Understanding Words of Mormon
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).