Good and True
Professor of Law, Brigham Young University
Editor-in-Chief, BYU Studies
Like most people, I am grateful for good friends who give my life meaningful opportunities for happiness, companionship, compassion, appreciation, and a host of precious feelings and memories. I also like to remember the adventures, explorations, discoveries, challenges, emotions, and many other experiences that life has brought me. For all the same reasons, I am grateful for the Book of Mormon. It has affected me in many ways. I love and respect this book. It is a good and true friend. It has filled my life with purpose, perspective, ideas, values, happiness, adventure, challenges, and frequent sacred experiences. Its truth and goodness are sufficiently evident to me in many ways. Yet, at the same time, I know that I glimpse only a part of all that it has to offer.
I see the Book of Mormon as a true classic. Classics, in my mind, are books that reflect the human condition so accurately that they speak to all humanity, regardless of age, station, or predisposition. A classic is a book that I expect will wear me out long before I will wear it out. This is how it has been for me with the Book of Mormon. Whether as a missionary, graduate student, father, or bishop, I have learned different things at each stage of my life from this book. Its wisdom withstands the passage of time and transcends the compass of individual experience.
Truth may be defined in many ways, and the Book of Mormon is at home with them all. I see its truth manifested by its spirituality; in its internal consistency, accuracy, and coherence; by its astounding complexity, reality, and evidences of antiquity; and through its broad visions of eternity, deep profundity, open clarity, rewarding subtlety, and masterful artistry.
Likewise, goodness may be defined in many ways, and the Book of Mormon welcomes them all. I feel its goodness in all of its various testimonies of Christ, in its practical and prudent wisdom, in its poignant social conscience, dynamic universalism, unrestrained candor, uninhibited idealism, and undeterred optimism.
Since the time I was a young man, I have always felt very satisfied in my testimony of the Book of Mormon. At first, I believed that the book was true with little or no evidence of any kind at all. Perhaps because I never expected to find much in the way of proofs or great evidence for the Book of Mormon, I have been even more richly satisfied by those things I have learned or found.
I believe that many significant insights into the truth and goodness of the Book of Mormon have appeared over the years and that they will continue to do so. Almost every month during the last few years, new discoveries have been made in support of the Book of Mormon; many of these have been reported by my colleagues and me in newsletters, updates, lectures, conferences, papers, books, and other publications. I hesitate to single out any of these in particular, for the same reason that I am reluctant to begin naming the names of friends I like most. But as such evidences or realizations have come to light, I think that they should be pointed out with conviction, care, and caution. I never intend to overstate the case in favor of the Book of Mormon, but I do not want to understate it, either.
I am grateful to two witnesses, a good seminary teacher and a truth-loving Sunday School teacher, whose joint influences prompted me to see the Book of Mormon as a spiritual tutor. With this book, I had my first experience in asking God for wisdom, as James 1:5 challenges, when, as a high school junior, I put Moroni 10:4 on the line, kneeling by my bedside. I cut my spiritual teeth on the Book of Mormon and learned to recognize the promptings of the spirit. I learned that one of the gifts of the Book of Mormon is that a person can know that it is true without yet knowing everything it contains.
I also learned at that time the limits of logic: that the Holy Ghost is not found at the end of a syllogism, that deductive logic is restricted by its assumptions, and that inductive sciences are limited by lack of agreement on what any given bit of evidence implies. Moreover, as President Benson said, those who try by logic to prove the Book of Mormon either true or false invert the actual process: "We do not have to prove the Book of Mormon is true. The book is its own proof. . . . The Book of Mormon is not on trial—the people of the world, including the members of the Church, are on trial as to what they will do with this second witness for Christ."1 Thus, it seems clear enough that the Lord does not intend the Book of Mormon to be an open-and-shut case intellectually, either pro or con. If God had intended this, he would have left more concrete evidences one way or the other.
Instead, it seems that the Lord has maintained a careful balance between allowing questions that lead one to wonder about the reputed sources of the book and providing counterweights that lead one to affirm the stated origins of the record. This equilibrium invites the world to approach the Book of Mormon ultimately as a matter of faith and as a modern-day miracle, but at the same time gives people ample grounds to take the book seriously.
