Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: Introduction

I readily confess to being obsessed with the Book of Mormon. Perhaps to the detriment of my eternal salvation, I am often interested in things other than its instructions for my spiritual welfare. I have come to understand the people of the Book of Mormon as though they were my friends down the street. Of course, it is a few thousand years down that street and they lived in very different houses and dressed very differently—but I still consider them my friends. I love trying to better understand them. I hope that by understanding how they coped with their environment and the history being made around them that I too can cope with my world and the history being made around me.

In this case, I am interested in how the Book of Mormon was written. I should declare at the outset that I mean those I accept as the ancient authors. At this point, I am not particularly interested in Joseph Smith’s participation in this project. I have opined on that subject in a separate publication,1 In this case, I propose using my own metaphorical seer stone to peer beyond Joseph’s translation and into the minds of those who actually wrote on the plates before Joseph gave us the English translation.

I posit from the beginning that this is speculation. I hope that it will be reasoned speculation, but it is made public so we can share in the process and perhaps end up understanding some things that we have not before. So, here are some of the questions that I will be looking at. As we go, please help refine the analysis.

  • Why does an author create a new chapter in the particular place he does? Skousen has suggested that there was a marker that somehow indicated a chapter as Joseph translated. That tells us that chapter organization is original to the plates and not part of Joseph’s translation. That means that we have an opportunity to understand the original writer if we can determine what caused him to leave that chapter division mark that Joseph saw. As a caveat, it requires that we “undo” Orson Pratt’s 1879 chapter organization and return to the chapters as we had them prior to his reorganization. Looking at our current chapters can tell us a little about Orson, but not an ancient Nephite.
  • We have a unique division into the first and second books of Nephi. He is the only author to create two books. Why?
  • Each author uses some source for his information. In some, it is clearly their personal experience. For others, there are source materials. This is particularly important for Mormon’s work (and Moroni’s editing of Ether). How did they use the materials and where does the text change from quotation to linking text? Nephi also uses sources, does he use the same kinds of sources and does he use them in the same way?
  • For at least Nephi and Mormon, they made some very careful selections of what they would write about. What can we determine about what they selected and how they created their text? What principles drove them? Can we pull apart their text and determine how they constructed what they wrote and what was behind their editorial choices?

These are the kinds of things that I am interested in for this particular examination. Of course, they are not limiting questions, but only hints of the perspective I am interested in for this examination of the text. We’ll see how long we can sustain this kind of examination. If everyone gets bored of it, it may fade into blissful forgetfulness. However, if it is as interesting to someone else as it is to me, perhaps we can learn more about this wonderful text.

  1. Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011). 

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About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

5 thoughts on “Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: Introduction

  1. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the series. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but I had at least one thought regarding your question on Second. Nephi. I sometimes wonder if Nephi actually intended to delineate a second book. In the original manuscript, it said “The Book of Nephi,” if I recall correctly. The word “second” was inserted later by Oliver Cowdery, I believe. Perhaps he was referring to aonly a portion, like the phrase “the Record of Zeniff” refers to Mosiah 9-22, not a new book.

    • The manuscript evidence appears to indicate that Joseph could see where there were chapter breaks, and when a new book began. Nephi wasn’t particularly imaginative with naming things. He wrote two sets of records and called both of them “plates of Nephi.”

    • I’ve heard Royal Skousen explain the evidence that there was some kind of marker indicating chapter breaks. I had not heard any evidence for a unique indicator of book breaks; do you know where I can read about that?

      My understanding is that at the end of 1 Nephi, the manuscript evidence indicates that Joseph did not initially think he was in a new book. It’s true that the phrase “The book of Nephi” is there, but I wonder if that might refer only to 2 Nephi 1-5.

      To give a similar hypothetical example, imagine if Joseph and Oliver had mistakenly concluded that the book of Mosiah was only 8 chapters long. When they got to the phrase “The Record of Zeniff,” they mistakenly concluded that they were in a new book and named it after Zeniff.

      I’m wondering if it’s possible that this is what happened with 2 Nephi; perhaps it was never intended to be a second book. That might seem like a longshot, but it seems plausible to me so far. I’d be interested in counter-arguments.

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