In Understanding the Book of Mormon, Grant Hardy argues that an important part of the Book of Mormon’s meaning emerges from how it alludes to, comments on, or patterns itself after other stories, such as Joseph in Egypt, the Exodus, and the Fall. Another such story not discussed by Hardy but central to understanding the Book of Mormon is, I think, the end of the world.
By the late Middle Ages, the Christian end-time narrative had grown from diverse biblical seeds into an elaborate and cohesive drama that was something like a family sitcom in syndication: The cast of characters was firmly established and their roles and relationships were well known, even if the precise order of particular events was fluid or open to debate. If we take Johannes de Rupescissa’s Vademecum, composed in 1356, as our guidebook to the late medieval Last Days, we might identify the most important people and events as the following.
- One or more Antichrists, either religious deceivers or political tyrants, supported by various false prophets.
- The subjection of the righteous (or the clergy) to persecution of all kinds so that they are forced to flee into the wilderness.
- Warfare and natural catastrophes, with cities laid waste by fire, storm, earthquake, and other disasters.
- Invasion of Christian lands by Muslims or other non-Christians, sometimes explicitly identified as the unleashing of Gog and Magog from their captivity, as a scourge on faithless Christians.
- A church in decay, with a priesthood given to indolence, luxury, and the usurpation of wealth coupled with failure to preach Christian doctrine or to live an exemplary life.
- The preaching of two righteous prophets, literally or figuratively identified with Elias and Enoch and having the power to prevent rain and otherwise punish the wicked, and who cannot be harmed by their enemies (with the exception of the Antichrist, in some versions).
- An angelic pope or bishop (usually selected from the two righteous preachers mentioned above) who initiates a reform of the church and the clergy to a life of apostolic poverty.
- The conversion of non-Christians to the faith.
- A last emperor who overcomes internal opposition, conquers external enemies, regains the Holy Land, and then abdicates (or who has always refused to wear a crown).
- A time of peace, equality, and prosperity.
- The Second Coming, Resurrection, and Last Judgment.
Without going into great detail, I think it’s clear that we can map all of these elements, in whole or in part, onto people in the Book of Mormon. For example:
- The Antichrists Sherem and Korihor, not to mention deceitful figures like Amalickiah.
- Persecution of believers, most dramatically in Ammonihah, but also in Alma’s flight into the wilderness from King Noah, and the later suffering of his people under Amulon.
- Cities consumed by fire and earthquake and storm, or sunk beneath the sea, prior to Christ’s appearance in 3 Nephi 8.
- The invasions and depredations of the Lamanites, which occur with divine consent in order to call the Nephites to remembrance.
- Disorder in the church, as wealth leads believers into pride, or orders of wicked priests living lives of luxury at Noah’s court, or Zoramites focused on wealth.
- The preaching of Alma and Amulek, who cannot be harmed by fire or bound in prison.
- Alma as the great reformer of Nephite religious life.
- Moroni as the great military leader who overcomes dissension within the Nephites and conquers all their enemies; the allusion to the end time narrative would give new relevance to Alma’s several chapters about warfare.
- The conversion of many Lamanites in the historical narrative and eventually the conversion of all unbelievers at the time of Christ’s appearance.
- Benjamin, perhaps, as the abdicating monarch.
- The time of peace and prosperity finds a direct equivalent in 4 Nephi.
- The Second Coming also has a direct equivalent in Christ’s appearance to the Nephites.
What stands out about the appearance of elements familiar from the End Time narrative in the Book of Mormon is that nearly all of them are from the book’s central section, from Mosiah to 4 Nephi, while very few are from the beginning or final sections: In the Book of Mormon, the End of Time becomes the middle of the story. For the message of the Book of Mormon, this is not accidental, I think. The message of the Apocalypse for most Christians is that the wicked oppress the righteous, but the righteous will overcome. The Book of Mormon varies this: The wicked oppressed the righteous, and the righteous were overthrown; but righteousness will be restored. By reading for the End in Alma, we get a better sense of how the Book of Mormon reenacts its own central message, as the coming forth of the history of wickedness conquering the righteous is itself intended to form a part of the restoration of righteousness.