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LDS Podcasts: The Chroniclers of Cumorah
“The Death of a Prophet”
Greetings listeners! Welcome to our 26th podcast episode on ForeverLDS.
Today we’re going to ask a somewhat unusual question. Not one that’s often asked because the answer is already so steeped in tradition. I’m gonna throw a monkey wrench into all of that and present what might be some new ideas. I’ve touched on some of these in previous episodes. Now we’re gonna really do some digging.
First, the question: When did the Prophet Mormon die? Well, according to tradition, he died shortly after the Battle of Cumorah. Within days. Maybe weeks. Not much longer. However, let’s apply a bit of logic to what the Book of Mormon actually says.
The scene depicted in the painting that accompanies this Podcast may be perfectly accurate. (I dunno about that thing that looks like a backward baseball cap on Moroni's head, but the artist might have a reasonable explanation for that, so I’ll reserve judgement. Doesn’t matter).
What do the scriptures reveal about Mormon's fate? His final fate is actually reported by his son, Moroni, in Mormon Chapter 8:
"My father hath been slain in battle, and all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go."
What's interesting right away about this sentence is that Mormon, Moroni's father, already revealed to us in Mormon Chapter 6 that he survived the great and tremendous battle at the Hill Cumorah. He describes that earthshaking event as an eyewitness and laments the lost and fallen of his people. "Oh ye fair ones!" So an interesting question emerges. Exactly what battle is Mormon's son, Moroni, referring to when he talks about his father being slain in Mormon 8:3 and 8:5?
An easy answer would be, "Well, his father was killed a few days later. Or possibly a week or two later." Certainly that would still be close enough to be associated with the battle at Cumorah. Possible, but it would demand that Mormon engraved, at the very least, the entirety of Mormon Chapters 6 and 7 during that brief period. Remember, Mormon has 9 chapters, but the last two are written by Moroni.
Moroni writes in the first few verses of Chapter 8: “…after the great and tremendous battle at Cumorah, behold, the Nephites who had escaped into the country southward were hunted by the Lamanites, until they were all destroyed. And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people."
So he mentions the battle at Cumorah, then discusses the Lamanite purge of the Nephites who’d escaped southward—a process which undoubtedly took time, maybe years. Then he mentions that the Lamanites have also killed his father. He doesn't necessarily connect the two ideas that his father was killed at Cumorah, but he does connect his father's death with the fact that he is alone to write the sad tale of the Nephite destruction.
These same two ideas are connected in verse 5: "Behold, my father hath made this record, and he hath written the intent thereof. And behold, I would write it also if I had room upon the plates, but I have not; and ore I have none, for I am alone. My father hath been slain in battle, and all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go; and how long the Lord will suffer that I may live I know not."
Then in verse 6 he reveals the year he's writing: "Behold, four hundred years have passed away since the coming of our Lord and Savior." It may be significant that he writes "have passed away", not "had passed away". Using this tense we can feel confident that the previous five verses are part of a similar time frame, possibly engraved in the same sitting.
Again, it's 401 A.D. Mormon's description of the battle at Cumorah in Mormon Chapters 6 and 7 makes it evident that Mormon likely did NOT pass away within a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks, after the battle itself. We can’t nail down an exact date, but common sense, and numerous clues, suggest it was quite some time. Perhaps years.
Mormon tells us that the ORIGINAL history he'd recorded of events that he'd witnessed during his lifetime had to be abridged before they could be included upon the plates. Thus, just as Mormon abridged OTHER prophets of The Book of Mormon, he tells us in Mormon 5:9 that he ALSO abridged himself.
I believe all 7 chapters of the 9-chapter Book of Mormon (not to be confused with the overall Book of Mormon) were engraved onto the gold plates Post-Cumorah. After all, it was only after that battle that Mormon would have finally had in mind the scope of the fate of his people. He could at last lay out the whole vista of everything he’d personally witnessed, having the full benefit of hindsight.
