, undiscoverable record. That said, we ought to be attentive to the fact that Mormon is a very skilled writer. The narrative he weaves is indexed to something else, but it’s also a remarkable piece of work in itself. We won’t get very far in making sense of this book if we can’t see the care and detail with which its authors put it together. Mormon (and others: Nephi and Moroni at least) are brilliantly attuned to their sources, and they construct veritable masterpieces in their creative adaptations and reworkings of their sources. We have to be careful to note the deep complexity of this book—not only in the sense that it’s filled with historical details, cultural facts, and theological developments, but also in the sense that it is a narrative woven with immense care. We’ll see if we can’t bring that out over the course of the year.

Wherefore it is an abridgement of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, written to the Lamanites, which are a remnant of the house of Israel, and also to Jew and Gentile,

Written to the Lamanites, yes? Do we pay any attention to that fact? (Do we note, for example, that the famous “promise of Moroni” is addressed specifically to the Lamanites?) The book is itself at pains to emphasize the fact that this book was written by the Nephites—as they passed out of existence—to the Lamanites who were destroying them, and that the Gentiles (making up the bulk of the Church thus far for most of its history) were only something like the mail carriers to ensure that the package gets delivered. Of course, the boon is that the Gentiles can, through their fidelity to the event that is the Book of Mormon, be inscribed within Israel. We Gentiles—and I assume that the vast majority of my readers here will be Gentiles—have the task of becoming the addressees of the Book of Mormon, but we’re not its “natural” addressees. I think that’s more than important in making sense of this book. Written for our day, sure. But not, therefore, automatically written for us. (Notice that, in one of the scriptures cited in the lesson, Nephi specifically says that it is the Gentiles who are apt to dismiss the Book of Mormon; the Lamanites, it seems, are more than willing to receive it. I think we should be careful to note that.)

Of course, there are moments in the Book of Mormon where the direct audience is the Gentiles. (The lesson cites one such scripture as well.) Moroni in particular seems to be so deeply concerned about the fact that the Gentiles might get in the way of getting the Book of Mormon to the Lamanites, that he addresses himself to the Gentiles often and at some length, always critically and by way of condemnation. But even he, interestingly, is eventually forced to leave off his address to the Gentiles when the Lord tells him, more or less, just to get over it (see Ether 12). The Book of Mormon’s message to the Gentiles, when it does emerge, is not a happy one, and we would do best, if we’re interested in what the book actually says, to move past our self-centered belief that the Book of Mormon was written for twenty-first century Americans of European descent. The book is only written to us “also,” not to us primarily. The remnant—neither Jew nor Gentile and therefore a real boon, as I argue in an article that can be found here—is the real focus of the Book of Mormon.

written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation,

I’m going to assume that these strong and infinitely demanding words speak for themselves. We’d do well to recognize their force.

written and sealed and hid up unto the Lord that they might not be destroyed, to come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof, sealed up by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by the way of Gentile, the interpretation thereof by the gift of God.

Here is the Book of Mormon’s introduction to the circumstances in which the book came forth in the nineteenth century. I don’t want to let this point become a distraction from the book’s contents—which is, it seems to me, what we usually do—but I think it deserves a word or two of attention. At any rate, note how curiously the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is described: “to come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof.” What does that mean? We might be inclined just to say that its interpretation (that is, translation) was by “the gift and power of God,” as the last part of the above quotation says (“the interpretation thereof by the gift of God”), but the phrasing in this earlier part is more complex. The book comes forth by the gift and power of God, unto its interpretation. What does that mean? For the most part, I want to leave that question open.

Note, though, how this part of the title page tells the same story twice: “written and sealed”/”sealed up by the hand of Moroni,” “and hid up unto the Lord that they might not be destroyed”/”and hid up unto the Lord,” “to come forth by the gift and power of God”/”to come forth in due time by the way of Gentile,” “unto the interpretation thereof”/”the interpretation thereof by the gift of God.” The dynamics of this repetition are odd, but I’ll leave a close reading of them for another time as well. Let me add just one other point that I think deserves attention. I think we too quickly overlook the fact that the title page begins with a word about the Book of Mormon being written “by the hand of Mormon” and further along describes the book being “sealed up by the hand of Moroni.” There are two hands here, and this tells us something—from the very beginning—about the relationship between the two editors.

