The Book of Mormon is a sacred text of the churches in the Latter Day Saint movement. It was first published in March 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr. as The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi. According to Smith, the book was originally written in an otherwise unknown language called Reformed Egyptian on what appeared to be golden plates that he discovered in 1823 and then translated. The plates, Smith said, had been buried in a hill near his home in Manchester, New York, where he found them by the guidance of an angel named Moroni.
The Book of Mormon is the earliest of the defining publications of the Latter Day Saint movement. The churches of the movement typically regard the Book of Mormon not only as scripture but as a historical record of God's dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, written by American prophets from perhaps as early as 2500 B.C. to about 400 A.D.
The Book of Mormon is divided into smaller books, titled after the individuals named as primary authors and, in most versions, divided into chapters and verses. Its writing style is similar to Early Modern English religious documents, especially the King James Version of the Bible. However, the Book of Mormon has a number of original and distinctive doctrinal discussions on subjects such as the fall of Adam and Eve, the nature of the Atonement, eschatology, and the organization of the latter-day church. It also includes social and political commentary.
At 17 years of age Joseph Smith Jr. said that an angel of God, named Moroni, appeared to him and told him that a collection of ancient writings, engraved on golden plates by ancient prophets, was buried in a nearby hill which the angel called Cumorah in Wayne County, New York. This ancient record is believed to describe a people whom God had led from Jerusalem to the Western Hemisphere 600 years before Jesus’ birth. According to the narrative, Moroni was the last prophet among these people and had buried the record, which God had promised to bring forth in the latter days. Smith stated that he was instructed by Moroni to meet at the hill annually each September 22 to receive further instructions and that four years after the initial visit, in 1827, he was allowed to take the plates and was directed to translate them into English.
Smith's first published description of the plates said that the plates "had the appearance of gold", and were described by Martin Harris, one of Smith's early scribes, to be "fastened together in the shape of a book by wires". Smith called the engraved writing on the plates Reformed Egyptian. A portion of the text on the plates was also "sealed" according to his account, so its presumed content is not included in the Book of Mormon.
In addition to Smith's account regarding the plates, eleven others signed affidavits that they saw and handled the gold plates for themselves. Their written testimonies are known as The Testimony of Three Witnesses and The Testimony of Eight Witnesses. These affidavits are published as part of the introductory pages to the Book of Mormon.
Smith enlisted the help of his neighbor Martin Harris (one of the Three Witnesses), who later mortgaged his farm to underwrite the printing of the Book of Mormon, as a scribe during his initial work on the text. In 1828, Harris, prompted by his wife, Lucy Harris, repeatedly requested that Smith lend him the current pages that had been translated. Smith reluctantly relented to Harris' requests. Lucy Harris is thought to have stolen the first 116 pages. After the loss, Smith recorded that he had lost the ability to translate, and that Moroni had taken back the plates to be returned only after Smith repented. Smith later stated that that God allowed him to resume translation, but directed that he begin translating another part of the plates. In 1829, with the assistance of Oliver Cowdery, work on the Book of Mormon recommenced, and was completed in a remarkably short period (April-June 1829). Smith then says he returned the plates to Moroni upon the publication of the book.
Critics of the Book of Mormon claim that the book was either the original creation of Smith (with or without the assistance of one or more of his associates), was based on a prior work such as View of the Hebrews, or was plagiarized in part from an unpublished manuscript written by Solomon Spalding. For a few followers of the LDS movement, unresolved issues of the book's historicity and the lack of conclusive archaeological evidence have led them to adopt a compromise position that the Book of Mormon may be the creation of Smith, but that it was nevertheless created through divine inspiration. Most in the LDS movement believe Smith's position that it is a literal historical record.
The book's sequence is primarily chronological based on the narrative content of the book. Exceptions include the Words of Mormon and the Book of Ether. The Words of Mormon contains editorial comment by Mormon. The Book of Ether is presented as the narrative of an earlier group of people who had come to America before the immigration described in First Nephi. First Book of Nephi through Omni are written in first-person narrative, as are Mormon and Moroni. The remainder of the Book of Mormon is written in third-person historical narrative, compiled and abridged by Mormon (with Moroni abridging the Book of Ether).
Most modern editions of the book have been divided into chapters and verses. Most editions of the book also contain supplementary material, including the "Testimony of Three Witnesses" and the "Testimony of Eight Witnesses", which are statements by men who said they saw the golden plates with Joseph Smith and could verify their existence.
