Episode 36: The Book of Mormon: A Brilliant Mess, Part 2
Greetings! This is Chris Heimerdinger.
Wow! Another episode! Alert the media! This is our attempt to show appreciation to listeners by not leaving them hanging and presenting part two of “The Book of Mormon: A Brilliant Mess.” If only I was that thoughtful with Tennis Shoes novels. I’m workin’ on it. Go to www.ForeverLDS.com itself and read the latest excerpt I posted for a better concept of how far along I am. No, it won’t reveal when I’ll finish, ‘cause I don’t know either! Just reveals . . . progress.
One short aside: In Oct. 2018 I will start teaching a 9-week course entitled, “Professional Writing from a Professional Writer.” I’ll teach this in person at Bridgerland Technical College in Logan, Utah, but I’m also interested in teaching the same course online, interactively, on Zoom.us. If you’d like more info, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. First initial, Heimerdinger, at gmail. Lemme know if you’re inquiring about the Zoom interactive course or the in-person class at Bridgerland. Same course, but different evenings and a little different info. https://www.facebook.com/cheimerdingerfans/?ref=bookmarks
Part One of “The Book of Mormon: A Brilliant Mess” sought to reveal, or pin down, the individuals most responsible for our current quandaries on Book of Mormon geography and archeology. I mentioned Frederick G. Williams, one of Joseph Smith’s scribes and a one-time counselor in the First Presidency, who wrote sometime between 1833 and 1837 that Lehi’s expedition landed in Chili at 30 degrees south latitude. I looked into this in more detail. It’s true that later Church members, including leaders, referenced this statement, but sourcing it directly to Frederick G. Williams is fuzzy. A link to a compilation of verifiable sources on early Book of Mormon geography statements from Joseph Smith and others is included in the text of this podcast online. And this statement isn’t among them.
It’s reliably in Williams’s handwriting, but he never explained why he wrote it, or offered any context. It seems it drew attention from others in the 19th and early 20th century only because it was so doggone specific. Human beings like specificity. However, the idea was never repeated. And since Joseph and his contemporaries continued to write and speculate on this topic after 1837, the statement is now widely considered an anomaly. Albeit a somewhat confusing anomaly, but an anomoly.
Then I mentioned Joseph Smith, who wasn’t shy at all about expressing his views on Book of Mormon geography, yet never quite got around to presenting an all-encompassing revelation that settled geography questions once and for all. Why? Well, I offered my opinion that it was all part of the plan, demanding from Church members a little more. A little more faith. A few more push-ups in the cerebellum.
The Church’s stance on this topic today is firm and consistent. Whenever the First Presidency has been asked to provide an accurate picture of Book of Mormon geography, they have cordially refused, because it hasn’t been revealed. George Q. Cannon wrote in 1890, "The word of the Lord or the translation of other ancient records is required to clear up many points now so obscure" (George Q. Cannon, “Editorial Thoughts: The Book of Mormon Geography,” 25/1 The Juvenile Instructor, 1 January, 1890).
Clarification from ancient records. There’s an old saw. This translation of ancient records is presently ongoing, involving much exercise of the brain and considerable bureaucracy. It seems likely that solving future riddles on the Book of Mormon will be a combination of revelation and translation, which for Latter-day Saints is a well-established tradition.
If additional ancient records ultimately help solve ongoing puzzles about the Book of Mormon, it might suggest the culprit most responsible for our lack of understanding about the specifics of Book of Mormon culture and history may not be Joseph Smith. It may be Martin Harris.
That's right. The volume’s financier, who made it possible for the first 5,000 copies of this volume to be printed, may also be the most responsible for our geographic and scientific gaps in understanding. If not for choices of Martin Harris, many, if not most of the questions that Book of Mormon scholars and researchers have asked over the last two centuries might all be answered.
Yes, I'm referring to the loss of those pesky 116 pages; the same 116 manuscript pages that Martin Harris—against the counsel of Joseph Smith and command of God—was finally allowed, after repeated requests, to take to his home with the hope of appeasing his nagging wife, but only if he obeyed certain restrictions. Martin ignored those restrictions, showing the manuscript to numerous unauthorized relatives and neighbors, later losing all trace of those pages from his wife's bureau.
Rarely do Church members today actively mourn the loss of these 116 pages. Not since Joseph Smith confronted an anguished Martin Harris and proclaimed, "Oh, my God! All is lost! All is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned--it is I who tempted the wrath of God! He told me that it was not safe to let the writing go out of my possession!"—no, not since this time have Latter-day Saints been so bereaved as to "weep and groan and walk the floor continually" (Smith, Lucy Mack, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 1845, pg.138).
