What Was Mormon Thinking? Or, 30+ Chapters on War Followed By One on 200 Years of Peaceful Utopia?!?

May 6, 2008    By: Jacob J @ 4:12 pm   Category: Scriptures

The response to my previous post could be characterized as a collective “that’s it?” but I know that what you really meant was “oh yeah baby, that’s it.” So, while I am on the topic of redactors working macro-level messages into the volumes of scripture the are redacting, I want to call you attention to a very interesting paper in the JBMS and get your take on it. In his paper Prophecy and History: Structuring the Abridgment of the Nephite Records, Steven L. Olsen makes some very intriguing claims about the editorial intent guiding Mormon’s abridgment of the Book of Mormon.

Why is there so much war in the Book of Mormon?

We often hear people opine about the verses in the Book of Mormon which mention that not even a hundredth part of the records kept by the Nephites could make it into the Book of Mormon. It is common wisdom that we should ask ourselves why Mormon chose to include this or that verse. This invariably comes up when we get to the war chapters at the end of Alma and we wonder what we are supposed to be getting out of them. I have always hated all our answers to those wonderings, but Olsen answers this question in a way that was brand new to me and I must admit that his answer has grown on me.

My attempt at abridging Olsen’s paper

Olsen suggests that before we get too far into the weeds speculating on the importance of the war chapters, we first take a closer look at Mormon’s own explanation of his sometimes strange editorial choices.† These comments, of course, are found in Words of Mormon (WofM). What we find when we read WofM closely is that Mormon was plowing along in his abridging and just when he had finished the portion from Nephi down to King Benjamin, he was digging around in his pile of plates and found the small plates of Nephi covering the same time period (WofM 1:3). He noticed that this “small account” contained a bunch of prophecies which had since been fulfilled. He was so pleased by this, that he decided to finish his record on those prophecies he found in the small plates:

Wherefore, I chose these things [the pleasing prophecies on the small plates], to finish my record upon them, which remainder of my record I shall take from the [large] plates of Nephi; and I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people. (WofM 1:5)

So, Mormon explains that he is going to choose which hundredth part to include based on the prophecies he found in the small plates which he knows were fulfilled. He says he will use this strategy to guide the remainder of his record, which includes almost everything following WofM in the BofM. But what does it mean to finish his record “upon” those prophecies? Olsen suggests that this is the key to understanding what is included in the rest of the BofM. Specifically, he suggests that Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11-14 serves as the template for Mormon’s abridgement and that Mormon is intentionally patterning his record after Nephi’s prophecy to show how literally and completely it had been fulfilled:

Nephi’s historical vision of the plan of salvation is, in essence, an extended prophecy consisting of a spiritual drama in four acts. Each act focuses on a dominant theme: the earthly ministry of Christ in the Holy Land (1 Nephi 11), the Nephites and Lamanites in the promised land (1 Nephi 12), the Gentiles and the House of Israel in the Old and New Worlds (1 Nephi 13), and the triumph of good over evil at the end of time (1 Nephi 14).

Let us take up the second act of this drama of redemption–the history of the Nephites and Lamanites in the promised land–because of all the acts in this drama, this envisioned history is most relevant to the historical contours we have identified in Mormon’s abridgment. This portion of Nephi’s vision contains four distinct but related prophecies: the “wars and contentions” of the Nephites prior to Christ’s coming (1 Nephi 12:1-5), the ministry of Christ in the promised land (12:6-10), the resulting four generations of righteousness (12:11-12), and the final annihilation of the Nephites by the Lamanites (12:13-19). When this prophetic pattern of events is compared to Mormon’s historical pattern, several remarkable similarities appear. The two patterns are virtually identical in terms of contents, sequence, and relative weighting of the depicted events. In both, the order of events is the same: “wars and destructions” followed by Christ’s ministry, spiritual utopia, and Nephite annihilation. The relative attention to detail is also similar. Considerable attention is given to the Nephite wars and to Christ’s ministry, very little focus rests on the four generations of righteousness, and a relatively greater emphasis is given to the final destruction of the Nephites. If viewed in isolation, such textual similarities could be considered coincidental. However, when viewed systematically within the entire historical narrative, the correspondence between the prophetic and historical accounts of these events seems to be integral to the authors’ purpose and central to the book’s overall meaning. It seems as though Mormon’s abridgment is documenting the fulfillment of key prophecies from Nephi’s vision. If so, Mormon structured his historical account to imitate the prophetic account in order to demonstrate how literally and completely those prophecies of Nephi had been fulfilled.

