Misunderstanding the Book of Mormon
By John A. Tvedtnes

Misconceptions abound concerning the text of the Book of Mormon, among both Latter-day Saints and others.

For example, how do people understand the term “curious workmanship” in such passages as 1 Nephi 16:10 and 1 Nephi 18:1? Some undoubtedly take the word “curious” to mean “peculiar, strange,” or, less likely, “inquisitive,” which would be the normal usage of the word in 21st century English. Its original meaning is “skilled” or “artful,” a meaning still retained in Joseph Smith’s day, as seen by Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary of American English. So the expression should be understood as “skilled workmanship.” [1]

It has been my experience that most Latter-day Saints believe that Hagoth, “an exceedingly curious skilled man,” sailed to the “land northward” and later to Polynesia (usually considered to be Hawaii) in ships that he had built, but the Book of Mormon does not support this idea. A careful reading of Alma 63:5-78 discloses that, while Hagoth built the ships, he is never said to have captained them. So he did not build ships because he was inquisitive about other lands, but because he was skilled in what he did.

One of the well-crafted objects mentioned in the Book of Mormon is the “round ball of curious workmanship” that guided Lehi’s party during their travels (1 Nephi 16:10). In Alma 37:38, it is called “a ball, or director … Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass.” Some critics have objected that the “compass” possessed by Lehi’s party is an impossibility, since the magnetic compass did not exist until long after that time.

Magnetic Compass

The word “compass” appears many times in the King James version (KJV) of the Bible. The verbal form means “go around” [2] or “surround,” [3] while the noun form means “round” in shape (1 Kings 7:35; 2 Chronicles 4:2), which fits the term “ball” by which the Nephites called it. Our magnetic compass takes its name from the fact that it describes the round horizon and the 360 degrees it comprises.

In a similar fashion, the compass used to draw circles by draftsmen and carpenters (cf. Isaiah 44:13) is tied to the same principle. So when Nephi calls the Liahona a “compass” (1 Nephi 18:12, 21; 2 Nephi 5:12), he seems to be referring to its round shape, not magnetic qualities. Neither of the two “spindles” or “pointers” inside the ball pointed north; one pointed the way the group should travel, while the other displayed written directions from the Lord; both worked according to the group’s faith (1 Nephi 16:10, 26-30; Alma 37:38-44).

For some reason, readers of the Book of Mormon come away with the impression that the Nephites must have written all of their records on metallic plates. Although such metallic records are now known to have been in widespread use in antiquity, only the most important things were written on them. [4]

Mormon wrote that “there are many books and many records of every kind, and they have been kept chiefly by the Nephites,” but also noted that his abridgment contained less than a hundredth of what had been written (Helaman 3:13-15). The only metal records mentioned in the Book of Mormon are the brass plates of Laban, the two sets of plates prepared by Nephi1, the 24 gold plates of Ether, and the abridgment of the large plates of Nephi that Mormon prepared and from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Most Nephite records were probably written on perishable materials, as in other parts of the world, so we should not expect to find metallic records all over the Americas. [5]

One of the most common misconceptions about the Book of Mormon is based on 3 Nephi 23:7-13. From this, many readers have concluded that Nephi forgot to record Samuel’s prophecy about many saints arising and appearing to others following the resurrection of Christ.

A close reading of the text demonstrates that it was not Samuel’s prophecy (Helaman 14:25) that had not been recorded, but its fulfillment. Note the wording of 3 Nephi 23:11: “And Jesus said unto them: How be it that ye have not written this thing, that many saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them?” There is no hint here that the prophecy itself had not been recorded, only its fulfillment. So Nephi added the account of its fulfillment (3 Nephi 23:12).

As for why it had been omitted, I suggest that it was because of the confusion of the moment caused by the vast destruction that had taken place at the time of the crucifixion, coupled with the three days of darkness that preceded the resurrection.

Differing Spirits

One of the most frequently-quoted yet misunderstood passages of the Book of Mormon is found in Alma 34:32-34, where Amulek tells his audience that “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors … do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.”

Some readers believe that the “same spirit” refers to a person’s own spirit, but a careful reading of the next verse shows what Amulek really meant. Speaking to these people who had already been members of the church, he declared:

For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked. (Alma 34:35)

From this, it is clear that the “same spirit” that possesses the wicked person and will continue to possess him in the hereafter is the devil, not the individual’s spirit. Those who do the devil’s will and refuse to repent will come under his power both in this world and the world to come. [6] King Benjamin had made this same point during his sermon at the temple (Mosiah 2:36-39).