As I mentioned, this is NOT our traditional conception. Our tradition suggests the Prophet Mormon wrote Mormon Chapters 6 and 7 while watching the sun rising on the second day of battle, as he lay in agony with a wound received on that first day of battle—a wound that many suppose ultimately proved fatal—and that he wrote these chapters at the summit of Cumorah, in the company of his son and the other 23 survivors. Then, shortly after he etched the word “Amen”--the Nephite commander drew his final breath and expired.
Personally, I don’t think this scenario is very likely.
It’s true Mormon was wounded on the first day of battle. How seriously? We don’t know. But we do know the injury wasn’t so serious as to prevent him from reaching the summit of Cumorah—whether carried or had to power to walk on his own two feet. From that vantage point he appraised his decimated armies and reconnoitered the position of the Lamanite camp (Morm 6:10-15).
After that, it’s a fair assumption that he and the other survivors “am-scrayed”, skedaddled, lighted out for the territories in search of safety and refuge. Remember, this is the land of Mormon’s boyhood. He knew the country well—probably better than the invaders. So it’s probable such a hiding place had been pre-determined.
From there, it's reasonable and practical to conclude that he and the others accommodated themselves with the necessities of life—food, water, shelter. These were precisely the conditions that would have allowed Mormon to clear his mind and focus upon completing his personal contribution to the plates.
How long, exactly, did THAT take? Hard to say. At the very least I think we're talkin' months, possibly years. The language of Mormon Chapter 7 is visceral and oppressive. It reads like a man’s conclusory verses. Mormon's intent was to wrap things up. As I said, it closes with "Amen"—a word Mormon hadn’t previously employed unless quoting another prophet. Mormon's life’s work, abridging the sacred records of his people, had reached its conclusion.
As I said, Mormon Chapters 8 and 9, written by Moroni, were written 16 years AFTER the battle at Cumorah—in 401 A.D. Lucky for Moroni—or perhaps I should say lucky for us—Mormon had left a little room on the plates so that his son could add just a few more thoughts and observations. But talk about BLEAK! Compared to Moroni's tone in Mormon 8 and 9, his father’s words in Mormon 6 and 7 read like a ray of sunshine! Thankfully, that’s not where the Book of Mormon ends. We can feel grateful that the record doesn't close on such a downer.
Now . . . WHY did Moroni wait 16 years to "fill in" the limited space his father had left on the plates? Moroni tells us directly in the first verses of Mormon 8 that by adding to the plates he is fulfilling a direct commandment from his father. This is intriguing. It suggests that Mormon survived quite some time after he'd etched Mormon 7. In fact, he survived for so long that he began to feel the record wasn’t complete. He decided his son ought to contribute more, perhaps provide readers with an update of what they’d both observed since Cumorah.
They’d actually observed a lot. Moroni describes how event-filled those 16 years were in Mormon 8. ". . . The Lamanites have hunted my people, the Nephites, down from city to city and from place to place . . ." ". . . the Lamanites are at war one with another; and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war." That phrase, "and no one knoweth the end of the war", gives us a sense of perspective, right? The passage of time. Some notion that what Moroni is observing has been going on for a while. ". . . there are none save it be the Lamanites and robbers that do exist upon the face of the land . . ."
That designation, by the way, Lamanites and robbers as two separate and distinct tribes or races, is made in other places toward the end of The Book of Mormon. This is yet another hint of the volume’s complexity, and of Mormon's effort to simplify it. It’s likely that those whom Mormon labeled Gadiantons during this phase of history were, in a racial sense, neither Nephite nor Lamanite. But Mormon didn't want to waste space explaining all that.
Anyway, that's what been happening for the last 16 years. It's been a trauma-filled, grief-filled, pain-filled struggle for survival. By 401 A.D. Moroni is about as emotionally, and perhaps physically, exhausted as a man can be. So what set Moroni off? What prompted him to write those final chapters of Mormon, when he was possibly at his lowest? I suspect something had recently occurred that led Moroni to believe the time was right—potentially imperative. One answer would make a lot of sense: He wrote those chapters because he’d recently experienced the death of his father.