An abridgement taken from the book of Ether also, which is a record of the people of Jared, which were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people when they were building a tower to get to heaven,

I think it’s of real importance that the Jaredites get as much space and attention in the title page as do the Nephites and Lamanites. The Book of Ether is anything but a tack-on to the Book of Mormon, anything but an afterthought. There is something crucially essential about the Book of Ether. The weight the title page gives to the Book of Ether depends greatly, of course, on how one decides to punctuate it. (Remember that there was little-to-no punctuation in the dictated manuscript.) We can choose to put all of the above quotation in parentheses, making it a kind of footnote to the discussion that precedes—an aside to be made before getting to the more important material right after this. Or we can punctuate it as it has been punctuated traditionally, which makes this abridgement at least a part of what aims to show the remnant their place in the covenant (as described in the remainder of the title page yet to be quoted). I don’t know which of these two ways of pointing the text is ultimately to be preferred, but I want to dedicate a word or two to determining what it might mean to say that the Book of Ether is also (or even profoundly) a question of the covenantal themes of the Book of Mormon.

What is the Book of Ether? It’s the story of a Gentile people who end up in the Promised Land. It’s presented, in other words, as a kind of ancient parallel to the modern people through whose hands the Book of Mormon is meant to pass as it comes into the hands of the Lamanites. The utter destruction of the Jaredites at the end of the Book of Ether then seems to me to be quite important: while the covenant people (the Lehites) leave a remnant behind when destruction visits them, the Gentiles described in the Book of Mormon leave no remnant at all. The point, it seems, is that the Gentiles are in a sense dispensable, while the Israelites have covenants that bind them to God, even in their rebellion. The Book of Ether, abridged by the editor with the closest eye on the Gentiles (Moroni), is meant, I believe, to say something about the precarious situation of the Gentiles, who have much to do if they wish to be a part of the covenant themselves. (All this becomes, I think, almost painfully apparent when Ether himself comes into the story. He has a good deal to say about the covenant people from Jerusalem coming to replace the Gentile Jaredites, etc.)

which is to shew unto the remnant of the house of Israel how great things the Lord hath done for their fathers, and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever,

Now we get to what we often call the “purposes” of the Book of Mormon. But notice what comes first, most prominently, and at the greatest length: the covenants. What is the Book of Mormon about first and foremost? The Abrahamic covenant, the Israelite status of the Lamanites (the addressees of the book). The point of this whole book—as much its Lehite as its Jaredite portions—is to show to the remnant of Israel (the remnant whose task is to distract the Jew/Gentile polarity that dominates the politics of the Eurocentric political world of the last days) that they are indeed a remnant. They are not cast off.

That’s the focus, and we should never lose sight of it in reading this book. I should note that it’s quite easy to lose sight of it when one finds oneself in Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman—the longest stretch of the book. The Nephites (and Lamanites) themselves seem for a couple of centuries to have themselves lost sight of the covenant, and that can lead us, if we’re not wary, into thinking that the covenant is just the unfortunate obsession of Nephi (who bothers with all that Isaiah material, etc.). But when Christ makes His visit in Third Nephi, He brings back the covenant (as well as the focus on Isaiah) with real force, and that should alert us to the central theme of the Book of Mormon, the theme that outshines every other.

and also to the convincing of the Jew and the Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.

Now this is the “purpose” we tend to focus on, perhaps especially in this era of attempted demonstrations at the deeply Christian nature of Mormonism. And I think that’s more than merely fruitful (just, for example, give a quick read to Elder Holland’s beautiful book, Christ and the New Covenant). But I think it’s crucial that we don’t mis-portray the Book of Mormon’s purposes. It isn’t first and foremost a book about Christology; it’s first and foremost a book about the covenant, addressed to the Lehite remnant. Only secondarily and, as it were, in the meanwhile is it a book that has something to say to the Jews and the Gentiles.

