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The Book of Mormon is a lengthy and somewhat complex book. A clear understanding of its various parts and how they fit together is essential to understanding the issues pertaining to its historical and religious claims.
The front matter of contemporary editions of the Book of Mormon include the following elements:
- two affidavits to the existence of the gold plates called the Testimonies of Three Witnesses and of Eight Witnesses
- excerpts from Joseph’s account of how he came to translate the Book of Mormon
- a “Brief Explanation” that distinguishes four groups of metal plates of relevance.
The Book of Mormon text, which runs to about 269,000 words (531 pages), is divided into fifteen books, which are further subdivided into chapters (239) and verses (6,607).
Of the fifteen books, all but two form a more or less continuous narrative that begins about 600 BC and ends in AD 421 (these dates, which are not part of the Book of Mormon proper, appear at the bottom of nearly each page of the published Book of Mormon). This millennium-long narrative recounts the history of two warring peoples called the Lamanites and the Nephites who were descended from an Israelite family that left Jerusalem and sailed from Arabia to the Americas. The Book of Mormon also tells about two other migrations from the Middle East to the Western Hemisphere, one around the same time (the people of Mulek) and another a millennium or more earlier (called the Jaredites).
The Books and the Plates
The Book of Mormon divides into two groups of books, each group of which we are told were engraved on a different set of gold plates (see Table 1 below). The (small) Plates of Nephi include the first six books and have Nephi as their main author. The Plates of Mormon consist of the remaining nine books, of which Mormon is the primary author. These nine books begin with a short transitional book written by Mormon, followed by six books which (except for two closing chapters) are Mormon’s abridgment from a longer narrative on the (large) Plates of Nephi. Both Nephi and Mormon quote extensively from Old Testament writings said to have been taken to the New World on plates of brass. Mormon’s son Moroni, who appends two chapters to Mormon’s abridgment, is the author of the last two books and the one who buried the plates; he is also the angel, or resurrected being, who would give the gold plates to Joseph Smith fourteen centuries later. Thus the whole work is attributed to three main authors: Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni.1 Since Mormon composed about two-thirds of the work, the whole is known as The Book of Mormon.
|Table 1: Book of Mormon Plates, Authors, and Books|
|(Small) Plates of Nephi||Nephi||1 Nephi||22|
|Omni and three others; Amaleki||Omni||1|
|Plates of Mormon||Mormon||Words of Mormon||1|
|Mormon(his abridgment of the Large Plates of Nephi)||Mosiah||29|
|Mormon (1-7) and Moroni (8-9)||Book of Mormon||9|
|Moroni’s abridgment of Ether’s 24 plates||Ether||15|
Summary of the Book of Mormon
1 and 2 (600-545 BC; 55 chapters). Lehi, a Jew living in Jerusalem, takes his family to Arabia shortly before the Babylonian Exile and from there sails to the Americas. He and his son Nephi have visions, prophesy of the coming of Christ, and seek to teach the rest of the family the ways of the Lord. Nephi’s brother Laman rejects his revelations, establishing the precedent for the wars that will ensue between the Nephites and Lamanites for the next thousand years. Over a 30-chapter stretch (1 Ne. 20–2 Ne. 27), Nephi quotes 18 chapters from Isaiah—nearly verbatim as they appear in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.
J, E, J, and O (544-130 BC; 10 chapters). Nephi passed the gold plates to his brother Jacob, and from there the plates are passed from father to son, with each man serving as a prophet for his generation and writing something on the plates—though what they write becomes shorter and shorter. Thus the book of Jacob has seven chapters, the books of Enos and Jarom one each, and the one chapter of the book of Omni actually covers five generations of prophets. The last of these, Amaleki, tells that Mosiah discovered a land called Zarahemla, was made king there, and was succeeded by Benjamin.
W (ca. AD 385; 1 chapter). This is a transitional book, the first book on the Plates of Mormon. In this short book, Mormon explains that he had abridged the records from Lehi to Benjamin but had also included a shorter, parallel account on other plates of Nephi that he had found, “for a wise purpose” that only the Lord knew. It is this shorter account that appears in the first six books of the Book of Mormon. The significance of this information will be made clear below.
M, A, and H (200-1 BC; 108 chapters). These three books and the next two are all attributed to Mormon as his abridgment from the (large) Plates of Nephi. The three books give a detailed narrative concerning the history of the Lamanites and the Nephites beginning from the time of Benjamin, with an annual countdown to the birth of Christ. Various prophets during this period preach the Christian gospel, referring explicitly to the future coming of Jesus Christ (who is repeatedly named) and to his crucifixion and resurrection.
