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RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 1: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on February 8, 2008

Because I will myself be teaching this lesson, I’m going to do four posts on it, one on each section of the lesson. I apologize for the sheer length of the collected posts, but I do think there is enough here that deserves attention to make it worth the time for others to read, and I know I will be glad to have worked so carefully and at such length through all of these ideas.

The “From the Life of Joseph Smith” section for this lesson is a bit less helpful than some of the others have been (and will be, I hope). It does little more, in the end, than recount the most basic history of the time stretching from the first visit of Moroni to the translation of the lost 116 pages. It concludes with this unfortunate sentence: “This remarkable book, containing the fulness of the gospel, stands as a testimony of the truthfulness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the prophetic mission of Joseph Smith.” Unfortunate: the statement is certainly true enough, but let us not assume (as we have, as a people, historically done) that the only purpose of the Book of Mormon is to bear witness of other things, that the Book of Mormon is merely or even primarily a sign. (Cf., on this point, my own—hopefully forthcoming—book.) The Book of Mormon, as I think the actual teachings of the Prophet in this lesson make abundantly clear, is far, far more than a sign of the truth of the restoration, is far, far more than the testable fruits of Joseph’s prophethood, is far, far more than a document aimed at establishing doctrinal orthodoxy, is far, far more than an insipid collection of gleanable insights about how I might be a little better at being a decent human being.

Of course, to get a sense for what the Book of Mormon is, it will be necessary to engage what Joseph has to say about it.

The Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God

Three brief retellings of the encounters with Moroni and/or the translation of the Book of Mormon text are followed by an explanation and full quotation of the title page of the Book of Mormon. Quite a bit can be read into the former, and I think that they are especially helpful in establishing the way the latter should be interpreted.

The first retelling is shot through with a kind of startling practicality: Moroni, quite straightforwardly “being dead and raised therefrom,” appears to Joseph, tells him “where they [the plates] were,” and provided “directions how to obtain them.” Without the least ceremony, Joseph follows this immediately with: “I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon.” This almost too temporal, too practical, even too meaningless history appeals to no emotion, suggests no template for understanding, calls for no particular interpretation of the event. It is, so to speak, presented as a pure event. And this is, as noted in the text, so laid out in response to an unassuming question (one of a series published in the Elder’s Journal).

This contextless simplicity disappears in the second and third retellings. The second is from the famous Wentworth letter: Joseph is writing for an unbelieving audience that has perhaps heard a bit too much about the Church. The third is from a private letter to James Arlington Bennet, one of the more curious characters on the fringes of early Mormon history: Joseph is writing to a remarkably intelligent and equally witty opportunist who recognizes an undeniable appeal in Mormonism and an equally undeniable charisma in Joseph.

In the Wentworth letter, Joseph describes Moroni as first telling Joseph all about the ancient inhabitants of America before mentioning anything about the plates: Joseph receives a history lesson (“Here’s who I, Moroni, am”) and then is told that there is a text that tells the full story. There is a hint here that Joseph understood the plates to be a kind of confirming sign of the truth of the messenger who had come to him: Moroni was providing Joseph with a token, which Joseph confirmed by climbing the hill and uncovering the plates. The almost crassly physical description of the plates that follows only strengthens this reading: it was the reality of the plates that seems to have struck Joseph as so important. What begins to emerge, then, with this second retelling of the whole experience is that the plates mark a relationship between Joseph and Moroni, that they are bound up with their encounter in an important way.

In the letter to Bennet, Joseph presents the event (the “wonderful event” as he says it) of translation as a brave, though lonely, stand against the whole world: “I stood alone, an unlearned youth, to combat the worldly wisdom and multiplied ignorance of eighteen centuries, with a new revelation.” It would be rich indeed to look carefully at how this unapologetic way of putting things fits into the strange relationship between Joseph and Bennet, but I will mention only this about it for now: Joseph tucks Moroni behind himself here. That is, what was before a full-blown relationship, mediated by the text that passes from angelic to human hands, is now regarded from an entirely earthly perspective: Joseph claims his subjectivity over against the ignorance and wisdom of the world. And yet Moroni is perhaps not so obviously obscured in this third retelling: Joseph stands before the world “with a new revelation,” having been visited, that is, by an angel.

Weaving the three of these together, the manual presents a very interesting story. Joseph’s encounter with Moroni was real enough, and it was confirmed by an equally real and bluntly physical token. Joseph was indeed a newly called prophet, one who had communed with angels, etc., and the book was the evidence of it. Now, lest I be misunderstood here: I am not suggesting that the book can be subtracted from the situation, that it is merely the evidence. There is more to the story here, and that more deserves some thought.

