Introduction to this Book of Mormon
This introduction gives a very brief history of the book published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, a text I’ve divided into three volumes. Thousands of re-tellings and summaries, apologetical and antagonistic, precede this introduction; so I assume the reader has some notion of what others have claimed about that book. The most reliable authority in this case is your own reading, and for that I offer no substitute here.
Published in 1830 by Grandin Press, a printer established near Joseph Smith’s home in Palmyra, New York, the Book of Mormon was little read, but often pointed to as evidence of Smith’s restoration of the Christian religion’s original powers. Mormons and their religion would emerge within a decade, and quickly that book was buried under dogmas of Restorationists, polygamists, nationalists, and currently, corporate-capitalists masquerading as a religion. That long history of reception, misinterpretation, bible-propping, and textual institutionalization you can learn from my five volume Cultural History of the Book of Mormon. I cannot summarize those volumes here.
Perhaps a single statement by Joseph Smith attributed to Jesus may convince you that Mormons and their Mormonism are as little derived from the Book of Mormon, as say, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy can be called “faithful” to Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They share titles, but one is a good book with a story to tell, the other derivative and full of spectacle. So, the statement: as early as 1832 Jesus reportedly told Joseph Smith that his company of religious restorers had come under “condemnation” for neglecting the Book of Mormon. Never was that condemnation removed. It is long past time to take our books back from un-hearing readers who’ve buried true stories under loathsome bibles and vain fandom.
The Book of Mormon tells two histories. The primary history concerns the clan of Lehi, and their nick-of-time departure from Jerusalem approximately 600 BCE. They eventually land by ship somewhere in the Americas, and are not the principal progenitors of the Native Americans, the Aztec, the Maya, or of any other known and named tribe or people. Nor shall we find their DNA labeled “Hebrew,” conveniently buried among, say, “Hopi” genetic material; and archaeology says naught about their existence. The people of Lehi, being generally called Nephites, built a civilization that lasted for nearly a thousand years, until civil war destroyed it in the fourth century.
Second comes a minor history of Jaredites, far older than the Nephites, but similarly fleeing destruction (not at the Tower of Babel). Their history is given near the end of the Book of Mormon. It is that people, among the Faithful exiled from Numenor, whose pre-flight story has now been told in Words of the Faithful. The tales of Izilba and of Zhera’ bring together the world brought into story by Tolkien, and that other tale perverted into scripture by Mormonism. It is my advice that we read the Book of Mormon within Tolkien’s “fantasy,” and that we realize that fantasy amid the Book of Mormon’s pretension to history. And I believe both stories are true. Really.
The Book of Mormon is a complex work derived from many genres and sources. I have divided that book into three volumes.
This first volume (introduced below) includes the writings translated by Joseph Smith from the Plates of Nephi. These were added to another set engraved upon priestly “small plates” kept by the line of Jacob, brother of Nephi. Its history begins around 600 BCE and ends four centuries later.
The second volume includes Mormon’s history as abridged and summarized from the Plates of Nephi, giving us a detailed history of Nephite civilization as kingship gave way to the reign of judges.
The third volume records the teachings and acts of the resurrected Jesus among the survivors of the destruction brought by his crucifixion, as well as Moroni’s translation of the more ancient Jaredite writings, given alongside his father’s and his own reflections at the end of their world. Most versions of the Book of Mormon combine these volumes into a single text, often regarded and read as “scripture,” generally to the detriment of the reader’s understanding.
I advise readers familiar with Tolkien’s writings to approach the Book of Mormon as they do The Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings. Just read it, and imagine as you do. The same can be advised for Mormons, here and also when taking up Tolkien’s vast library. The truth of them may be decided in time.
Plates of Nephi and Small Plates of the Priests
The Book of Mormon published in 1830 was a translation of stories compiled from several sources, all of them purportedly ancient and by divine influence conveyed to Joseph Smith. Together these stories give the two histories – of the Nephites and the Jaredites – mentioned above.