Olsen offers some more detailed analysis of the structure of Mormon’s abridgment in Alma, Helaman, and 3rd and 4th Nephi. It is too lengthy to include it all, but here is a brief excerpt:

I start with the contents that seem somewhat out of place in a religious record: military campaigns, political intrigues, and social crises. Mormon begins his detailed account of the Nephite wars with an explicit editorial shift (see Alma 43:2-3). Although he had known of and alluded to extensive armed conflict in his earlier abridgment of the Nephite records (e.g., Mosiah 10; 20; Alma 2; 15), to this point in his narrative he had chosen not to detail even one battle. In further contrast, Mormon had just completed a detailed account of the remarkable spiritual conversions and relatively successful ministries of Alma the Elder, Alma the Younger, and the sons of Mosiah among both the Nephites and Lamanites (see Mosiah 17-Alma 35). He had also included the verbatim account of the final spiritual counsel of Alma the Younger to his sons Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton (see Alma 36-42).

After focusing on patently spiritual matters for over 100 pages of text, Mormon makes an abrupt shift in his narrative. He acknowledges that Alma and his sons continued their missions but then explicitly states, “Now we shall say no more concerning their preaching” (Alma 43:2). This shift in focus was not required by a lack of ecclesiastical data; throughout the war narrative, Mormon intermittently refers to their ongoing ministries (e.g., Alma 45:22-23; 46:6, 38; 50:23-25; 62:44-51). Yet instead of focusing on ecclesiology, theology, conversions, and spiritual epiphanies, Mormon chooses at this point to focus his account of the next century of Nephite history almost exclusively on military conflicts between Lamanites and Nephites, fractious internal Nephite politics, social disintegration, and natural catastrophes (Alma 43-3 Nephi 9).

The inclusion of all the war chapters gets frequent attention precisely because it is so overtly strange and seemingly out of place. The ideas that we are supposed to learn tactics to prepare us for the societal meltdown which will precede the second coming, or that there is symbolic meaning in the war chapters to teach us about spiritual warfare, or other explanations like these which I have heard through the years, have never been satisfying to me. By contrast, I find Olsen’s answer quite compelling. If Mormon was trying to show that Nephi’s prophecies were fulfilled, it makes sense that he would include some chapters detailing the wars and contentions which fulfilled those prophecies. It also explains why Mormon gives us such a paltry account of the 200 years of righteousness following Christ’s appearance:

In addition to using Nephi’s prophecies as a model to structure his historical abridgment, Mormon seems also to have used Nephi’s prophecies to define the corpus of Nephite prophecy for his abridgment. Of the hundreds of individual prophecies included in the Book of Mormon, nearly all find their initial expression in Nephi’s small plates. Nephi’s prophecies are further reiterated, refined, enlarged, and detailed in Mormon’s and Moroni’s subsequent narratives. Not surprisingly, the prophecies anticipating Christ’s ministry, which find greatest attention in Nephi’s record, are those that are most often repeated in Mormon’s abridgment. By contrast, Nephi’s prophecy of the four generations of righteousness is repeated only twice (briefly) in Nephi’s account and only twice (indirectly) in Mormon’s entire abridgment (compare 1 Nephi 12:11-12; 2 Nephi 26:9 and Alma 45:12; 3 Nephi 27:31-32).

Parting thoughts

I think this paper makes a pretty compelling argument. It makes sense out of several aspects of the BofM narrative that have always puzzled me. After reading his exegesis of Words of Mormon 1:3-6, his interpretation now seems like a fairly straightforward reading to me, not a big stretch. I am interested in what you think about it and what kind of holes you can poke in the argument.

† Olsen’s comments about this are found in the section of the paper under the subheading “Mormon’s Preface.”