Instead, we’ve comforted ourselves in the miracle known as the Small Plates of Nephi. In D&C 10 it states that the Lord had prepared from the outset a "backup plan" to compensate for the anticipated "wicked" errors of Martin Harris. The Lord proclaims, "Behold, there are many things engraven upon the [small] plates of Nephi which do throw greater views upon my gospel; therefore, it is wisdom in me that you should translate this first part of the engravings of Nephi, and send forth in this work" (D&C 10:45).
Witnesses describe these 116 pages as having been written on "foolscap" paper, which was the common lined paper of the time. If we presume that the original 116 pages were similar in size to handwritten pages currently extant, we can roughly calculate how much of the total volume was lost. About 75 or so pages of the original handwritten manuscript are stored in the archives of the Church. We have these pages because of the efforts of Lewis Bidaman, the second husband of Emma Smith. They were recovered in the 1880s, badly water-damaged, from the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House where Joseph Smith had personally deposited them four decades earlier. These pages were about 8" by 13". Larger pages—6 5/8" by 16 1/2"—showing portions of First and Second Nephi, were also found. When interviewed in 1892, one of the original typesetters of the Book of Mormon, John H. Gilbert, Jr., stated that each hand-written page accounted for more than one single page in its final typeset form (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Salt Lake City: Wilford C. Wood, 1958, introductory pages).
Since the original edition of the Book of Mormon was approximately 600 pages, this would mean pages lost by Martin Harris might have added about 150 pages to our existing text, extending the length of The Book of Mormon by about one-fourth. This is an extraordinary amount of written material.
So what was in these 116 lost pages? We know that at least a portion comprised "the things which my father [Lehi] hath written, for he hath written many things he saw in visions and in dreams; and he also hath written many thing which he prophesied and spake unto his children" (1 Ne. 1:16). This is why Joseph Smith and others sometimes referred to these lost pages as the "Book of Lehi." However, Lehi's writings did not comprise all of these pages. These 116 pages were Mormon's abridgement of the historical affairs of the Nephites from the Large Plates of Nephi. We are told that these plates included accounts of the reigns of Nephite kings, their wars, contentions, and potentially other spiritual and cultural information dating from about B.C. 600, when Lehi first left Jerusalem, to about B.C. 130, or the reign of King Benjamin. That’s 570 years (see 1 Ne. 9:2-6). Mormon's official abridgement doesn’t start in our current volume until right after “The Words of Mormon."
The wisdom of God and his ancient prophets to have included the Small Plates of Nephi with Mormon's abridgement is undeniable. This material from the Small Plates is verbatim, exactly as Nephi, Jacob, Omni and the other six direct descendants of Lehi composed them. Without the books of 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, Jacob, and those shorter books, including the Words of Mormon, the Book of Mormon would have no exposition whatsoever. It would make no chronological sense. In short, it would have been a confusing hodgepodge as far as any semblance of a storyline is concerned.
So while the miracle and foresight of God and his prophets to have included the Small Plates of Nephi on Mormon's plates is obvious, there remains, for me anyway—and others—an aching curiosity that could only be satisfied if we possessed both records. Mormon and Moroni plainly intended to preserve all of the material they'd abridged. No part of their work was considered unnecessary, superfluous, or secondary in importance, even knowing they would later tuck the narrative of the Small Plates of Nephi at the end. If Mormon had felt this material which would have filled 150 typeset pages was negligible, he wouldn't have gone to the painstaking effort to include it in the first place.
Several excellent studies have been published describing the general nature of the material found on these lost pages by such LDS scholars as S. Kent Brown, John Tvedtnes, and Don Bradley. They readily admit that any conclusions are based on informed speculation. Even if their conjectures are accurate, they'd be the first to lament the their paucity of their analyses. Unless the 116 pages themselves were to re-emerge, somehow miraculously preserved, perhaps inside a safe box in some safe, dry attic or unless the Lord decided that sufficient time had passed that the risks inherent in retranslating these pages (as enumerated in D&C 10) had become sufficiently benign that a modern-day prophet could be reenlisted to finish the work, educated speculation must suffice.
So many issues would potentially be resolved if these 116 pages had survived. Because they comprised the opening segment of the record, Mormon would have naturally been sensitive to questions that any future readers might pose. Explanatory or expositional material is normally and logically suited to the first segment of a record. If this was also true for the golden plates, we can presume these 116 pages presented extensive cultural and geographical information that might have revealed critical details on cities and landmarks important in Nephite history, details never mentioned again, because he’d already covered that stuff in the opening part of the record.