Of course, it should be noted what exactly it is that Jews and Gentiles are to learn from the book here. They are to learn, first, that “Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God.” Well, the Gentiles (Gentile Christians in the European tradition, anyway) generally already believe that. Perhaps one could say that the Jews have to come to believe that, but is this really the point? So it’s necessary to note the rest of the quotation: “that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” Why is that last bit so important? Because what the Jews and the Gentiles together must learn is that there is more to the history of the covenant than Jesus’ appearance in the Old World. There is more to the history of the covenant than what culminated in the Exile and the Return. There is more to the history of the covenant than the story of the Jews. Both Jew and Gentile have to recognize that there is something other than the Judeo-Christian tradition to which they must be attuned. So even here, where it sounds like the point is to say that we are to be given to Christology, the point is actually that the Jews and the Gentiles are to be focused on the covenant.

What, then, is to be made of the many sermons on Christology in the Book of Mormon? They’re real, and we’ll have to grapple with them, no? Certainly, but they are only a part of the Book of Mormon, and whatever privileged position they seem to hold is one that we have created and granted to them. At any rate, over the course of the year, I’ll have to see if I can’t say something to clarify what’s at stake in those sermons.

And now if there be fault, it be the mistake of men. Wherefore condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment seat of Christ.

The last word of the title page is one of humility and warning. I think it stands on its own.

Such is the Book of Mormon’s own self-introduction. It sets the tone nicely, I think, for the kind of reading we ought to take up when we give ourselves to the Book of Mormon.

31 Responses to “Book of Mormon Lesson #1: “The Keystone of Our Religion” (Sunday School)”

  1. Seth R. said

    Excellent points. I’m glad you put all that in big-picture perspective. I’d never considered that the Jaredites were supposed to be more of a proper parallel to gentile North Americans than the Nephites were. But it does make sense.

  2. prometheus said

    This was really interesting – a lot of points I had never considered before, and a few I had forgotten. I am eager to read the BofM with a view to the covenantal aspects of it now. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. J. Madson said

    Joseph, one note/issue.

    you write

    “At any rate, note how curiously the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is described: “to come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof.” What does that mean? We might be inclined just to say that its interpretation (that is, translation) was by “the gift and power of God,” as the last part of the above quotation says (“the interpretation thereof by the gift of God”), but the phrasing in this earlier part is more complex. The book comes forth by the gift and power of God, unto its interpretation. What does that mean? For the most part, I want to leave that question open.”

    I think its important before engaging in this endeavor, i.e. understanding the BoM, to grapple with what we have. There is a strong possibility that we do not have the Book of Mormon but instead an interpretation which is not a “translation” as us moderns would call it. Yes by the gift and power of God, more akin to channeling and magic than the science of translation but not any less “true.” Here is a good essay by Daymon Smith addressing this topic

    Click to access abridingworksessayontranslation.pdf

    • joespencer said

      Hmmm. Well, I think it’s quite clear that what we have is, precisely, “the Book of Mormon,” something published in 1830 in unmistakably nineteenth-century English. What we don’t have is the gold plates, the ur-text, ha sefer mormon, the ineffable source, or whatever you want to call it.

      But explain to me why it’s necessary to bother at all with the gap between what we have (which I’m happy to call by its English title) and what we don’t have. And explain to me the difference between an interpretation and “a ‘translation’ as us moderns would call it.” Neither of these concerns strikes me as terribly important. Regarding the first, it seems to me that every attempt to measure the gap between the Book of Mormon and its original is at best a distraction from the task of grappling with the revealed text. And regarding the second, it seems to me that such a distinction only needs to be drawn in order to decide who the ignorant and the unreflective among us (supposedly) are.

      In short, why not confess that the book comes by the gift and power of God and get to work on the text as we have it?

      • J. Madson said

        Joe, I dont disagree that we should get to the work on the text we have. The gap, in my mind, serves in informing how we view it and read it. For example, one might be predisposed to bring in metatexts and sources such as, Nephi is from egyptian nfr etc etc. My point of recognizing what we have is to stop what I think is the absurd business of trying to bring in mayan, egyptian, and other supposed historical things. We have a text. Isn’t that enough? We don’t need extra texts to explain it.

        So for me the point is that the text is all that more important. We don’t have a historical context like we do for lets say the gospel of mark. We only have the one created by the text itself. I think this is what Hardy does as well. Focus on the text itself.

