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