The study part of this balance is an important ingredient in my testimony of the Book of Mormon. Although scholarship does not create faith, for me it creates an environment in which faith may thrive. I have found over the years that many intriguing and forceful cases can be made in favor of the Book of Mormon on grounds that combine the resources and faculties of both study and faith. Trying to rely on either faith alone or study alone is like trying to play a violin with only one arm, or to walk with only one leg.
One of my favorite statements in this regard was written by B. H. Roberts in 1909. As he put it, the power of the Holy Ghost
must ever be the chief source of evidence for the truth of the Book of Mormon. All other evidence is secondary to this, the primary and infallible. No arrangement of evidence, however skillfully ordered; no argument, however adroitly made, can ever take its place.
However, Roberts continued,
To be known, the truth must be stated and the clearer and more complete the statement is, the better opportunity will [t]he Holy Spirit have for testifying to the souls of men that the work is true. . . . [Moreover,] evidence and argument . . . . in support of truth, like secondary causes in natural phenomena, may be of firstrate importance, and mighty factors in the achievement of God's purposes.2
In studying the Book of Mormon, I have found Roberts's description to be correct. Evidence in support of this book's truth invites people to take it seriously, engenders respect, strengthens the impressions it has on us, brings people to contemplate and entertain its claims, and gives the Holy Spirit a better opportunity to testify that the book is true.
For thirty years, I have worked almost continuously on various Book of Mormon research projects. This work has been less of a roaming odyssey than an extended elaboration in pursuit of certain themes. I have especially desired to understand the historical, religious, and intellectual backgrounds of the book, to shed light on what its words originally meant to its ancient authors. Not far in the back of my mind during most of my studies in law, history, philosophy, classical languages, and biblical and Near Eastern studies has always been the prospect of finding information or approaches pertinent to the Book of Mormon text. The results have been rewarding and stimulating, both intellectually and spiritually. I have come to esteem the Book of Mormon as one of the intellectual wonders of the world. It is part of the miracle of the Restoration, "the most singular evidence in support of Joseph Smith's claim to being a spokesman for Almighty God."3 It is a singular wonder in multiple ways.
The simple fact that the book exists is amazing enough. I have a hard time imagining the task of dictating this book, final copy, without notes, one time through, in something like sixty working days. I was deeply impressed as I gathered copies of all the known documents from 1829 relevant to the translation of the Book of Mormon. My desire was to reconstruct a nearly day-by-day picture of the amazing events in the lives of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery during the months of April, May, and June of that year, when Joseph was translating this substantial volume.4 A significant number of independent yet consistent historical documents demonstrate that the book as we have it today was dictated, without notes, in very short order. Joseph and Oliver began on April 7, 1829. By May 15 they were up to the passage in 3 Nephi that triggered their inquiry that led to the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood that day. By the end of June it was finished. This pace allows only a week for all of 1 Nephi and only a day and a half for the speech of King Benjamin, which I regard as one of the masterpieces of religious writing anywhere in world literature. Even more astonishing, this time was neither uninterrupted nor tranquil. Time and energy were lost while Joseph and Oliver looked for odd jobs to earn money for more paper, preached and baptized, moved on buckboard from Harmony to Fayette (more than 100 miles), received sections 3–18 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and took at least one trip from Harmony to Colesville—to say nothing of eating and sleeping. To me it is a wonder and a miracle that out of such a short amount of time could come such an enormous burst of light.