Joseph seems, especially in the Wentworth letter, to have taken the existence of the plates as evidence of the truth of the messenger encountered. But there is a world of difference between the plates as evidence of Moroni’s being a true messenger and the Book of Mormon as evidence of Joseph’s prophetic calling: the plates were evidence not because Moroni could tell Joseph something about the physical world that turned out to be true (like a spirit letting someone know where a treasure is), but because the actual content of the text on the plates explores, explains, and details the meaning of what Moroni had come to Joseph to explain. That is, the Wentworth letter’s ordering of things should not be passed over too quickly: Moroni came to Joseph on behalf of his own people, came to go about starting the work of restoring the Nephites and Lamanites according to the promises that were made. Latter-day Saints are of course familiar with the list of scriptures Moroni quoted to Joseph from the Old Testament: Moroni came to call Joseph to the work of bringing about the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, and he came as a personal messenger on behalf of a very particular remnant of the Abrahamic peoples. The encounter was primarily a call, and the text—physical; yes, physical—is what articulates and explains the meaning of that call: the Book of Mormon fleshes out the meaning of this encounter (which is precisely what 1 Nephi prophesies: it is “the covenants” of the Lord that are taken from the “book of the Lamb of God,” not doctrines or ideas).

The full quotation of the title page, which closes this first section of the lesson, bears this out marvelously, especially since it follows specific testimony from Joseph that the title page was written as the last page of the Book of Mormon, and is an actual part of the ancient document. Two aspects of the title page in particular deserve attention.

First, it is worth noticing how much of a focus there is there on the Abrahamic covenant. From the very first line, the Book of Mormon is written primarily to “the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel.” Later on, when the author (presumably Moroni) gets down to dealing with the actual “purposes” of the text, he makes it as clear as can be that the primary purpose of the text is wrapped up in the Abrahamic covenant: “Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever….” This is the first and apparently primary purpose of the Book of Mormon. It is significant that Moroni (?) only then adds with the insertion of a careful “and also”: “And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ….” Though we tend to move immediately to this second(ary) purpose of the Book of Mormon, the explicit intention of the text is to fulfill the work of the Abrahamic covenant. (Now, of course that can only be done through Jesus Christ, and the Book of Mormon teaches that more clearly than anything else, but it is too easy for us, if we begin with the Christological theme to ignore the absolutely vital theme of the covenant. In other words, don’t get me wrong: I know that Christ is central to the Book of Mormon. But I do nonetheless think that we have entirely misunderstood the Book of Mormon if we don’t see how Christ’s revelatory and atoning work is understood in the Book of Mormon to be a kind of means to the covenant end: there is far, far more to the restored gospel than a merely personal influence of Christ’s love. And that absolutely must not be missed.)

Second, it is interesting to see how Moroni (who, I am assuming, wrote the title page) treated his own relationship to the Book of Mormon in the title page. It is interesting that he does not, for instance, attribute any of the text to himself: it is “An account written by the hand of Mormon,” with no mention, so far as authorship is concerned, of Moroni. This is significant, moreover, because Mormon himself universally refers to his project as the “book of Nephi” or an abridgement of the “plates of Nephi.” It seems to be Moroni who gave the whole project the title: “The Book of Mormon.” Of course, Moroni does work himself into the two paragraphs that follow, but the way he does so is very interesting. It should first be noticed that he comes into the story only when there is mention of the latter-day emergence of the book: “To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof—Sealed by the hand of Moroni….” Moroni seems to see his relationship to the book as primarily one of the last days, not of his own time. Morover, the passage in which he mentions himself can be read as a brief chiasm:

To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof
Sealed by the hand of Moroni
and hid up unto the Lord
to come forth in due time
by way of the Gentile
The interpretation thereof by the gift of God

This chiasm sets nicely in parallel: Moroni and “the Gentile,” clearly a reference to Joseph Smith (per the theme that runs throughout the Book of Mormon). Wrapped up in the center of this summary introduction to the Book of Mormon is a curious relationship between Moroni and Joseph, one that would unfold only in the last days, between the one who hides up and the one who brings forth. This confirms, interestingly, the relationship Joseph highlights between himself and Moroni: the plates and their transfer/translation are entirely intertwined with Moroni’s coming as a messenger from his people to ensure the fulfillment of the covenants made to his people.

Perhaps we should be reading Joseph’s reference to Moroni’s “keys” in D&C 27:5 a bit more seriously? What does it mean to hold the keys of a text? And what do texts have to do with the priesthood? Etc., etc., etc.

26 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 1: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. robf said

    Thanks Joe, lots to think about here.

  2. Carlos U. said

    Great analysis! But you missed one more quiasmic couplet:

    To come forth by the gift and power of God

    unto the interpretation thereof
    Sealed by the hand of Moroni
    and hid up unto the Lord
    to come forth in due time
    by way of the Gentile
    The interpretation thereof

    by the gift of God

  3. Carlos U. said

    In other words, the first and last sentence need to be split into two: Gift of God, and Interpretation thereof.

