The Book of Mormon as a Witness
"Search the scriptures," said the Lord, "for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (John 5:39). The words and deeds of prophets and of angels testify to the divinity of Jesus Christ; so likewise does the written record of those words and deeds. There are many reasons on which we cannot comment here for believing that God gave the miracle of writing to men as a means of keeping records through the ages. Writing is as marvelous and subtle a thing in its operation and in its effects as television. Here we have a means of transmitting not only the deeds but also the very thoughts of men through unlimited expanses of space and time—and this amazingly economical and efficient device has been in the possession of the human race from its very beginning. Writing was not devised by men as a tool to help them in their everyday affairs: successful businessmen have been illiterates, and there is ample evidence that writing was adapted to commercial uses only after such uses were found for it. If you bring together all the written records of man's past, you will discover that the overwhelming mass of material is religious in nature, and that the primary purpose to which writing has been put through the ages has not been for business records and correspondence, in which writing is employed awkwardly and without enthusiasm, but for keeping a remembrance of God's dealings with men. The specific purpose of writing, as the Egyptians put it, is to record the mdw ntr, the divine words.
We have skirted the fringe of speculation here for a moment only to recall to a generation that has forgotten to read the scriptures that the written word is one of the means chosen and established by God for communicating with his children. It is not the only means or the most direct means—to insist on that is a common fallacy of the sectarian world. A man who can convey his mind to others only through a written letter must be personally inaccessible to them either because of distance, death, or some other obstacle, and to say that God can speak to men no more clearly or directly than in written pages hundreds of years old is to impose upon him the most pathetic human limitations. Of course God can speak to men now as directly as he ever did, and the scripture is but one of his ways of speaking to them. It is a most effective way, however, and one that has peculiar advantages of its own. It overcomes time—the scriptures are the common meeting ground of all the prophets no matter how many centuries apart they may have lived; here they all speak a common tongue and bear witness to each other. The prophets constantly and characteristically quote each other; the New Testament everywhere quotes the Old; after the resurrection the Lord taught using the very words of Moses and the prophets and employing the scriptures for that purpose. He said that those who did not believe those prophets would never believe him.
As no one has a right to limit God's capacity to speak to men with his own voice whenever and wherever he will, neither has anyone the authority to say that God may not, when he will, present his children with his word in writing by dictating scripture to his prophets, by bringing forth forgotten writings of the ancients, by guiding the work of an inspired translator, or in any way he chooses. We have said before that the test of the soundness of men's hearts is their willingness to accept the message of a living prophet; the same applies to their willingness to accept God's word in any form. So the Lord has told us through an ancient prophet how it is when men who reject the prophets because they already have dead ones are confronted with God's written word: "Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews? Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? . . . Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also. And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure. And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another" (2 Nephi 29:6—9).
These words are those of the prophet Nephi, found in the Book of Mormon, a book which in many such passages opens a window on other worlds. Here we learn that God has been in contact at sundry times and places with nations of whose existence the world has never dreamed, and even with inhabitants of other worlds, for the house of man, we are told, is but one among many mansions. This doctrine of other worlds, though not infrequently indicated in early Christian writings, was one totally strange and foreign to the world into which the restored gospel was introduced. Just as all churches agreed in denouncing as unspeakable blasphemy the proposition that there ever could be any other holy scripture than that contained in the canon of the Old and New Testaments, so all agreed that the idea that there might possibly be any other world than this one, with its heaven above and its hell beneath, was utterly preposterous. The absolute uniqueness and centralness of this our world was basic to the whole philosophy and cosmology of Aristotle and the schools, for example, of Origen, Augustine, and the Middle Ages, culminating in the airtight cosmos of Dante. People forget that fact today, now that churches are finding it expedient to teach otherwise, but at the time the gospel was restored to the world, such a teaching as the doctrine of other worlds was radically opposed to anything taught anywhere. It is another case in which time has vindicated the prophets.
