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Book of Mormon

Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is a foundational sacred text for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose members are commonly called "Mormons," after the book itself). Mormonism was organized as a religion after Joseph Smith, the movement's founder, published the Book of Mormon in upstate New York in 1830. Smith claimed to have been led by an angel to a cache of buried golden plates, which contained a record of the former inhabitants of the American continent. He was then given the ability and the tools to translate the record from its language, called Reformed Egyptian, into English. Today the Book of Mormon is one of four chief texts accepted as scripture by Latter-day Saints (LDS). The others are the Bible (both the Old and the New Testaments), the Doctrine and Covenants (revelations from God to Joseph Smith and other church leaders, mostly in the nineteenth century), and the Pearl of Great Price (a collection of other revelations to, and writings of, Joseph Smith).


Basic Plot

The Book of Mormon begins with the story of Lehi, an ancient prophet in Jerusalem who fled that city shortly before its destruction in the early sixth century b.c.e. Lehi followed God's directions to build a ship and take his family across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Problems arose, however, when his sons Nephi and Laman took up arms against each other, beginning a blood feud that would last for centuries. Nephi's descendants (the Nephites) are generally depicted in the Book of Mormon as righteous and civilized, while their opponents, the Lamanites (after Nephi's brother Laman), are often caricatured as savage heathens.

Much of the book describes warfare and cycles of destruction, but a significant portion preaches of the peace that will come when the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, visits America. The Book of Mormon claims that Christ visited America for the three days between his death and resurrection, and that he preached and taught among the Nephites. For two centuries after his visit, the Nephites and the Lamanites were able to live in harmony, but eventually they reinstituted their former battles. In about the year 421 c.e., a prophet named Moroni wrote that he was the last of the Nephites left to preserve the sacred record of their history. According to Mormon belief, Moroni sealed up the record, which we call the Book of Mormon, and buried it in the earth so it would be preserved from the Lamanites. This same Moroni was the angel who appeared to Joseph Smith in 1823 and instructed him about where to find the record.


Controversies over Authorship

Latter-day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon is a compilation of the writings of many ancient prophets over the span of nearly a thousand years. Yet many critics in the nineteenth century ridiculed Joseph Smith's claim to have found and translated a "golden Bible." Some claimed that Smith wrote it himself, while others tried to prove that he had plagiarized the book from existing sources. To counter such charges, Smith published the Book of Mormon with affidavits attesting to its miraculous origins; a total of eleven witnesses testified that they had seen the golden plates from which the book was translated. These testimonies still appear at the beginning of every printed copy of the Book of Mormon.


Theological Legacies

The Book of Mormon is more of a historical record than a theological work. Many of the core beliefs of contemporary Mormonism, such as eternal marriage and temple worship, are not mentioned in the book. Yet some of the historical legacies from the book have influenced Mormon theology and practice. For example, Mormons believe that contemporary Native Americans and indigenous peoples are the literal descendants of the Lamanites of the Book of Mormon. The first Mormon missionaries were sent by Joseph Smith to Missouri to try to convert some of these "lost" Lamanites and return them to the fold. More recently, Mormons have attempted to reclaim the Native Americans as Book of Mormon peoples. In the 1960s and 1970s, hundreds of Navajo children were bused away from their reservation and placed with LDS foster families during the school year, to assist in their education and to instruct them in the Mormon faith.


Current Emphases

The Book of Mormon is extremely important to contemporary Latter-day Saints, who consider it the most perfect book on earth. In the 1980s, LDS prophet and president Ezra Taft Benson initiated a sort of renaissance by encouraging church members to read the Book of Mormon daily. The book is used heavily in the church's extensive missionary outreach, with missionaries offering free copies and instruction to anyone investigating the church. This instantly recognizable dark blue missionary copy received a face-lift in the early 1980s with its new subtitle "Another Testament of Jesus Christ." The 1990s have seen a heightened emphasis on the book's Christ-centeredness and its message of Christ as the redeemer of humankind.


See alsoBible; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Mormon Temple.

Bibliography

Benson, Ezra Taft. Beware ofPride:TheBookofMormon:Keystone of Our Religion. 1998.

Bushman, Richard. JosephSmith andtheBeginningsofMormonism. 1984.

Shipps, Jan. Mormonism: TheStoryofa NewReligiousTradition. 1985.

Jana Kathryn Riess

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