Nephi’s words in First Nephi and Second Nephi don’t just tell us about events that took place. Some of his words are editorial comments telling us how and why those events were recorded. Such editorial comments, or asides, are interspersed throughout his writings. They explain the organization of his record, the language in which it’s written, the plates on which it’s engraved, and the written sources it’s based upon. He also devotes a substantial part of his writing, particularly in the latter part of his work, to doctrinal teachings. The meaning of Nephi’s words becomes more clear as we recognize that they include not only stories, but also editorial comments and doctrinal teachings. Also, when we separate Nephi’s editorial comments and doctrinal teachings from his stories, we can see the structure of the stories more clearly. This structure includes an abridgment made by Nephi of his father’s written record followed by Nephi’s own story.
Nephi mentions his abridgment of his father’s record in an editorial comment found in 1 Nephi 1:16-17. He says “I Nephi do not make a full account of the things which my father hath written … But I shall make an account of my proceedings in my days. Behold, I make an abridgment of the record of my father upon plates which I have made with mine own hands. Wherefore after I have abridged the record of my father, then will I make an account of mine own life” (All Book of Mormon quotations are from Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009]).
This editorial comment suggests that Nephi is, at the time he writes the comment, engaged in writing the abridgment. The ongoing nature of this effort is suggested by the present tense of two verbs. Nephi says “I do not make a full account” and “I make an abridgment.” His comment also indicates that he hasn’t yet begun his account of his own life, but that this personal account will follow the abridgment of his father’s record. With respect to the account of his own life, he says “I shall make” and “then will I make.” Based on this editorial comment, we should expect to find that Nephi’s writings begin with an abridgment of the record of his father and then, when the abridgment ends, we should expect to find the beginning of Nephi’s personal account of his own life.
Lehi as the Main Character
But, as we all know, First Nephi begins with the words “I Nephi.” If the first story comes from Lehi’s record, one would expect the initial words to be about Lehi and not about Nephi. The words “I Nephi” can cause confusion unless we realize that they are the beginning of an editorial comment. These words tell us about the story. They are comparable to the information we find on the inside of the dust jacket of a modern hardback book. In the first three verses of First Nephi, Nephi identifies himself as the author and tells us why and how he is writing his record. The actual story begins in verse four and it is, indeed, a story about Nephi’s father, Lehi. Because Nephi, not Lehi, is writing this account, it’s written in the third person (referring to Lehi either by name, as “my father,” or with the pronouns he, him and his), but Nephi’s father is clearly the main character in this initial story.
In fact, if we omit Nephi’s editorial comments about his purpose and process of writing (1 Nephi 1:1-3; 1 Nephi 1:16, 17, the introductory phrase in 18; and the second sentence of 1 Nephi 1:20), we see that the story in the first chapter and a half of First Nephi never mentions Nephi by name. It refers to Lehi’s family members only when they are important to Lehi’s story. This initial story names Lehi four times, refers to him 14 times as “my father,” and refers to him at least 75 times using the pronouns he, him and his. This story is Nephi’s abridgment of his father’s record.
Nephi as the Main Character of His Own Story
In 1 Nephi 2:16, we find the words “I Nephi” for the first time outside of Nephi’s editorial comments. This is the beginning of Nephi’s first person account of his own life. His story begins shortly after Lehi has taken his family into the wilderness by the Red Sea. From this point on, the story follows Nephi and not Lehi. While this new story mentions Lehi from time to time, it does so only when he is important to Nephi’s story. Nephi is the main character in this new story. Because the main character is also the author, it is generally written in the first person (with Nephi referring to himself as “I Nephi” and with words like me and my).
Main Characters in the Preface
In the preface to Nephi’s record, which is part of the ancient record, we see this same change in story at this same point in the account. The first sentence in the preface introduces Lehi’s family, then Lehi is clearly the main character in the next two sentences. They tell us that Lehi prophesies to the people, that his life is in danger, and that the Lord warns him to leave Jerusalem. He then takes his family into the wilderness. These two sentences name only Lehi, who is clearly their main character.
Then, just after Lehi takes his family into the wilderness, we have a new story with a new main character. Lehi is never named again in the preface. And Nephi isn’t simply a younger brother accompanying his older brothers back to Jerusalem. He is the leader who “taketh his brethren and returns to the land of Jerusalem.” We then read six sentences that continue the story using the pronouns they and their in continued reference to Nephi and his brethren (and, by inference, to others in the group). After that, once again Nephi’s role as the leader of his brothers is inherent in his description of brothers who rebel against him. Nephi, the leader, “confoundeth them and buildeth a ship.” Thus, the preface reflects the same two stories we find in the text itself. In the first, which ends after takes the family into the wilderness, Lehi is the main character. In the second, which starts at that point, Nephi is the leader and main character.
The First Event in Nephi’s Own Record
The first event that Nephi includes in his own story may help us understand why he selected this point in time as the beginning of what he calls “my days” (1 Nephi 1:17). Even though Nephi was still “exceeding young” when Lehi took his family into the wilderness, it was at this tender age that the Lord “did visit me and did soften my heart” (1 Nephi 2:16). Nephi writes this account to fulfill a commandment “that the ministry and the prophecies—the more plain and precious parts of them—should be written upon these plates” (1 Nephi 19:3). It’s likely that Nephi felt that this event—when the Lord visited him—marked the beginning of his ministry.
A Change in Perspective
After Nephi ends his abridgment of Lehi’s record and begins to tell his own story, Nephi’s story continues to include Lehi’s revelations, words, and actions. However, there is an essential difference between the manner in which Lehi’s revelations and other actions are related in the abridgment and in Nephi’s account of his own life. In the abridgment, Lehi’s revelations, words, and actions are described as they occur. This is what one would expect in an abridgment of an account written from Lehi’s perspective. After the abridgment ends, Nephi is telling the story himself. This means that Nephi’s revelations are described as they occur, but Lehi’s revelations are no longer described as they occur, but as Nephi becomes aware of them. Nephi often learns about them when Lehi tells Nephi (and others) about them. This is what one would expect in an account written from Nephi’s perspective.
For instance, the account of Lehi’s vision of the pillar of fire (see 1 Nephi 1:6) comes to us through the abridgment of Lehi’s record. This account describes the vision as it takes place. It doesn’t wait until Lehi tells his family about the vision and, in fact, never says whether he tells them or not. On the other hand, the account of Lehi’s dream in which the Lord commands him to send Nephi and his brothers back to Jerusalem for the plates of brass (see 1 Nephi 3:1-6) comes to us through Nephi’s own account. This account doesn’t describe the occurrence of this dream (from Lehi’s perspective), but rather, we learn about it after it has taken place, as Lehi tells Nephi about the dream.
Similarly, the account of Lehi’s dream in which the Lord commands him to “take his family and depart into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:2) is given in the abridgment of Lehi’s record. This abridgment describes the dream itself (as it took place) and tells us that Lehi obeyed the Lord. (See 1 Nephi 2:1-4.) We assume, but are never told, that Lehi tells his family about this dream. In contrast, the account of Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life is given in Nephi’s record. This account doesn’t tell us the story of Lehi’s reception of the vision, but rather it tells the story of how Nephi (and his family) learn about the vision. It begins, “And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness, he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream, or in other words, I have seen a vision” (1 Nephi 8:2, emphasis added). By the time Lehi speaks to his family, the dream has already taken place. Nephi’s account doesn’t give us a first-hand account of this dream as it occurs to Lehi because Nephi, who made this part of the record, wasn’t there at that time. Nephi tells us what he knows from his own experience—he learns about the vision when his father describes it to the family. This is how we learn about virtually all of Lehi’s subsequent revelatory experiences.
Three Events with Less Certain Perspectives
Three of the events that Nephi describes in his own story don’t follow this pattern as clearly as one might wish. The first of these is Nephi’s description of how Lehi searches the plates of brass (1 Nephi 5:10-16). This description appears to be all about Lehi again. Nephi doesn’t tell us that Lehi told the family he had searched these plates, but simply describes Lehi doing so. It seems likely, but isn’t clear from the record, that Nephi was with Lehi while Lehi searched the plates, so Nephi is giving his own first person account of Lehi’s studies. After Nephi gives us this description, he summarizes it as follows, “thus far I and my father had … obtained the record which the Lord had commanded us and searched them and found that they were desirable” (1 Nephi 5:20-21, emphasis added).
Similarly, after Lehi has searched the plates of brass, Nephi tells us that Lehi prophesies about his seed. However, Nephi’s account doesn’t specify how Nephi learned about this prophecy. The account simply says that when Lehi saw certain things on the plates of brass, “he was filled with the Spirit and began to prophesy” (1 Nephi 5:17). Again, it’s possible that Nephi was present as Lehi gave this prophecy. As Nephi describes the prophecy, he indicates that it was spoken in his presence, using the phrase “he said that” (1 Nephi 5:19), to describe a portion of the prophecy.
The third event in Nephi’s own record that appears to describe Lehi’s own experience (as it occurs) rather than describing Nephi’s experience as he heard his father describe the experience (after the fact) involves Lehi’s revelation in which the Lord commands Lehi’s sons to return again to Jerusalem to invite Ishmael to join them in the wilderness. In this instance, it appears that Nephi’s record is simply incomplete. Nephi tells us that the Lord commanded Lehi that his sons “should again return into the land of Jerusalem” to get Ishmael, but never tells us how Nephi (and his brothers) learned about this revelation. Nephi simply tells us that the sons returned to Jerusalem (1 Nephi 7:2-3). Obviously, the fact that Lehi’s sons went to Jerusalem means that Lehi told them about this revelation, but the account doesn’t specifically describe that conversation.
Despite the fact that Nephi’s description of these specific events might have been more clear, there can be little doubt about where Nephi ends his abridgment of his father’s record and begins his own record. This transition takes place at the beginning of 1 Nephi 2:16. At this point, the account no longer comes to us from Lehi’s perspective. At this point, Nephi begins to tell his own story in his own words and from his own perspective. The fact that the preface stops telling us Lehi’s story and begins telling us Nephi’s story at this same point further supports this conclusion.
As Nephi continues his own record, he describes two journeys that Nephi and his brothers take back to Jerusalem. Clearly, the description we have of these journeys does not come from Lehi’s account. Lehi wasn’t there. If Lehi’s account mentions these journeys, the story would be written from his perspective—that of someone who learns about them from his sons upon their return. Instead, we read about these journeys as they occur, but we learn about the anxiety that Lehi and Sariah experience while their sons are away from Nephi’s perspective—that of someone who learns about them upon his return.