Battle Wounds

Critics and Latter-day Saints alike have misread Alma 57:25 as meaning that, of Helaman’s 2,060 stripling warriors, all of them had “received many wounds,” but “there was not one soul of them who did perish.” Critics point out the impossibility that none of the more than two thousand wounded died, while believers point out that this was, after all, a miraculous event.

However, a careful reading of the verse shows that only 200 of the 2,060 had been wounded and fainted and that it was these 200 who had the “many wounds” but none of them perished. “And it came to pass that there were two hundred, out of my two thousand and sixty, who had fainted because of the loss of blood; nevertheless, according to the goodness of God, and to our great astonishment, and also the joy of our whole army, there was not one soul of them who did perish; yea, and neither was there one soul among them who had not received many wounds” (Alma 57:25).

A similar situation is described in Alma 49:23-24, where we read that no Nephites died in the battle, though fifty had been wounded and that “many of [these wounds] were very severe.”

Weapons and Armor

In addition to divine protection, the Nephites were protected by their armor. The term “armor” conjures up to the modern mind metallic breastplates and helmets, but this is now how the Nephite (and later Lamanite) armor is described. In Alma 43:19-21, we read:

And when the armies of the Lamanites saw that the people of Nephi, or that Moroni, had prepared his people with breastplates and with arm-shields, yea, and also shields to defend their heads, and also they were dressed with thick clothing – Now the army of Zerahemnah was not prepared with any such thing … they were naked, save it were a skin which was girded about their loins; yea, all were naked, save it were the Zoramites and the Amalekites; But they were not armed with breastplates, nor shields – therefore, they were exceedingly afraid of the armies of the Nephites because of their armor, notwithstanding their number being so much greater than the Nephites.

Note the also description of Moroni’s armor in Alma 46:13: “And he fastened on his head-plate, and his breastplate, and his shields, and girded on his armor about his loins.” In verses 21-22, we read that “the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments,” and “cast their garments at the feet of Moroni.” Had they been wearing the kind of tight-fitting “armor” we are used to seeing the ancient Romans wear in the movies, one wonders how they could have rent their clothes and thrown them to the ground.

Nephite armor consisted primarily of “thick clothing,” to which they attacked breastplates and arm-shields. Note that the passage mentions “head shields” (or “head-plates” as in Alma 43:38, 44; 49:24; Helaman 1:14), but no helmets. Indeed, the armor of later Mesoamerican peoples against whom the Spanish Conquistadors fought fits the description given here. They wore quilted cotton, with small wooden boards attached to the breast, arms, legs, and head. It is likely that the Nephites, too, used wooden pieces as part of their “armor.”

There have been similar misunderstandings about Nephite weapons, particularly swords. There is little or no evidence for metallic swords in Mesoamerica in antiquity, [7] yet many Book of Mormon readers believe that swords must be metallic. The idea is probably based on 2 Nephi 5:14, where we red that Nephi “did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords.” We know that Laban’s sword, which Nephi had brought from Jerusalem, was made of metal (1 Nephi 4:9), but this need not imply that the copies Nephi made were also metallic. In 2 Nephi 5:16, we read,

And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.

Similarly, the swords Nephi made could have followed the pattern of Laban’s sword and yet be constructed of other materials. From Mesoamerica, we know of sharpened wooden swords (some of them curved to make “cimeters” such as named in the Book of Mormon) and swords comprised of wood with inset obsidian blades that are very sharp. Several scholars have written about the meaning of swords in the Book of Mormon. [8]

Population Questions

Critics have frequently noted that it would have been impossible for Lehi’s small group to have multiplied to the “millions” of people described in the Book of Mormon. In response, some have suggested (correctly, in my view) that the Nephites – and especially the Lamanites – intermingled with natives who were already in the New World. [9]

In the Book of Mormon, the word “millions” appears only in Ether 15:2, where we read that two million Jaredites had perished in battle. It is never used in reference to Lehi’s descendants. Indeed, the largest armies fielded by the Nephites and Lamanites prior to the final battle at Cumorah numbered 42, 44, and 50 thousand soldiers (Mormon 2:9, 25), at a time when the total number of Lehi’s descendants should have been at its maximum (a thousand years after his arrival in the New World).

