Nephi’s Abridgment of Lehi’s Record
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.