A Potentially Confusing Passage
After describing these journeys and recounting how Lehi shares his vision of the Tree of Life and then encourages Laman and Lemuel to repent, Nephi pauses his story for a lengthy editorial comment (see all of 1 Nephi 9). In this extended comment, perhaps similar to a sidebar in a modern publication, Nephi discusses the two sets of plates he has made (which we refer to as the large and small plates of Nephi) and the purpose for making each of them. After this lengthy aside, Nephi writes the following:
“And now I Nephi proceed to give an account upon these plates of my proceedings and my reign and ministry. Wherefore to proceed with mine account, I must speak somewhat of the things of my father and also of my brethren. For behold, it came to pass that after my father had made an end of speaking the words of his dream and also of exhorting them to all diligence [he began to teach my brothers more things].” (1 Nephi 10:1)
This language can be read either as transitional language used to return to Nephi’s story about “my proceedings and my reign and ministry” after a lengthy editorial comment or it can be read as an introduction placed at the beginning of such a story. Because this language can be read in these two ways, we will review its content and context to determine which reading is more likely.
The Term Proceed to Give
In some ways, this language is similar to the language used by Moroni to introduce his abridgment of the record of the Jaredites. Moroni begins that account saying “And now I Moroni proceed to give an account of those ancient inhabitants which were destroyed by the hand of the Lord upon the face of this north country” (Ether 1:1, emphasis added). When the verb proceed is followed by the infinitive of another verb, such as to give, it means “to go on to do something” (OED, proceed, 4b). This meaning can apply either as one begins to do something or as one resumes doing something started earlier.
As we’ve seen, in Moroni’s introduction to the account of the Jaredites, he uses this term as he begins this account. However, in another passage, Moroni uses this same term to resume his account about the Jaredites after a long editorial comment. In Ether 6:1, after departing from the Jaredite story to discuss the sealed portion of the record, the three witnesses, and other things, Moroni returns to his account of the Jaredites with the words “and now I Moroni proceed to give the record of Jared and his brother” (emphasis added). The context shows that Moroni isn’t beginning the record of Jared and his brother at this point. He is continuing it. Similarly, Mormon, after pausing his abridgment of the history of the Nephites to tell his future readers a little about himself, prepares to resume that history by saying “And now I make an end of my saying which is of myself and proceed to give my account of the things which hath been before me” (3 Nephi 5:19, emphasis added). The context shows that Mormon uses the term proceed to give to continue, not to begin, this historical account.
The Term Proceed With
Because the term proceed to give can be used in two ways, one must consider the context to determine whether it’s being used to introduce a new account or to resume an ongoing account after a long pause. In 1 Nephi 10:1, this context includes the fact that Nephi uses this term after a long pause in which he discusses the two sets of plates. In addition, the context includes another term—proceed with. When the verb proceed is followed by the word with, the verb proceed usually means “to continue or go on with what has been started; to advance from the point already reached, go further, pursue one’s course, to go on after interruption, to renew or resume action or speech” (OED, proceed, 4a). The term proceed with is used three other times in the Book of Mormon. Each time, it’s used with this meaning. In each case, the author tells us he will proceed with an effort he had started earlier, after he has interrupted his own effort by discussing a tangential topic.
For instance, Moroni uses the term proceed with twice in the Book of Ether. In each case, he is resuming his account of the Jaredites, advancing from the point already reached, after pausing to give us other information. In Ether 2:13, after interrupting his account to discuss the choice nature of the promised land and to warn his latter-day readers to repent, he resumes his account saying “and now I proceed with my record” (emphasis added). Again in Ether 9:1, he has interrupted his account to warn about a latter-day secret combination. After concluding this warning, he resumes his account of the Jaredites, saying, “And now I Moroni proceed with my record” (emphasis added).
Similarly, in addition to the instance we’re discussing, Nephi uses the term proceed with on one other occasion. In that case, Nephi first tells us that he is giving us a prophecy by saying, “I give unto you a prophecy according to the spirit which is in me” (2 Nephi 25:4), but before actually sharing the prophecy itself, Nephi takes some time to explain that he is not including in his record certain teachings “after the manner of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:4-6). After giving this explanation, Nephi returns to the prophecy he has mentioned, but not yet given, saying “but behold, I proceed with mine own prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:7, emphasis added). He then resumes his efforts to share the prophecy mentioned earlier.
A Repeated Story Segment
In addition to the term proceed with, the context of 1 Nephi 10:1 contains other words that confirm the fact that Nephi is resuming an ongoing account, rather than beginning a new one. Sometimes, after an author pauses his account to discuss a tangential matter, the resumption begins with a brief reminder of the point at which the story had been paused. For instance, Before Moroni had begun his long editorial comment that continues to the end of Ether 5, he had explained how the Lord had touched the Brother of Jared’s stones. After his long discussion of other topics, Moroni explains that he will now “proceed to give the record of Jared and his brother” (Ether 6:1). He then repeats enough of that earlier story to remind his readers where it had been paused, saying, “after that the Lord had prepared the stones which the brother of Jared had carried up into the mount,” (Ether 6:2) and then he continues with his account.
In 1 Nephi 10:1-2, Nephi uses similar language. He has already told us in 1 Nephi 8:36-38 that Lehi had finished speaking about the dream and exhorting his brethren. However, after his long explanatory comment, as he tells us that he is proceeding with his account, he repeats this information to remind us of the point at which he is resuming the story, saying “after my father had made an end of speaking the words of his dream and also of exhorting them to all diligence,” (1 Nephi 10:2) and then Nephi resumes his account of his life from that point.
Although the phrase proceed to give can be used either when a new account begins or when a continuing account resumes, in the context of 1 Nephi 10:1 it appears that Nephi is resuming, and not beginning, the account of his life and ministry. Therefore, the language in 1 Nephi 10:1 is consistent with all the other language we’ve discussed and with the conclusion that Nephi’s abridgment of his father’s record ends with 1 Nephi 2:15 and Nephi’s first person account of his life and ministry begins in 1 Nephi 2:16 with his account of a visit from the Lord.
In a legal trial, after evidence has been presented to suggest that a person did something wrong, that person’s counsel will often present new evidence to show that the person actually did nothing wrong. This new evidence can be called rehabilitating evidence. Its purpose is to restore (rehabilitate) the person’s reputation or character and explain why inferences of wrongdoing should not be made from the initial evidence.
I Know of No Revelation … Neither Prophecy
Abinadom’s brief account in the Book of Omni, which doesn’t record any new revelation or prophecy, includes these words: “I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy. Wherefore that which is sufficient is written” (Omni 1:11, emphasis added. All Book of Mormon quotations are from Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009]). Taken alone, these words from Abinadom may leave some readers wondering about his experience with, or belief in, ongoing revelation. Is he telling us that he doesn’t know of any revelation or prophecy that was received in his own day? No. This is not what he means. Thankfully, the rehabilitating evidence, which we will review below, is competent and convincing. Abinadom was well acquainted with—and obedient to—ongoing revelation.
Abinadom, like his ancestors before him, was charged with the task of making a record on the small plates of Nephi of “preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying” (Jacob 1:4). However, as the room on the small plates diminished, those who had received this charge were faced with the dilemma of how to record such revelation without filling up the small plates. This became more difficult as the remaining room on the small plates got smaller and smaller. Every account on the small plates before that of Abinadom is shorter than the preceding one. The account of Abinadom’s father, Chemish, contains only 69 words. It would have been almost impossible for Abinadom to record any significant revelation in so few words. Before we discuss how Abinadom resolved the dilemma of balancing his charge to record important revelations with the limited space remaining on the small plates, let’s look ahead at how his son Amaleki solved the same dilemma in his day.
Amaleki had no descendant to whom he could confer the small plates. He knew, however, that king Benjamin, who was charged with keeping the other, large plates, was “a just man before the Lord” (Omni 1:25), so he delivered the small plates to him. It can be inferred that Amaleki trusted king Benjamin to record on the large plates the kinds of spiritual things that Amaleki’s family was charged with recording on the small plates. It appears that Amaleki’s trust in king Benjamin was well founded. Mormon’s abridgment of the large-plate record kept in king Benjamin’s day is filled with the type of preaching, revelation and prophesying that Amaleki and his ancestors were charged with recording.
Before turning the small plates over to king Benjamin, Amaleki filled the remaining space on the small plates with an account that included revelations, prophesies and sacred events that had taken place during his own life. Providentially, his relatively lengthy account (compared with the accounts of his father, grandfather, and great grandfather) describes how his father, Abinadom, responded well to important revelations.
Amaleki tells us that he “was born in the days of Mosiah” (Omni 1:23). This means that Amaleki and Benjamin (who later became king) were contemporaries—they were both born in the days of Mosiah. It also means that their fathers, Abinadom and king Mosiah, were contemporaries. Realizing this, we can see that much of Amaleki’s entry describes events that took place during the adult life of his father, Abinadom. As a member of king Mosiah’s generation, Abinadom would have been among the obedient adult Nephites who, when king Mosiah was “warned of the Lord that he should flee out of the land of Nephi,” were willing to “hearken unto the voice of the Lord [and] depart out of the land with him into the wilderness” (Omni 1:12).
Many Preachings and Prophesyings
Therefore, Abinadom was with king Mosiah as “they were led by many preachings and prophesyings, and they were admonished continually by the word of God, and they were led by the power of his arm through the wilderness, until they came down into the land which is called the land of Zarahemla” (Omni 1:13). It is in this context, then, a context filled with ongoing revelation and prophesy, that we must read Abinadom’s brief testimony. This context makes it clear that Abinadom was well aware of—and followed—many revelations and prophesies received in his own day.
The Other Plates
Because we know from Amaleki’s account that Abinadom knew of—and obeyed—many revelations and prophesies received in his own day, Abinadom’s reference to the record that was “engraven upon plates, which is had by the kings according to the generations” (Omni 1:11) takes on new importance. Just as Abinadom’s son Amaleki would rely on king Benjamin to include the future spiritual history of the Nephites on the large plates, Abinadom apparently learned for himself that king Mosiah’s large-plate record included an account of the revelations and prophesies received in his day. Because space on the small plates was so limited, Abinadom’s brief testimony written upon the small plates doesn’t record these revelations and prophesies. However, it reassures us that they were, in fact, recorded on the large plates, so he was faithful to his charge to see that these sacred things were recorded on plates. He says, “the record of this people is engraven upon plates, which is had by the kings according to the generations. And I know of no revelation save that which has been written, neither prophecy. Wherefore that which is sufficient is written” (Omni 1:11, emphasis added).
We don’t know whether king Mosiah personally knew Abinadom, one of his righteous followers. We do know, however, that the two were both record keepers. Abinadom kept the small plates of Nephi, while Mosiah kept the large plates. We also know that their sons became sufficiently acquainted with each other for Amaleki to know that king Benjamin was “a just man before the Lord” (Omni 1:25) and for king Benjamin to accept the small plates from Amaleki.
Although Mosiah was in charge of the large plates, it’s not clear that he always wrote on them personally. Three generations earlier, Jarom noted that the large plates contained “the writings of the kings, or that which they caused to be written” (Jarom 1:14). If the practice of sometimes delegating to others the actual work of engraving on plates continued in Abinadom’s day, it’s not out of the question that Abinadom, who had the requisite skills, had some role in writing down on the large plates a portion or all of the revelations received by Mosiah.