      • joespencer said

        Ah, I entirely misunderstood. Your point was not to suggest that we ought to get behind the English text. In that case, I entirely agree. But why does that position need to be bolstered by an affirmation that what we have is an “interpretation,” etc.? Why, in other words, do we need to bother to look either for the ancient-and-therefore-behind-the-English-text or for the modern-and-therefore-behind-the-English-text? It seems to me that, if anything, we’d do well either not to bother with either of these “sources” or, instead, to do serious work on both of them. But I don’t see an affirmation of the distance between the Book of Mormon and the gold plates as pointing us to doing serious work on the text as it is.

      • J. Madson said

        Let me try again. I am not saying we should look for the ancient or the modern behind the english text but the text and the text alone. I think we need to be radically true to the idea that what we have came by gift of God and not try to create another text. So I would be more in the not bother with either camp and accept the text as it is.

        So how does this point me towards doing work on the text as it is? Well at a minimum it should make us realize that efforts to locate it in mesoamerica or wherever the latest locale is are folly. We have no idea where it occurred, whether place names etc are even accurate or “translated” etc. There is a real sense in such endeavors that there is something missing in the text. Its not enough. If only we can give it historical context we can make more sense of it. In particular I find this problematic because it leads to creating other texts or pseudo book of mormons as opposed to what we actually have. In this regard it leads to readings more akin to hardy (i.e. as literature) as opposed to history where we can bring in outside sources to reinterpret the text.

      • joespencer said

        Let me take another tack, because the more I reflect on this exchange, the more I realize that my problem probably lies with Hardy—or at least with a certain way of understanding Hardy.

        So, first, I think it’s too strong a claim to say that the historical approach is pure folly. I’ll agree that Book of Mormon geography is, at least so far, entirely unproductive, and it has provided very little insight into the text. But historical work on the Book of Mormon has produced a good deal of real insight. Nibley’s work, for instance, sheds real light on many aspects of the Book of Mormon. And I think that much unmistakably productive work was produced by the folks at FARMS. And anthropological work like Brant Gardner’s has been, I think it is equally clear, very productive as well.

        At the other end of the historical spectrum, I think it’s crucial to recognize how much real light the critical-but-nonetheless-historical approach has shed on the text. I mean here those in, say, the “Signature crowd” like Mark Thomas and Dan Vogel who have shown real connections between the text of the Book of Mormon and the nineteenth century culture in which it came forth. I don’t share such folks’ convictions that there is absolutely nothing ancient about the Book of Mormon, but I think they have done a remarkable job of helping us make sense of the actual text of the Book of Mormon.

        I’ll agree with you, nonetheless, that when such efforts—in either the apologetic or the critical vein—attempt to construct a systematic explanation of the Book of Mormon, they fall quite flat. And I don’t doubt that such an aim has motivated most apologists and critics. So far as that goes, I think you’re right that they see the Book of Mormon text as being, in a sense, not enough. I’m quite as critical as you are of that move. But it’s too strong a claim to say that therefore such scholars are producing nothing but folly. Their work is enlightening, helpful, productive, and encouraging—perhaps particularly when the critics and the apologists are both taken together. That’s the first point.

        Second, then: Let’s say that it’s clear, then, that the literary approach doesn’t supplement the text with an explanatory background in the way the historical approach does. And let’s say that the result is that the literary approach sheds a great deal more light on the text as such. All this, I think, is true. I think it would be hard to deny that Hardy’s book is the most enlightening book yet published on the Book of Mormon, the first of its kind, and a foundational gesture for what we can only hope is a host of studies in its wake. But for all that productivity, does Hardy not make a mistake that is essentially parallel to that of the historians?

        Let me see if I can make this clear. My worry is that the literary approach is undertaken, just as the historical approach, as a way of launching a full explanation of the text. The literary approach brackets history not simply because history lies outside the text, but because it bears the conviction that the text can only be explained when its outside is ignored. The literary approach takes the historian to task because he can’t fully explain the text, but then pretends to be on the track of doing so herself. Though the literary approach doesn’t attempt to supplement the text with a background, it nonetheless shares with the historical approach the desire to explain the text in a full or robust way. This is, in my view, quite as problematic as the historian’s will-to-explain-fully. (I recognize, of course, that neither the historian nor the literary interpreter believes it possible to achieve full explanation, but each takes that impossible end as a regulative ideal nonetheless. Each takes as the essential task to get always closer to full understanding of the text.)

