What Do We Know About the Jaredite Plates?

Like a play within a play, the Book of Mormon, an ancient record translated by the power of God, contains a story of another ancient record which was translated by the power of God.

The first mention of this record appears in the Book of Omni, near the end of the Small Plates of Nephi. King Mosiah, who had united the Nephite and Mulekite people and had taught the Mulekites the Nephite language, came into possession of “a large stone…with engravings on it.” He translated that text “by the gift and power of God.” The record spoke of a man named Coriantumr, the last of the Jaredites. Sometime afterward, the people of Mosiah found Coriantumr, and he lived among them for 9 months (Omni 1:20-21). There is no subsequent mention of this stone or its translation in the Book of Mormon.

During the reign of King Mosiah, a man named Zeniff recruited a group of people to form a colony among their enemies, the Lamanites (Omni 1:27-30, Mosiah 9:1-3). Two generations later, Mosiah’s grandson (who was also named Mosiah) sent a group of men, led by a man named Ammon, to find out what had happened to Zeniff’s people (Mosiah 7:1-3).

They found Zeniff’s grandson, Limhi, ruling over a city which was in captivity. They were forced to pay a large tribute to the king of the Lamanites. Limhi had sent forty-three people into the wilderness in search of the people of Mosiah. They had not found Mosiah’s people, but they had found the ruins of a large civilization. Among those ruins, they discovered twenty-four plates filled with engravings and brought them back to Limhi.

Limhi asked Ammon if he knew of anyone who could translate. Ammon told him that King Mosiah had that ability and that it was a gift of God (Mosiah 8:6-13).

After Limhi and his people escaped from the Lamanites, King Mosiah did translate the twenty-four Jaredite plates. He found that they contained a record of the Jaredite people from the time of the Tower of Babel until the destruction of their civilization. This record filled his people with joy and sorrow: joy because of the knowledge they had gained, sorrow because of the tragic end of a civilization (Mosiah 28:11-19).

Mosiah passed those records on to Alma, who was the first chief judge. Years later, Alma delivered the records to his son Helaman with a warning: Included in the twenty-four plates was a record of the secret crimes which had been committed among the Jaredites, protected by “paths and covnenants.” Alma urged Helaman to keep that portion of the record secret, so that their people would not be tempted to imitate those oaths (Alma 37:21-32).

Unfortunately, even in a pre-Internet age, it was impossible to keep information like that secret. Mormon tells us that Gadianton, who formed a band of robbers which protected one another in committing crimes, learned to administer the same oaths and covenants which were recorded on those plates. Helaman had kept the oaths secret, but Gadianton received them directly from their source: the devil (Helaman 6:25-30).

After the death of Mormon, his son Moroni wrote a history of the Jaredite people, using the twenty-four plates as his source (Header to the Book of Ether). The book does tell stories of crimes committed by people who had made oaths to defend each other (Ether 8:13-16, Ether 9:5-6). But it also contains spiritual experiences so sacred that Moroni was commanded to “seal them up” and keep them from his readers until they are ready to receive them (Ether 4:5-6, Ether 5:1).

So besides being a translation within a translation, the Jaredite record is also a story about privacy: withholding information, both good and evil, from people who are not spiritually mature enough to use it wisely.

There is no doubt that God values transparency. In fact, the oaths which Alma commanded Helaman to protect were designed to hide the truth and enable people to commit crimes in secret. God’s response was that all of those crimes would be known:

I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations; and except they repent I will destroy them from off the face of the earth; and I will bring to light all their secrets and abominations, unto every nation that shall hereafter possess the land (Alma 37:25).

Transparency is good, and people need to know that they cannot hide their crimes. However, there is also a place for privacy and protection of information. Knowledge is power, and it can be abused. Just as you would not trust a stranger with intimate details about your life or your family, God withholds some information from us until we demonstrate that we can use it responsibly. We gain His trust, and He rewards that trust with additional knowledge. As Alma taught in the city of Ammonihah:

It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.
And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full (Alma 12:9-10).

Today, I will remember the lesson of the Jaredite plates: God guards some kinds of information closely. He is willing to share, but only after we have demonstrated that we can be trusted with the information. Today, I will strive to be worthy of His trust, so that I can receive “the greater portion of his word.”

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What Is the Sealed Portion of the Book of Mormon?