In any event, Amaleki’s account of the events of his father Abinadom’s life helps to clarify that Abinadom was very much aware of, and valued, “many preachings and prophesyings” that took place as he and the other obedient subjects of Mosiah were “admonished continually by the word of God, and they were led by the power of his arm” (Omni 1:13). Abinadom certainly did not live during a time when revelation was scarce among the Nephites. Because of revelation, Abinadom was convinced to move his family from the land of Nephi into an unknown wilderness, through which they were led by revelation to the land of Zarahemla. These historical facts tell us that Abinadom knew of and obeyed many revelations received in his own day—and Abinadom’s brief words clarify that he also knew that these revelations had been duly recorded on the large plates.
Unfortunately, Joseph Smith’s translation of Mormon’s abridgment of the large-plate record covering Abinadom’s day was lost by Martin Harris (see Doctrine and Covenants 3). Because of this loss, we don’t have access to Mormon’s abridgment of the account to which Abinadom refers. Nevertheless, Amaleki’s account on the small plates gives us enough information to rehabilitate Abinadom’s character. We know from Amaleki’s account that Abinadom faithfully followed many revelations in his day and knew that they were recorded on the large plates.
The Book of Mormon only contains three short passages that discuss Mormon’s efforts to abridge and compile the book itself. Two of these passages were written while the book was being created. The third was among Mormon’s final words to us, apparently written as an addendum or postscript after the main body of his writing had been finalized.
Our first glimpse into Mormon’s authoring experience appears in Words of Mormon. This small book within the Book of Mormon was written after Mormon had already completed a significant part of his abridgment. That initial abridgment effort covered more than four and a half centuries of history—from the time Lehi left Jerusalem until the time of King Benjamin. However, that part of Mormon’s abridgment isn’t found in our Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith translated that part, and then entrusted the manuscript of its translation to his scribe Martin Harris. Unfortunately, the manuscript was lost (see Doctrine and Covenants 3). After Mormon had completed this significant part of his abridgment, He used an aside in Words of Mormon to tell us, his latter-day readers, what he had done so far and what he was doing then. He says that “after [he] had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi down to the reign of … king Benjamin,” he discovered among the historical records a “small account of the prophets from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi” (Words of Mormon 1:3. All Book of Mormon quotations are from Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009]). It appears that Mormon had been unaware of this small, already ancient record until after he had abridged the portion of the large plates of Nephi that relate to the same time period. After Mormon became acquainted with this unique account, he considered the prophecies written there so precious that he chose to include that account—in its entirety—with his own record (see Words of Mormon 1:6 and the author’s prior post, “Understanding Words of Mormon”). That small account now comprises the first six books in our Book of Mormon. Mormon then resumed his work on the balance of his abridgment, but with a new focus—to emphasize the prophecies he had discovered in that small record (see Words of Mormon 1:5-9).
Mormon’s second aside to latter-day readers about his writing effort appears after he had continued through the abridgment of the books of Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman and was beginning to abridge 3 Nephi. In another aside to his readers, Mormon briefly tells us what he is writing and why he is writing it. He says:
“And it hath become expedient that I, according to the will of God—that the prayers of those which have gone hence, which were the holy ones, should be fulfilled according to their faith—should make a record of these things which have been done, yea, a small record of that which hath taken place from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem even down until the present time. Therefore I do make my record from the accounts which hath been given by those which were before me until the commencement of my day. And then I do make a record of the things which I have seen with mine own eyes.” (3 Nephi 5:14-17)
Mormon’s third description of his writing effort is among his final words to us. It appears that, at the time Mormon first gave his completed record to his son Moroni, the record ended with what we now call Mormon chapter 5. One might assume that Mormon turned his record over to his son at that time because he felt that Moroni was more likely than his aged father to survive the battle of Cumorah. However, after Mormon and Moroni both survived that battle, Mormon added to his record what we might call a short postscript, which now comprises Mormon chapters 6 and 7. At the beginning of that postscript, he recounts for us, but only very briefly, the circumstances under which he had made his record of his people.
Mormon begins his postscript by telling us that “when three hundred and eighty and four years had passed away, we had gathered in all the remainder of our people unto the land of Cumorah” (Mormon 6:5). Comparing this date against others included in Mormon’s account of his own life, we learn that he was about 74 years old (see 4 Nephi 1:48 and Mormon 1:2) when his people gathered to Cumorah. In the next verse, Mormon tells us (without much elaboration) that he wrote the Book of Mormon sometime after this point in time.
“And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold, I Mormon began to be old. And knowing it to be the last struggle of my people and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer that the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites—for the Lamanites would destroy them—therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.” (Mormon 6:6, emphasis added)
Mormon’s brief statement “I made this record out of the plates of Nephi” gives no clue as to how many months or years he may have spent there in the land of Cumorah making his record, which covered almost a thousand years of history. Unfortunately, Mormon doesn’t mention any more dates in this short addendum to his record. This absence of dates means that we can’t determine how long it took him to complete the record. It also means that we can’t determine how much time passed from the completion of the record to the commencement of the battle of Cumorah; how many days or months were spent in that brutal, futile battle; or how many weeks, months or years passed after that battle before Mormon was eventually killed.
As explained earlier, Mormon began his record sometime after the year 384, when the Nephites had all gathered to the land of Cumorah. The next date marker is given to us by Moroni, when he adds an entry to the record after the year 400, some 16 years after the Nephites had gathered to the land of Cumorah (see Mormon 8:6). Many important events took place during the 16-year period that passed between the gathering to the land of Cumorah and this new entry in the record by Moroni. (In fact, this time period is two years longer than the entire mission of Ammon and his brethren to the Lamanites centuries earlier [see Alma 17:4].) During these 16 years in Cumorah, Mormon started and finished his abridgment; added his personal record; hid all other sacred records in the hill Cumorah; gave his abridged record to Moroni; survived the battle of Cumorah; wrote his addendum that summarized these important events and included further words to us, his latter-day readers; and was killed in battle (see Mormon chapters 6, 7, and 8).
Because no more dates are mentioned during the 16 years from the gathering to Cumorah until Moroni’s entry that explains that “there are none save it be Lamanites and robbers that do exist upon the face of the land” (Mormon 8:9), we have no way to divide up this 16-year period and therefore no way to know how much time the Nephites spent in the land of Cumorah before the armies of the Lamanites arrived. Consequently, we simply don’t know whether Mormon had less than a year or more than ten years of peace in the land of Cumorah during which to write the Book of Mormon.
The possibility of a multi-year period of peace after the Nephites gathered in the land of Cumorah is consistent with the pattern of war and peace during Mormon’s life. A war that begins when Mormon is eleven (see Mormon 1:6-8) ends in a Nephite victory and is followed by a “peace [that] did remain for the space of about four years, that there was no bloodshed” (Mormon 1:12). When war breaks out again, Mormon, then 15, is appointed leader of the Nephite armies (see Mormon 2:1). About four years later, Mormon’s army defeats the Lamanite army of King Aaron (see Mormon 2:9). This victory is followed by a period of over ten years in which no war is mentioned. It may have been a period of peace, but Mormon’s account focuses on the lack of repentance during this period and isn’t clear as to the length of any peace (see Mormon 2:10-14). By the time Mormon is 33, the wars have resumed. They continue for about six years. Then, the warring parties agree to a treaty (see Mormon 2:28), which inaugurates ten years of peace (and preparation for war) (see Mormon 3:1). When the war resumes again, Mormon is 50. He leads his army for about two years, then refuses to lead (see Mormon 3:9-16). There are then five years of war followed by seven years of peace (see Mormon 4:15-16). Wars resume when Mormon is 64. After the Nephites lose several battles, Mormon rejoins the war effort. With Mormon’s guidance, the Nephites win several battles, but then begin to lose again. At this point, the warring parties again enter into a treaty, under which the Nephites gather at Cumorah (see Mormon 6:2-3). By the time they all gather there, Mormon is 74 (see Mormon 6:5). At this point, under the new treaty, it seems reasonable that there would be another multi-year period of peace as the parties regroup again and prepare for war.
Earlier in Nephite history, during the second decade after the birth of Christ, the Nephites had likewise gathered to a specified location to defend themselves from an army (of Gadianton robbers). At that earlier time, about two years passed after the Nephites gathered to the place of defense before their enemies came against them. (See 3 Nephi 3:22; 4:5-7.) Perhaps the Nephites in Cumorah had a similar period of two or more years to prepare themselves for the eventual arrival of their enemies.
I suspect, based on the complexity of the Book of Mormon and the indications throughout the book that it was written with great care, that Mormon’s writing effort continued for at least a year, and perhaps for several years before the Lamanites arrived at Cumorah. All we really know is that after Mormon had finished his record, he hid the sacred source records from which it was compiled in the hill Cumorah and handed his recently written small record (our golden plates) over to Moroni. Sometime after this, the Nephites unsuccessfully tried to defend themselves against a powerful Lamanite army in the great and terrible battle of Cumorah. Because Mormon survived this battle, he lived to write a little more in the Book of Mormon, telling us, among other things, how he had written his entire book near the end of his life there in the land of Cumorah.
Words of Mormon is a short, but pivotal, book in the Book of Mormon. The specific words in this book can help us understand when Words of Mormon was written. These words can also help us understand the degree to which Mormon’s later writings were affected by the prophecies that had been written centuries before Mormon’s day on a set of small plates that he discovered among the records of his people.
The Word About. Words of Mormon begins with an aside written by Mormon to us, his eventual readers. Mormon starts this aside saying, “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” (Words of Mormon 1:1, emphasis added). In modern usage, when we say we’re “about” to do something, the word about suggests immediacy—the action we are about to do is imminent. The applicable definition of about in the Oxford English Dictionary is “at the very point when one is going to do something; intending or preparing immediately to do something” (OED, about, A 12).
Because of the immediacy implied by the word about, some readers of the Book of Mormon have concluded that Mormon wrote Words of Mormon after he had completed all or almost all of his other writing in the Book of Mormon. Such timing allows Mormon to be on the verge of transferring his completed work to Moroni as he writes Words of Mormon. However, some of Mormon’s words later in Words of Mormon appear to clash with this conclusion (in subtle but real ways that are explained below). Thankfully, in recent years, Professor Royal Skousen has discovered that the cultural milieu of the English text of the Book of Mormon dates more from the late 1600’s than the early 1800’s. In other words, Professor Skousen and others have learned that much of the syntax and vocabulary of the Book of Mormon fits better with the English written in the 1600’s than with that of Joseph Smith’s generation (Carmack, Stanford, “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 209-262). This discovery may help clarify what Mormon meant when he used the word about in Words of Mormon 1:1.