The book is also a wonder in what it contains. The pages of the Book of Mormon reflect ancient culture, language, literature, history, symbolism, doctrine, and other amazing details. I am especially impressed with the authenticity of such texts as the extended allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5;5 with King Benjamin's multifaceted speech in Mosiah 1–6;6 with the enlightened words of Alma on the gospel, conversion, and the plan of salvation in Alma 5, 7, 12–13, 32–33, 36–42; and with the sermons given by Jesus at the temple in Bountiful, particularly in 3 Nephi 11–18.7 Whoever wrote the text of Jacob 5 knew quite completely the business of raising good olives. Whoever composed Benjamin's speech knew essentially what belonged in an ancient coronation ceremony held in conjunction with a Feast of Tabernacles or the Day of Atonement and a covenant renewal. Whoever wrote the speeches in Alma and 3 Nephi had a comprehensive grasp on the theology of the Atonement, the essence of Christian life, the basic structure of Jewish and Christian temple ideology, and a mature range of religious experience. But the historical, literary, botanical, and other details necessary to produce such texts were not available to Joseph Smith in 1829, and such broad exposure to spiritual life was well beyond his youthful years. Even a few such details or dimensions would impress me that the Book of Mormon is a sign of no ordinary proportions that God's hand was at work in its composition. Yet the book is filled with such features.
For instance, through my study of ancient laws, I have been particularly fascinated by the legal details in the Book of Mormon. One of my favorite examples is found in the execution of Zemnarihah (3 Nephi 4:28–33): the leader of an army of robbers is hung on a tree and then the tree is chopped down—just the punishment the Talmud prescribes, namely, to chop down the tree on which a victim is hanged or displayed.8 More than one scholar of ancient Judaism has been puzzled by this striking parallel.
Moreover, the execution of Zemnarihah illustrates another significant detail. In ancient Near Eastern laws, a distinction existed between a common thief and a robber. Unlike thieves, robbers in ancient society were outsiders, "outlaws" who lived in bands out in the hills, swearing oaths of loyalty and secrecy, raiding local villages, committing assassinations, and so forth. Robbers like Zemnarihah were dealt with by the military; they received no trials and were usually punished by death. In Anglo-American law and language, the terms "thief" and "robber" are so closely related and nearly synonymous that the King James version of the Bible uses them interchangeably.9 But such is not the case in the Book of Mormon. Remarkably, the Gadianton robbers are always called robbers, never thieves, and their behavior and treatment is the same as that of the robbers of the ancient Near East.10 I remember spending an afternoon at Oxford reading for the first time Bernard Jackson's book on the history of theft in early Jewish law;11 I could not have been struck more forcefully, both intellectually and spiritually, by the congruence between his historical explanations and the picture I already knew from the Book of Mormon.
Similar ancient legal concepts and elements are to be found in the trials of Abinadi, Nehor, Alma and Amulek, Korihor, Paanchi, and Seantum, and in the backgrounds of many Book of Mormon narratives. They indicate again that whoever wrote these texts was thoroughly immersed in the social context and jurisprudence of early biblical times—evidence that does not point toward Joseph Smith, but rather invites us to seek elsewhere for the Book of Mormon's authorship.
I have also enjoyed working with several passages in the Book of Mormon that manifest uncommon literary beauty. Although I find elegance and significance in many rhetorical and literary qualities of the book, I will never forget the day I discovered extended chiastic structures in its pages.12 As a missionary in Regensburg, Germany, in 1967, I had been studying the literary art in the Gospel of Matthew. Very early one morning, I was awakened from a sound sleep with the clear impression that what was evidence of Hebrew style in the Gospel of Matthew had to be evidence of Hebrew style in the Book of Mormon. I stumbled in the dark over to the desk where my companion and I had been reading the night before in the first part of Mosiah. Within a few minutes, some of the very best instances of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon unfolded before me in Mosiah 3:18–19 and 5:10–12. These inverted parallelisms hardly seem to be the result of random dictation; they bespeak developed and polished literary achievement. Perhaps a comment on Alma 36 from David Noel Freedman, whose specialty in early Hebrew poetry is well known, best describes my feelings about the literary content of the Book of Mormon: "Your book," he said, "is very beautiful."
The Book of Mormon is indeed rich. The book makes clear and abundant sense, despite its complexity: records existing inside of other records, later passages quoting and interpreting earlier passages, loose ends all tied together, presupposed backgrounds that make perfect sense, and character traits of individuals that are true to life and consistent from one episode to another. How could any author keep all the historical, geographical, chronological, personal, textual, literary, doctrinal, legal, political, and military details, strands, plots, and subplots concurrently in mind in order to dictate the Book of Mormon one time through without notes or a rough draft? Try as many have to explain by whom and how this book was written, Joseph Smith's explanation is still the most cogent.