For example, mapping the New World was a great passion for Spanish and Portuguese explorers. So much so that within a century of the discoveries of Christopher Columbus, much of this was already completed. Mormon was compiling information that covered an entire millennium. Even if we presume the Nephites primarily traveled by foot, there was much that Mormon might have mentioned about Nephite-occupied lands and territories, including information about regions that Nephite explorers had discovered, but never settled.
We have records from the 16th century documenting travels on foot made by explorers who reputedly walked from the vicinity of Tampico, Mexico as far north as Nova Scotia in a matter of months (Ogburn, Charlton, "The Longest Walk: David Ingram’s Amazing Journey," American Heritage 30, April/May 1979,). Another text recounts the adventures of a lost party of Spaniards who embarked by foot on a journey from Florida to Mexico City in only a few years (Adorno, Rolena, and Pautz, Patrick Charles, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. 3 vols., University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1999).
A question that often vexed Book of Mormon researchers was whether Lehi's party encountered indigenous peoples when they landed, some who they subjugated, others who they converted, and many with whom they intermixed. Might Lehi, Nephi, or another early prophet whose words Mormon abridged elaborated upon this subject? Might this topic have been covered in the opening 116 pages? This seemingly basic idea has been misinterpreted and misunderstood by readers of the Book of Mormon since its publication. On second glance there’s abundant evidence within its pages, as well as in the archeological record, that confirms that Lehi did not arrive to find an empty hemisphere. But that’s the point. It requires a second glance. This is probably because Mormon had already laid all this out on the first 116 pages.
Many of these second-glance evidences are addressed in Dr. John Sorenson's article, "When Lehi's Party Arrived in the Land, Did They Find Others There?" (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 1, pages 1-34, Fall 1992). One obvious example is sudden population explosions among Lamanites and Nephites, civil wars in Nephi's lifetime that might have otherwise been defined as "family feuds" without the involvement of other peoples or tribes. There’s also the inclusion of an episode from Jacob Chapter 7 discussing an anti-Christ named Sherem. When Sherem is brought before King Jacob, the brother of Nephi, Jacob doesn't seem to know anything about him. How likely is it that Jacob, a first-generation Nephite, wouldn’t know Sherem unless there were other New World inhabitants unrelated to his original shipmates?
Information found in those missing 116 pages might have expounded much more about the complex composition of Nephite, Lamanite, and Jaredite tribal identities. Suffice it to say that when Jacob in Chapter 1:13-14 and Mormon in 4 Ne. 1:36-38 and Morm. 1:8-9 decided to simplify complex tribal associations, it was either to save space on the plates or because such elaborations might muddle their spiritual message. Besides, it had already been covered earlier in the record.
First-time readers of the Book of Mormon often don't internalize that after Jacob and Omni there’s a gap of nearly 400 years—almost twice the present age of the United States of America. These four centuries are summarized in five typeset pages. Since Jacob and Omni didn’t feel compelled to provide a detailed account of politics or history on the Small Plates, it means that the first nearly half-millennium of Book of Mormon history is missing. It’s just not there. These kind of details were supposed to have been put in the Large Plates, or within Mormon's abridgement of the time period from Lehi to King Benjamin. This is exactly what the lost 116 pages contained.
If these pages were ever recovered or retranslated, many prophets now forgotten might become an integral part of our Book of Mormon curriculum. Their names would suddenly be as endearing as Ammon, Alma the Younger, or Captain Moroni. These missing centuries have always been a jarring element of the volume's plotline. Within just a few chapters after Nephi tells us about establishing the city and kingdom of Nephi and its sacred temple patterned after the temple of Solomon (see 2 Ne. 5:15-16), we learn that the Nephites no longer even possess this city or its temple. These lands now belong to the Lamanites. How the heck did that happen? The Nephites are suddenly living in exile in a place called Zarahemla among an indigenous population with a combined Jewish and seemingly Jaredite heritage. Nephite adventurers are already organizing zealous expeditions to reclaim the lost lands of their forefathers. Huh? How can I appreciate the reason for their zeal if I have no idea how they lost the land of Nephi in the first place! By default Zarahemla becomes the best-known Nephite city to modern readers, when it likely should be the city of Nephi.
The Book of Mosiah, which officially restarts Mormon's abridgment, begins abruptly with no exposition about King Mosiah. It opens with an address by a king named Benjamin. This is better understood if (and as) we realize that the lost 116 pages ended after several chapters found at the beginning of the Book of Mosiah had already been translated. Researchers tell us that what we know today as Mosiah Chapter 3 should have rightfully been Mosiah Chapter 1 (Skousen, Royal, "Critical Methodology and the Text of the Book of Mormon," Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, vol. 6, no. 1, pp 121-144).