The Oxford English Dictionary contains a definition of the word about that was obsolete before the time of Joseph Smith, but was in use through the mid 1600’s, the period that matches much of the syntax and vocabulary of the Book of Mormon. This definition is: “engaged in or busied with plans or preparations to do something; planning, conspiring, or scheming to do something” (OED, about, A. 11a). The Oxford English Dictionary identifies this obsolete definition as “sense A. 11a” and identifies the definition we use today as “sense A. 12.” Comparing these two definitions, the dictionary states, “Many early examples of sense A. 11a … are close to [sense A. 12], but generally contain the idea of premeditating an action rather than simply being on the point of it” (OED, about, A. 12).
If the word about is used in Words of Mormon 1:1 with this now obsolete meaning, Mormon is saying, in essence, “And now I Mormon being [engaged in plans and preparations] 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.” This meaning allows for the possibility that Mormon wrote Words of Mormon shortly after he discovered and read the small plates and planned to include them with his record—and before his abridgment of the account of King Benjamin and subsequent events. At that point, Mormon would have written Words of Mormon while still facing a significant writing effort. While he had much writing to do before turning the record over to Moroni, such writing was part of his planning and preparation for that event. The now obsolete meaning of the word about fits well with such a scenario.
It should be mentioned that there are several other Book of Mormon passages in which this meaning of the word about may also apply, including 1 Nephi 17:17—Nephi’s brothers refused to help as he was about to (planning and preparing to) build a ship; Mosiah 2:26-30—King Benjamin taught his people and annointed his son king when he was about to (making necessary preparations a few years before he would) go down to his grave; Alma 19:1—King Lamoni’s wife sent for Ammon as her people were about to (planning and preparing to) lay King Lamoni’s body in a sepulchre; Helaman 1:7-8—Paanchi was arrested as he was about to (planning and conspiring to) lead a rebellion; and Ether 7:18—The sons of Shule freed their father as his enemy, Noah, was about to (planning and preparing to) put him to death.
The mere fact that there is a second definition of the word about that can fit with Words of Mormon 1:1 does not, however, tell us which definition was intended to apply here. The word about may have been used in this passage with either of these two meanings. Therefore, we should review the balance of Words of Mormon for indications of just how much more writing Mormon had ahead of him as he wrote Words of Mormon.
The Words These Things. The meaning of the simple term these things in Words of Mormon 1:5 is important to this determination. Here, after telling us that he has found the small plates, which contain many important prophecies, Mormon tells us that he “chooses” (present tense while writing Words of Mormon) to finish his record upon “these things” and adds “which remainder of my record I shall take” (future tense while writing Words of Mormon) “from the plates of Nephi. And I cannot write a hundredth part of the things of my people” (Words of Mormon 1:5, emphasis added). (The plates Mormon calls the plates of Nephi are referred to herein as the large plates. Those he calls these plates are referred to herein as the small plates.) From these words alone, it would appear that there are two possible antecedents to Mormon’s term these things. Mormon may be telling us that, having completed the bulk of his abridgment, he now has only a few verses to write, which will be based on information in the large plates and which he will write on these things—the small plates. On the other hand, he may be telling us that he has yet to resume his abridgment at the reign of King Benjamin, so there are centuries of history yet to be recorded, and since he can’t include in the remainder of his record even the hundredth part of all that is written on the large plates, he will focus his brief record on these things—the prophecies found on the small plates.
With one of these options, Mormon would be planning to write very little. With the other, he would be planning to write a significant amount. If his term these things refers to the small plates themselves, he could not have been planning to write very much because the small plates had already been described as being “full” (Omni 1:30). There simply would not have been sufficient room on the small plates to write a long remainder of his record. On the other hand, if his term these things refers to the prophecies written on the small plates, he would have been planning to write a great deal more, presumably on the plates he had made with his own hands (see 3 Nephi 5:11). In such a case, Mormon’s remaining abridgment effort would necessarily have been sufficiently large for reasonable elaboration on these important prophecies.
The Word Wherefore. The word wherefore, used just before the term these things, clarifies Mormon’s intent. The word wherefore is used to introduce a clause “expressing a consequence or inference from what has just been stated” (OED, wherefore, 5.a). So, when Mormon says, “wherefore, I choose these things to finish my record upon them” (Words of Mormon 1:5), he is telling us that his choice is based on a reason he stated earlier. Backing up in the text, we see that Mormon has just stated that he was pleased by “the things which were upon the plates” including “the prophecies of the coming of Christ” (Words of Mormon 1:4). The word wherefore tells us that Mormon’s interest in these important prophecies is his reason for choosing to finish his record on “these things.”
How does this reasoning fit with our two potential meanings for the term these things? Simply put, one potential meaning works well with this reasoning. The other doesn’t work at all.
It makes good sense that Mormon, because he is pleased with the prophecies on the small plates, would choose to focus the balance of his abridgment on those prophecies. On the other hand, the fact that Mormon is pleased with these prophecies simply doesn’t provide any reason at all for a choice to write on the small plates, as opposed to his other plates. Had Mormon intended the term these things to refer to the small plates themselves, then the reason he gives before the word wherefore would have matched that intention. For instance, he might have said something like, “There is some precious unused space on the small plates and I have very little to write, wherefore I choose these things, to finish my account upon them.” In such a case, the reason stated before the word wherefore would match the idea that “these things” were the small plates themselves. This, however, isn’t the reason stated by Mormon.
The word wherefore expresses a logical relationship between a reason and a conclusion. Mormon’s use of this word makes it clear that the term these things refers to the prophecies written on the small plates and not to the small plates themselves. And, because Mormon is choosing to focus the remainder of his record on these prophecies, it follows that his term the remainder of my record refers to has planned abridgment of the balance of the history of his people. The balance of Words of Mormon alone would be far too short to do any justice to his plan to focus the remainder of his record on the prophecies found on the small plates. The balance of Mormon’s abridgment, however, beginning with the account of King Benjamin, not only can, but does do justice to this plan. The prophetic content of Mormon’s abridgment in our Book of Mormon tends to confirm the fact that all of it was influenced by his decision to finish his record upon these things—the prophecies found on the small plates.
Two Other Related Concepts. There are two other aspects of the wording of the Book of Mormon that work much better with the idea that Mormon’s term these things refers to these prophecies and not to the small plates themselves. In the first place, throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon the term these things often refers to prophecies and similar concepts (sayings, words, commandments, the proceedings of the people, etc.), but this term never refers to any set of plates. Book of Mormon authors always refer to plates using the more specific term these plates. They use the term these plates over forty times, often near the term these things, but the two terms always refer to different sets. Once, in Alma 37:2, the term these things refers to a set that includes plates, but also other items (including the Liahona and the sword of Laban), so the more specific term these plates would not apply. Given this consistent usage of these terms throughout the Book of Mormon, it’s quite unlikely that Mormon intended a different usage to apply in Words of Mormon 1:5.
Also, a reading of the term these things as a reference to the small plates would require the term remainder of my record in Words of Mormon 1:5 to refer only to the words Mormon would write on the small plates. However, Mormon uses the same term in the very next verse to refer to something separate and apart from the small plates. In that verse, Mormon says he will put the small plates “with the remainder of my record” (Words of Mormon 1:6), indicating that the small plates were separate and apart from that remainder. These are the only two instances of the term remainder of my record in Mormon’s writings. It’s unlikely that Mormon uses this unique term twice in a row intending it to mean one thing the first time and another thing the second time. On the other hand, when we read the term these things as a reference to the prophecies on the small plates, the two references to “the remainder of my record” both include everything Mormon writes after that point in the Book of Mormon.
All the wording we have discussed lines up well with the idea that Mormon wrote Words of Mormon after he discovered and read the small plates and before he commenced his abridgment of the account of King Benjamin and subsequent events. This harmonizes perfectly with the now obsolete meaning of the word about. As Mormon wrote Words of Mormon, he didn’t use this word to tell us he was on the brink of handing his record over to his son. Rather, he used it to explain that he was planning and preparing to give the record to his son. His then-recent experience of finding and reading the small plates gave rise to another well-thought-out plan. He would focus the remainder of his record (all of his abridgment contained in our Book of Mormon) on the prophecies set forth on the small plates. From this point forward, his account would describe how many of these prophecies, including the coming of Christ, had been fulfilled before his day. His account would also discuss others of these prophecies that were to be fulfilled after his day.
A Small Mystery. The words in Words of Mormon also help us solve a bit of a mystery contained within that book. In Words of Mormon, Mormon tells his readers, “After that I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi down to the reign of this king Benjamin of which Amaleki spake, I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets” (Words of Mormon 1:3). The question we might ask ourselves is why might Mormon initiate this search for the small plates at this point in time–after he had finished the portion of the abridgment to which they related? Why would he pause his abridgment one day and start searching through the records? The words in Words of Mormon may hold a simple clue.
After Mormon tells us about finding and reading the small plates, he tells us that he will take the remainder of his record (all the rest of his abridgment) “from the plates of Nephi” (Words of Mormon 1:5). A few verses later, as he actually resumes his abridgment, he again reminds us that he will take the rest of his account “from the plates of Nephi” (Words of Mormon 1:9). So, as Mormon transitions from the aside to his readers into his continuing abridgment of the large plates, he mentions an event that was recorded on those voluminous plates: “after Amaleki had delivered up these plates [the small plates] into the hands of king Benjamin, he [king Benjamin] took them and put them with the other plates which contained the records which had been handed down by the kings” (Words of Mormon 1:10, clarification added). These words tell us that the large plates contained an entry that mentioned the fact that king Benjamin had received a set of plates from a man named Amaleki and that king Benjamin had put these small plates with his other records.
From these facts, it’s reasonable to infer that, as Mormon prepared to continue his abridgment, he read the account of king Benjamin on the large plates. In that account, he came across this entry that mentioned a set of small plates with which he was not yet acquainted. Perhaps moved by the Spirit, he searched among the records for these small plates. The rest, as they say, is history. Mormon found the small plates, which the Lord had commanded Nephi to make (more than nine centuries before the time of Mormon) for a “wise purpose” (1 Nephi 9:5). As Mormon read this already-ancient record, the same Spirit that touches us as we read it today convinced Mormon not only to include the newly rediscovered small plates with his own record, but also to focus the remainder of his own record on the prophecies that had been recorded on the small plates. “And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things” (1 Nephi 16:29).
Abstract: The fact that anchors, sails and steering devices are not mentioned in the account of the Jaredite voyage to the promised land does not mean that they were absent. It would seem unlikely that a people would attempt to cross an ocean in vessels that lacked this essential equipment for regulating speed and changing course. It seems even less likely that eight vessels would arrive as a group at their planned destination after traveling for almost a year without such equipment. Given how common these items were on ancient sea-going vessels, we should assume they were present on the barges unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. The limited account that we have gives almost no information from which to determine how the barges were powered or steered, but it can certainly be read in a manner that accomodates the presence and use of anchors, sails, and steering devices.