  4. cherylem said

    Joe,
    I am working on covenant thinking now – as I mentioned to Brian earlier somewhere else, I really don’t understand “covenant” as we use the term. Your post is very relevant to what I am thinking about.

    Thanks!

    Cheryl

  5. joespencer said

    Happy to provide food for thought, all. Carlos: Thanks!

  6. cherylem said

    By the way, I agree with you that the BOM is more than a sign, more than a miraculous manifestation.

  7. cherylem said

    Joe,
    rereading your post this morning, I am again drawn to the paragraph on the Abrahamic covenant. Especially in preparing for lesson #6 in GD, this comment draws me. (But this whole post feels like truth to me.)

    I am interested in the idea that the BOM was written “for our day” and how we interpret that phrase. For instance, I think that the phrase “for our day” somehow provides an easy out from taking the actual text in context seriously, at least in our church classes. (I know there are plenty of people who do take the text seriously, and some of them participate on this blog.)

    I am not criticizing the idea that the BOM is for us, in our time. I am suggesting however, that the ideas such as you present in your paragraph on the Abrahamic covenant (and throughout the post) are not widely understood, though they are clearly – oh so clearly – there.

    I’m going to use what you say here in SS this week, I think – back to changing my notes once again.

  8. […] RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 1: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith&nbs… […]

  9. joespencer said

    :)

  10. robf said

    Something that really strikes me as I continue to think about this is that, as with much of the gospel, we tend to treat the teachings of the Book of Mormon as another consumer good, something for us to consume rather than to use to fulfill covenants. How much of the BoM are we (as Gentiles) to be “using” for our own self-help or “spiritual growth” vs. using as a tool to “gather scattered Israel in” so to speak? Maybe the BoM is more for us to use as nursing mothers and fathers to nourish others, than to suck/sip/slurp from ourselves?

  11. Robert C. said

    Very helpful, Joe. A couple questions:

    The current paragraphing of the BOM title page seems a bit strange because it suggests that the fathers of the remnant of the house of Israel were the Jaredites, not the Nephites and Lamanites. Genetically/biologically-speaking, this seems not to be the case, but perhaps we should be thinking of fathers in terms of land rather than biology/genetics. Or is this just a result of bad paragraphing (or am I simply reading this poorly)?

    Also, I’m interested in why the BOMs role of convincing that Jesus is the Christ is (seems) only applied to the Jew and Gentile (singular??) and not the remnant—why is that?

  12. joespencer said

    Rob, thanks for these thoughts. I entirely agree that we ought to be asking these kinds of questions. I discuss some of the implications of these questions and provide some provisional (and hopefully thoughtful!) answers to them in my (hopefully forthcoming) book. Could we put it this way: we will get to read the contents of the letter only if we deliver it faithfully?

    Robert, I think these are very important questions. I do think that what we have, so far as your first question goes, is a result of bad paragraphing. If you take a look at the paragraphing in the 1830 edition, you’ll see that it was once far, far worse!!! But of course, there is nothing sacrosanct about the paragraphing in any edition: all paragraphing has been done by printers/editors. A very good first step in the right direction can be found in Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition. More could certainly be done, but he has done a great service to anyone who approaches the Book of Mormon through his edition.

    I’ve also been intrigued by the implication that the Jesus is the Christ message is only for the Jew and Gentile. Curiously, I think this follows from Nephi’s teachings especially. But I haven’t any idea how to answer that question yet. It is something I think about, however, often enough.

  13. Jim F. said

    Joe: Moroni came to Joseph on behalf of his own people, came to go about starting the work of restoring the Nephites and Lamanites according to the promises that were made.

    The entire last chapter of Moroni bears this out. For example, the verses we so often quote in missionary work, three and four, are explicitly addressed to the Lamanites (verse 1). Moroni doesn’t address the rest of us until verse 24. Then verse 31 addresses Israel (which I presume includes the Lamanites), and that address is specifically about the restoration / fulfillment of the covenant.

  14. cherylem said

    So, to me this begs the question (and Ben and I had a discussion about this yesterday), if Moroni came to Joseph Smith . . . to go about the work of restoring the Nephites and Lamanites according to the promises that were made, where is this restoration? It used to be assumed that this referred to Native Americans, but now that assumption doesn’t seem so clear.

    Ben thought (if I remember clearly) that right now defining the WHO is not as important as understanding clearly what the BOM text is saying. But, still Joe and others, what does this mean to us as believers today? Where is the restoration of the Nephites and Lamanites?

    Is it possible we have misunderstood? The title page says that the whole thing was “written to the Lamanites” but does not promise a restoration. The last chapter of Moroni is written to the Lamanites, but is it possible Moroni hoped that the Lamanites would read this text in the more or less near future? What does crying from the dust mean? Does it only mean that Moroni sees that he is going to die and this record is his last hope of reaching the still living Lamanites? (or am I showing my ignorance of the greater text by these questions?) In the introduction, what did “in due time by way of the Gentile” mean to Moroni?

