I had originally thought about asking “Who is Your Favorite Nephite?” But there were too many possibilities and too many possible criteria to consider. Many Latter-day Saints have been impressed with Ammon’s courage, Captain Moroni’s patriotism, Helaman’s leadership, and the Brother of Jared’s faith (I know the last one wasn’t a Nephite, but we’ll expand the question a bit). And the list goes on. What about Sariah? Alma the Elder? Amulek? Teancum? Samuel the Lamanite? The actions of these individuals reveal something of their character and abilities.
For this essay, however, I would like to focus on Nephites for whom we have some access to their minds, to the way they think. And the quality of a person’s mind is most evident in his or her writing. This narrows the field considerably, since there are only a few people in the Book of Mormon whose writings have come down to us relatively intact (though only in translation, of course).
The obvious candidates are the major narrators—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni—since nearly the entire Book of Mormon has come through their minds and hands. Every so often though, we come across embedded documents such as letters from Captain Moroni and Helaman or written speeches like that of King Benjamin, and while these documents certainly offer windows into their souls, the glimpse is necessarily limited, capturing responses to very particular situations. Still, we probably have enough written sermons from Alma the Younger, over a number of years and in various circumstances, to come to know him fairly well. So we’ll put Alma in the running.
One might argue as well that a few shorter writings are particularly revealing, often because they illustrate some change of heart. The Book of Mormon has been accused of having flat, two-dimensional characters. This may be true to some extent (Laman and Lemuel seem to do little other than complain, and Amalickiah is just bad, from beginning to end). But some Nephites, through their writings, allow us to witness their development as full human beings as they grapple with difficult issues, gain broader understanding, and sometimes change their minds. I think that this sort of spiritual growth can be seen in each of the major narrators and in Alma, but we might also include Enos and Zeniff.
Have I left anyone out? Perhaps Jacob? Okay, here is my list of candidates, with a short description of the way that I have come to see them as writers.
1. Nephi. We usually think of Nephi as a young man, ready to “go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded,” but if we read the Book of Mormon carefully, it is clear that Nephi the writer—at least of the second version of his autobiography, which is the version we have—is a middle-aged man who is reflecting upon events from his teenage years (at 2 Ne. 5 we learn that Nephi is writing some forty years after his family left Jerusalem).
As with Zeniff, Nephi’s youthful enthusiasm has cooled somewhat as life in the Promised Land turned out to be less than blissful, with an irreparable split in his family and his siblings trying to kill each other. Nephi seems to withdraw into scripture study and meditation on the fulfillment of promises in the far-distant future. No other Nephite writer offers the same type of detailed interpretation and reworking of Hebrew prophecy as Nephi, and he almost completely ignores the events of his long reign as king as well as his relationship with his wife, children, and grandchildren (though there was undoubtedly more on these topics in his original history). In fact, aside from the flight of Nephi and his followers in 2 Ne. 5, there are no fully narrated stories after the family arrives in the New World at 1 Ne. 19.
Nephi sees himself as the last in a line of scripture scholars (“I have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews”; 2 Ne. 25:6) and he knows that the tradition that he brought from Jerusalem will end with himself. To me, Nephi is a tragic, poignant figure, who was devastated by the revelation, which came to him as a young single man, that his posterity would eventually be destroyed by the descendants of his rebellious brothers. It is interesting, however, to try to determine when Nephi began to realize that his disappointing life might actually have meaning over a much longer time-span.
When did he come to understand that the wonderfully influential book he had seen among the Gentiles in an early vision (1 Ne. 13:39-41) would include his own record? I think that this may have been a comforting insight that came later in his life.
2. Jacob. I don’t think we see much development in Jacob as a writer, but he is nevertheless an intriguing figure to me because everything he knew about spiritual matters came from just three sources—direct revelation; family members such as Lehi, Sariah, and Nephi; and a single volume of scripture. In fact, the Brass Plates was apparently the only book he had ever seen. What would your mind look like if it had been forged upon a single text?
Surprisingly, given Jacob’s brief contributions (just his own short book and 1 Ne. 6-10), he appears to have coined several dozen distinctive phrases, including “gathered home,” “infinite atonement,” “spiritual death,” “plan of redemption,” “nourished by the good word of God,” “clothed with purity,” and “keeper of the gate” (speaking of the Lord).
3. Enos. As a record keeper of the Small Plates, Enos’ contribution was a single chapter which focuses primarily on just one day of his life. He recounts how, after a long session of prayer, he received a revelation that his sins had been forgiven. What is striking is the way that his circle of concern quickly expands from himself to his people, the Nephites, and then to their enemies, the Lamanites.
When Enos came back from his hunting trip in the forest, he was a changed man and he devoted his life to hastening the day when the Lamanites might accept the gospel, and in the meantime he sought to keep the Nephites on the straight and narrow path (neither endeavor was particularly successful). If you were given the chance to write your life story for posterity, would you choose to narrate the events of a single day? Could you explain your whole life on the basis of one dramatic experience?
