When and Where Mormon Wrote the Book of Mormon
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.