Over and over again, the Book of Mormon has impressed me not only with its antiquity and artistry, but also with its wisdom. It is a profound source of knowledge and perspective. This scripture teaches the gospel in doctrinal passages that are crystal clear and uncannily pertinent both to the minutiae of personal life and to the megatrends of world affairs. The Book of Mormon has taught me in quiet moments such things as the essential requirements of God's plan of salvation, the errors of many tendencies in modern society, and the spiritual ills of contention and disputation. I find it quite remarkable that of the myriad arguments written against the Book of Mormon, hardly any have been directed against its ethical positions or religious teachings.
Many of these insights have come when I was least expecting them. On such occasions, I feel a sustaining glow inside my heart and an unexpected quickening of thought. As a bishop, I had one girl ask me: "How can I know I have been forgiven?" Quite unmotivated on my part, the words of Mosiah came clearly to my mind. There, King Benjamin tells his people that they must give to the poor if they would retain "a remission of [their] sins from day to day" (Mosiah 4:26). Although rendering acts of charity is usually overlooked when the steps in the repentance process are described, I testify that this is true and wise counsel, and it is known only from the Book of Mormon.
Another day, I was preparing to deliver a lecture on Alma 32. It suddenly dawned on me what this text says we actually learn by planting within ourselves the seed of faith in Christ (Alma 33:22–23). Alma never says that we learn that the seed is true; rather, we learn that the seed is good. Obviously, it is one thing to know what is true—even Hitler knew a great deal of truth. It is quite another thing to know what is good. As I have become more sensitive to this reality, I have become more aware that truth is worthless if it is not conjoined with a value system. Truth, like any other tool, is morally neutral: a hammer can be used either to build up or to tear down. For me, the Book of Mormon thoroughly unites the domains of truth and goodness—even explicitly, in Moroni 10:6: "Whatsoever thing is good is just and true."
I also have come to know that the Book of Mormon is good and true by following it in regular religious practice. For example, every Sunday I enjoy partaking of the sacrament, and I often reflect on the fact that the sacrament prayers—concise and powerfully effective prayers that B. H. Roberts liked to call the "prayers perfect"13—were first revealed in this dispensation when the text of Moroni 4–5 was translated. These prayers are directly related to the very words that Jesus himself spoke in 3 Nephi 18 to the Nephites gathered around the temple in Bountiful,14 and so I like to contemplate the sacrament, not only of the Lord's Supper, but also of the Lord's Appearance—substantial tokens not only of his mortal body, which was broken, but also of his resurrected body, which was made manifest. By pondering the relationships between these sacramental texts and by being willing to do what they ask, I have come to know and appreciate the truth and goodness of these prayers. So it has been for me with all of the religious instructions of the Book of Mormon.
I have found in the Book of Mormon great comfort, for comfort is also an eventual companion of truth. A missionary friend of mine used to call his Book of Mormon his "happiness book." He taught me that whenever I got discouraged or lost touch with the essentials, I would find rejuvenation in the Book of Mormon. Its voices are full of reassurance for the righteous and of hope for the sinful. Over and over again in this book, I learn that the Lord "remembereth every creature of his creating" (Mosiah 27:30), and that he remembers every covenant of his making (1 Nephi 19:15; 3 Nephi 16:11). The Book of Mormon also affirms that God "loveth those who will have him to be their God" (1 Nephi 17:40). I try not to dwell long on the mistakes, the wars, and the occasional violence in the book, but to rejoice with Alma ("Oh, what joy, and what marvelous light," Alma 36:20); be moved with the swelling of the hearts "unto the gushing out of many tears" (3 Nephi 4:33); and be comforted with the words of "peace, peace" to Nephi (Helaman 5:47) and of encouragement at his "unwearyingness" (Helaman 10:4). With this book I never feel alone or lost.