The books from 1 Nephi to Omni are described as being from "the small plates of Nephi". This account begins in ancient Jerusalem around 600 BC, at roughly the same time as the Book of Jeremiah in the Bible. It tells the story of Lehi, his family, and several others as they are led by God from Jerusalem shortly before the fall of that city to the Babylonians in 586 BC. They travel across the Arabian peninsula, and then to the promised land (the Americas) by ship. These books recount the group's dealings from approximately 600 BC to about 130 BC. During this time, the community split into two main groups, the Nephites and the Lamanites, and grew into separate sizable civilizations that war with each other.
Following this section is the Words of Mormon. This small book, said to be written in AD 385 by Mormon, is a short introduction to the books of Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, 3 Nephi, and 4 Nephi. These books are described as being abridged from a large quantity of existing records called "the large plates of Nephi" that detailed the nation's history from the time of Omni to Mormon's own life. The book of 3 Nephi is of particular importance within the Book of Mormon because it contains an account of a visit by Jesus from heaven to the Americas sometime after his resurrection at Jerusalem and ascension. During his American ministry, he repeated much of the same doctrine and instruction given in the Gospels of the Bible and established an enlightened, peaceful society which endured for several generations, but which eventually broke into warring factions again.
The book of Mormon is an account of the events during Mormon's life. Mormon received the charge of taking care of the records that had been hidden, once he was old enough. Mormon writes an account of the wars, his leading of portions of the Nephite army, and his retrieving and caring for the records. Mormon eventually is killed, after he hands down the records to his son Moroni.
Moroni then makes an abridgment (called Ether) of a record from a previous people called the Jaredites. The account describes a group of families led from the Tower of Babel to the Americas, headed by a man named Jared and his brother. The Jaredite civilization is presented as existing on the American continent long before Lehi's family arrived in 600 BC, beginning about 2500 BC, and it was much larger and more developed. This date is only an approximation.
The book of Moroni then details the final destruction of the Nephites and the idolatrous state of the remaining society. He adds a few spiritual insights and mentions some important doctrinal teachings, then closes with his testimony and an invitation to pray to God for a confirmation of the truthfulness of the account.
In furtherance of its theme of reconciling Jews and gentiles to Jesus, the book describes a variety of visions or visitations to some of the early inhabitants in the Americas involving Jesus. Most notable among these is a described visit of the Jesus to the a group of early inhabitants shortly after his resurrection. Many of the book's narrators described other visions of Jesus, including one by a narrator who, according to the book, lived thousands of years before Jesus, but who saw the "body" of Jesus' spirit thousands of years prior to his birth. In another vision, according to the book, a different narrator described a vision of the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus,, including a prophecy of Jesus' name, said to have taken place nearly 600 years prior to Jesus' birth,
In the narrative, at the time of King Benjamin (date about 130 BC), the Nephite believers were called "the children of Christ". At another place, the faithful members of the church at the time of Captain Moroni (73 B.C.) were called "Christians" by their enemies, because of their belief in Jesus Christ. The book also states that for nearly 200 years after Jesus' appearance at the temple in the Americas, the land was filled with peace and prosperity because of the people's obedience to his commandments. Later, the prophet Mormon worked to convince the faithless people of his time (360 A.D.) of Christ. The prophet Moroni is said to have buried the plates with faith in Christ. Many other prophets in the book also wrote of the reality of the Messiah.
Jesus spoke to the Jews in Jerusalem of “other sheep” who would hear his voice, which the Book of Mormon claims meant that the Nephites and other remnants of the lost tribes of Israel throughout the world were to be visited by Jesus after his resurrection.
The book delves into political and ideological themes, but places them within a Christian or Jewish context. Among these themes are American exceptionalism. According to the book, the Americas are portrayed as a "land of promise", the world's most exceptional land reserved exclusively for the righteous. The book states that any righteous society possessing the land would be protected, whereas if they became wicked they would be destroyed and replaced with a more righteous civilization.
On the issue of war and violence, the book teaches that war is justified for people to "defend themselves against their enemies", however they were never to "give an offense", or to "raise their sword...except it were to preserve their lives. The book praises the faith of a group who chose complete pacifism, refusing to take arms even to defend themselves and their people.
