Mormon Began Editing
At the age of 74, Mormon needed to fulfill his most important mission in life—editing a sacred scripture that would bear his name and become Another Testament of Jesus Christ.
The war-wounded veteran Mormon began engraving a thousand-year history of his people on golden plates, wherein he could not write “the hundredth part of the things of my people” (The Words of Mormon 1:5). His efforts resulted in a book of nearly 269,000 words. Mormon’s initial abridgment of the first 470 years of Lehi’s descendants has never been published. After Joseph Smith translated 116 pages from Mormon’s “Book of Lehi,” he reluctantly allowed Martin Harris to take possession of this manuscript, which was subsequently lost by Harris (D&C 3). Mormon, however, had been inspired to attach a spiritual account that Nephi had started writing 30 years after he and his family had arrived in the Americas (2 Nephi 5:30).
When Mormon began editing the Book of Mormon records, he had never read Nephi’s Small Plates: “for after I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi, …I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, …and also many of the words of Nephi” (Words of Mormon 1:3). Mormon decided not to make any changes but added his own comments: “And I do this for a wise purpose, for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me” (Words of Mormon 1:7). Mormon’s insert provided a transition from Nephi’s Small Plates to Mormon’s edited version of The Book of Mosiah (Words of Mormon 1:9-18). Mormon’s foresight in providing two different accounts of the same period of history proved to be inspired.
Mormon Edits Three Books Written Before the Birth of Jesus Christ
In Mosiah, Mormon used just over 31,000 words to recount 49 years of Nephite history. Like Nephi, Mormon divided books into chapters (Orson Pratt added chapters in the 1879 edition). For about 45% of Mosiah, Mormon wrote third person point of view summaries about people and events as well as adding his own editorial comments. For 55% of Mosiah, Mormon copied first person point of view excerpts from the teachings of King Benjamin, King Zeniff, the prophets Abinadi, Alma, Alma the younger, and King Mosiah.
Their sermons and teachings covered a wide range of topics: governance, recordkeeping, service, warnings, commandments, excommunication, and conversion. Mormon also included shorter dialogues between Ammon and king Limhi, king Noah and Gideon, and king Mosiah and Alma. This editing strategy provided a firsthand understanding of the teachings and personalities of these leaders and prophets.
The Book of Alma is the longest—over 85,000 words—but it reviewed one of the shortest periods of time: about 38 years. At the start of Alma, Mormon wrote a brief overview. Like Nephi, Mormon continued writing introductory headings for the remainder of the books he edited, except his own history. Slightly over 51% of the content in Alma included Mormon’s edited summaries about people, events, and values. Nearly 49% of the Book of Alma used direct quotations and dialogue from the records that he was abridging. Of these first person accounts, nearly 53% of the quoted passages (almost 22,000 words) were taken from Alma’s prophetic sermons, conversations, and fatherly counsel.
The other key spiritual leaders cited were: Amulek, Ammon and Aaron (sons of King Mosiah), and Captain Moroni. The closing chapters included letters exchanged between Captain Moroni, Ammaron (a king of the Lamanites), the prophet Helaman, and the chief governor Pahoran. Again, these first person accounts allowed these prophets and leaders to provide personal explanations of their life experiences and teachings.
The Book of Helaman covered about 51 years with just over 25,500 words. About 62% of this book used Mormon’s edited summaries (Helaman 2:12-14) and commentary (Helaman 12). Mormon noted that during this time period “there are many records kept on the proceedings of the people, by many of this people, which are particular and very large” (Helaman 3:13). Consequently Mormon had to condense and summarize many accounts. Almost 38% of Helaman included direct quotes from the counsel, persecutions, and teachings of Helaman, his sons Nephi and Lehi, and Samuel the Lamanite. At least part of the prophecies made by Samuel the Lamanite had “not been written” in the Nephi records, so when the resurrected Jesus visited the Americas, He commanded that the omissions “be written” (3 Nephi 23:12-13).
In his account of the ministry of Samuel the Lamanite, Mormon made sure that he included the prophecy that after Christ’s resurrection “many graves shall be opened, and shall yield up many of their dead; and many saints shall appear unto many” (Helaman 14:25). Mormon was an editor who paid close attention to include accurate details.
Mormon’s Account of the Birth, Death, and Resurrected Ministry of Jesus Christ
The Book of Nephi the Son of Nephi, Who Was the Son of Helaman—the title “Third Nephi” was added in the 1879 edition—used close to 29,000 words to describe the most dramatic 34 or 35 years of Nephite history. The division between edited and quoted materials was almost exactly 50% of each. In the opening chapters, Mormon summarized the dramatic signs of Christ’s birth: “there was no darkness all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day” (3 Nephi 1:19) and “a new star did appear” (3 Nephi 1:21). In these beginning chapters, Mormon also reviewed the persecutions, wars, the miraculous ministry of the prophet Nephi, and the devastating destructions that occurred at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. With respect to the ministry of Jesus, however, Mormon reproduced Christ’s proclamations, teachings, and counsel to His disciples as spoken by the Lord. Mormon acknowledged that he did not write everything that Jesus taught, “these things have I written, which are a lesser part of the things which he taught the people” (3 Nephi 26:6-8). As an editor, Mormon dutifully recorded “the things which have been commanded me of the Lord” (3 Nephi 26:12). The Savior carefully guided Mormon’s editing of Third Nephi.
The Concluding Books of Fourth Nephi and Mormon
“The Book of Nephi Who Is the Son of Nephi—One of the disciples of Jesus Christ” (which added the title Fourth Nephi in the 1879 edition) used close to 2000 words to describe about 285 years following the appearance of Christ in the Americas. In writing this book, Mormon used only his edited summaries, not any direct quotes. He reviewed a transition from a time when “there was no contention among all the people” (4 Nephi 1:13) to a period when “they did dwindle in unbelief and wickedness” (4 Nephi 1:34). In describing this tragic decline, Mormon gave an edited account that was truthfully brief.
In reviewing the 74 years of his own life, Mormon used a little over 6,000 words. When he was about 34 years-old, he made a much longer accounting of his life: “And upon the plates of Nephi I did make a full account of all the wickedness and abominations; but upon these plates [The Plates of Mormon] I did forbear to make a full account of their wickedness and abominations” (Mormon 2:18). Even his descriptions of the final battles in the land of Cumorah (Mormon 6) were especially cursory. Mormon was a judicious editor of his own writings.
In chapter 7, Mormon changed his perspective by directing his words to future generations of Lamanites: “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus, and lay hold upon the gospel of Christ, which shall be set before you, not only in this record but also in the record which shall come unto the Gentiles from the Jews, which record shall come from the Gentiles unto you” (Mormon 7:8). Mormon’s last words expressed the hope that his writings would be joined with biblical records and serve as another testament of the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Mormon’s Abridgement Remained Unfinished
Mormon was an extraordinary man—a great prophet, a military commander, a political leader, a loving father, and an inspired editor. He did not live long enough to complete all of his editing goals but passed on “these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni” (Mormon 6:6). How Moroni took over from his father and eventually decided to add a concluding book will be covered in the third article of this series: “Moroni—The Finishing Editor of the Book of Mormon.”