        Hence, a third and final point. It seems to me that the task of interpreting scripture is not to come to a full explanation, but to weave the text—faithfully interpreted—into a dialectical engagement with the demands of charity in the present, thus opening up the possibility of hoping for a better world. Hardyesque insights are necessary for this task, as are the insights of the historians of all stripes—and as are the insights of every other approach to the text. Every way we can open up the text onto an infinite multiplicity of meanings will be fruitful, because those multiplying meanings will allow us to get seriously to work on the tasks charity sets us.

        In a word, I think it is necessary to critique both historical and non-historical approaches on the same grounds. Both miss the purpose of scripture, taking it to be something to be explained, when it is something issuing a call to repentance. To shift from Nibley to Hardy is not to come any closer to the power of the text; it is only to provide oneself with a different form of academic responsibility, to assume another form of caution. It too yields insights, but scripture is about a good deal more than insight, a good deal more than explanation.

      • J. Madson said

        I would say that the literary approach is superior in this regard, it deals with what we actually have. I would have no problem bringing in the outside as I think any study of the NT in fact demands. We have a world in which it occurred and it is very important to place it in that historical context.

        The literary approach, as I practice it and understand it, does nor mean the text can only be explained absent the outside but that given the fact we know little about the outside we should be very wary of such efforts. I also think the manner of the textual transmission suggests that story authority instead of history is perhaps where we should put our emphasis.

        I would not disagree with your third points but let me speak to the call to repentance. I agree but I dont see literary analysis as simply seeking insights but in its best form trying to understand the nature and message of that call to repentance. This is why for example, I come to the conclusions I do in the video I posted on the other post. I think the authority of the story is a call to repentance. I take that call very serious.

      • Clark said

        We have a text. Isn’t that enough?

        I don’t think it is. Texts acquire much of their meaning through context. The Book of Mormon is interesting in that we have an exceedingly vague context. We know there is some connection to 6th century Hebrew culture but we’re not too sure what or how much. (And we’re fairly ignorant of 6th century Hebrew culture too) I think questions of context should be held fairly tentatively. But I do think asking those sorts of questions are important.

        What typically happens when we neglect questions of context is that we unconsciously bring them in without being aware of how they are determining our readings. Much better to bring to the forefront the different ways to read the text, why we might read them that way, and be aware of of the range of meanings. (My experience is when people just deal with the text the context brought in via this hidden exegesis is a 20th century middle class American context which can be quite distorting)

      • Clark said

        So, first, I think it’s too strong a claim to say that the historical approach is pure folly. I’ll agree that Book of Mormon geography is, at least so far, entirely unproductive, and it has provided very little insight into the text.

        I think that’s far too harsh a view. If nothing else the concern with geography has led people to read the text much more carefully and notice things like weather questions related to war, distances and much else. Has it provided firm reasons to accept one particular map over an other? No. But until actual ruins which can be tied to the text are found that’s never going to happen. However I think the concern with geography has profoundly changed the way the text is read. It’s because of Sorenson that we have moved away from treating the Nephites like quasi-Romans and the Lamanites like eastern American Indians. It really has led to much closer and careful readings which have illuminated a lot of neglected passages and cleared away a lot of quite bad readings with dangerous theological implications.

        I also find the range of readings opened up by worrying about the question of place are extremely helpful. As I said earlier when we try to avoid questions of context we simply get bad naive assumptions of context brought in without being noticed. It’s much better to at least make our ignorance explicit and see what the possible ways to read the text are.

      • joespencer said

        Just to clarify, Clark: I probably should have said “archaeological work” rather than “geographical work.” What I think has been unproductive is attempting to nail down an exact location, etc. I do think that geographical work like Sorenson’s Mormon’s Map has been productive, and I’ve especially found anthropological work—especially in the form it has taken in Gardner’s work—to be helpful.

        And J. Madsen: I suppose I’d say that if what you mean by literary analysis is that, then you’ve made the step that Hardy doesn’t—and perhaps can’t, because of his audience and setting. I think we’re in agreement for the most part—except, of course, for the fact that I do think that historical work has helped and will continue to help us clarify the Book of Mormon’s call to repentance as well as literary work.