Which brings us to the ill-defined cultural and tribal complexities at the time of the final Nephite battle at a hill called Cumorah in 385 A.D. The Prophet Mormon tells us directly that he is simplifying the history of the last decades of the Nephite nation to spare himself and future readers of the interminable heartache that he, himself, feels as he writes it. His other motive is to try and remain focused upon spiritual matters, and for the most part he maintains that focus. But not entirely. He can't avoid the tragic nature of what he’s witnessing. Expounding upon his spiritual message inevitably demands that he provide the reader with a historical context. He tells us in 4 Nephi 1:36 that ". . . there arose a people who were called the Nephites, and they were true believers in Christ . . ." Prior to this, designating any kinship with the suffix "ites" had been abandoned (4 Ne. 1:17). Mormon adds in verse 38 that ". . . they who rejected the gospel were called Lamanites, and Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites." So at this period in history identifying oneself with the label "-ite" is not racial, but spiritual. Presumably, even a racial Nephite, if he had apostatized, could be called a Lamanite.
Mormon further compounds the problem of tribal designation when he identifies two distinct enemies with whom the Nephites are at war: the Lamanites and the robbers of Gadianton. He makes this distinction in Morm. 2:27, 2:28, and 8:9, implying that the robbers of Gadianton have a separate political identity—neither Nephite nor Lamanite—but having enough independent power and clout that they must be invited to the bargaining table to take part in treaty negotiations in A.D. 350.
These complex intertribal rivalries later lead to the political morass of "one continual round of murder and bloodshed" (Morm. 8:8) which ensues after the Nephites are destroyed, with the Lamanites fighting each other, until eventually there are "none save it be the Lamanites and robbers" upon the land (Morm. 8:9).
Mormon or Moroni might have given us more detailed information regarding Lamanite and Gadianton tribal associations. Perhaps they could have taken more time to identify the contenders for power after their own civilization was wiped out, and even chronicled genealogies and battle statistics of the later civil wars. The Prophet Mormon certainly revealed his knowledge of the stratagems of warfare throughout his abridgment. However, in the end, Mormon and Moroni, perhaps by necessity, placed far greater emphasis upon their spiritual objectives. After all, they were prophets, not historians. They sought to write that which was pleasing to God. Moreover, in the wake of the complete destruction of the people that they had loved and defended all of their lives, such information—though it might have been helpful to modern readers and scholars—was something that, at that particular time, these men simply preferred to forget.
So the final culprits who hindered our pursuit of a definitive Book of Mormon geography and archeology may be the very men who made it possible for us to have the Book of Mormon at all—Mormon and Moroni. Who would hold this against them? Without their efforts, their sacrifices, we'd have nothing. We can’t imagine the challenges they faced—and for the most part overcame—to provide us with the record we now possess.
So for now, the modern generation of saints must content itself with whatever comes to us from the next generation of scholars, apologists, and enthusiasts. Such men and women will certainly build upon what has already been compiled, especially as other historians, archeologists, and anthropologists—LDS and non-LDS—dredge up information that sheds new light on ancient cultures from both the New and Old Worlds. Don’t entertain for one instant the idea, “Well, haven’t we already discovered most of what’s left to be discovered?” Every generation thinks that. And they’re always wrong.
As I’ve said, it's possible that God deliberately made many questions on Book of Mormon geography, history, and culture abstruse, holding His cards close to the breast (so to speak), and permitting us merely to "see through a glass darkly." If so, His motive is probably, as I’ve always suspected, to encourage His children to perpetually search the text, reading and re-reading the Book of Mormon's testimonials and sermons, waxing in greater and greater appreciation of holy writ.
Lest we forget, in the not-so-distant future we fully anticipate that new prophets will arise to bring forth new records and new revelations. Such information will certainly propel us light years beyond what we can presently see. When this happens, those of us who have spent our lives doggedly pouring over the Lord's written word, will, it’s hoped, find ourselves better prepared to receive the fullness of His intelligence and edification.
Remember, the views expressed on ForeverLDS are not necessarily the views of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its leaders, or its Ward Choir directors. They’re just my own ramblings. You can find this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and wherever the best LDS podcasts can be heard.
Stay close to the Lord. If you don’t feel as close to Him today as you did yesterday, please, don’t think it was the Lord who moved. He hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s waiting for you, for all of us, to come home.
Thank you for listening. This is Chris Heimerdinger. And this is ForeverLDS.