Isaiah described a “sealed book” which would confound a “learned man.” He would be asked to read it and would say in frustration, “I cannot; for it is sealed” (Isaiah 29:11).

An unlearned man would then protest that he could not read the book because of his lack of education. In Nephi’s paraphrase of this chapter, God gives the following reply:

The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.
Touch not the things which are sealed, for I will bring them forth in mine own due time; for I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work (2 Nephi 27:20-21).

The original text of the Book of Mormon was engraved on thin metal plates, bound together with metal rings to look like a book. According to David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses, “A large portion of the leaves were so securely bound together that it was impossible to separate them.” He indicated that the sealed portion “was as solid to my view as wood” and that “about…half of the book was sealed” (quoted in “What Did the Golden Plates Look Like?New Era, July 2007).

ne07jul32_plates

Source: Steven Pratt, “A Model of the Plates,” New Era, July 2007

After the brother of Jared saw the finger of the Lord, he was given the privilege of “beholding within the veil” (Ether 3:19). Because of his belief, God showed him “all the inhabitants of the earth which had been, and also all that would be; and he withheld them not from his sight, even unto the ends of the earth” (Ether 3:25).

Moroni, who abridged the record of the Jaredite people, wrote on the plates “the very things which the brother of Jared saw” (Ether 4:4). But God told him to “seal up” that part of his record:

For the Lord said unto me: They shall not go forth unto the Gentiles until the day that they shall repent of their iniquity, and become clean before the Lord (Ether 4:6).

But the Lord made a conditional promise to us:

In that day that they shall exercise faith in me, saith the Lord, even as the brother of Jared did, that they may become sanctified in me, then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations, saith Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of the heavens and of the earth, and all things that in them are (Ether 4:7).

And the Lord invited us to prepare ourselves to receive additional knowledge:

Come unto me…and I will show unto you the greater things, the knowledge which is hid up because of unbelief (Ether 4:13).

To me, the message of the sealed portion of the plates is simple: we have much more to learn. We should be grateful for the knowledge we have received from God, and we should also acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge. The Lord can teach us so much more if we overcome our unbelief and trust in Him.

Today, I will acknowledge the limitations of my knowledge. I will exercise faith in God and will open my heart to the knowledge which He will share with me as quickly as I am prepared to receive it.

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Who Were the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon?

While Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, he was not allowed to show anyone else the metal plates containing the original record (Joseph Smith–History 1:42). His scribes sat near him, recording the words he spoke, but Joseph kept the plates hidden from their view.

But near the end of the translation process, in June 1829, Joseph translated two passages indicating that other people would be permitted to view the plates.

Moroni inserted an editorial note into his history of the Jaredites, with specific instructions for the future translator of the book. He told Joseph Smith not to attempt to translate the sealed portion of the plates. Then he said:

And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work;
And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true.
And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established; and the testimony of three, and this work, in the which shall be shown forth the power of God and also his word, of which the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost bear record—and all this shall stand as a testimony against the world at the last day (Ether 5:2-4).

Nephi also emphasized the importance of multiple witnesses. After quoting a sermon by his brother Jacob, and just before quoting 13 chapters from Isaiah, he highlighted the value of having three witnesses:

By the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words (2 Nephi 11:3).

Then, near the end of his writings, Nephi prophesied that three witnesses would view the plates:

Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken [Joseph Smith], the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.
And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men;…
And in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word (2 Nephi 27:12-14).

Near the end of the translation process, three men who had participated in the process–Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris–asked Jospeh to inquire of the Lord if they could be those three witnesses. Joseph was apparently slow to respond to their request. “Finally,” he wrote, “they became so very solicitous…that at length I complied” (Documentary History of the Church, 23 on josephsmithpapers.org).

In response, Joseph received a revelation on their behalf, with the following promise: “You must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates…. And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them” (D&C 17:1-2).

Shortly after, the three men were shown the plates by an angel of God. Their testimony that they saw the plates, and that this ancient record was translated “by the gift and power of God” appears at the beginning of the Book of Mormon.

Today, I will be grateful that God sends witnesses to help us recognize the truth. I will be grateful that many people can testify that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. I will particularly remember the three witnesses, who provided contemporary testimonies corroborating Joseph Smith’s.

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Why Do We “Bear” Witness?