But in its own right, apart from its being proved in our own day, this is a marvelous doctrine. It is what might be called the law of perfect economy: There is no waste in the universe. "There is no space," says the Lord, "in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space. . . . And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions. All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified" (D&C 88:37—39). Even the earth, we are taught, is not the exclusive home of man; it is shared by other creatures who fulfill the measure of their existence and have joy in the sphere in which they were created. Man has first claim on the earth and what is in it, but though he makes poor use of that claim the earth is not wasted; it is used by other creatures of whose nature and whose very existence we have hardly an inkling. It is a wonderful doctrine that widens our horizons to infinity, and it was first revealed to the world in modern times in and by the Book of Mormon.
In the Book of Mormon the words of many prophets are brought together for the particular instruction of our own age. Those words are presented to the world in a strange and wonderful form. Go through the whole literature of devotion and you will find no book like this. If the great Christian writings of such widely differing geniuses as the scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages, Swedenborg, and the author of Science and Health were to be printed on loose-leaf, the pages of all of these could be freely shuffled among each other without any serious disruption of style and content. They are all doing the same thing—simply commenting on the Bible—and they all use with mechanical ease and practiced skill one and the same key: the old Neoplatonic formula of "spiritual" interpretation. This is an easy game to play; it is a much harder thing, in fact, to spend many years with the scriptures without acquiring the conviction that one is privy to the deeper secrets of their interpretation. But none of these inspired writers, though claiming inside knowledge into the mind of God, will face up to the test of a prophet and speak as one having authority. In the end, the Bible is always their authority, and like the scribes and Pharisees of old they can always pass off onto it the responsibility for whatever they say.
This is not the case with the Book of Mormon. What do we find in it? A wealth of doctrine embedded in large amounts of what is put forth as genuine historical material, not devotional or speculative or interpretive or creative writing but genuine historical fact, stuff that touches upon reality—geographical, ethnological, linguistic, cultural, etc.—at a thousand places. On all of these points the book could sooner or later be tested, as Joseph Smith knew. We cannot possibly deny his good faith in placing it before the whole world without any reservation. Aside from all other considerations it is a staggering work; its mass and complexity alone would defy the talent of any living man or body of men to duplicate today. Its histories are full and circumstantial; yet sober, simple, straightforward—there is nothing contrived, nothing exaggerated, nothing clever in the whole book. For a century and a quarter it has undergone the closest scrutiny at the hands of its friends and enemies, and today it stands up better than ever. Let me illustrate how very recent findings have vindicated the Book of Mormon on two broad and general themes.
From the Book of Mormon we learn that through the centuries the Jews have had as it were a double history. Along with the conventional story of the nation as recorded in the official accounts kept closely under the control of the schoolmen, there has coexisted in enforced obscurity another Israel, a society of righteous seekers zealously devoting their lives to the preservation of the law of their fathers in all its purity and considering the bulk of their nation to have fallen into sin and transgression. These righteous ones lived a life of their own; and while they sought constantly to bring the others into their ways, they were just as constantly resisted with mockery and persecution. Often they took to the desert and lived in family groups or communities there, teaching the law and the prophets to each other and looking forward prayerfully to the coming of the Messiah. There were many dreamers among them and real prophets as well, for they believed—unlike the scribes and doctors of official Jewry—in continued prophecy. Also they practiced rites rejected by the majority of the nation and talked constantly of such things as the resurrection of the flesh and the eternities to come—things which though they figure prominently enough in the apocryphal writings and also the Talmud, are hardly found at all in the official canon of Jewish scripture. They were a sober, watchful, industrious people, sorely distressed by the wickedness of their nation as a whole; and that nation would have nothing to do with them and did all it could to obscure the fact that they even existed. This briefly is the picture the Book of Mormon paints of Lehi and his ancestors, who had from time to time been driven out of Jerusalem for looking forward too eagerly for the Messiah. It is also the picture that now meets us in the abundant and ever-increasing documents which have come forth from the caves in Palestine almost in a steady stream since the first find was made in 1947. For some years the best scholars, Jewish and Christian, fought strenuously against accepting any of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls as genuine—they must be medieval forgeries, it was argued, since the picture they presented was one totally at variance with the picture which had been delineated by the meticulous labors of generations of devoted scholars.1 "It is not a single revolution in the study of biblical exegesis which the Dead Sea documents have brought about," wrote Dupont-Sommer, whose own conclusions, once judged hasty and radical, have now been remarkably vindicated, "it is, one already feels, a whole cascade of revolutions." Since those words were published two years ago, the manuscripts have continued to pour forth as cave after cave has been discovered and opened.2 And as new scrolls are unrolled, the picture itself is unrolling—the picture of that other Israel that lived in obscurity and hope, first sketched out for us in the Book of Mormon and now for the first time emerging into the light of history.