Even at the great battle where most of the Nephites had been destroyed by the Lamanites, the total number of Nephites was about 230,000, which probably included women and children (Mormon 6:10-15). [10]

Some critics have argued that the Book of Mormon does not provide for Asiatics or others being in the New World when the Jaredites arrived, since “the Lord commanded them that they should go forth into the wilderness, yea, into that quarter where there never had man been” (Ether 2:5). Reading the passage in context, we find that it does not refer to the New World, but to the Old World wilderness into which the Jaredites traveled prior to building their barges and crossing the waters to their new homeland. This kind of sloppy reading of the text is very common, especially among those who, in their desperation, grasp at any straw to try to disprove the Book of Mormon.

Animals in the Book of Mormon

There have also been unwarranted assumptions about the animals the Jaredites carried with them. The Book of Mormon notes that the Jaredites brought honey bees with them from their Mesopotamian homeland (Ether 2:3), but it never says that they brought bees with them to the New World, only that they carried them during their Old World travels. They spent “many years … in the wilderness” (Ether 3:3) and lived four years on the seashore before constructing barges to bring them across the ocean (see Ether 2:13-14). Since these barges were enclosed structures, it would have been unwise to bring stinging insects with them. Moreover, during the 344-day ocean voyage, the bees would have had no access to the blossoms that nourish them (see Ether 6:11).

Critics have noted that fish and bird species in the Old and New Worlds are quite different, despite the fact that the Book of Mormon says that the Jaredites brought these animals with them. Ether 2:2 says that “they did also prepare a vessel, in which they did carry with them the fish of the waters,” but this was when they first left their homeland, traveling overland. By the time they prepared to cross the ocean, they brought into their barges “flocks and herds, and whatever beast or animal or fowl that they should carry with them” (Ether 6:4), but neither fish nor bees are mentioned.

During their years of overland travel, prior to embarking on the ocean, the Jaredites “did also lay snares and catch fowls of the air” (Ether 2:2), but this may have been only to provide food during their travels. Though they prepared receptacles for carrying fish, the text never mentions cages for birds, which may suggest that they consumed these birds when they caught them. The fowl and other animals brought onto the Jaredite barges (Ether 6:4) may have been taken aboard as food during the lengthy ocean voyage. We do not know if any of them survived to arrive in the New World.

The Book of Mormon does not claim that American animal species descended from animals imported by the Jaredites or any other people, and we should be careful not to read this into the text. Moreover, it is possible that if the Jaredites actually introduced domesticated animals into the New World, they could have become extinct when the Jaredite nation met its end. [11]

Heavenly Light

Some have criticized the Book of Mormon because “the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces” (Ether 2:23). Glass is said to have been accidentally discovered by Phoenician sailors ca. 800 B.C., and glass windows did not exist anciently. This kind of reasoning again reflects how readers often try to impose modern ideas onto ancient texts.

The term “window” is frequently found in the Bible, but it does not denote panes of glass. As its very name indicates, it was an opening in the wall through which the “wind” could pass. Even medieval castles had open windows without glass and sometimes without shutters. If the Ether passage is saying that the windows would be “dashed in pieces” because they were made of glass, it would be an anachronism. But I believe that the antecedent to “they” is “your vessels,” i.e., the vessels would be dashed in pieces of windows were cut into the sides.

Each hole made in the hull would weaken the structure, and since the Lord told the brother of Jared that “the mountain waves shall dash upon you” (Ether 2:24), they would need some rather substantial barges. To be sure, there were holes for air that were plugged up when water entered therein (Ether 2:20), but Noah, too, had a window in his ark that he opened only after the forty days of rain had ceased (Genesis 8:6). [12]

Textual Errors

Some misunderstandings have arisen from errors in the text of the Book of Mormon. A good example is found in Alma 43:13-14:

the Nephites were compelled, alone, to withstand against the Lamanites, who were a compound of Laman and Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael, and all those who had dissented from the Nephites, who were Amalekites and Zoramites, and the descendants of the priests of Noah. Now those descendants were as numerous, nearly, as were the Nephites; and thus the Nephites were obliged to contend with their brethren, even unto bloodshed.

The wording of this passage, suggests that it was the “descendants of the priests of Noah” who “were as numerous, nearly, as were the Nephites.” In view of the fact that these priests had captured only 24 Lamanite women to take as wives (Mosiah 20:1-5), it is unlikely that they could have become nearly as numerous as the Nephites. I wondered if perhaps Alma 43:14 should read “dissenters” rather than “descendants.”