The book supports monarchy as means of government, but only when the monarch is righteous. When citizens attempted to establish an unrighteous king, the book praises a military commander who executed pro-monarchy citizens who were unwilling to make an oath to "support the cause of freedom". The book also speaks favorably of a particular instance of theocracy, as well as a form of democracy led by elected judges.
The book supports notions of economic justice, achieved through voluntary donation of "substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor", and in one case, all the citizens held their property in common. Concern for the poor is portrayed as leading to collective wealth. However, when individuals within a society began to disdain and ignore the poor, to "wear costly apparel", and otherwise engage in wickedness for personal gain, such societies are repeatedly portrayed in the book as being ripe for destruction.
The Book of Mormon’s significance was reiterated in the late 20th century by Ezra Taft Benson, Apostle and 13th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In an August 2005 Ensign message, then LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley challenged each member of the church to reread the Book of Mormon before year's end. The book’s importance is commonly stressed at the twice-yearly general conference and at special devotionals by general authorities.
The LDS Church places particular emphasis on one passage in the final chapter which says that anyone who wants to know if the message of the Book of Mormon is true should ask God and he will show them the truth of the book. This passage is referred to as Moroni's Promise.
In 2001, Community of Christ President W. Grant McMurray reflected on increasing questions about the Book of Mormon: "The proper use of the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture has been under wide discussion in the 1970s and beyond, in part because of long-standing questions about its historicity and in part because of perceived theological inadequacies, including matters of race and ethnicity.
At the 2007 Community of Christ World Conference, President Stephen M. Veazey ruled out of order a resolution to "reaffirm the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired record". He stated that "while the Church affirms the Book of Mormon as scripture, and makes it available for study and use in various languages, we do not attempt to mandate the degree of belief or use. This position is in keeping with our longstanding tradition that belief in the Book of Mormon is not to be used as a test of fellowship or membership in the church.
There are many other smaller groups within the Latter Day Saint movement. Most of these churches were created over issues ranging from differing doctrinal interpretations and acceptance of the movement's scriptures (The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) to disagreements with the leadership of the original Church of Christ as formed by Joseph Smith or his successors. The one thing which all these groups have in common, however, is the acceptance of the Book of Mormon as scripture. It is this acceptance which separates the churches of the Latter Day Saint Movement from other Christian denominations.
Most adherents of the LDS movement consider the Book of Mormon to be a historically accurate account, although unresolved issues of the book's historicity and the lack of supporting archaeological evidence have led some adherents to adopt the position that the Book of Mormon, though inspired, may not be a literal historical record. Most outside the LDS movement do not consider it accurate, and the majority opinion is that it is contradicted by scientific and archaeological research, virtually all of which has been conducted since the book's publication. The following are the principal areas where historical and scientific criticism are focused:
The Book of Mormon is now published by the following:
Supporters of the Book of Mormon maintain that correctness refers only to the content, notably the doctrine. Since Joseph Smith later made corrections to the text of the Book of Mormon, on both copies of the manuscript (the original and the copy prepared for the printer) and in later editions, he did not consider the book to be an infallible translation as it first appeared in print. The Book of Mormon itself indicates that it may contain errors made by the men who wrote it. The vast majority of the changes noted by the Tanners have been discussed in official LDS Church publications including the Ensign, Improvement Era, Millennial Star and Times and Seasons, and are consistent with early pre- and post-publication edits made by Joseph Smith. Some corrections were made due to earlier print or copy errors, or changes in punctuation.
Since 1989, the LDS Church's Brigham Young University has been publishing a critical text edition in four volumes. Volumes 1 and 2, published in 2001, contain transcriptions of all the text variants of the English editions of the Book of Mormon, from the original manuscript up to the newest editions. Volume 4, which is being published in parts, contains a critical analysis of all the text variants. Volume 3, not yet published, will describe the history of all the English-language texts from Joseph Smith to today.
The LDS version of the Book of Mormon has been translated into 80 languages. Selections of the Book of Mormon have been translated into an additional 27 languages. In 2001, the LDS church reported that all or part of the Book of Mormon was available in the native language of 99% of Latter-day Saints and 87% of the world's total population.
Typically, translators are members of the LDS Church who are employed by the church and translate the text from the original English. Each manuscript is reviewed many times before it is approved and published.
In 1998, the LDS Church stopped translating selections from the Book of Mormon. The church announced that each new translation it approves will be a full edition.