All we know for certain about Mormon’s death is that he was killed by his enemies in battle. How do we know this? Because Moroni tells us in Morm 8:3 and 8:5. So if Mormon perished on the battlefield, what "battle" are we talking about? Certainly not Cumorah. Mormon survived Cumorah. So…are we talking about a battle post-Cumorah?
Here is where we start to realize that history is rarely, if ever, so neat and tidy as to think every semblance of Nephite culture and tribal affinity disappeared after one single tremendous day of battle. That no pockets of resistance held out. That no one went into hiding to recover, reorganize, lick their wounds.
So again, what battle is Moroni referring to after his description of Nephites escaping into the south country and being hunted by the Lamanites until they were all destroyed. Next verse, verse 3: "And my father also was killed by them. Then verse 5: My father hath been slain in battle"?
It’s important to note, Moroni might not be talking about any kind of large, organized, “official” (quote-unquote) battle. In Moroni’s mind, the whole conflict that involved the destruction of the Nephites might well have been classified as one continuous battle. Perhaps another historian would describe the clash where Mormon was killed as more of a skirmish.
The great prophet might have been caught in the open. He might have even been captured and executed. To the western mind if a soldier surrenders and is later executed, we’d likely resist saying this soldier was killed in battle. However, the difference is semantical. It hardly matters one way or the other, so perhaps to the Mesoamerican mind, in Moroni’s culture, to say that his father died in battle, even if captured and executed, would be synonymous.
Okay—Is it possible that Mormon died of injuries sustained on the first day of the Battle of Cumorah? That he lingered for months and finally expired and that this is what his son means when he writes that his father died in battle? Possibly. But certain things we read in the scriptures—not the least of which is the way his son, Moroni, reports his father's death. Moron wrote Mormon Chapters 8 and 9 in a state of despondency. Wither I go it mattereth not. Those words suddenly make sense if we consider that his father had recently been killed. Not the day before. My instincts would say it was a year, perhaps two years before. By the way, my instincts are certainly not revelation. Don't think for a minute I'm claiming the Spirit has verified anything I'm telling you. It's just . . . instinct. Take it for what it is.
For whatever reason, Moroni didn't feel that giving us the exact details of how his father was killed was relevant. The details might’ve been too painful. Or maybe—as I’ve already suggested—the memory of his father's death is especially poignant because it occurred RECENTLY.
Are there other reasons to suspect Mormon lived considerably beyond the battle of Cumorah?
Yes, there are.
Reason 1, as I’ve already alluded: The order in which Mormon lays out what happened. Prior to mentioning his father's death, Moroni describes a process which could have taken months, possibly years, to play out—his statement about Nephite survivors escaping into the land southward to be hunted and hunted "until they were all destroyed." Only after Moroni chronicles this detail does he report his father's death. It’s natural for authors to write events in sequential order. Do they have to? No, but it’s normal, natural.
By itself, this point doesn’t really tell us much. So consider:
Reason 2. Moroni's phrasing implies that only AFTER his father's death did he consider himself "alone". He joins these two thoughts: "...my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone..." Again, the sequential nature of two ideas.
Considering how complicated and messy history generally is, there were probably many pockets of Nephite survivors. Remember, the term Nephite was not a racial term by this period as much as a religious, and then a political identification. Anyone sympathetic to the Nephite cause mighta been lumped in with the Nephites, including Lamanite settlers who refused to join in the slaughter, or inhabitants of the region with no affiliation to any of the warring tribes. So when Moroni claims his father was killed in battle, he may be referencing an actual battle, but not the great battle at Cumorah. A battle or skirmish that took place later, perhaps more than a decade after 385 AD.
