The Book of Mormon comprises 15 books, each allegedly written by an ancient American prophet. It professes to be a religious and secular history of Hebrews who fled Jerusalem and certain persecution in 600 B.C. Lehi, an alleged prophet and contemporary of Jeremiah, led his wife, children, and their spouses through the Arabian wilderness to the shores of “the large waters.”
After much hardship and contention, the righteous son Nephi built a ship and the company sailed to a new “promised land,” but not before having obtained a collection of brass plates on which was recorded not only the Pentateuch (or first five books of the Old Testament) but also a record of the Jews from the beginning down to that day. All the while, Nephi had been making metal plates of his own and engraving on them a record of his family’s labors.
Upon arriving in the Western Hemisphere, and after the death of Lehi, Nephi’s brothers Laman and Lemuel rebelled against Nephi, forcing him and his followers to separate from them. Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites (as the followers of Laman andLemuel were called) were cursed with a “skin of blackness”—which here means a darker, American Indian skin tone, not a Negro complexion—and became persecutors of the Nephites. At Nephi’s death in the mid-sixth century B.C., his younger brother Jacob took up the story and the plates. Several other alleged prophets followed Jacob, maintaining written records of the Nephites or “American Hebrews.”
Throughout these centuries, and reflecting the same theme sketched for Israel by Old Testament authors, the Nephites enjoyed periods of material prosperity when they followed the Lord’s voice and languished in misery when they didn’t. Much of the book is a dull, repetitive recording of bloody battles waged between Nephites and Lamanites.
Evil kings, corrupt judges, “secret combinations” (or “gangs” of robbers), persecution of the righteous, their subsequent apostasy and restoration, massive genocide—this is the stuff of the Book of Mormon. There are occasional discourses on religion, most of which remind the reader of the words of Old Testament prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, or the teachings of St. Paul, despite the chronological problems this poses.
Towards the end of the Nephite-Lamanite record we find inserted, out of chronological sequence, the “Book of Ether.” These 15 chapters are said to be the record of yet another group of Hebrew émigrés, these dispersed at the Tower of Babel. Following the “brother of Jared,” who had had a vision of the “spirit body” of Jesus Christ, these righteous ones built barges and sailed for the promised land of America.
The “Jaredites” soon split into factions, warring with one another throughout a succession of kings, prophets, murder, and intrigue. Some of their prophets predicted the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the establishing in America of the New Jerusalem.
The forces of good and evil ultimately arrayed themselves in a final battle. Millions were killed; indeed, every single Jaredite but one was slain. The prophet Ether recorded the devastation on twenty-four metal plates that were later discovered by Nephites and appended to their own writings.
Without doubt, the high point of the Book of Mormon is recorded in Third Nephi. This book allegedly covers the period from A.D. 1-35. Raids, murders, government upheavals, tempests, earthquakes, and fires allegedly preceded the appearance of Jesus Christ on the American continent. According to Mormonism, Jesus Christ showed himself to the people of America in the year 34 and established a second church, paralleling the one in the Old World.
The Book of Mormon story ends early in the fifth century. By the fourth century war and carnage had consumed both the faithful Nephites and the reprobate Lamanites. After gathering hundreds of thousands of warriors to the Hill Cumorah (located in New York state), the Nephites were utterly massacred by the sword by an even greater army of “dark and filthy” Lamanites (Mormon 5:15; Mormons frequently identify contemporary Native Americans as descendants of these Lamanites).
The only survivor was Moroni, the son of the Nephite prophet Mormon, from whom the book takes its name. To him his father had entrusted the centuries-old records of God’s American prophets, to which Moroni himself added a few concluding chapters. Before dying in 421, Moroni allegedly placed the gold plates in a stone and cement box and buried it in a hillside near present-day Palmyra, east of Rochester, New York.
In Joseph Smith’s day, several burning theological issues occupied the attention of scholar and layman alike: the nature of religious authority and priesthood; the necessity of baptism; the validity of infant baptism; the administration of the flesh and blood of Christ. Smith found the 13 pages of the book of Moroni that just “happened” to resolve the theological disputes of the day.