3 (AD 1-35; 30 chapters). In this book, Mormon tells about the birth of Christ (dated in AD 1) and his death and resurrection from the viewpoint of the Nephites. Following Jesus’ resurrection, he appears to the Nephites, preaches the Sermon on the Mount to them (nearly verbatim as it appears in Matthew 5-7 in the KJV), chooses twelve Nephite apostles, establishes the church there, and quotes Isaiah 52 and 54 as well as Malachi 3-4.
4 (AD 36-321; 1 chapter). Mormon tells about the rise and fall of the Christian church in the Americas. The Nephites and Lamanites all convert to faith in Christ and the people enjoy three centuries of peace and prosperity, which come to an end in an apostasy in the early fourth century (just as Mormons traditionally believe happened in the Old World church).
B (AD 322-421; 9 chapters). This short book has the same title as the whole work. Wars between the Lamanites and the Nephites end with the utter defeat of the Nephites at the hill Cumorah. Mormon hides plates on that hill but leaves other plates (those containing the material summarized so far) to his son Moroni, who writes (in the last two chapters) about the future discovery of the record.
E (undated; 15 chapters). Moroni abridges a set of 24 plates from Ether, which tell about the Jaredites, a people who left the Tower of Babel and settled in the New World, where their civilization flourished and then disintegrated about the time that Lehi’s party arrived.
M (AD 400-421; 8 chapters). Moroni provides some final teaching before he seals up his father’s record, ending with a challenge to future readers to pray to know that the record is true.
See Table 2 below for another summary of the books of the Book of Mormon.
|Table 2: Book of Mormon Overview|
|1 Nephi (22)||9||600-570 BC||Lehi and his son Nephi travel to Arabia (1-7); Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions (8-15); they sail to the Americas (16-18); Nephi writes, quotes Isaiah 48-49 (19-21); Nephi’s exposition (22)|
|2 Nephi (33)||10||570-545 BC||Lehi speaks, dies (1-4); Nephites and Lamanites divide (5); Jacob speaks, quotes Isaiah 49:22-52:2 and 55:1-2, prophesies (6-10); Nephi quotes Isaiah 2-14 (11-24), prophesies, quotes Isaiah 29 (25-33)|
|Jacob (7)||11||544-480 BC||Nephi dies (1); his brother Jacob preaches Christ (2-6); Sherem denies Christ and is struck down (7)|
|Enos (1)||12||480-420 BC||Jacob’s son Enos preaches Christ|
|Jarom (1)||13||420-361 BC||Enos’s son Jarom preaches Christ|
|Omni (1)||14||361-130 BC||Plates passed down to Omni, Amaron, Chemish, and Abinadom (1:1-11), and Amaleki, who tells that Mosiah discovered Zarahemla, was made king there, and was succeeded by Benjamin (1:12-30)|
|Words of Mormon (1)||15||AD 385||Mormon abridged the records from Lehi to Benjamin but also includes a parallel account on other plates he found, “for a wise purpose” that the Lord knows**|
|Mosiah (29)||1||200-91 BC||Annual countdown to Christ begins; Benjamin dies; his son Mosiah rules the Nephites, who are joined by Mulekites that return to Zarahemla led by Alma; quotations of the Ten Commandments, Isaiah 53|
|Alma (63)||2||91-52 BC||Alma and his sons preach Christ and along with Moroni rally the Nephites to defend their liberty against insurrectionists and Lamanites|
|Helaman (16)||3||51-1 BC||Helaman’s son Nephi returns to Zarahemla and with the help of Samuel convinces many to believe in the soon coming Christ|
|3 Nephi (30)||4||AD 1-35||The risen Christ appears to the Nephites, preaches the Sermon on the Mount (12-14), starts a Nephite church, quotes Isaiah 54, Malachi 3-4 (22, 24-25)|
|4 Nephi (1)||5||36-321||Nephites and Lamanites all convert to faith in Christ; three centuries later, the church is apostate|
|Book of Mormon (9)||6||322-421||Lamanites defeat the Nephites at the hill Cumorah; Mormon hides the plates on that hill except for a few given to his son Moroni, who writes about the future coming forth of the record|
|Ether (15)||7||(undated)||Moroni tells about the Jaredites who came to the Americas from the Tower of Babel and died out about the time Lehi’s party arrived|
|Moroni (10)||8||400-421||Moroni seals up his father’s records|
|*Order in which Joseph dictated the books.**To serve as a replacement text for the 116 pages Joseph dictated but then lost|
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1. See Grant Hardy, U