The Book of Mormon, subtitled as Another Testament of Jesus Christ, is a translation of an abridgement of records from three ancient civilizations called the Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites. The abridgement was largely made by an ancient prophet named Mormon (hence, Book of Mormon), and finished by his son, Moroni, who buried the record in a hill in upstate New York. Nearly fourteen hundred years later, the then resurrected Moroni led Joseph Smith to the record.
Joseph Smith, an unlearned, backwoods man, translated the record by the “gift and power of God.” Wrote Elder Jeffery R. Holland,
No other origin for the Book of Mormon has ever come to light because no other account than the one Joseph Smith and these witnesses gave can truthfully be given. There is no other clandestine "author," no elusive ghostwriter still waiting in the wings after a century and a half for the chance to stride forward and startle the religious world. Indeed, that any writer—Joseph Smith or anyone else—could create the Book of Mormon out of whole cloth would be an infinitely greater miracle than that young Joseph translated it from an ancient record by "the gift and power of God."
On occasion this young prophet dictated his translation at white-hot speed, turning out as many as ten present-day pages in a sitting and ultimately producing the whole manuscript in something less than ninety working days. Those who have ever translated any text will understand what this means, especially when remembering it took fifty English scholars seven years (using generally superb and readily available translations for a starting point) to produce the King James Bible at the rate of one page per day. (1)
I have tried my hand at translation and can personally attest to its difficulty. To further illustrate the task that Joseph Smith accomplished, Hugh Nibley frequently gave a mock assignment to his “mostly Moslem” students enrolled in a Book of Mormon class at Brigham Young University:
Since Joseph Smith was younger than most of you and not nearly so experienced or well-educated as any of you at the time he copyrighted the Book of Mormon, it should not be too much to ask you to hand in by the end of the semester (which will give you more time than he had) a paper of, say, five to six hundred pages in length. Call it a sacred book if you will, and give it the form of a history. Tell of a community of wandering Jews in ancient times; have all sorts of characters in your story, and involve them in all sorts of public and private vicissitudes; give them names—hundreds of them—pretending that they are real Hebrew and Egyptian names of circa 600 B.C.; be lavish with cultural and technical details—manners and customs, arts and industries, political and religious institutions, rites, and traditions, include long and complicated military and economic histories; have your narrative cover a thousand years without any large gaps; keep a number of interrelated local histories going at once; feel free to introduce religious controversy and philosophical discussion, but always in a plausible setting; observe the appropriate literary conventions and explain the derivation and transmission of your varied historical materials. Above all, do not ever contradict yourself! For now we come to the really hard part of this little assignment. You and I know that you are making this all up—we have our little joke—but just the same you are going to be required to have your paper published when you finish it, not as fiction or romance, but as a true history! After you have handed it in you may make no changes in it (in this class we always use the first edition of the Book of Mormon); what is more, you are to invite any and all scholars to read and criticize your work freely, explaining to them that it is a sacred book on a par with the Bible. If they seem over-skeptical, you might tell them that you translated the book from original records by the aid of the Urim and Thummim—they will love that! Further to allay their misgivings, you might tell them that the original manuscript was on golden plates, and that you got the plates from an angel. Now go to work and good luck! (2)
Nibley reported that nobody ever completed the assignment.
But what of its purpose? The book’s title page, which Joseph Smith said he translated from the golden plates, indicates that the purpose of the Book of Mormon is threefold: 1) “…to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers,” 2) “that they [the remnant of the House of Israel] may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever,” and 3) to convince “the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations….”
In other words, the Book of Mormon is a book of scripture, written not only to God’s ancient covenant people, but to any who aspire to join them in the covenant.
The Book of Mormon is not given to supplant the Bible. In fact, the case made by the Bible, that Jesus is the Christ, is strengthened by the message in the Book of Mormon. Together, the Bible and the Book of Mormon are formidable opponents to the enemies of religion in general, and especially Christianity.
So let me tell you what the Book of Mormon isn’t. It’s not a book of great English grammar. Joseph Smith had a very rudimentary education. One could expect that his manner of expression would be very humble—and it was—and that it would show through in his translation—and it does. But anyone who seriously studies the Book of Mormon cannot help but marvel at its plainness and simplicity, yet remarkable profundity.
Also, the Book of Mormon is not a book to take lightly. It’s a book with a very specific message to the world. It teaches of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. It teaches faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer of humankind. It teaches repentance of sins, baptism by immersion for the remission of those sins, and of the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. In short, it raises the voice of warning to all the world to prepare the way for Jesus' Second Coming.
I highly recommend the Book of Mormon to anyone even remotely interested in religious matters. That your life can, and mostly likely will, be enriched as you study the Book of Mormon and live its teachings I have little doubt. But you don’t have to take my word for it, you can access it here for free and start your reading today.
1. Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1997, 349.
2. Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1989, 221.