4. Zeniff. In Mosiah 9-10, we find the personal memoirs of Zeniff, the founder of a colony in the Land of Nephi. He wrote these two chapters toward the end of his life, and to me they seem to recount a slow transition from youthful idealism to a mature, wary realism. At every turn, Zeniff’s good intentions and willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt turn out badly. In the first verses, he tries to convince the leader of his expedition to not destroy the Lamanites and the result is a massacre among his fellow Nephites.
As part of a second expedition, Zeniff establishes a treaty of peaceful coexistence with the Lamanites, which is broken twelve years later when the Lamanite king attempts to enslave the Nephite colony. Zeniff ends his days by militarizing his people with weapons, spies, and slaughter—the very tactics that he had so forcefully rejected as a young man. And since Zeniff appoints his son Noah as his successor—wicked king Noah—his last act is, once again, to put his trust in someone unworthy of it.
5. Alma the Younger. The story of Alma’s conversion is one of the most memorable events in the Book of Mormon, and it appears to underlie many of his sermons. He tells of his experience with the angel three times in his own words (most articulately at Alma 36, with remarkable poetic form and astute psychological insight), and he continually reminds his listeners to “remember the captivity of their fathers” (Alma 5:6, 9:9-10, 29:12, 36:2, 29), just as the angel had first commanded him (Mosiah 27:16).
Alma is a man whose talent for persuasive speaking is turned from evil purposes to good, and we are able to see many examples of his powerful rhetoric (perhaps especially at Alma 5). In addition, I suspect that Alma 32, where he urges his audience to experiment on the word—which he compares to a seed—is a deliberate, thoughtful attempt to provide a more practical, broadly-available conversion experience than his own encounter with an angel or Korihor’s being stricken dumb (he seems to have won that argument only by means of a miracle, and he has apparently spent some time sharpening his missionary approach).
6. Mormon. Mormon offers us the most to work with, but we come to know his mind as much by his editing as by his direct writings.
Throughout his abridgement of the Large Plates, he is ever the conscientious historian—providing details of geography, genealogy, and chronology, along with primary source documents quoted verbatim. Mormon is famous for his “thus we see passages” in which he points out moral lessons for the benefit of his readers, and one of the most prominent of his editorial techniques is his careful matching of prophecies with their fulfillments. To me, Mormon gives the impression of someone who wants to provide a rational basis for faith. If you just look at the facts of history, he seems to say, you will see clear evidence of God’s hand at work.
One of the most striking, yet little noticed transitions in the Book of Mormon happens at 3 Ne. 26, where Mormon shifts from being a historian to being a prophet. Until that point he has simply been presenting the facts, without claims of revelation or special knowledge, but just when he is about to record details of Jesus’ discourse to the Nephites in which he “did expound all things, even from the beginning until the time that he should come in his glory” (3 Ne. 26:3)—details that Mormon probably felt would provide the most convincing evidence possible—the Lord stopped him, saying, “I will try the faith of my people.” From then on, Mormon is speaking for the God as a prophet, and repeating the things that the Lord told him to say, as in his introduction to 3 Ne. 30: “Hearken, O ye Gentiles and hear the words of Jesus Christ . . . which he hath commanded me that I should speak.”
7. Moroni. In many ways, Moroni’s approach is the opposite of his father’s. Where Mormon had hoped to persuade his readers through rational arguments based on objective evidence, Moroni realizes that the testimony of the Spirit is ultimately more convincing than historical data. It is Moroni, after all, who urges us to ask God “if these things are not true,” assuring us that “he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moro. 10:4). Part of Moroni’s willingness to turn things over to God may be his embarrassment about his own lack of literary ability, especially when compared to the Brother of Jared. In Ether 12, he worries about the weakness of his writing, fearing that “the Gentiles shall mock at our words.”
Moroni does indeed seem to be a reluctant writer. His main tasks are to conclude his father’s record and add an account of the Jaredites. It doesn’t sound too difficult, but he doesn’t even get started until some sixteen years after Mormon’s death, and then he makes not one, but three attempts to bring the book to a close: Mormon 8-9, Ether 12, and Moroni 10 (which was written another twenty years after his first ending). In addition, when Moroni does write, he tends to borrow liberally from the phrasing of his predecessors. In fact, some passages seem little more than a compilation of quotations from Nephi, Mormon, Joseph of Egypt, and others. For anyone who has struggled to put his or her ideas into words, who is self-conscious about writing style, and has to go through multiple drafts, Moroni is an author to love.
So here are the results of my own attempts to make sense of the work of seven Nephite writers, to try to understand their minds and intentions in a comprehensive fashion that takes into account their lives and times. Which is my favorite? I find each of them engaging and inspiring, and at various times I identify more closely with some rather than others, but for the most part, I am probably most drawn to Mormon’s diligence and rationality. But then again, I am a historian myself. Perhaps you see these figures a bit differently, and respond to others more strongly. But it is a blessing to be able to know them all, and each provides a model for our own attempts to make sense of the world and our personal spiritual journeys.
Grant Hardy is an associate professor and chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
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