      • Clark Goble said

        Ah, yeah. Archaeology hasn’t been productive as such in terms of figuring the Book of Mormon out. Nor should we expect it to unless we’re so lucky as to actually find Nephite writings. I suspect we could look at Nephite ruins and not even know they were Nephite. (IMO) Where I think archaeology might be helpful is getting us to rethink some of the issues of swords or the like. But honestly that’s kind of to the side of the text in many ways. Although I am glad the church is using meso-American swords in more illustrations rather than roman swords – although sadly far too many of those appear. Now if we could get more to rethink the traditional (and somewhat racist) view of Lamanites as dark Indians and Nephties as quasi-scandanavia pale skinned people. Probably from our perspective they’d be pretty indistinguishable and I suspect the Lamanite markings were literal tattoos, paints and other decorations. (Jews from the time of Nephi would have been considerably darker than scandanavians as well – sadly most of our art pictures them as scandanavian rather than native central American or even near eastern)

      • Lisa said

        Goble said: “they’d be pretty indistinguishable and I suspect the Lamanite markings were literal tattoos”

        You gotta be kidding; when was the last time you read the Book of Mormon?

  4. rameumptom said

    Joe, great comments. I linked this lesson onto the FUTW blog’s Book of Mormon Sunday School lessons, so people can find it.

  5. Matt W. said

    Joe: I find this lesson to be begging the question of “who are the lamanites?” If you are going to set up such a clear distinction of it being written for them, in our day, it would be useful to know which of us are lamanites and which are gentiles. But since there is no practical way of knowing, perhaps it is only useful to think of these groups as archtypes, rather than specific entities. I have been a gentile, I have been a jew, I have been a lamanites, and I have been a nephite. It can be profitable to me understand the difference between these archtypes, but I think it is problematic to disassociate them from us and thus deprive them the value of applying to us.

    Secondarily, the book of Mormon is about covenants and also Jesus Christ. I think the ordering of the two does not signify priority, and in truth, I believe the Book of Mormon makes the case that the two are endlessly coupled one to another.

    • Clark said

      I think this is one great example of where the question of place and people really does matter. It is precisely in the prophecies that we have an indexical relationship that breaks us out of merely reading the text as literature. In that question we’re forced to ask the question of “who” which presupposes the question of “where.” How one answers that dramatically changes the meaning of the text.

    • robf said

      I’ve been mulling over a “What is a Lamanite?” post for awhile. So stay tuned :-)

    • BOMG said

      I second Clark. The identity of the Lamanites is not difficult to ascertain if prophesy is analyzed. The great land prophesy of a New Jerusalem being built on ancient BoM land is key for identifying both a. BoM land, and b. Lamanites,

      ALL so called authorities on the BoM have overlooked the timing of events – that the New Jerusalem would be in place prior to the BoM coming forth (3 Nephi 21:22-26). Thus, the N.J. was in place before 1828.

      Once you identify what the N.J. is, the Lamanite answer is not far behind. [edited by admin]

      [Comment edited 29 Dec 2011 11:30PM by admin]

      • Clark Goble said

        I don’t see how you can read those verses implying that. I talks about the converted gentiles assisting in the building of the New Jerusalem. But the gentiles weren’t converted until after the coming of the Book of Mormon. Further the scriptures had come to the Lamanites earlier in the chapter.

    • Karen said

      While we can’t always know, as you say, who is or isn’t a Lamanite for sure, I think the question of lineage and seed is very important to the promises in the Book of Mormon. Note that Lehi tells Joseph that his seed has a promise, as do all of the ancient Joseph’s seed, that their family line will be preserved until the end of the earth. I think the Book of Mormon is pretty literal then about this book being directed at the Lamanites alive at the time it is translated.

      And while many of us are also descended from Israel (or adopted through ordinances) we are not the primary group aimed at here. When a group of Israel goes astray, God finds a way to restore them. This is the message of Isaiah over and over again (which must be why Nephi likes him so much!). In the Nephite/Lamanite case, he had Nephites write a book to the Lamanites to restore them. Lehi was promised that even if Laman and Lemuel and their kids didn’t keep the commandments, he would preserve their seed.