Unstated Background Information. In our modern society, we often talk about flying to one place or another, sometimes without mentioning the airplane that made the flight possible. We naturally expect our friends to assume the fact that we couldn’t have flown without the airplane. While we might or might not mention the airplane, it would be even less likely for us to mention whether the airplane we flew on had wings, engines, or a tail assembly. These three features are present on virtually every airplane in existence, so they are seldom mentioned as we talk or write about our travels. When we write on any topic, we often omit background information that everyone in our culture takes for granted. So, it would be wrong for a reader of an account of an airplane flight in our day to assume that the failure to mention wings, engines, or a tail assembly suggests that they were absent.
Professor Hugh Nibley explains this concept as it applies to the question of whether Lehi’s party had camels, which aren’t mentioned in the Book of Mormon:
“But neither does Nephi mention camels. Why not? For the very reason that they receive no notice in many an Arabic poem which describes travel in the desert, simply because they are taken for granted. In the East the common words for travel are camel-words; thus rahal and safar, the two basic words, both mean “to set out on a journey” and also “to saddle a camel,” the presence of camels being inferred when no special mention of them is made. When I say I drove from Heber to Salt Lake, no one would think to ask “in a car?” though for all my hearers know I may have driven a chariot or a tricycle. In the same way when the Arab reports that he has journeyed in the desert he never adds “on a camel,” for in his language “to travel” means to go by camel.” (Hugh Nibley, Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 5: Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1988, p. 56.)
As we read about sea-going vessels in the Book of Mormon, it may be important to remember that writers often omit this type of basic background information. We probably shouldn’t assume that the basic equipment that was common on sea-going vessels in ancient times was absent in a given case just because that equipment isn’t specifically mentioned in an account. The writer may have assumed that readers would take the presence of such equipment as a given.
Vessels Without Guidance. In an analogy about the spiritual depravity of his people, Mormon mentions three items that were common on sea-going vessels, and, at least in his opinion, essential. Speaking of his people, he said: “But now behold, they are led about by Satan, even as chaff is driven before the wind, or as a vessel is tossed about upon the waves without sail or anchor or without anything wherewith to steer her; and even as she is, so are they.” (Mormon 5:18, emphasis added. All Book of Mormon quotations are from Royal Skousen, ed., The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009].) It would appear from this simple analogy that Mormon considered a sail, an anchor, and a steering device to be basic, essential equipment on sea-going vessels. (Given the context, it’s possible that the anchor referred to is a sea anchor, used to stabilize and slow a vessel in foul weather.) In Mormon’s view, a vessel without these three items would be as aimless as chaff in the wind and as lost as a people without Christ and God in the world. Mormon’s assessment that an anchor, a sail, and a steering device are essential to a successful sailing voyage is well founded. It appears that most sea-going sailing vessels, ancient and modern, have had this type of equipment.
Nephi’s Ship. The account of the voyage of Nephi’s ship to the promised land doesn’t specifically mention an anchor, a sail, or a steering device. However, it uses other words that suggest the presence of both a sail and a steering device.
Nephi tells us, “we did put forth into the sea and were driven forth before the wind towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:8, emphasis added). It seems reasonable to assume that a ship that is driven forth before the wind probably has a sail. In the next verse, Nephi again implies that this was a wind-powered ship, saying that they were “driven forth before the wind for the space of many days” (1 Nephi 18:9, emphasis added). Later, Nephi tells us “we sailed again towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:22, emphasis added). The use of the word again in this sentence tells us something about the phrase driven forth before the wind. Note that Nephi says that they sailed again, but he hasn’t used the verb to sail earlier in his account. Nephi assumes that his readers will equate the phrase he used earlier, driven forth before the wind, with sailing. It appears that he uses both terms to tell us that their ship was powered by the wind. Later, he continues, “after we had sailed for the space of many days, we did arrive to the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:23, emphasis added). Even without ever specifically telling us that his ship had a sail, Nephi’s use of the phrase driven forth before the wind, together with the verb to sail, strongly suggest to us that his ship had one or more sails.
We can similarly infer from Nephi’s language that his ship had a steering device. When Nephi was tied up, the Liahona (a compass-like device) quit working, so Laman and Lemuel, “knew not whither [where] they should steer the ship” (1 Nephi 18:13, emphasis and clarification added). Later, when Nephi was freed, he says that he “did guide the ship, that we sailed again towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:22, emphasis added). Because the ability to steer the ship was interrupted, Nephi’s account describes the interruption and continuation with the verbs to steer and to guide. Each of these verbs strongly suggests that the ship had a steering device (such as steering oars or a rudder) even though no such device is specifically mentioned.
Note that Nephi only mentions the concept of guiding the ship when it becomes an issue. Before and after this incident, he is content to tell us that the ship was moving towards the promised land, probably assuming that his readers would infer that it was being steered. Apparently, there was no issue with the anchor, because Nephi never mentions this third essential item.
The Jaredite Barges. The account of the voyage of the Jaredites to the promised land likewise doesn’t specifically mention anchors, sails, or steering devices. Neither, however, does it use the word ship. It uses the word barges to refer to the eight sea-going vessels built by the Jaredites. As it turns out, the English word barge has been applied to several types of watercraft—some without sails, but others with sails (together with anchors and steering devices).
River and Canal Barges. In current usage, the word barge usually refers to flat-bottomed freight boats. At the time of Joseph Smith, in upstate New York, the word barge usually referred, not to a sea-going vessel, but to a canal boat. The Erie Canal, which had opened just a few years before the Book of Mormon was translated, passed through Palmyra, New York. It carried a variety of barges, or canal boats, which were flat bottomed freight boats powered by ropes tied to mules or horses that walked along the road at the side of the canal. These canal boats didn’t have sails or anchors. Often, they were steered by pushing a long barge pole against the bottom and sides of the canal.
At that time, and to some degree even today, the word barge also sometimes refers to shallow flat-bottomed freight boats that travel on canals and rivers powered by sails. For example, freight barges with sails were used then (and some are still in service today) on the Thames River in England. Thus, the Oxford English Dictionary contains the following as one of its definitions for the word barge: “A flat-bottomed freight-boat, chiefly for canal- and river-navigation, either with or without sails” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., under the word “barge” at 1.c, emphasis added).
The purpose and design of freight barges, however, were different from the purpose and design of the vessels called barges in the Book of Ether. The freight boats of Joseph Smith’s day were designed specifically for use on relatively calm canals and rivers. With or without sails, their design would not serve well on the open sea. The barges built by the Jaredites, however, were designed (with the Lord’s help) specifically as sea-going vessels to carry people and provisions safely on a long voyage across a stormy sea. This brings us to another definition for the word barge.
Small Sea-going Vessels with Sails. About two centuries before the time of Joseph Smith, the English word barge was a general term that referred to any ship or vessel and particularly to “a small sea-going vessel with sails” (OED, under the word “barge” at 1.a). Although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this usage was obsolete before the time of Joseph Smith, Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language alludes to this now obsolete meaning. It tells us that, at the time of Joseph Smith, the word barge and the word barque were essentially (or originally) the same word (Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary, at http://webstersdictionary1828.com/, under the word “barge”). This dictionary defines the word barque as “a small ship; but appropriately [specifically], a ship which carries three masts without a mizen top sail” (Webster’s, under the word “barque,” clarification added). Thus, during the 1500’s and 1600’s, and possibly to a very limited degree up to the time of Joseph Smith, the word barge, like the word barque, sometimes referred to a small sea-going vessel with sails. This meaning of the word barge is now obsolete.
Royal Skousen, a BYU professor who has spent many years scrutinizing Book of Mormon manuscripts, printed editions, and internal and external textual evidence, has concluded that the specific words of the Book of Mormon text were revealed to Joseph Smith from the Lord and were not formulated by the Prophet. Skousen and others have found in the Book of Mormon many cases of Early Modern English, the English language in use from about 1500 to about 1700, which was obsolete at the time of Joseph Smith (Carmack, Stanford, “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 209-262). Skousen deems it plausible that in the Book of Mormon, the word barges is used with the now-obsolete Early Modern English meaning: small sea-going vessels with sails. (Personal communication, December 8, 2014.)
If these eight Jaredite barges were indeed small sailing vessels, then, despite the absence of the word sail in the account, we should expect the text describing these barges and their voyage to be compatible with the presence of sails.
The Design of the Barges. It appears that the Jaredites had already acquired barge building experience before they built these eight sea-going vessels (see Ether 2:16). Perhaps they had previously designed barges for river travel, or perhaps, during their four-year sojourn on the seashore, they had designed and built fishing vessels. Despite any previous experience, these eight sea-going vessels weren’t designed solely by the Jaredites. They were built “according to the instructions of the Lord” (Ether 2:16). Apparently some aspects of the design were new to the Jaredites. We are given this description:
“And they were small and they were light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water. And they were built after a manner that they were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish, and the sides thereof was tight like unto a dish, and the ends thereof were peaked, and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish, and the length thereof was the length of a tree, and the door thereof—when it was shut—was tight like unto a dish.” (Ether 2: 16-17)
This description mentions no anchor, no sail, and no steering device. The failure to mention these items should not, however, be taken as evidence that they were missing. Given the almost-universal presence of such equipment on ancient sea-going vessels, it’s much more likely that their absence would have been mentioned (if they were absent). In fact, this brief description is very limited. It also doesn’t mention ballast, stowage for water, food, repair materials and livestock, passenger quarters/berths, a food preparation galley, etc. The description (which is appropriate for the author’s purposes) focuses solely on four features that may have been unique or unusual to the author—(1) smallness, including length, (2) lightness on the water, (3) ends that are peaked [not square, but narrowing to a point], and especially (4) tightness of construction. Because many modern sailing vessels have similar features, we can safely conclude that these features can be compatible with the presence of a sail, a steering device, and an anchor.
One would always expect the bottom and sides of any boat to be as tight as possible. The unique feature of these sea-going vessels, then, was the fact that, in addition to having watertight sides and bottom, they also had a water- and air-tight top. That is, the covering (deck) of each barge extended over the entire hold (the interior cavity of the vessel), so that the hold was air- and water-tight.
Potential Problems. The Brother of Jared approached the Lord with three concerns about the barges:
“And behold, O Lord,  in them there is no light.  Whither shall we steer? And also  we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish.” (Ether 2:19, numbering and emphasis added.)
Perhaps it’s worth noting that the Brother of Jared did not voice any concern about how the barges would be powered. While the record doesn’t mention sails, the absence of this concern may suggest that these barges, perhaps like those the Jaredites had built previously, were powered in the customary manner—with sails. Let’s review the three concerns that were raised by the Brother of Jared.