    What is being restored by the Book of Mormon? A history of a people? A history of a remnant, now lost?

    (And Jim, did you see I referenced your talk on how to study the book of mormon in my lesson materials? I have a print version of that talk; is there one that we can link to on the Net? I only found the video version which may be difficult for some to access.)

  15. joespencer said

    Jim #13: Yes, exactly!

    Cheryl #14: I have a double response to your questions. First, I think it is especially the writings of Nephi (1 and 2 Nephi) and the teachings of the Savior (3 Nephi) that make quite clear that this is the inescapable meaning of the text. Nephi and Christ present something like the following model: the Book of Mormon will be revealed to the Gentiles, whose task it will be to take the book to the remnant of the Lamanites, and the Gentiles will then build up, restore, and carry home that remnant; and then the Lamanites, because they are within the covenant, will bless, exalt, and adopt the Gentiles as their own, bringing them into the covenant for their hospitality. Scary as this sounds, it seems that the Gentiles’ only chance, so to speak, is in their work of saving the remnant of Israel.

    Second, though: I don’t think we are ready, yet, to provide answers to your questions about what that means right now. Part of my purpose in writing up these thoughts is to summon us to serious reflection about just that question, which is not, in my humble opinion, being asked enough. The questions you are asking are, I think, some of the most serious and pressing questions for the Latter-day Saints, and we have almost never asked them at all. As for myself, at the practical level, it translates into this: everyone who traces her lineage back to the natives of the Americas is someone we ought to be seeking out, “just in case.” When we have more light and knowledge on this, perhaps that could be adjusted.

  16. […] RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 1: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith&nbs… […]

  17. cherylem said

    Joe,
    The thing that amazes me in this conversation (and in the BOM generally) is how this thinking (adoption, covenant, grafting in, interrelationship of Jew/Gentile) is iterated in a different form in Mark Kinzer’s understanding of Jewish acceptance of Christ, at least as he writes in his book (mentioned before by me) Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism.

    I think much of our understanding of the BOM has been impacted by the “religion of the American revolution,” discussed elsewhere on this blog and just elsewhere. This informal theology was widespread among the new Americans – and applied wholesale to this new revelation from Joseph Smith by its adherents.

    But as the Book of Mormon remains as the events of history move on, perhaps we can hear/read different voices, or read with new clarity, what the BOM is saying. So the questions, as you say, need to be asked anew.

  18. Rick said

    I’ve observed that many people think the words “testament” and “testimony” are synonymous. They are not; “testament” means “covenant” while “testimony” means “witness” or “evidence”.

    So although the subtitle “Another testament of Jesus Christ” was added many years after the death of Joseph Smith, it certainly confirms that the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is to reveal the covenant of the Lord with a branch of the house of Israel.

    As noted, the Book of Mormon is also another testimony of Jesus Christ. This is certainly an essential part of the covenant, even the focus of the covenant. But there is a lot more to it. It’s important for each of us to gain our own testimony that Jesus is the Savior, but that by itself won’t save us; making and keeping covenants with Him is required. And that, to me, is the main message of the Book of Mormon.

  19. Robert C. said

    Joe #12, I also wonder if the we might add to the beginning and end of your chiasm, respectively, a “record of Nephi for the remnant (first) and also the Jew and Gentile” and “record of the Jaredites for the remnant (first) and also the Jew and Gentile” to the beginning and the end. That is, your chiasm seems to highlight the parallels between these two parts of the intro, which also underscores their differences. For example, the record of the Nephits is written to the remnant whereas the record of the Jaredites is written to show unto the remnant “what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers.

    I think you’ve discussed all these issues in more depth elsewhere, but I appreciate the excuse here to look and think about this more carefully myself….

  20. joespencer said

    Robert, I like this direction… but I’ve got more thinking to do before I would have anything too substantial to say in response.

  21. […] RS/MP Lesson 4, Part 1: “The Book of Mormon: Keystone of Our Religion” (Joseph Smith&nbs… […]

  22. Beau said

    Could you come teach my Gospel Doctrine class? i have been reading chapters 6-10 2nd Nephi for almost 8 hours this evening and am yet to start my school homework because i am so deep into this. now i understand the meaning of feasting….

  23. joespencer said

    Thanks, Beau. I do hope this sort of thing helps.

  24. Beau said

    i noticed you skipped 1 Nephi Chapter 3. any particular reason?

  25. joespencer said

    ?

  26. […] part, this must be read in light of lesson 4, parts 1 and 2, where Joseph’s relationship to Moroni and the Abrahamic covenant is spelled out in […]

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