      That’s not to say this isn’t a book of interest to us too! Whether we are other Israelites (the Lamanite’s cousins, if you will), or Gentiles, this book allows us to remember the covenants of the Lord, learn of Christ, and participate in the work of teaching the gospel – to Lamanites as well as to everyone else!

  6. BrianJ said

    I second Matt’s question. There are two ways to consider the Lamanites who are the target audience: 1) the literal descendants of the people who destroyed Moroni et al, or 2) the people who would come to be defined as “Lamanites” in the way that Nephites throughout the course of the BoM defined their opponents; namely, anyone who lived in the land and wasn’t a Nephite.

    The first definition is the most troublesome, seeing that the BoM violates this definition repeatedly (see option 2), and because it’s impossible to identify anyone living today as a literal descendant—I would not, in fact, be surprised if no literal descendants of that era (let alone literal descendants of Laman or Lemuel) still survive. Thus, what is to be made of option 1?

    That leaves me with option 2, which is so flexible that it loses its distinctiveness: anyone who doesn’t believe is a Lamanite. Or, as Matt says, “I have been gentile…I have been a Lamanite.” The only distinction left is that Lamanites are those rebellious people who live in the Americas*.

    (*Although, this also is problematic. Is it the entire Americas or just the portion promised to Lehi’s seed; i.e., the promised land? Once again, since we can’t know those boundaries, it’s hard to do much with them.)

    Perhaps the point then is to approach the BoM as if one really were a Lamanite—as “Lamanite” as Lamoni, Tubaloth, or Zerahemnah—or in other words, a covenant person who fell out of covenant due to tradition, personal rebellion, etc.

  7. joespencer said

    Matt and Brian:

    I agree that, unfortunately, the follow-up question becomes “Who are the Lamanites?” I don’t like that question for a whole host of reasons. But I wonder if we have to go that route. I want to read the Book of Mormon in a way that what is important is not that this Gentile hand the Book of Mormon to that Lamanite, but rather that we learn how Nephi’s (and then Christ’s) “remnant theology” distracts us from all such questions of identity. In the end, I think Nephi’s focus is on the way the category of the Lamanite (or rather, what he more consistently calls “the remnant of the house of Israel”—that seems to me quite important) distracts polarities that we otherwise use to carve up the world into problematic communities all at odds with each other. What I’ve got in mind is outlined in the article I linked to above in connection with the theme of the remnant.

    And on Matt’s second point:

    I agree here as well. I don’t mean to suggest that the covenant is somehow more important than Christ. I mean, rather, (1) to make clear that the Nephites understood the whole mission of the Messiah to be contextualized by the “more general” issue of the covenant; (2) to begin to gesture toward the fact that, as I believe, the Book of Mormon downplays Christology as compared with covenantal theology; and (3) to attempt to reverse the tide to whatever extent necessary to free the Book of Mormon to be read in terms of the covenant it so frequently privileges, and not only in a kind facile devotional style inflected by a mild Christology. At any rate, I couldn’t agree more that one of the major aims of the Book of Mormon is to suggest that Christ and the covenant are coupled in every way—indeed, that’s clearly the point of what the Jew and Gentile are to learn from the book: that Jesus’ being the Christ is as much a question of His role in the covenant.

  8. NathanG said

    Nice introduction.

    I’ve wondered just what “written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation” means. Consider two possible options.

    The Book of Mormon is the word of God, as such the book is basically God speaking to us, and the writers are little more than someone taking dictation for God. In fact, written by way of commandment gets down to every word that was written was commanded to be included. When it came to writing on the plates, they had no laid out plans what to write, it was all just given to them.

    The authors of the Book of Mormon were commanded to preserve a written record of their history, as well as their teachings. The authors were righteous men who had the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, which aided them in their selection of stories and sermons to ensure were included in the text, but the task of studying, collecting, praying, and writing were ultimately on them. They may have even written mutliple versions on a perishable medium before committing something to the plates. God has then allowed this written record to become a medium by which we can study and receive the word of God.

    I’m trying to exagerrate both sides a little to show contrast to what I really wonder. Are the scriptures a dictated word of God or a tool for us to obtain the word of God? Does it even matter?