Ventilation. The Lord first addressed the third of these concerns by describing some means of ventilation. The curious thing about the Lord’s words is that they may mention only one ventilation hole that was somehow not only in the top of the vessel, but also in the bottom. The phrase “a hole in the top thereof and also in the bottom thereof” (Ether 2:20) can be taken to be ambiguous—possibly referring to only one hole, which was not only in the top, but also in the bottom. The subsequent language seems to confirm that this ventilation system somehow consisted of only one hole, “thou shalt unstop the hole thereof and receive air. And if it be so that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole thereof, that ye may not perish in the flood.” (Ether 2:20, emphasis added). I find this wording interesting, but I have no explanation for it. While we don’t know just how the ventilation system worked, we know it served its purpose.
Light. The bulk of the Lord’s response deals with the Brother of Jared’s first concern—the need for light within the dark holds of the barges. As we know, the Lord miraculously provided this light (see Ether 6:2-3).
Direction. The Brother of Jared’s second concern was expressed as a question, “Whither shall we steer?” (Ether 2:19). The adverb whither means “where.” Perhaps it goes without saying that someone who wants to know where to steer a vessel is confident that the vessel can be steered–it must have had a steering device such as steering oars or a rudder. The Brother of Jared was concerned, not with how to steer these barges, but where to steer them. In the account of the Nephite voyage to the promised land, when Nephi was tied up, the problem wasn’t that their ship had no steering device, but rather that, without the Liahona, “they knew not whither they should steer the ship” (1 Nephi 18:13, emphasis added).
Because the Brother of Jared asked the Lord where to steer the barges, we should be able to safely assume that the barges had a steering device. He needed some type of compass or charts or other guidance for steering them in the right direction to safely reach the promised land. Sailors in our day use charts, compasses and other instruments to steer their vessels into winds and currents favorable to their destination. The Brother of Jared was likely asking the Lord for divine direction to do the same thing. Oddly enough, the account doesn’t appear to tell us specifically how the Lord gave them such guidance. One passage, however, tells us generally that they were “directed continually by the hand of the Lord” (Ether 2:6). Such direction would have given them the information they needed to steer their barges towards the promised land.
Powered by the Wind. Like the account of the voyage of Lehi’s family, the account of the voyage of the Jaredites to the promised land also uses other words that appear to suggest the presence of sails. Moroni tells us “the Lord God caused that there should a furious wind blow upon the face of the waters towards the promised land; and thus they were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind” (Ether 6:5, emphasis added). As the account continues, Moroni tells us, “the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters; and thus they were driven forth before the wind” (Ether 6:8, emphasis added). Of course, this same phrase, “driven forth before the wind” is used twice to describe the voyage of Nephi’s ship (1 Nephi 18:8, 9). Indeed, it’s the phrase which, in that earlier account, is specifically equated with sailing. As the account of the Jaredite barges continues, the similar phrase “and thus they were driven forth” (Ether 6:10, 11) is used twice more.
There’s a difference between this account and the account of Nephi’s voyage, in which the term driven forth before the wind is combined with the term we sailed. The Jaredite account never uses this latter, more direct term. Nevertheless, repeated references to being driven forth before the wind are good indicators that sails, the sole known means of capturing the wind to drive a vessel forth, were present. (It may be worth pointing out again that the ends of the barges were peaked. This means that the back end of the barges [the stern], like the front [the bow], came to a point. This shape provides no flat surface across the stern that might have caught a little wind to power the barges [see Ether 2: 17].)
Mariners in our day sometimes sail into favorable ocean currents, receiving a bit of a boost from the speed and direction of the waters, in addition to prevailing winds. One might expect the Lord to guide the Jaredites on a course that would give them this same advantage. Anchors, sails and steering devices would help the Jaredite vessels reach favorable winds and currents. They would also help them into and out of provisioning ports they would probably have needed along the way.
Covered Many Times in Water. Some students of the Book of Mormon have concluded that sails were not present on these vessels. This may be because the account refers to many occasions on which these vessels were covered with water. If the vessels were covered by water to any extensive depth, then the pressure of moving through the deep water might have snapped off any protruding sailing masts (and other above-deck features). Let’s review the words used in the account to see whether they suggest how deeply the barges might have been buried under the water.
Light and Tight. A vessel that is buoyant (light upon the water) and that can be made airtight (tight like a dish) simply cannot be pushed down by waves to any significant depth. It can be doused by large waves so that it is momentarily covered with water, but the laws of physics will almost immediately bring it back to the top of the water. Think of trying to push a beach ball beneath the surface of a pool by dumping a large container of water over it. The water might momentarily cover the ball, but the ball would stay on (or very near) the surface of the pool. In a similar fashion, the waves of the sea might crash over the deck of a buoyant, airtight vessel, but the vessel (as long as it remains upright and retains its structural integrity) would regain the surface as soon as the wave is spent. During repeated, but brief, anxious moments as waves broke over their decks, the barges might often have been covered with water. Most of the time, however, the decks of the barges, though wet from rains, ocean spray, and previous dousings, would remain above the surface of the water. All of the terms in the account that describe the barges being covered with water can be read in a manner that is consistent with this premise.
The Deep. The word deep is used six times in reference to the voyage of the Jaredite barges, but never as an adjective that would suggest placement of the barges below the water surface. The word deep is always used as a noun in the phrase the deep, or some variation thereof and, as such, simply is another way of saying “the ocean.” The phrases include: “this great deep” (Ether 2:25), “this raging deep” (Ether 3:3), “the deep” (Ether 6:7), and “the great deep” (Ether 7:27 and 8:9). These phrases are simply references to the ocean—the deep blue sea.
As a Whale in the Midst of the Sea. The Lord told the Brother of Jared that the Jaredites would be “as a whale in the midst of the sea” (Ether 2:24). Some might take this phrase to mean that the Jaredites would find themselves deep beneath the sea, but this interpretation is implausible for at least three reasons. The first is the reason stated previously. The buoyant, airtight nature of the barges would not allow them to sink below the surface for more than a brief moment.
The second reason is that the term the midst of the sea suggests breadth, not depth. It refers to having the sea all around you, but not on top of you. In the Bible, this phrase is commonly used to depict water all around, but not above those who are in the midst of the sea. The writer of Proverbs describes “the way of a ship in the midst of the sea” as “too wonderful” (Proverbs 30:18-19, emphasis added). Many other passages in the Old Testament tell about how God parted the Red Sea and the children of Israel walked on dry ground through “the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:16, 22, 23, 27, 29; Exodus 15:19; Numbers 33:8; and Nehemiah 9:11). In the New Testament, this term is used in only two verses that describe the miracle of Jesus walking on water. Each account describes a ship that remains on the surface of the sea as being “in the midst of the sea” (Mathew 14:24 and Mark 6:47).
The third reason is that the context of this phrase in Ether 2:24 works perfectly well with (and may require) this meaning. The context suggests that the design of the barges allowed them to be as safe as a whale might be as we see it swimming at the surface of the sea, surrounded on all sides by water. Although great waves might dash upon the whale (something that only happens at the surface), it soon returns unharmed from beneath the waves to the surface. Similarly, while great waves would break over the barges, the barges, like the whale, were designed by the Lord to return safely to the surface.The passage says, “For behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea, for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea” (Ether 2:24).
The Depths of the Sea. As used in the Book of Mormon, the term the depths of the sea always refers to the area beneath the surface of the sea. Based on context, it can refer to any or all of the realm beneath the surface, extending to the bottom of the sea. It appears that generally, one does not expect to escape from the depths of the sea. Once below the surface, one is likely doomed. Thus to be swallowed up in the depths of the sea, to be thrown into the depths of the sea, or to sink into the depths of the sea may initially entail being just below the surface, but the term usually implies the inability to escape an impending death by drowning (see 1 Nephi 17:48, 18:10, 15, and 20, 3 Nephi 8:9).
In the account of the Jaredite barges, the term the depths of the sea still refers to the realm beneath the surface of the waves, but without the doom usually associated with it. In each of the three instances in this account when this term is used, the force that sends the barges into the depths of the sea is the pounding of waves (or of wind and waves). As we’ve discussed, this force might temporarily cover a barge with water, but it simply could not hold it under the surface. In each instance, the barges regain the surface without harm (see Ether 2:24-25 and 6:6). It appears that in these instances, the term the depths of the sea refers to an area beneath crashing waves, but it needn’t imply any significant depth at all.
Encompassed About; Buried. The term encompassed about is used twice to describe the fact that the barges were surrounded by, or enveloped within, waters (see Ether 3:2 and 6:7). This term tells us that the water covered them, which is consistent with waves crashing over them. Likewise, the word buried means covered. Someone who is baptized is “buried in the water” (see Mosiah 18:14-15). In the account of the Jaredite voyage, the barges are “buried in the depths of the sea” when “mountain waves” broke over them (Ether 6:6). While the barges were buried in these waves, their tightness kept them safe (see Ether 6:7). Each of these terms is consistent with the idea that the barges remained near the surface of the sea, where they were repeatedly doused by waves, by rain, and sea spray. It might be helpful to note that the Biblical account in which Christ calmed the sea describes a ship that was “covered with the waves” (Matthew 8:24) in a storm, but did not sink. That ship, which wasn’t watertight, is described as being covered with the waves while staying afloat on the surface of the sea (and while the mast and sails remained above the waves).
Tight Like unto the Ark of Noah. The comparison between the barges and Noah’s ark applies just to one feature—tightness. The account tells us that the barges were “tight like unto a dish; and also they were tight like unto the ark of Noah” (Ether 6:7). Except for tightness, this passage draws no other parallel between the barges and either a dish or an ark. Just as vessels that are “light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water” (Ether 2:17) needn’t have feathers like a foul, vessels that are “tight like unto the ark of Noah” (Ether 6:7) needn’t be devoid of sails like an ark.
A Crew on Deck. Perhaps the biggest leap of faith required to accept the possibility that the Jaredite barges had anchors, sails, and steering devices is that these tools only function well when manned by an attentive crew. If the barges had anchors, sails, and steering oars or rudders, then they would also, of necessity, have had crews, who would have worked on deck, outside the protective interior cavity of the barges. It is possible that crews were needed to actively guide and stabilize the barges even during stormy weather. Perhaps there were times when they stowed the sails, dropped the anchor, and removed steering oars during the roughest weather. However, to the degree that the Jaredites used these devices, they would have used them from the deck. Steering could only take place out on the deck, where the crew could see the craft, the waves, and any hazards (including other barges). Just as the record never mentions sails, anchors or steering devices, it is also silent about any crews that might have been on deck to use these tools to manage the barges during the voyage.
Given the ferocity of the winds and waves described in the account, we might think that no crew would venture up on deck to steer these vessels. However, intrepid sailors have done exactly that for centuries. Jared’s party had the advantage of knowing that they were being led by God to a land of promise (see Ether 1:42). It’s possible, but by no means required by the account, that much of the singing, praying, and praising of God on the barges (see Ether 6:7-9) took place among crews valiently guiding them, with God’s help, through storms. Other than singing, praying, and praising God, the record doesn’t mention any activities of anyone on board during the entire voyage. With absolutely no information at all about anything else the people did on these vessels, we can only guess the extent to which some of them may have worked on deck to guide their vessels towards the promised land.
