As Mormon completes his own record in Mormon chapters 7, 8 and 9, he prophesies about the role that the Nephite records will have in the future, saying that the record will come forth in the latter days, in a day of great wickedness, and urging readers of the book to believe in Christ. This role of the Book of Mormon was a very common theme in Mormon poetry, including this poem, written under the pseudonym “Equator.”
Mormon, the book in the Book of Mormon written by its compiler, is perhaps the most depressing of the book of scripture. It might be subtitled ‘the Decline and Fall of Nephite Civilization.’ And its author was all but hopeless in his assessment. But unlike Gibbon’s perhaps better known description of decline and fall, Mormon also describes the future effects of his record, predicting that millions will be convinced to come to Christ by the story he tells. In the following poem, Parley P. Pratt also traces this same history, in part three of his poetic description of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites.
In the final minutes of his visit with the Nephites (3 Nephi 27), Christ makes clear that the church established for the Nephites must bear his name and teach his gospel. He even specifies elements of his gospel: the atonement and resurrection, the final judgment, repentance, baptism, faith in Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Ghost and enduring to the end. I don’t think it would be very hard to connect any Mormon doctrine to this list.
Poetry by Joseph Smith? That is certainly not what Joseph Smith is known for, nor is it often claimed that he was a poet in all the writing and studies made about him. [Orson F. Whitney is the exception that comes to mind.] But the following poem, when published in 1843, carried his byline when it was published. As a paraphrase of D&C 76, this poem fits well, I think with the Gospel Doctrine Book of Mormon lesson #41. As Christ teaches to the Nephites in this lesson (3 Nephi 22-26) he focuses on making sure that their scriptural cannon is complete, adding the neglected prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite and the to them unknown teachings of Malachi. And then he expounds all things unto them. Doesn’t section 76 have that kind of “exposition of all things” feel to it?
Gospel Doctrine lesson 40 for the Book of Mormon talks about a subject that isn’t explored as often in Mormonism today: The Gathering. In Joseph Smith’s day it not only mean the gathering, literal and spiritual, of the House of Israel, but it also meant the gathering of Mormon converts to the ‘center place’ of the Church. While we don’t call for the gathering of Mormons to a single place today, the concept is still important when we examine the role of the House of Israel and the times preceding the millennium. The scriptures, including the Book of Mormon in 3rd Nephi 16, 20 and 21, teach that the House of Israel has been scattered and that it will be gathered in the last days.
In the middle of his visit to the Nephites, Christ leaves the people for the night and then returns the following day (as recounted in 3 Nephi 17-19). Before he leaves, and then again after he returns the next day, Christ teaches the Nephites about prayer, and provides them with examples of prayers—one of which they were unable to even record. These prayers call to mind the model prayer that Jesus provided in the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer, itself used as an oft-repeated prayer throughout Christendom and the inspiration for many pieces of poetry, including the following by W. W. Phelps:
Following the destruction that accompanied Christ’s crucifixion, the Nephites and Lamanites didn’t see relief, or light, until his resurrection and visit to the Americas. This story, found in 3 Nephi 11, is the culmination of the Book of Mormon narrative, the central meaning of the book. His arrival is also the central point of Parley P. Pratt’s poem Christ’s Ministry to the Nephites. Included in his book of poetry (arguably the first Mormon book of poetry aside from Emma Smith’s Hymnal), this poem is also among the first published poems to reference the Book of Mormon, as well as the first to retell poetically its central story.
During the crucifixion of Christ as portrayed in 3rd Nephi, the devastation seems like it is beyond our understanding. Certainly the descriptions portray devastation on a level that no one today has experienced. The very earth reacts to the death of the Savior, and continues that reaction, apparently until his resurrection on the third day. May we never experience anything like that. But the portrayal raises an interesting theological issue, one that Parley P. Pratt picked up on in his earliest Mormon poetry.
With the beginning of what we Mormons can call the fifth gospel, the Book of Mormon begins the story of Christ’s birth, life, death and visit to the Americas, all from the perspective of the people’s there. And the initial story in 3rd Nephi is quite different from those in the New Testament. Here we see signs and wonders also, but they are more widely known and come under a threat of violence. The faith of the believers in 3rd Nephi was tried publicly and directly, while the faith of the few who knew anything about the import of the events in Bethlehem (principally Joseph and Mary) was tried mainly in private, in embarrassment or humiliation.