The Book of Mormon draws us the picture of another and totally different type of society which has become a historical reality only within the last thirty years or so. It was once thought that the world which Homer described was purely the product of his own inventive genius. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, the shrewd and observant English scholar and traveler Robert Wood had the idea of writing "a detailed work in which similarities of the cultures exhibited in the Old Testament, in Homer, and in the Near East of his own day should be collected, and prove that a 'Heroic Age' is a real and recurrent type in human society."3 Wood died before he could produce the work, and it was not until the 1930's that Milman Parry showed that what is called heroic poetry is necessarily "created by a people who are living in a certain way, and so have a certain outlook on life, and our understanding of the heroic will come only as we learn what that way of living is and grasp that outlook."4 Then Chadwick showed that epic poetry cannot possibly be produced except in and by a genuine epic milieu, as he called it—a highly developed, complex, very peculiar but firmly established and very ancient cultural structure.5 How ancient may be guessed from Kramer's recent and confident attempt to describe the culture of the earliest Sumerians in detail simply on the basis of the knowledge that they produced a typical epic literature. Knowing that, one may be sure that theirs was the same culture that is described in epic poetry throughout the world, 6 for epic cannot be faked: innumerable attempts to produce convincing epics by the creative imagination are almost pitifully transparent. Now one of the books of the Book of Mormon, the book of Ether, comes right out of that epic milieu, which it faithfully reproduces, though of course the world of Joseph Smith had never heard of such a thing as an epic milieu. Here is a good test for the Book of Mormon. It is but one of many—all awaiting fuller treatment, and none as yet settled with any degree of finality. But the mere fact that there are such tests is a most astonishing thing. That one can actually talk about the Book of Mormon seriously and with growing respect after all that has been discovered in the last 125 years is, considering the nature of its publication, as far as I am concerned, in itself ample proof of its genuineness.
But the Book of Mormon was not meant as a sign and a wonder to an unbelieving world; though an angel from heaven were to declare it, we are told, the world would not believe. It was meant to give instruction to those who should believe in these last days. It is a book for hard times and for great times. I have always thought in reading the Book of Mormon, "Woe to the generation that understands this book!" To our fathers, once the great persecutions ceased, the story of the Nephites and the Lamanites was something rather strange, unreal, and faraway—even to the point of being romantic. The last generation did not make much of the Book of Mormon. But now with every passing year this great and portentous story becomes more and more familiar and more frighteningly like our own. It is an exciting thing to discover that the man Lehi was a real historical character, a fact that can now be established from secular sources with a high degree of probability, but it is far more important and significant to find oneself in this twentieth century standing as it were in his very shoes. The events and situations of the Book of Mormon that not many years ago seemed wildly improbable to some and greatly overdrawn have suddenly become the story of our own times, when we see and shall see the words of those prophets who speak to us from the dust fearfully and wonderfully vindicated.
1. Hugh Nibley, "New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study," Improvement Era (March 1954): 148ff.
2. André Dupont-Sommer, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Preliminary Survey (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 96. For a description of later finds, Frank Moore Cross, "The Manuscripts of the Dead Sea Caves," Biblical Archaeologist 17 (February 1954): 2—21.
3. H. L. Lorimer, "Homer and the Art of Writing: A Sketch of Opinion between 1713 and 1939," American Journal of Archaeology 52 (1948): 14—15.
4. Albert B. Lord, "Homer, Parry and Huso," American Journal of Archaeology 52 (1948): 39.
5. See generally, Hector and Nora Chadwick, The Growth of Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932).
6. Samuel N. Kramer, "New Light on the Early History of the Ancient Near East," American Journal of Archaeology 52 (1948): 156—64.