Conclusion. The Book of Mormon account of the Jaredite voyage tells us very little about how the barges were powered and guided to their destination. Mormon, who had read the more complete account of this voyage in Mosiah’s translation of the twenty-four Jaredite gold plates (see Mosiah 28:19 and Ether 4:1-3), believed that a vessel without an anchor, sail, and steering device would have been helpless on the open sea (see Mormon 5:18). For all we know, he may have learned the importance of this equipment from reading that account. Of course, until we have that account ourselves, we won’t know whether it has additional information about the barges. We only know that Mormon, who was acquainted with that account, considered anchors, sails, and steering devices to be essential. If we choose to read any assumptions into our shortened account of this voyage, we should probably avoid asumptions that might put our views of the Jaredite barges at odds with Mormon’s general rule about sea-going vessels. The text that describes the voyage of these ancient sea-going vessels allows that they might have been equipped with anchors, sails, and steering devices.
The location of the land of Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon (and of all other lands and places mentioned in that book) is a matter of considerable study, conjecture, and even contention. Some have suggested that the name Cumorah, as used in Doctrine and Covenants 128:20, necessarily refers to a hill in New York and that this reference supports the conclusion that this hill in New York is one and the same with the hill named Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. A reasonable argument can be made, however, that the name Cumorah, as used in D&C 128:20, refers to the ancient land of Cumorah and that this passage, with its reference to that ancient land, gives us little, if any, information about the location of that ancient land.
In Mormon 6:6, Mormon tells us that he wrote the Book of Mormon after the Nephites had gathered to the land of Cumorah.
“And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold, I Mormon began to be old. And knowing it to be the last struggle of my people and having been commanded of the Lord that I should not suffer that the records which had been handed down by our fathers, which were sacred, to fall into the hands of the Lamanites—for the Lamanites would destroy them—therefore I made this record out of the plates of Nephi and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.” (Mormon 6:6, emphasis added)
After Mormon finished making, in the land of Cumorah, the record that he called “these few plates” (same verse), he gave the plates to his son, Moroni. Decades later (compare Mormon 6:5 with Moroni 10:1), after wandering “whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life” (Moroni 1:3), Moroni “hid up” the completed record, the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, “unto the Lord” (Mormon 8:4). The location where Moroni “hid up” the golden plates is never named in the Book of Mormon.
On September 21, 1823, the angel Moroni appeared as a resurrected being to Joseph Smith in the upstairs bedroom of the Smith home and declared that the record compiled anciently by Mormon would soon be revealed (see Joseph Smith History 1:27-50). The next day, Joseph went to the hill near his home where the plates were deposited. Four years later, at that same hill, a hill never named by Joseph Smith or by Moroni, Joseph received the golden plates (see Joseph Smith History 1:59).
This hill in New York has come to be called Cumorah by members of the Church. There is, however, no revelation or authoritive statement by Joseph Smith that designates this hill as the one mentioned in the Book of Mormon. So it remains unclear what the relationship may be between this hill in New York and the hill named Cumorah in the Book of Mormon. They may be one and the same, but they may also be two different hills, quite distant from each other.
It’s not uncommon for place names mentioned in scripture to be re-applied to new locations. For instance, there’s a river named Jordan in the Holy Land and another river named Jordan in Utah. In most cases, such duplicate names don’t cause confusion because the location of the place named anciently is well known and clearly different from the new location that now has the same name. In the case of Cumorah, however, we don’t know for certain the location of the ancient land or hill. The existence of a hill in New York dubbed Cumorah in modern times, which may be different from the hill Cumorah mentioned in the Book of Mormon, can cause confusion among people trying to locate the land and hill described in the Book of Mormon.
Section 128 of the Doctrine and Covenants is an epistle, or letter, written by Joseph Smith the Prophet. The main topic of the letter is baptism for the dead. Near the end of the letter, the Prophet rejoices in the revelations that have ushered in “the dispensation of the fulness of times” (v.18). He asks, “Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received?” and then begins to answer the question, “A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth” (v. 19). The Prophet’s reference to a voice from heaven and a voice out of the earth alludes to the Lord’s promise to Enoch that, in the last days, “righteousness will I send down out of heaven; and truth will I send forth out of the earth, to bear testimony of mine Only Begotten” (Moses 7:62).
This “voice of truth out of the earth” that bears testimony of Jesus Christ is clearly not an audible voice. It is the Book of Mormon–a book that Joseph Smith received out of the earth. Ancient prophets prophesied that, through this book, their voice would “cry” from the dust. This “voice” from the dust is, of course, a figurative voice. It consists of written words coming to us in modern times as if they were being spoken by the dead. In one passage, the Lord tells the ancient prophet Joseph that the coming forth of the Book of Mormon “shall be as if the fruit of thy loins had cried unto them from the dust” (2 Nephi 3:19, emphasis added). In his final message in the book, Nephi the son of Lehi wrote “And now, my beloved brethren, all those who are of the house of Israel, and all ye ends of the earth, I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust” (2 Nephi 33:13, emphasis added). The final message of Moroni, the last person to write on the golden plates, includes these words, “the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?” (Moroni 10:27, emphasis added).
After referring to the Book of Mormon as “a voice of truth out of the earth,” the Prophet again refers to the Book of Mormon in the next verse. He continues, “And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:20).
A modern reader of this passage might initially assume that the name Cumorah, as used here, is a reference to the familiar hill in New York, now called Cumorah. However, it is very possible that the Prophet used this Book of Mormon place name in reference to the ancient land described in the Book of Mormon where Mormon wrote the glad tidings now found in the Book of Mormon. So, just as we might say that the Book of Revelation came to us from the island of Patmos (where it was written), Joseph Smith may be using the phrase Glad tidings from Cumorah to refer to a book full of glad tidings written for people in our day by Mormon while he resided centuries ago in a land called Cumorah. In a very specific sense, these glad tidings now cry unto us from the dust of the land of Cumorah.
If the phrase Glad tidings from Cumorah refers to the Book of Mormon itself, then it doesn’t identify the place from which “Moroni, an angel from heaven, declar[ed] the fulfilment of the prophets–the book to be revealed” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:20). This is appropriate, because that event did not take place at any Cumorah. The angel Moroni came to Joseph Smith in the upstairs bedroom of the Smith home to make this declaration. “He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants” (Joseph Smith–History 1:34). By the time Joseph Smith visited the hill where the book was deposited, the angel had made this declaration four times.
It’s reasonable to conclude that the book itself is the glad tidings from Cumorah just as it is the voice of truth out of the earth. It contains the glad tidings of the everlasting gospel, the voice of truth, that had been written by Mormon in ancient times in the land of Cumorah. Because a clear case can be made that the name Cumorah refers to the ancient land of Cumorah (wherever it may be located), it’s improper to assume that Doctrine and Covenants 128:20 necessarily refers to a hill in New York that now goes by that name.
The Book of Jonah in the Old Testament is written in poetic form (“Jonah,” Bible Dictionary, 716). Nevertheless, the miraculous story it tells appears to be a historical event. The words of Jesus Christ in the New Testament suggest that he considered Jonah’s story to be true. Jesus referred to Jonah on at least two occasions (see Matt. 12:39-41, 16:4; Luke 11:29-30). In modern times, President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “I believe … the story of Jonah. My chief reason for so believing is not the fact that it is recorded in the Bible, … but in the fact that Jesus Christ, our Lord, believed it.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (1954-56), 2:314.)
References to the story of Jonah in other scriptures tend to strengthen both the historicity of the story and the gospel truths it embodies. Some references to this story appear in the form of allusions. Allusion is a literary tool in which the author makes an implied or indirect reference to an event or story with which the audience is already familiar. Thus, the author’s words bring to the mind of the reader the images of the familiar event or story. To those who share this familiarity, the author’s words are much more meaningful, being strengthened by the added meaning of an entire untold story. The words that make up the allusion have meaning even to readers who do not make the connection to the untold story. These readers understand the basic meaning of the words, but are left out of the additional significance provided by the familiar event or story. It is possible that two passages in the Book of Mormon were written with the assumption that the reader would recognized an unstated comparison with the miraculous events of Jonah’s ordeal of being cast into a stormy sea. This possible connection can enhance the meaning found in these passages.
The Story of Jonah
As the story of Jonah begins, the Lord instructs Jonah to preach repentance to the great city of Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2). Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a powerful enemy of ancient Israel (“Nineveh,” Bible Dictionary, 738). Rather than obey the command of the Lord, Jonah chose to flee to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3). The Tarshish towards which Jonah booked passage was probably an ancient Spanish port city also known as Tartessus (“Tarshish,” Bible Dictionary, 780). It would seem that Jonah sought to sail to a port that was about as distant as one might reach on the Mediterranean Sea. As the ship sailed towards Tarshish, “the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea,” which threatened to destroy the ship. The mariners all cried to their various gods to no avail. The shipmaster awoke Jonah, who was sleeping, and asked him to call upon his god. Jonah told the mariners that he was trying to flee from the presence of God. Knowing that he was the cause of the tempest, Jonah asked the men, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.” The men at first would not listen to Jonah, but tried to row the ship to land. When that failed, asking God to forgive them, they obeyed Jonah, casting him into the sea. When they did so, the sea “ceased from her raging” (Jonah 1:4-16). Jonah, however, did not drown in the depths of the sea. Rather, “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). After that, “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). Jonah then went to Nineveh and preached the word of God, saving the people of Nineveh from destruction (Jonah 3).
The Historical Context of Jonah
The historical context of the story of Jonah is suggested in a comparison of a passage in the Book of Jonah with a passage in Second Kings. The first verse in the Book of Jonah identifies Jonah as the son of Amittai. In Second Kings, we learn that “Jonah, the son of Amittai,” (presumably, the same person) had prophesied certain things about a king named Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23-25). From this reference, we can infer that Jonah was an actual person who lived at the time of this King Jeroboam. Because this King Jeroboam reigned near 790 BC, Bible scholars have concluded that Jonah prophesied at that time. Thus, Jonah lived about fifty years before the time of Isaiah and almost two hundred years before the time of Lehi. It appears that the Book of Jonah was not written by Jonah. It was likely written by some later writer (“Jonah,” Bible Dictionary, 716). This may explain in part why the Book of Jonah appears in the Bible between Obadiah and Micah, both of whom are believed to have lived long after Jonah (“Chronology,” Bible Dictionary, 638-639). So, while it is unlikely that the Book of Jonah itself was included in the Brass Plates, it is plausible that the story of Jonah could have been included in some other form.
What Was the Great Fish?