A check with the text of the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, from which the 1830 edition was typeset, showed agreement with the printed editions. But the original manuscript, from which the printer’s manuscript was copied, reads “de[se]nte[r]s,” thus demonstrating that the passage should note that it was the total number of dissenters who were nearly as numerous as the Nephites, not the “descendants” of the priests of Noah. The error was made during the copying of the printer’s manuscript, when the word in the original was misread. [13]

The most common misreadings probably involve attributing to Nephi some of Lehi’s or Jacob’s discourses just because they are recorded in 1 or 2 Nephi. Similarly, people attribute to Alma statements made in Alma 34, despite the fact that this chapter is a discourse by his companion, Amulek. We must also remember that chapters 8-9 of Mormon are Moroni’s words and that chapters 7-8 of Moroni are Mormon’s words. In other words, we should not always rely on the name of the book containing the text, but on the text itself.

These are but a few examples of the kinds of misunderstandings that can arise during casual readings of the Book of Mormon. They demonstrate the necessity of 1) continually re-reading the book, devoting time each day to do so; 2) pondering the text to uncover new insights; and 3) praying to better understand the spiritual import of its teachings. These are things that modern prophets have long counseled us to do.

[1] The word “curious” also means “skilled” when used in the King James version (KJV) of the Bible.

[2] E.g., Numbers 21:4; 34:5; Joshua 6:3-4, 7; 15:3; 2 Samuel 5:23; 1 Kings 7:15, 23; 2 Kings 3:9; Psalm 26:6; Jeremiah 31:39; Acts 28:13.

[3] E.g., 2 Kings 11:8; 2 Chronicles 4:2-3; 23:7; Job 16:13; 40:22; Psalms 5:12; 7:7; 17:9; 32:7, 10; 49:5; 140:9; 142:7; Jeremiah 52:21; Luke 19:43.

[4] H. Curtis Wright, “Metallic Documents of Antiquity,” Brigham Young University Studies 10/1 (summer 1970); “Metal Documents in Stone Boxes,” in volume 1 of John M. Lundquist and Stephen R. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith  (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1990); William J. Hamblin, “Metal Plates and the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Update No. 95, Insights (July 1994): 2; reprinted in John W. Welch and Melvin J.Thorne, eds., Pressing Forward With the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1999).

[5] Some such finds have been reported, but there are problems of provenance that require me to withhold judgment until all the evidence is in.

[6] For a detailed discussion, see John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, “Do Not Procrastinate the Day of Your Repentance,” Insights 20/10 (October 2000).

[7] A few examples of metal swords have come to my attention over the past few years, but I am concerned about their provenance and hence hesitate to cite them as evidence supporting the Book of Mormon.

[8] William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,” in Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (eds.), Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1990), 338-47; Matthew Roper, “Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (Spring 1996):150-58; Roper, “Swords and ‘Cimeters’ in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999):34-43.

[9] John L. Sorenson, “When Lehi’s Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992); Matthew Roper, “Nephi’s Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2003).

[10] Mormon numbers “men” who had been slain. The Hebrew masculine plural is used to denote mixed groups and, in the case of “men” is often translated “people” in the Bible. Unfortunately, we have no idea how many Lamanites there were in Mormon’s time, but we do know that they included dissenters from the Nephites. How many of Lehi’s actual descendants (as opposed to those who joined with them) were involved is a different, even more difficult, question.

[11] The book of Ether speaks of mass destruction of Jaredite animals in a time of famine (Ether 9:31-34). Typically, during warfare (ancient and modern), many animals die and some species or herds disappear altogether.

[12] In this passage, the regular Hebrew term for “window.” The word so rendered in the KJV of Genesis 6:16 is a different term that means “light source,” interpreted in ancient and medieval texts to refer to a glowing stone like the Jaredites placed in the ends of each of their barges to provide light. See the discussion in John A. Tvedtnes, “Glowing Stones in Ancient and Medieval Lore,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2 (Fall 1997), also posted on the web site of the Seer Stone Society at http://seerstone.blogspot.com/2006/01/glowing-stones-in-ancient-and-medieval.html. A revised version was published as an appendix to Tvedtnes, The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness Unto Light (Provo: FARMS, 2000), also posted on the web site of BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications

[13] The resource used for this information is Royal Skousen (ed.), The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text, and The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts, both published in 2001 by FARMS in Provo, UT.

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