    • GaryH said

      A passage as simple as 3 Nephi 28:36-37 demonstrates that Mormon is clearly not taking a dictation. Nor does he appear to have prepared a draft. Mormon clearly planned what to include, and whether to paraphrase, give commentary, or copy speeches verbatim.
      It’s clear that many were commanded to keep records, either directly by God (eg Nephi, Lehi) or by their predecessor record-keeper (eg Alma to Helaman). And it’s clear that the source material is a product of both the spirit of prophecy and the spirit of revelation on the part of the various contributors (see Alma 5:46-47 in particular). However, I believe that the context of this statement on Mormon’s title page makes it clear that he considers the abridgment itself to be written by way of commandment to him, and by the spirit prophecy and revelation as manifested through himself.
      I’d be interested in discussing the difference and relationship between the spirit of prophecy and the spirit of revelation, with the view to understanding how they were each employed in Mormon’s abridgment. I’m not sure if anyone’s ever written about this, and I’d be glad to share my own compiled thoughts in a separate post, but it’s clear throughout the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants they are distinct gifts, and they may contribute different perspectives not only on the source of testimony but on the manner of teaching (or in this case record-keeping).

  9. BOMG said

    That the geography has been “entirely unproductive” should be qualified – to those looking outside of Colonial America. To us who approached the geography first by identifying where prophecy was fulfilled, we found it entirely productive.

    Mesotheorists focus on culture because they have nowhere else to turn. Clark and Sorenson are both anthropologists.

  10. Rameumptom said

    I doubt Nephi knew anything about DNA sampling. That said, as I’ve studied the Book of Mormon and the views of Joseph Smith and early Church leaders, they all seem to accept the concept that all Native Americans are Lamanites. This seems to suggest an acceptance of cultural adoption into that line, given that it is highly unlikely that Lehi’s DNA flows through every or even most Native Americans from Canada to Chile.

    Today, LDS call themselves as being from X tribe (usually Ephraim) of Israel. Yet, most of us probably do not have any Israelite DNA in us. Instead, on receiving a patriarchal blessing that says “you are from the tribe of Ephraim”, we tend to accept that it is a DNA thing, rather than an adoption into the culture of the Church and of spiritual Israel.

    As political commentator Michael Medved has joked in the past, only Mormons consider him a Gentile. Again, it is a cultural definition at play here, not one of DNA.

  11. joespencer said

    These are nice points, Rameumptom. I entirely agree.

  12. kirkcaudle said

    For anyone that is interested, here is a nice little piece on the authorship of the title page. Moroni? Mormon? Both?


    This article claims:

    “Ultimately, all who have taken the time to comment on or study the issue of authorship of the title page would likely be happy with either Mormon or Moroni as the author, or even both as coauthors. However, when the information presented in this article is joined with what was recognized by earlier writers, perhaps we might now consider the question answered definitively: Moroni himself wrote the title page while faithfully echoing what he had learned from his father, Mormon.”

  13. Clark Goble said

    Rameumptom – I know early members including Joseph accepted all Indians as Lamanites. I’m not sure that’s justified – although even if it did take place in MesoAmerica there were lots of emigration to the US by various groups. Depending how things mixed it wouldn’t be hard to assume some heritage from the group designated as Lamanites that Mormon fought with. I know quite a few tribes from the south east and south west US have mesoAmerican contacts.

    As you say though, I think we should be careful assuming the prophecies are about DNA. I just don’t buy that. And of course if there were pre-Lehites then a small group would be highly probably have their DNA swamped in this larger community.

    BOMG, the only prophetic location we can be sure of is where the plates were buried. However it seems just as likely Moroni went there because of where Joseph Smith would be raised as to assume Joseph was raised where Moroni already lived. The bigger issue for those espousing a Great Lakes geography is that it has many, many more problems lining up with the technology the Book of Mormon describes than southern Mexico – Guatemala does. So if archaeology demonstrates anything (and I agree it’s not a lot) it’s the implausibility of the Great Lakes region. Which in turn means we ought to reconsider the assumptions of how early Mormons read it.

  14. […] that the consequence of all this is to get three distinct groups (I’m thinking here of what I wrote about the title page of the Book of Mormon in my first set of lesson notes) to take up a certain relationship to, of all things, the Bible. The remnant is to learn certain […]

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