The majority of the history was derived from plates kept by Nephite historians, their records later being abridged and summarized in writings engraved upon a set of gold-like, rectangular plates. These plates were the principal source of Joseph Smith’s translation. I call them “the Abridging Plates,” being composed by the Nephite historian Mormon. His son Moroni, as an angel directed Joseph Smith to their recovery some fourteen centuries later. Mormon relied on many other engraved plates, however, when composing the history of his people.
In this first volume we cover at least three distinct sets of plates engraved by Nephi and his people. The earliest set was made for inclusion with the more ancient Brass Plates (still hidden), whose acquisition is recounted by Nephi upon a second set of plates. This second set begins at Nephi’s youthful kingship, and because later historians of his people continued his work by adding to these plates, as a collection their content comprises the primary source for most of Mormon’s history. However, that history is told mostly in the second volume of our series, being derived from those Plates of Nephi. A third set of plates preserved writings of the Jacobean priesthood, and they are called the “small account” or the Plates of Jacob. This “small account” given by a priestly lineage was kept on plates discovered by Mormon after he had composed his larger history of the civilization. The “small account” was then attached to his own Abridging Plates. Writings from all three sets are found in this first volume.
Finally, Moroni the son of Mormon later added to the Abridging Plates his own translation and history of the writings of the people of Jared (that history was derived from yet another set of plates), although that tale is found in the third volume of our present edition of the Book of Mormon.
As stated, the Book of Mormon that came forth in 1830 was not wholly derived from Mormon’s set of Abridging Plates, shown that year by Smith to a select few friends and family. Indeed, a few leaves from that ancient collection called the Plates of Nephi were recovered by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1829. From these leaves came a text giving the early history of Lehi’s clan, fleeing Jerusalem to land in the Americas. That account taken from the Plates of Nephi replaced a previously translated, short history of their flight as given by Mormon in his Abridging Plates. Joseph Smith’s original translation of that history was “lost” by his friend Martin Harris in 1828, leaving a considerable gap in the history and origins of the Nephites.
The history of the Book of Mormon before and after 1830 is perhaps more complex than the histories recounted inside that book. Just as fascinating are the mentioned source texts for the work eventually compiled and published as the 1830 Book of Mormon: Brass Plates, Golden Plates, letters, testaments, visions, sermons, Plates of Nephi, and more. Evidences of distinct source material can be recovered from the Book of Mormon, and an extensive argument is given in my 2011 book, The Abridging Works. Some of its complexity in composition I have partially reconstructed there, and readers may turn to that book if they desire to see the complexity otherwise hidden by Joseph Smith’s translation in 1830.
Mormons readers will notice I’ve removed familiar chapter markers and other post-1830 textual devices from the text of the Book of Mormon. Instead the text has been divided by themes developed during datable sequences of writing, attributed to various ancient authors. For example, “The Account of the Taking of the Plates of Brass” was composed by Nephi, and is its own “chapter” here. “The Wilderness Vision of Lehi” is another distinct text. Moreover, you’ll find in footnotes my interpretations of traditionally misread passages, steering them towards a fair shore far away from the bible’s long sinking harbor. Finally, the book wasn’t written all at once, and I’ve provided rough dates for the year of each text’s composition (distinguished from the dating of reported events).
Mormon or Latter-day Saint (LDS) readers will also notice – against tradition – that I have designated the current LDS version’s First Nephi chapter 19 as dividing the “small account” composed by Jacobean priests, and by Mormon later attached to his Abridging Plates; while treating material from chapters 1 to 18 of First Nephi as additions made in the summer of 1829 by Smith and Cowdery, being derived from the Plates of Nephi in order to replace the lost translation. There is more than a little evidence for this division, as you can judge from essays in Abridging Works. Although the evidence remains for the argument given in that book regarding the principal division between the sets of plates, I there incorrectly located the “small account” as beginning in Second Nephi chapter five. The location of the division between the plates has been corrected here. No doubt other errors remain in this edition of the book.