There's even more we could get into here, because I've always wondered, if every Nephite was as corrupt as Mormon characterized them in Mormon 2:13-15, Mormon 3:3, and Mormon 4:10-12, to whom was Moroni teaching sacramental prayers and the proper methods of baptism and ordination in the first six chapters of Moroni? Who was attending the meetings Moroni described in Moroni 6:9? It's possible that Moroni was just recording vital church practices that he realized were missing from his father's plates. But then, who were the "peaceable followers of Christ" that Mormon was addressing in a beautiful sermon that Moroni reprinted in Moroni Chapter 7? So many fascinating questions, so little time. We'll leave all of that for another podcast.
I'm fully aware that Mormon writes in verse 15 of Mormon 6: ". . . even all my people, save it were those twenty and four who were with me, and also a few who had escaped into the south countries, and a few who had deserted over unto the Lamanites, had fallen."
That's a neat and tidy simplification. It might even be perfectly true and accurate. But there's a few phrases in there which are subject to quotes, meaning we don't know exactly how Mormon meant them to be interpreted. Two are "a few who escaped" and "a few who deserted." How many is a few? Another is "all my people." Considering that tribal designations became much foggier after the coming of the Savior according to 4 Nephi:17 and 4 Nephi: 36-38, when Mormon writes "all my people" might he be strictly referring to "all those under my command," allowing for the possibility of some Nephite groups—offshoots who may have broken away close to the timeframe of the great battle—were not numbered among his people? Would not submit to Mormon's command? One thing that many Book of Mormon researchers have attested is that the designation of "Nephite" was political rather than biological. It was a designation of loyalty, not race.
I've always found it interesting that the Prophet Mormon pronounced that he was a direct descendant of Nephi, possibly a full blood descendant (Mormon 1:5). And yet when Moroni had the opportunity to make the same pronouncement, he declined. In Mormon 8:13, Moroni writes, "Behold, I make an end of speaking concerning this people. I am the son of Mormon, and my father was a descendant of Nephi." It's possible that Moroni chose to distinguish, perhaps honor, his father in that instance, and not focus upon himself. It's also possible that Moroni's mother was not a biological Nephite, and Moroni knew it was inaccurate to give himself that designation.
Such marvelous little details. Now we're starting to talk about a civilization as complex as any that have ever dotted the earth. No way Joseph Smith could have slipped those gems into The Book of Mormon. Gems that confirm its authenticity and place it beyond the realm of imagination. Does anyone realize how hard it would be to make this stuff up? I've written novels—complicated novels—and I get caught introducing unintended errors and contradictions all the time. Not just grammar or spelling. I've been caught multiple times naming one character when I meant to name another. Saying one character had a daughter and later saying it was a son. Sometimes these can be printer or editorial errors, but the point is that so few of these are evident from the very first edition of The Book of Mormon to the latest edition, that it becomes a staggering testament of how magnificent that volume is.
Mormon's own childhood, discussed in just a few short verses of the book that bears his name, reveals an extraordinary amount of information that we just don't have time to discuss. Perhaps in another podcast.
Reason 3 to believe Mormon lived years beyond the battle of Cumorah. In 401 A.D., Moroni is adamant that he is writing to fulfill his father's command. This may be one of the strongest rationales for thinking Mormon was at his side until very recently. If Moroni’s father had given Moroni this command 16 years earlier, why did he take so doggone long to obey? If nothing else, Moroni was an obedient son. He deeply loved and respected his father. He’d have considered such a command a sacred edict. He'd have fulfilled it as soon as possible. So why wait 16 years?
The only thing that explains this procrastination is that his father was still alive. If Dad is still around, what's the pressure—what’s the rush—to add to the plates? If Mormon had perished shortly after Cumorah, do we really think that Moroni would wait 16 years, especially considering that he, himself, was a hunted man and could be slain at any moment?
I suppose we could speculate some possibilities for why he waited that long. Perhaps the plates weren’t available to Moroni. Except that in Mormon 6:6 it specifically states otherwise. In this verse Mormon reports giving the plates of the Book of Mormon to his son.
