The Book of Mormon:
Another Testament of Jesus Christ
One of the most popular books in the world, after the Bible, is the Book of Mormon. Since it was first published in 1830, 140 million copies have been published in 107 languages. At present, roughly four million copies are distributed annually.
The story of the Book of Mormon began in the spring of 1820, when a fourteen-year-old American boy named Joseph Smith went to pray in the woods near his family farm in the state of New York in the United States of America. He told how God the Father and his son Jesus Christ appeared to him and answered his questions about religion. This was the beginning of his call as a modern prophet.
Three years later, as he was again praying, Joseph was visited by an angel who gave his name as Moroni. “He said there was a book deposited,” Joseph Smith later recorded, “written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this [American] continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants” (Joseph Smith-History 1:34).
The gold plates were said to be written in a reformed Egyptian script and had been hidden in a buried on the slope of a hill near Joseph’s home, in a square stone box covered by a larger round stone. With the record was an ancient breastplate containing two stones called the urim and thummim, which God had prepared to assist Joseph Smith in translating the ancient record. (In Bible times, the Israelites received revelation from God through the urim and thummim attached to the high priest’s breastplate – Exodus 28:30; Numbers 27:21.)
The record on the gold plates told the story of an ancient Israelite prophet named Lehi, who lived in Jerusalem six centuries before the time of Christ. God warned Lehi of the forthcoming destruction of the city by the Babylonians and told him to leave with his family and some friends. They lived and traveled in the wilderness for eight years. When they reached the sea, probably on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, God instructed them to build a ship in which they sailed to the Americas. Most scholars who accept in the Book of Mormon believe that they and their descendants lived principally in southern Mexico and Guatemala.
In the New World, the group soon split into two nations, one called Nephites, after the name of Lehi’s son Nephi, the others Lamanites, after Nephi’s brother Laman. During the centuries that followed, there were many disputes between the two peoples. Most of the time, the Nephites were righteous and listened to a succession of prophets who foretold the coming of Christ and explained in detail the atonement that he would bring. Throughout most of their history, the Lamanites did not believe in Christ, while the Nephites kept records of their history and their religious beliefs. The Book of Mormon contains an abridgement of these records. It is because of its doctrinal expositions on the atonement of Christ that the Book of Mormon is said to contain “the fulness of the gospel” (Joseph Smith History 1:34; D&C 20:9; 27:5; 42:12; 135:3).
Of the many stories told in the Book of Mormon, the most important concerns the appearance of Christ to the people after his resurrection and ascension to heaven. He taught them the same principles he had taught his Jewish disciples in the Old World and organized his Church among them, selecting twelve disciples whom he said would be judged in the last days by the twelve apostles he had selected during his mortal ministry in the Holy Land. Even after he returned to his Father, Jesus continued to reveal his will to the Nephite disciples. An era of peace followed his visit, during which the Nephites and Lamanites lived as one people for two centuries.
Ultimately, the peace was disrupted by sin and, by the fourth century after Christ, there was again open warfare between the two peoples. Knowing that his people would soon be destroyed by the Lamanites, a Nephite prophet named Mormon prepared an abridgement of the sacred records of his people and left them in the hands of his son Moroni to bury them in a spot where God would preserve them until another prophet would be called to translate them. This was the same Moroni who, 1400 years later, as an angel of God, appeared to Joseph Smith.
The prophets who kept the records that became the Book of Mormon testified of Christ both before and after his coming. The first of them, Nephi, wrote, “And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good” (2 Nephi 33:10). A thousand years later, in his preface, Mormon wrote that the purpose of his book was “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” For this reason, in 1987 the book was given a subtitle, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
The plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated were returned to the angel before the English translation was published. But several other people saw and handled them. Among these were three witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, who testified that the angel Moroni had showed them the plates and the breastplate with urim and thummim and that he had turned the plates over one by one so they could see the engravings on them. They also declared that they heard the voice of God coming out of the heavens and telling them that the translation of the record was correct. On a subsequent occasion, Joseph Smith took a group of eight other men into the woods, where he showed them the plates and allowed them to heft them and to turn the pages. All of these men wrote an account of their experiences that appears at the beginning of the Book of Mormon. Though some of them later had a falling out with Joseph Smith and no longer followed him, they never denied their testimony, and several of them continued to reaffirm it until their death.
During the course of his translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and his scribe Oliver Cowdery prayed about some of the things they found in the text, such as the necessity for baptism by proper priesthood authority (and other tenets of Mormon faith). Joseph had been told during his 1820 vision that this authority had been lost from the earth, but that it would be restored in the near future. On May 15, 1829, as they were praying in the woods beside the Susequehanna River near Harmony, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., Joseph and Oliver were visited by the resurrected John the Baptist, who had baptized Christ some eighteen centuries earlier. He laid his hands on their heads and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood, giving them authority to baptize. Within weeks after this event, the ancient apostles Peter, James, and John, came and ordained the two young men to the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood, which authorized them to lay on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost and to reorganize the ancient Church.
On April 6, 1830, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized in Fayette, New York, with Joseph Smith being acknowledged as a prophet of God. Over the next several years, the Church grew in numbers and various priesthood offices were restored. These included the offices of apostle, seventy, patriarch, bishop, elder, priest, teacher, and deacon–all the known in the ancient Christian Church.
From that small beginning, the Church has grown to number ten million people in more than 200 nations. Nearly half of them are located in the United States, but there are large numbers in Latin America and the nations bordering the Pacific Ocean. A fourth of the Church’s members are native speakers of the Spanish language and it is expected that, with the rapid growth in Latin America, Spanish will one day become the Church’s primary tongue. Portuguese, the third-largest language among Latter-day Saints, is spoken by one person in seventeen.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are often called, incorrectly, Mormons because of their belief in the Book of Mormon. But they are followers of Jesus Christ, not of Mormon, who was a servant of Christ. They accept both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but believe in modern revelation as well. The eighth of the Mormon Church‘s Articles of Faith declares, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” The ninth article declares, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
Over the next few months, we will examine some of the contents of the Book of Mormon and compare them with what is known from the Bible and from archaeological and historical discoveries made since the time of Joseph Smith. We will begin by looking at how the Book of Mormon helps us to understand the Bible as both a historical record and as the word of God. After that, we will look at how the Book of Mormons origin compares with that of other ancient documents that have been discovered during the last century, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Then we will examine various aspects of current research on the Book of Mormon, including its linguistic background and its ties to ancient Israel.