It is not necessary that we understand exactly what species of sea creature swallowed Jonah. However, our understanding of the story may be enhanced if we understand the meanings of the various ancient words used in the Bible to describe this creature. The Hebrew words used in the Book of Jonah, dag gadol, mean literally, “great fish” (Halava, Neil, ed. Greek & Hebrew Lexicons, Elizabethton, TN: Eagle Computing, 1991). The Greek word used in the New Testament and translated into English as “whale” is ketos. This word means “huge fish” and can refer to “any kind of sea monster of the shark or whale tribe” (“whale,” Easton’s Bible Dictionary). The key consideration here is that the ancient words used to describe the sea creature that swallowed Jonah are not as limiting as the English word “whale.” The Hebrew words dag gadol can refer to any large fish. The Greek word ketos can refer to any of a broad class of monstrous sea creatures. These words could accurately refer to a whale, a great white shark, some other large sea creature, or even some large fish created and placed in the sea by God for this specific purpose. Because the story takes place in the Mediterranean Sea, the most likely native sea monster would be the great white shark. (No large whales are native to the Mediterranean Sea.) Some great white sharks exceed 20 feet in length, probably large enough to swallow a man whole.
The Miracle of Jonah
Whether the “sea monster” that swallowed Jonah was a great white shark or some other large sea creature is not as important as the fact that the Lord allowed Jonah to arrive on the shore alive three days later. Only through divine intervention could Jonah be alive three days after he was thrown into the tempestuous sea and swallowed by a monstrous sea creature. Any who argue that Jonah’s story is a myth because no man could survive for three days in the digestive tract of a large fish do not understand the things of God. As an angel explained to Mary, “with God, nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). Our God is a God of miracles. As Moroni exclaimed, “Behold, are not the things that God hath wrought marvelous in our eyes? Yea, and who can comprehend the marvelous works of God?” (Mormon 9:16).
It is not clear whether the miracle provided to Jonah was to sustain his life while inside the fish or to restore it after he had died there. The poetic text suggests that he may have died in the belly of the fish. Jonah says, “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (Jonah 2:2). The Hebrew word translated as “hell” is sheol. This word means “the abode of the dead” (J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 1:318) and is used here “as a direct reference to what Latter-day Saints call the spirit world” (Nyman, Monte S., and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds. Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament. Religious Studies Center Monograph Series, Volume 10, p. 101. Provo UT.) Either the term sheol is being used figuratively or Jonah’s spirit went to the spirit world while his body remained encased in the belly of the great fish. The text of the Book of Jonah continues, “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul.” The related footnote in the LDS edition of the Bible states: “IE to the point of death” (Jonah 2:5, footnote a). The next verse contains a similar reference to the permanence of death. “The earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God” (Jonah 2:6).
Perhaps Jehovah sustained Jonah’s life in a situation that would normally have brought death, as happened in the case of Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6), or Daniel’s friends in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3). Perhaps Jonah died and Jehovah brought him back to life, as happened with the widow’s son through Elijah (I Kings 17), or with Lazarus through the word of the Savior himself (John 11). In either case, the continuation of Jonah’s life on earth came by the grace and power of God. The miracle, however, is not limited to the fact that Jonah’s life was preserved or restored. This harrowing experience was also instrumental in saving him from Satan. Prior to this experience, Jonah was shirking his duty as a prophet. The suffering he experienced in “the belly of hell” prompted him to repent. Thus, an important part of the miracle was Jonah’s repentance, which allowed for his redemption from hell and his return to Jehovah. The frightening experiences of being thrown into the stormy sea and then swallowed by a shark or other large sea creature were designed by God not to hurt Jonah, but to save him.
Jesus and the Sign of Jonas
Jesus referred to the story of Jonah to prophesy his own death, burial and resurrection. He said: “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-41). This reference to Jonas (Jonah) would have been extremely meaningful to any Jews who were trying to understand with the Spirit. They might have learned that Jesus would be in the tomb for a period of time similar to that which Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish . But the symbolic comparison between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the experience of Jonah in the sea does not end there. Jonah was buried in the sea and entombed in the belly of the great fish. His spirit may have left his body and gone to sheol (the spirit world). He was brought up out of the water by the power of God where he breathed freely in a newness of life. Being saved himself, he was able to bring salvation to the wicked city of Nineveh. Similarly, Jesus died and was entombed in the “heart of the earth.” While his body lay in the tomb, his spirit traveled to the spirit world to rescue souls there from prison (See 1 Peter 3:18-19; D&C 138.) Because he was Jehovah, he had the power to take up his life again. Christ’s victory over the grave allowed him to bring salvation to all mankind.
The story of Jonah not only provides a vivid symbol of salvation from death and hell, but also enhances the symbolism in the ordinance of baptism. Jonah sinned by trying to flee from the presence of the Lord. Before he could be redeemed, he was buried in the sea and entombed in the belly of the great fish. He may have died under the water. Finally, he was brought up out of the water by the power of God where he breathed freely in a new life. Jonah’s experience in the sea can strengthen our understanding of the following words of Paul: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore, we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). It is not hard to think of baptism by immersion as symbolic of being buried and then resurrected. However, we are normally buried in the earth, not in water. The analogy becomes more potent when we remember the story of Jonah, a man who was, in fact, buried in water and then raised up by God from a watery grave to walk in a newness of life.
A Modern Allusion
It appears that the miraculous story of Jonah in the sea is alluded to by Jesus Christ in his words of consolation to Joseph Smith. In the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, the Savior alludes to Jonah’s desperate circumstances and deliverance in a powerful assurance to Joseph Smith that even tragic events can, with God’s help, be for our good.
“If thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).
This message of assurance to Joseph Smith uses imagery that is meaningful even to someone unacquainted with the story of Jonah. If read in light of the story of Jonah, however, the imagery is much more reassuring. Those of us who recognize the allusion to the story of Jonah not only see a connection among the three images of being cast into the sea, a storm at sea, and facing the jaws of hell, we also know the rest of the story. We know that Jehovah intervened to save Jonah from the storm, the sea and certain death. We know that this terrifying experience proved to be for Jonah’s good. We know that Jehovah can rescue his prophets even from death and hell. Thus, the allusion to the story of Jonah adds a powerful assurance that fearful events such as these can be for the good of the sufferer.
Possible Book of Mormon Allusions
We have no direct evidence as to whether the brass plates (the version of the Old Testament possessed by Book of Mormon prophets) contained the story of Jonah. There is some indirect evidence that indicates that the Nephites might have known this story. Two of the Nephite twelve were named Jonas (Jonah) (3 Nephi 19:4). The brass plates contained many of the prophecies of Isaiah, so it is conceivable that they also contained an account of the story of Jonah, who predated Isaiah. The following passages may indicate that the Book of Mormon prophets Jacob and Alma were acquainted with Jonah’s story.
Alma may have purposefully paralleled Jonah’s story.
One beautifully poetic passage in the Book of Mormon is Alma’s story of repentance and redemption as told to his son Helaman in Alma 36. Some Latter-day Saint scholars have detailed five parallels between Alma’s story and that of Jonah. “Both refused to ‘save’ the souls of those they were called to serve. Both ‘died’ and were ‘racked with eternal torment’ in ‘hell.’ Both felt the ‘chains of the abyss’ or ‘everlasting death’ weighing them down. Both finally turned to the Savior, remembering his power to atone for the sins of all mankind. Both became diligent servants for their God, testifying of the importance of repentance and the effective application of the Atonement in their lives and the lives of their ‘charges.’” (Nyman, Monte S., and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds. Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament. Religious Studies Center Monograph Series, Volume 10, p. 102. Provo UT.)
At least two other significant parallels exist between these two stories. First, Jonah was in “the belly of hell” and Alma “was tormented with the pains of hell” for the same period of time—three days and three nights. Second, just as Jonah sought to flee “from the presence of the Lord,” Alma desired that he “might not be brought to stand in the presence of [his] God.”
Whether these seven similarities between the stories of Jonah and Alma are coincidental or purposeful, they highlight the repentance process through which we must pass to accept the Savior’s atonement in our behalf.
Like Jonah and Alma, many of us have been blessed with crises that forced us to realize we were headed the wrong way. Our suffering has prompted us to seek the Lord in humble prayer. After our contrition and confession has come the miracle of forgiveness, accompanied by joy and newness of life. The surprisingly similar stories of Alma and Jonah both serve to help us understand the importance of this painful process, which has brought many of us back to the fold of Christ.
Jacob may have compared Death and Hell to Jonah’s Great Fish
Jonah’s experience of being saved from the suffocating belly of a shark or other sea monster from which there was no conceivable deliverance provides a convincing context for Jacob’s words describing our deliverance from the terrible powers of death and hell. It is quite possible that Jacob’s description of death, hell and Satan as a “monster” alludes to the story of the “sea monster” that held Jonah in its deadly grasp.
In our time, the term monster calls to mind an ugly, usually man-like creature that may or may not be large. As used in the Book of Mormon, however, the term monster seems to refer to size, ferocity, or a combination of the two. In another Book of Mormon passage, the term monster of the sea refers to a large, fierce sea creature. That passage says that the people of Jared, who were in barges on the sea, were protected so that “no monster of the sea would break them, neither whale that could mar them” (Ether 6:11). Perhaps the word monster was used by Jacob as an allusion to the “monster of the sea” that swallowed Jonah.
Consider the following passages in light of the story of Jonah:
“O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit. … Wherefore, death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel. …
“O the greatness of the mercy of our God, the Holy One of Israel! For he delivereth his saints from that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment. …
“For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel” (2 Nephi 9:10, 12, 19, and 26).
The comparison of death and hell to a monster has value to any reader. However, the meaning of this passage is much more dramatic if the monster is seen as a sea monster, such as a great white shark, that has swallowed us whole, and in whose grasp we are suffocating until God frees us, allowing us to breathe again. Jacob may have purposefully alluded to Jonah’s plight to dramatize his point. A connection with the story of Jonah could give added meaning to Jacob’s repeated references to the “lake” (or sea?) in which we are tormented and give emphasis to his statement that we will be restored to that God who gave us “breath.”
It is interesting to note that the three things represented by this “monster” are the three things from which Jonah was saved when the Lord freed him from the large fish or sea monster. Coming out of the sea, Jonah had been saved from death, hell and the devil. His life had been saved; he was delivered from the pains of hell; and he had repented of the things the devil had tempted him to do. The connection to Jonah puts the intangible concepts of salvation from death and hell into the very tangible arena of a miraculous rescue from the grasp of a powerful shark or other sea monster. Few things seem as hopeless and final as the fate of a man thrown into the sea and seized by a vicious shark. Such would be the finality of death and hell were it not for “the greatness of the mercy of our God,” who “delivereth his saints from that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment” (2 Nephi 9:19). The miraculous manner in which Jehovah saved Jonah from death in the sea and in the belly of a sea creature creates intense imagery to help us understand Jehovah’s loving kindness and his ability to save us all from death, hell, and Satan. This imagery adds meaning to a number of scriptural passages, including two passages in the Book of Mormon, which, intentionally or not, contain interesting similarities to Jehovah’s rescue of Jonah from death, hell, and the devil.