  1. Two words: sealed portion.

    Comment by clark — May 6, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  2. You lost me Clark.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 6, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

  3. Question: In what order did Joseph translate the books in the current Book of Mormon? I thought I heard 1 and 2 Nephi were not translated at the beginning.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 6, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

  4. Not only was the 200 years of peace summarized in one chapter, but look at verse 6.

    4 Nephi 1:6

    “And thus did the thirty and eighth year pass away, and also the thirty and ninth, and forty and first, and the forty and second, yea, even until forty and nine years had passed away, and also the fifty and first, and the fifty and second; yea, and even until fifty and nine years had passed away”

    Sounds like a “filler” verse. I wonder why Mormon found it so important to include it on such scarce gold plate real estate.

    Comment by zelph — May 6, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

  5. Sounds like a literary tool to me “zelph”. As in, it seems to me he was showing that nothing controversial was happening in that period so he was ramping up the year skipping in his record. A few verses earlier he had the clock moving more slowly and a few verses later he was jumping ahead by decades at a time so that verse fits very smoothly in between as a chronological transition verse in the narrative.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 6, 2008 @ 11:23 pm

  6. Jacob J, thanks for the info. I was not aware of Olson’s take on 1 nephi 12. It parallels much of what I wrote in a recent essay in The Mormon Worker. I dont know whether Olson makes the same conclusions politically, but it seems to me that the vision has some very serious implications as to warfare in the BoM and its righteousness.

    Comment by joshua madson — May 7, 2008 @ 12:01 am

  7. Just read the full article. That was really good stuff. a lot to think about. thanks again

    Comment by joshua madson — May 7, 2008 @ 12:54 am

  8. I think this is a good possibility as any possibilities are. I think it is plausible as well, and sounds really good, but there is absolutely no evidence for it. Just another theory among all the rest that have no evidence. I know the Book of Mormon is true by the Spirit. That’s evidence.

    Comment by Guy Smiley — May 7, 2008 @ 1:44 am

  9. I have often thought of the BofM as a type of inspired and inspiring literature. That is not to say that I do not believe it is based on actual history, but I have felt we were meant to read it sometimes like it was an inspired novel.

    The idea that Mormon thought about the structure and outline of the book as a whole as he put it together is very interesting to me,and make Mormon seem more real, more inteliigent, more organized, etc.

    This idea is new to me, and I look forward to my next reading with some of these thoughts in mind.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — May 7, 2008 @ 5:44 am

  10. #3, GeoffJ, it is my understanding (although I do not have resources in front of me to cite to the sources) that Joseph first translated the large plates, beginning with the “Book of Lehi,” and then picked up where he left off in Mosiah. This explains why Mosiah begins so abruptly without an introduction of Benjamin and why Mosiah is unique among the large plate books (and the majority of all books) in not having a headnote for the book as a whole. I’ve actually begun in Mosiah for my last few readings to experience how the material actually arrived during the restoration. Hope that helps.


    Comment by MattM — May 7, 2008 @ 6:06 am

  11. Here is a simple reading of the book. Mormon, the christian soldier, focussed his history on his interestes: war and Christ. After 3 Nephi, the Book of Mormon is basically over (only about 20 more pages from Mormon). The generations of peace get hardly any space, but neither does the end of the Nephite nation. I suspect that after treating the wars before Christ and the visit of Christ, Mormon ran out of ore or he ran out of time, or maybe he just ran out of gas.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — May 7, 2008 @ 8:09 am

  12. Geoff, there is a debate about the order in which the BofM was translated. I’m not aware if there is a consensus opinion, but I have seen arguments for various orderings.

    Joshua, glad you liked it, thanks for dropping by.

    Guy Smiley, the theory is not trying to establish the truth of the Book of Mormon, it assumes that much. As to the theory itself, there certainly is evidence for it, which includes the plausibility you mentioned. The whole point of the paper is to describe the theory and present the evidence for it.

    Mark Ashurst-McGee, I failed to mention the common view that Mormon included the war chapters because he was a warrior and was interested in it. Thanks for bringing that up. I don’t think that theory has any good explanation for why wars are almost uniformily ignored prior to Alma 43, followed by missionary work and ministry being uniformily ignored afterward (As Olsen points out in his paper). I can see the plausibility of your “running out of ore or gas” theory, which could also account for why there is so little written in 4 Nephi, but I think the narrative turn in Alma 43 is very deliberate and opens things up to a theory like Olsen’s.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 7, 2008 @ 9:41 am

  13. My point is that in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon we probably have far more about the realities of utopia. Both due to the writings of the Brother of Jared but also Mormon’s writings. There’s a reason why we have but 4th Nephi.