I am ultimately impressed that all the elements of the Book of Mormon work together for one and only one purpose: to stand as a witness of Jesus Christ. The title page of the Book of Mormon announces that its mission is "the convincing" of all people that Jesus is the Christ, the very Eternal God, and all of its features work toward this single end. As a lawyer, I am struck by the many ways in which the Book of Mormon is a credible, convincing witness. Like the speech of all good witnesses, its language is straightforward and clear, direct and cogent, unequivocal and persuasive. It speaks spontaneously and openly, yet reflects a depth of understanding that is embedded with hidden treasures. It gets its facts right. Each prophet bears his own testimony in a personally distinctive and compelling manner.15 Yet the overall effect is stunningly consistent, both in major themes and in minute details. (Here one may compare, for example, the twenty-one words of Lehi in 1 Nephi 1:8 that are quoted expressly and precisely and hardly accidentally in Alma 36:22.16) We live in a day when the message of Christ's Lordship needs to be delivered as much as or more than ever before. Accordingly, I value this good book as a unique and primary witness of Christ.
Finally, an important part of my testimony is that we shall see the Book of Mormon again at the judgment bar of God. As a professor, I watch my students try to figure out what is likely to be on their final exams. Fortunately, the Lord has not left us in the dark on life's final exam. As Moroni closed the book, he wrote: "And I exhort you to remember these things; for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man?" (Moroni 10:27). And King Benjamin bore similar testimony that his words "shall stand as a bright testimony against this people, at the judgment day" (Mosiah 3:24). Interestingly, the book is true to its ancient origins, even down to this concluding element, for it is a long-recognized principle of Jewish law that a person cannot be convicted unless he has been warned in advance.
I am glad to have the Book of Mormon. I am deeply grateful for the concerted efforts of the Lord and his prophets in order that we might have the Book of Mormon. I think of the enormous sacrifices of Nephi, risking his life on several occasions, fashioning plates of ore, and tediously writing his reports; of Mormon and Moroni, whose concerns for the suffering and deaths of their wives and children and people must have made it very difficult for them to complete this record; and of Joseph Smith, who endured persecution and eventually sealed his testimony of this book with his blood.
Based on all that I know to be good and true, I gladly testify without hesitation that the Book of Mormon is true and that it is good. I love to read it, teach it, and strive to understand it. To me, this has been a matter of personal urgency. I expect that God will ask one day what we as a people have done with this book. I hope that by then we will have learned enough of its truth and embraced enough of its goodness to give a report worthy of acceptance.
1. Ezra Taft Benson, in Conference Report, October 1984, 7; or "A New Witness for Christ," Ensign, November 1984, 8.
2. B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909–11), 2:vi–viii.
3. Ezra Taft Benson, in Conference Report, October 1981, 82; or "Joseph Smith: Prophet to Our Generation," Ensign, November 1981, 61.
4. Discussed further in John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, "The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Basic Historical Information" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1986).
5. For extensive analyses of the allegory of Zenos, see The Allegory of the Olive Tree, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994).
6. John A. Tvedtnes, "King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles" in By Study and Also By Faith, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:197–237; John W. Welch, "King Benjamin's Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1985).
7. I believe that the Book of Mormon answers the traditional Christian questions about the meaning and mysteries of the Sermon on the Mount. For an extended discussion, see John W. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990).
8. Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 250–52. This book contains eighty-four FARMS Updates from the 1980s.
9. Compare, for example, Jeremiah 7:11, "a den of robbers," with Matthew 21:13, where the King James Version of the New Testament renders this same phrase as "a den of thieves."
10. See further Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 248–49.
11. Bernard S. Jackson, Theft in Early Jewish Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).
12. For several examples, see my initial publication on this subject, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 10 (Autumn 1969): 69–84. For expanded treatments by me and others, see Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis, ed. John W. Welch (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981).
13. See references in Truman G. Madsen, "B. H. Roberts's Final Decade: Statements about the Book of Mormon" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1986).
14. Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 286–89.
15. I develop this theme further in my article, "Ten Testimonies of Jesus Christ from the Book of Mormon," in Doctrines of the Book of Mormon, ed. Bruce A. Van Orden and Brent L. Top (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 223–42.
16. Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 21–23.