To “bear” something is to carry it. The word has a connotation of effort or difficulty: we bear a burden. We bear suffering. A woman may bear a child. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that the word bear “usually implies the power to sustain without flinching or breaking.

So I think it’s interesting that we “bear” a witness or a testimony. The words “provide” or “share” would both seem reasonable. But when I think of a witness in a court of law, the word “bear” does seem more appropriate. What they say and how they say it will influence decisions that have far-reaching consequences in people’s lives. Their words on that occasion are in effect a burden, and their responsibility is to speak the truth without flinching.

The Greek word for witness is martus (μάρτυς), which is the root of the English word “martyr.”

The prophet Abinadi preached the gospel to a group of people who did not want to hear him. He was protected long enough to deliver his message, but in the end, he gave his life rather than deny his testimony (Mosiah 17:9-10). Shortly after, Alma, who had been converted by Abinadi’s testimony, challenged a group of people to be baptized “as a witness before [God]” that they were willing to serve Him and keep His commandments (Mosiah 18:10). As part of that covenant, they agreed to “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places…even until death” (Mosiah 18:9). The seriousness of that promise must have been particularly evident to these people, who knew that Abinadi had just given his life for that same testimony.

Last Sunday, during a church meeting in New York City, I heard a church leader say that one of the great privileges of her current calling is the opportunity to be a witness. I was impressed by the sense of meaning and fulfillment which she derives from bearing testimony of the gospel

Today, I will strive to fulfill my duty to stand as a witness of God. I will remember that to bear witness is a serious activity with significant implications for other people. I will be grateful for the opportunity God has given me to bear testimony of His gospel, and I will strive to fulfill this responsibility faithfully.

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What’s Wrong with Seeking Signs?

The prophet Zenos foretold a sign which would coincide with the Savior’s death hundreds of years later. Some members of the house of Israel, who would be living on “the isles of the sea,” would experience three days of darkness (1 Nephi 19:10).

Just five years before the Savior’s birth, a prophet on the American continent named Samuel the Lamanite prophesied of the same sign. He also provided a sign of the Savior’s birth: a night with no darkness (Helaman 14:2-5, 14, 20).

After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, He instructed His disciples to go “into all the world” and preach the gospel to everyone. He gave them a list of signs which would “follow them that believe,” including healing the sick and speaking in tongues (Mark 16:17-18). Moroni provided the same list and reiterated that signs will always accompany people who believe in Jesus Christ (Mormon 9:24, Ether 4:18).

God provides signs to help His children recognize truth.

However, on two occasions in the Book of Mormon, people demanded signs as a way of challenging the authority of prophets.

Sherem said to Jacob, “Show me a sign by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much” (Jacob 7:13). Jacob responded that Sherem already knew the truth, that they shouldn’t tempt God, and that Sherem would likely reject any sign he received anyway. Nevertheless, God sent a sign: the power of God overcame Sherem, and he fell to the earth (Jacob 7:14-20).

Years later, a man named Korihor challenged the high priest of the church: “If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words” (Alma 30:43). Alma replied, “Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God?” (Alma 30:44). Note that Alma did not say, “You don’t need a sign.” He said, “You already have signs.” Again, God sent a sign anyway: Korihor was struck dumb.

When we demand a sign from God, we may be failing to recognize the signs He has already given us.

When Nephi provided the people of Zarahemla with a dramatic sign to prove he was a prophet, the people tried to explain it away (Helaman 9:24-25). When he provided a second sign, they acknowledged it, but wandered away, leaving him alone (Helaman 9:40-41, 10:1).

Years earlier, Laman and Lemuel, who had seen an angel, accused their brother Nephi of deceiving them “by his cunning arts” (1 Nephi 16:38).

And even the people who experienced the miraculous sign of the Savior’s birth

…began to forget those signs and wonders which they had heard, and began to be less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts, and blind in their minds, and began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen—
Imagining up some vain thing in their hearts, that it was wrought by men and by the power of the devil, to lead away and deceive the hearts of the people (3 Nephi 2:1-2).

When we don’t want to believe, we will jump through hoops to avoid acknowledging the signs we have seen and heard.

Alma told the Zoramites that faith requires incomplete knowledge. If you demand a sign from heaven before you will believe, then you are denying yourself the opportunity to exercise faith (Alma 32:17-18, 21).