Spiritual history is replete with types and shadows. The similarities that appear between events in widely-separated places and times lead to the conclusion that the Lord is trying to point out some truth to us, something we need to understand. I see a kind of repetition in this week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson, in which Samuel the Lamanite tries to call the Nephites to repentance (Helaman 13-16). Samuel preached just a few years before the birth of Christ, and he prophesied about the destruction in the Americas that would accompany Christ’s crucifixion soon afterward. But somehow his prophecies don’t sound very different from those that we hear concerning Christ’s second coming.
Chapters 6 to 12 of Helaman highlight what Mormons have come to call the “pride cycle” — the cycle from righteousness and prosperity to pride and wickedness to suffering and to humility and repentance, leading back to righteousness and prosperity. Its a fascinating concept, one that I’m afraid we use too often to describe the world and others, and too little to refer to ourselves. I mean, when was the last time you asked yourself where you were in the “pride cycle?”
The corruption and internal strife in the initial chapters of Helaman are marked by the rise of secret combinations among the Nephites and Gadianton’s rule over the band eventually known as Gadianton’s Robbers. While I think our society today is far from the level of corruption seen then, we certainly deal with similar corruption to a smaller degree. And societies we do know today (perhaps Somalia and Zimbabwe and probably others also) seem as corrupt or worse than what the Nephite’s had to deal with. It is hard to imagine how anyone survives such regimes without also becoming corrupt.
The story of Helaman’s 2060 stripling warriors (the subject of Sunday School lesson #33) is another of the most cited and, I assume, the more beloved among young men and boys. However, the main idea broached in the lesson, that these young men were righteous and obeyed “every word of command with exactness,” could easily be lost in the midst of their military valor. The stripling warriors, like many of those who serve in military service around the world today, are indeed heroes—but, Eliza R. Snow observes that there are other, more valuable ways to be a hero:
The 10 chapters in this week’s Sunday School lesson (#31) are among the most exciting in the Book of Mormon—at least if you are a 10-year-old boy. They tell the story of Captain Moroni, the battles he fought for freedom, and his “Title of Liberty.” Of course, even for adults they are important chapters, detailing a struggle for liberty and raising the kind of questions that so many in the world have to face, even today, when addressing what kind of government their country needs. Even in most western democracies, the issues of liberty have at least a peripheral connection to what we choose at the ballot box. After all, if it is possible to choose a democracy, then it must also be possible to choose not to have one!
As Alma talks with his son Corianton in Alma 40-42, he realizes that Corianton does not understand some basic elements of the Plan of Salvation. From what Alma teaches him, we can surmise that Corianton doesn’t understand that all will be resurrected, that each person will be resurrected according to their words in this life (the righteous to happiness and the wicked to misery), and the roles that justice and mercy play in the great plan of happiness. From the context, it is clear that all these teachings were in response to Corianton’s misdeeds while serving a mission, a similar situation to that described in this week’s poem.
Alma 36 to 39 contain Alma’s advice to his three sons, Helaman, Shiblon and Corianton, which led me to the idea of parental advice—something that usually accumulates bit by bit over years rather than all in one block as Alma seems to have done with his sons. Of this advice, perhaps the most famous, especially when it comes to Mormon literature, is the advice given to Corianton and the reason for that advice. Corianton’s story has been the source for dozens of literary works — so much so that encountering a character in a Mormon story named “Cory” should automatically make you think of Alma 39.
Today Alma’s discourse on the development of faith in Alma 32 is well known among Mormons and widely referred to on almost any discussion of faith. The “nourishing” of seeds and plants is, of course, common in poetry — its the comparison of seeds and growth with faith or the word that is important to Mormonism. I haven’t researched whether or not this discourse was used frequently like it is today. But there are elements of the idea and description in the chapter which can be found in some early Mormon poetry. Parley P. Pratt used it in the following poem.
The chief character in Alma 30, the first of the two chapters in lesson 27, is Korihor, the anti-Christ, who preaches, among other things, the contradictory ideas that there will be no Christ and that the future can’t be known. By the end of the chapter Korihor has begged for a sign and been struck dumb. He then admits that he has been deceived by the devil. While the earliest Mormon writers didn’t face many anti-Christs (at least not those who stated as much like Korihor did), they certainly faced those they considered just as bad—such as Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs. And Church members weren’t always circumspect with their feelings.
The Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the focus of Book of Mormon lesson #26, have to be the most unusual group in the Book of Mormon. Their choice of pacifism is unequaled in scripture, except possibly by the people of Enoch. While the lesson concentrates on their conversion and how that led them to turn to pacifism, I think the fact that they chose pacifism is instructive, something that should make us all ponder what really matters. Perhaps their pacifist views, along with the troubles in Missouri, influenced William Wines Phelps, one of the first poets of Mormonism, leading him to write the following condemnation of war:
Among the most beloved figures in the Book of Mormon are the four sons of Mosiah, who, after their conversion, take leave of their native land and homes and serve missions among the Lamanites. Where missionaries today serve for just a couple of years or less, the sons of Mosiah served a total of 14 years which I assume (the record doesn’t say exactly) was much longer than anyone expected. Instead, I suspect, they and their friends and family must have wondered if they would even return alive, for, after all, the Lamanites were the enemies of the people of Nephi.
One of the most stunning acts of persecution in the scriptures has to be the attack on the believers in Ammonihah described in Alma 14. Those who have heeded the words of Alma and Amulek, men, women and children, are taken by the mob, bound and cast into fire, along with their scriptures while Alma and Amulek are forced to watch. In consternation, the missionaries face the problem of evil in a very personal and immediate way and Alma is constrained by the spirit not to intervene.
Much of the Book of Alma covers Alma’s missionary efforts in the land of the Nephites, and in this week’s chapters, Alma 8-12, he meets and preaches with his principle missionary companion, Amulek. Unlike the experiences of the sons of Mosiah, Alma and Amulek’s experiences aren’t always successful in the end. Instead, they face many tribulations, have many who refuse to believe in what they teach, very similar to what our missionaries face today.
The oft-described poverty and pride cycle in the Book of Mormon means that the peoples in Zarahemla and elsewhere repeatedly have to repent, generally in response to preaching or adversity. The first few chapters of Alma are no exception. In chapters 5-7, Alma preaches repentance, urging them to experience a “mighty change” of heart, and many Church members respond, reforming their lives.
In the final chapter of Mosiah, King Mosiah and his people face the fundamental political question—what form of government to choose. After Mosiah demonstrates the potential problems with a monarchy, the people choose a more democratic form of government, under the rule of judges. As the first chief judge, Alma then discovers that even democracy faces difficulties. While many early Mormon poems dealt with political issues, the majority were reactions either to the persecutions in Missouri and Illinois or to the enforcement of anti-bigamy laws in Utah. The poem I found for this lesson is an exception to that norm.
The principal event in Mosiah 25-28, which is also beautifully and familiarly described in Alma 36, is Alma the Younger’s miraculous conversion. To capture this, I looked for a literary work in the public domain that expressed either the agony that Alma felt or the ecstasy he obtained after his acceptance of the Lord.
I think the most significant event in Mosiah 18-24 is the baptism of Alma and his followers in the Waters of Mormon. There we find the great description of the Baptismal covenant, in which those baptized …are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places… This event led me to a poem by Parley P. Pratt about Baptism, a hymn that seeks to encourage non-members to partake of the ordinance.
Perhaps the most striking part of the Book of Mormon covered in lesson 18 is the martyrdom of Abinadi. Like many martyrs who have suffered since his time, Abinadi testified of what he knew to be true only to find his testimony rejected and his life taken for it. He sealed his testimony with his life.
Often LDS lessons based on the scriptures cover such a broad range of topics in the scriptures given that the stated theme of the lesson doesn’t capture what is going on in the scripture passages. While this lesson is certainly one of those times, the poem I found is really about the stated theme of the lesson: prophets, seers and revelators. In early Mormon poetry and writings, this usually referred to one person: the Prophet Joseph Smith. Where today we talk more about prophets generally, for the first 30 years of Mormonism, the prophet mostly referred to Joseph Smith specifically. And it is in the context of Joseph Smith that we learn their ideas about what a Prophet or Seer or Revelator is.
The culmination of King Benjamin’s address to his people was the “mighty change” they experienced which led them to repent and covenant to keep the commandments and to seek to do good continually. While the scripture says that they “had no more disposition to do evil,” given the later history of this people, we might surmise that the disposition didn’t last. Nor did Benjamin expect that his people would remain sinless, but instead they would likely need a disposition to seek and obtain forgiveness. I suspect that one aspect of the “mighty change” described in the Book of Mormon is exactly that, seeking forgiveness for errors and sin.