    Comment by Clark — May 7, 2008 @ 10:29 am

  14. Got it, thanks Clark. I’ll be interested to hear if they had universal healthcare.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 7, 2008 @ 11:18 am

  15. Sounds like a “filler” verse.

    “zelph,” a guy named Hashbaz on the MAD board had the following to say. He’s currently wrapping up his dissertation on mesoamerica.

    This [verse] sounds very Mesoamerican to me. 11,000 of the known 33,000 Maya texts are calendric in nature. That is to say, 1/3 of every Maya text is nothing but dates. It is very common to have a lengthy date given, followed by a “Distance Number”, then another date; For example, “9 Baktuns (400 years) 13 Katuns (20) 10 Tuns (years) 4 Winals (20 days) and 3 K’in (day) was the day 4 Ajaw 10 Yaxkin, and then 15 days and 5 score days happened, then was the day 4 Etznab 9 Sip”. Eventually you might get a single verb, an object, then a subject, then back to more distance numbers and date glyphs. The Maya were obsessed with the passage of time, and took the time to carve a series of dates in stone that are meaningless to modern scholars but would have served as mnemonic devices for oral historians.

    Comment by BHodges — May 7, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  16. I’d be interested in sources on the translation order debates, if you can dig, Jacob. I’ve always been sort of fuzzy on that piece of our history.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 7, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  17. Matt W,

    Hopefully someone who is up on their BofM scholarship will stumble along and help me out. The best I can come up with for a starting place is this book review of Metcalfe’s New Approaches. See expecially the sections under the headings The Dictation Sequence and Nonrandom Sequences of Lexical Variants for the question at hand, but the whole review is interesting.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 7, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  18. Got it, thanks Clark. I’ll be interested to hear if they had universal healthcare.

    Yeah, but given the abilities of the time that was probably worse than the universal health care in SLC in 1860.

    Seriously the problem with universal health care is deciding how to ration. Not much of a problem when there isn’t much to ration.

    Comment by clark — May 7, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

  19. [Editor: Inflammatory political rhetoric deleted. (Take it to Council of Fifty)]

    I wish the Book of Mormon was more spiritual and less violent. The images that some BoM passages create in my mind, are beyond R rated movies.

    Comment by Manuel — May 7, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

  20. I used to have issues w/ the violence, gore, sexism, and evil in the scriptures but then it occurred to me that we live in a violent, gory, sexist, and evil world, and whitewashed scriptures wouldn’t give us much material to either liken unto our fallen selves, prepare us for life in the world, or help us cope with the onslaught ofevil in these “last days” whichBoM prophets ostensibly foresaw. I would guess that Nephi’s prophecies–as Isaiah’–are multi-level as Elder Oaks (in a Scriptures as Urim & Thumim Ensign article years back) and I’m sure others have discussed.

    Comment by Lisa B — May 8, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

  21. I read recently where Gene Roddenberry’s concept for Star Trek: The Next Generation was that there would be no conflict in the series. And scripts written for the first season were to eliminate conflict as a dramatic device.

    Remember how awful the first season of TNG was?

    It’s just an aspect of humanity that we find conflict more interesting than peace. The record-keepers of the time were similarly affected. 200 years of marriage records, birth records, crop records, just didn’t have the Oomph that made for powerful scripture.

    Comment by V the K — May 13, 2008 @ 10:19 am

  22. V the K,

    I don’t know, I find the first 43 chapters of Alma to be pretty good. Plenty of oomph for me.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 13, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

  23. (apologies, threadjack to follow)
    The problem with non universal health care is that you have already made the decision to ration by social class or how much money you have. There has got to be something better than that. Also, I wouldn’t be so sure the quality was what you claim. Check this out.

    –end threadjack, carry on

    Comment by Doc — May 15, 2008 @ 10:45 am

  24. I was wondering if there is any mention of Joseph’s vision of a whole room of Nephite records along here somewhere or if only Mormon had access to these?

    Comment by Christopher Cavan — November 25, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

  25. Not the appropriate thread, but you might want to read this FARMS paper on that. There’s no direct record of such a vision but a lot of second hand summaries.

    Comment by Clark — November 25, 2011 @ 1:55 pm