Finally, in 401 A.D.—after a reasonable period of mourning—Moroni sits down, at last, to fulfil Mormon’s command—perhaps the prophet’s final command—maybe the last words his father ever spoke. Like his father, after completing Mormon 8 and 9, he ALSO adds the word "Amen". Like Mormon, Moroni also felt his contribution would close out the record. However—surprise, surprise!—it WASN'T finished.
And thank goodness for that! Sometime after 401 A.D. Moroni found the ore to fashion additional plates and provided to us the miraculous abridgement of the 24 gold plates of the Prophet Ether. He also added his own ten glorious chapters known as the Book of Moroni.
There is one additional point of reflection that suggests Mormon lived well beyond the battle at Cumorah.
Reason 4: In Mormon Chapter 8, right after talking about how the Lamanites are hunting down Nephite survivors who will not deny the Christ, and the Lamanites are warring with each other and how ". . . there are none save it be the Lamanites and robbers that do exist upon the face of the land", Moroni mentions the following event, starting at verse 10: "And there are none that do know the true God save it be the disciples of Jesus, who did tarry in the land . . ." Who are we talking about? The Three Nephites, of course. Those 3 disciples touched by the finger of Christ and blessed that they would live to the end of the world and not suffer death.
Moroni writes, ". . . there are none that do know the true God save it be the disciples of Jesus who did tarry in the land until the wickedness of the people was so great that the Lord would not suffer them to remain with the people; and whether they be upon the face of the land no man knoweth. But behold, my father and I have seen them, and they have ministered unto us."
"My father and I have seen them . . ." Note: This is the last actual historical event that Moroni etched upon the plates he received from his father. It's interesting that he mentions this event after the battle at Cumorah, after his description of all the terrible things that are happening in the land with the Lamanites and the Gadiantons embroiled in civil war. Again, nothing says that Moroni had to write about such events in sequential order. This meeting between Mormon, Moroni, and the 3 Nephites could have occurred decades earlier. But writing in sequential order is our nature and habit, and the fact that this meeting with the Three Nephites is characterized as a private event, attended by only Moroni and his father, suggests it took place after the Cumorah battle, perhaps long after it, in the wake of all the devastating things Moroni describes.
I presume it occurred in a safe location, some distance removed from areas ravaged by death, war, and corruption. My own sense is that this ministering happened very near the end of the Prophet Mormon's life, a sacred and holy moment shared by father and son, specifically intended to comfort and reassure them of the monumental nature of what they had accomplished, and the significance of what their work would one day mean to the world, at a time when everything might have appeared to both men particularly bleak, as if, perhaps, all their labors and sacrifices, pain and trials, had been in vain. Such emotions are only human. And these men are human beings.
It's a lovely image. Sweet. Dramatic. Perhaps exactly the interpretation one might expect from a novelist like myself. But beyond its poignancy and beauty, it's also logical and plausible.
So once again, my primary point, beyond any and all speculations or theories about the whats and wherefores of the volume, is that the sheer complexity, the humanity, the dimensions we discover without delving all-too deeply into the verses of the Book of Mormon, continues to serve as a vivid testimonial of its truthfulness and power. The Prophet Mormon lived. The Prophet Mormon died. And his legacy is the extraordinary record he left behind for all of humanity in the Latter-days to read, pray about, ponder, and celebrate.
Thank you for listening to this Podcast. Join us again in a couple weeks as we continue to discuss and celebrate all aspects of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Stay close to the Lord. How do you do that? You talk to Him. You listen. Not just when you wake up in the morning or go to sleep at night. Throughout the day. Right now. What does it mean to always have a prayer in your heart? Probably a topic for another podcast. For now, just think of it as continually communicating with your Father in Heaven, seeking guidance, expressing gratitude. Striving to know what to do next. How to spend the next hour of your life in the way that will produce the greatest possible good.
And if you don’t feel as close to the Lord today as you did yesterday—Who moved?
This is Chris Heimerdinger. And this is ForeverLDS.