And Moroni urged us not to be distressed when we don’t know everything we want to know, “for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6).

Some signs are postponed, to give us the opportunity to develop faith.

Today, I will be grateful for the signs I have experienced which have led me to a knowledge of God. I will strive to recognize the signs He gives me and to be patient when His signs are withheld for a time.

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Why Is It Important to Record the Fulfillment of Prophecies?

When the Savior visited the American continent, He introduced Himself twice–once audibly and once in person after descending from the sky. Both times, He introduced Himself as the fulfillment of prophecies with which the people were familiar (3 Nephi 9:15-16, 3 Nephi 11:10).

After describing the destruction which preceded this event, the prophet Mormon challenged his readers to search the scriptures and see if all of these events had not been foretold by prophets (3 Nephi 10:14).

And on the second day of His visit, after commanding the people to search the scriptures, He asked to see the record kept by Nephi. Finding that the the fulfillment of one of the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite had not been recorded, He commanded them to write down what had happened (3 Nephi 23:7-14).

Why is it so important to record the fulfillment of prophecies? Here are some ideas:

  1. We have short memories and our feeling about significant events can fade over time. Writing things down helps us to remember.
  2. Carefully recording the fulfillment of a prophecy is a way of showing our gratitude to God.
  3. Remembering the fulfillment of prophecies can strengthen our faith in God and in His promises.
  4. Other people, including future generations, can also have their faith strengthened by hearing our firsthand accounts of prophecies fulfilled.

Today, I will carefully record in my journal the way I have seen the hand of the Lord in my life. I will remember some of the times when I have seen prophecies fulfilled, and I will continue to trust in God’s promises which have not yet been fulfilled.

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In What Order Did Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Mormon?

After writing the history of his people on metal plates, the prophet Nephi was instructed by the Lord to create a second set of plates, which are known today as the small plates of Nephi. On these, he was to engrave a record of the ministry of his people. Nephi obeyed this commandment even though he didn’t understand why this second set of plates was necessary: “The Lord hath commanded me to make these plates for a wise purpose in him, which purpose I know not” (1 Nephi 9:5).

Approximately 1,000 years later, while the prophet Mormon was writing a history of his people, he discovered this set of plates. He had already written his history of that period of time, which he called the Book of Lehi. But he felt inspired to also include Nephi’s record of that time period in spite of the apparent redundancy:

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. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will (Words of Mormon 1:7).

When Joseph Smith obtained the plates containing the text of the Book of Mormon on September 27, 1827, he first translated the Book of Lehi. After those pages of manuscript were lost, Joseph was unable to translate for a period of time. He was devastated by this loss, but the Lord reassured him that “the works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught” (D&C 3:1).

When the Lord allowed Joseph to start translating again, he apparently began where he had left off: Mosiah 1. This must have seemed like a strange thing to do. So much of the content was based on material he had previously translated. Nevertheless, Joseph and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, moved forward, translating about 7 pages per day, beginning on April 7, 1829. By the middle of May, they were in 3 Nephi, where the Savior’s instructions on baptism prompted the restoration of the priesthood. By the end of May, they had finished translating the book through Moroni. They also translated the title page about that time, which was the last leaf in the book.

The first week of June, they moved about 260 miles from Harmony, Pennsylvania to Fayette, New York. When Joseph Smith received a copyright for the book on June 11, the middle and ending were complete, but the book had no beginning. The Lord had instructed him not to retranslate the Book of Lehi (D&C 10:30). But He had also prepared a way for the book to be completed:

You shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained.
And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi (D&C 10:41-42).

Joseph Smith translated the small plates of Nephi during the month of June. Near the end of the small plates, Joseph Smith translated a prophecy that three witnesses would see the plates (2 Nephi 27:12). Shortly after, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were shown the plates by an angel (The Testimony of Three Witnesses).

Nephi, Mormon, and Joseph Smith all demonstrated faith by acting on instructions from the Lord without understanding the reasons for those instructions. Because of their faith, God was able to use their efforts to advance His work.

Today, I will strive to follow their examples of faith. I won’t always understand the reasons why I am given commandments by God, but will trust that He has a “wise purpose” for the things He asks of me. I will remember that “the Lord knoweth all things.” And I will remember that God’s work “cannot be frustrated,” and that I can contribute to it if I am willing to trust Him.

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