[Paleopsych] Light Planet: Book of Mormon Literature
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Book of Mormon Literature
by Richard Dilworth Rust and Donald W. Parry
Although understated as literature in its clear and plain language,
the Book of Mormon exhibits a wide variety of literary forms,
including intricate Hebraic poetry, memorable narratives,
rhetorically effective sermons, diverse letters, allegory,
figurative language, imagery, symbolic types, and wisdom
literature. In recent years these aspects of Joseph Smith's 1829
English translation have been increasingly appreciated, especially
when compared with biblical and other ancient forms of literature.
There are many reasons to study the Book of Mormon as literature.
Rather than being "formless," as claimed by one critic (Bernardd
DeVoto, American Mercury 19 :5), the Book of Mormon is both
coherent and polished (although not obtrusively so). It tells "a
densely compact and rapidly moving story that interweaves dozens of
plots with and inexhaustible fertility of invention and an uncanny
consistency that is never caught in a slip or contradiction" (CWHN
Despite its small working vocabulary of about 2,225 root words in
English, the book distills much human experience and contact with
the divine. It presents its themes artfully through simple yet
profound imagery, direct yet complex discourses, and
straightforward yet intricate structures. To read the Book of
Mormon as literature is to discover how such literary devices are
used to convey the messages of its content. Attention to form,
diction figurative language, and rhetorical techniques increases
sensitivity to the structure of the text and appreciation of the
work of the various authors. The stated purpose of the Book of
Mormon is to show the Lamanites, a remnant of the House of Israel,
the covenants made with their fathers, and to convince Jew and
Gentile that Jesus is the Christ (see Book of Mormon Title Page).
Mormon selected materials and literarily shaped the book to present
these messages in a stirring and memorable way.
While the discipline of identifying and evaluating literary
features in the Book of Mormon is very young and does not supplant
a spiritual reading of the text, those analyzing the book from this
perspective find it a work of immediacy that shows as well as tells
as great literature usually does. It no longer fits Mark Twain's
definition of a classic essentially s a book everyone talks about
but no one reads; rather, it is a work that "wears you out before
you wear it out" (J. Welch, "Study, Faith, and the Book of Mormon,"
BYU 1987-88 Devotional and Fireside Speeches, p. 148. [Provo, Utah,
1988]). It is increasingly seen as a unique work that beautifully
and compellingly reveals and speaks to the essential human
POETRY. Found embedded in the narrative of the Book of Mormon,
poetry provides the best examples of the essential connection
between form and content in the Book of Mormon. When many inspired
words of the Lord, angels, and prophets are analyzed according to
ancient verse forms, their meaning can be more readily perceived.
These forms include line forms, symmetry, parallelism, and chiastic
patterns, as defined by Adele Berlin "The Dynamics of Biblical
Parallelism [Bloomington, Ind., 1985]) and Wilford Watson
(Classical Hebrew Poetry [Sheffield, 1984]). Book of Mormon texts
shift smoothly from narrative to poetry, as in this intensifying
But behold, the Spirit hath said this much unto me, saying: Cry
unto this people, Saying--Repent ye, and prepare the way of the
Lord, and walk in his paths, which are straight; for behold, the
kingdom of heaven is at hand, and the Son of God cometh upon the
face of the earth [Alma 7:9].
The style of the Book of mormmon has been criticized by some as
being verbose and redundant, but in most cases these repetitions
are orderly and effective. For example, parallelisms, which abound
in the Book of Mormon, serve many functions. They add emphasis to
twice-repeated concepts and give definition to sharply drawn
contrasts. A typical synonymous parallelism is in 2 Nephi 9:52:
Pray unto him continually by day,
and give thanks unto his holy name by night.
Nephi's discourse aimed at his obstinate brothers includes a
sharply antithetical parallelism:
Ye are swift to do iniquity
But slow to remember the Lord your God. [1 Ne. 17:45.]
Several fine examples of chiasmus (an a-b-b-a pattern) are also
found in the Book of Mormon. In the Psalm of Nephi (2 Ne. 4:15-35),
the intial appeals to the soul and heart are accompanied by
negations, while the subsequent mirror uses the heart and soul are
conjoined with strong affirmations, making the contrasts literarily
effective and climactic:
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.
Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my
Do not anger again because of mine enemies.
Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say:
O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in
thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation. [2 Ne. 4;28- 30.]
Other precise examples of extended chiasmus (a-b-c--c-b-a) are
readily discernible in Mosiah 5:10-12 and Alma 36:1-30 and
41:13-15. This literary form in Alma 36 effectively focuses
attention on the central passage of the chapter (Alma 36:17-18); in
Alma 41, it fittingly conveys the very notion of restorative
justice expressed in the passage (cf. Lev. 24:13-23, which likewise
uses chiasmus to convey a similar notion of justice).
Another figure known as a fortiori is used to communicate an
exaggerated sense of multitude, as in Alma 60:22, where a "number
parallelism" is chiastically enclosed by a twice-repeated phrase:
Yea, will ye sit in idleness
while ye are surrounded with thousands of those,
yea, and tens of thousands,
who do also sit in idleness?
Scores of Book of Mormon passages can be analyzed as poetry. They
range from Lehi's brief desert poems (1 Ne. 2:9-10, a form Hugh
Nibley identifies as an Arabic quasida) [CWHN 6:270-75] to
extensive sermons of Jacob, Abinadi, and the risen Jesus (2 Ne.
6-10; Mosiah 12-16; and 3 Ne. 27).
NARRATIVE TEXTS. In the Book of Mormon, narrative texts are often
given vitality by vigorous conflict and impassioned dialogue or
personal narration. Nephi relates his heroic actions in obtaining
the brass plates from Laban; Jacob resists the false accusations of
Sherem, upon whom the judement of the Lord falls; Ammon fights of
plunderers at the waters of Sebus and wins the confidence of king
Lamoni; Amulek is confronted by the smooth-tongued lawyer Zeezrom;
Alma2 and Amulek are preserved while their accusers are crushed by
collapsing prison walls; Captain Moroni1 engages in a showdown with
the lamanite chieftain Zerahemnah; Amalickiah rises to power
through treachery and malevolence; a later prophet named Nephi 2
reveals to an unbelieving crowd the murder of their chief judge by
the judge's own brother; and the last two Jaredite kings fight to
the mutual destruction of their people.
Seen as a whole, the Book of Mormon is an epic account of the
history of the Nephite nation. Extensive in scope with an eponymic
hero, it presents action involving long and arduous journeys and
heroic deeds, with supernatural beings taking an active part.
Encapsulated within this one-thousand-year account of the
establishment, development, and destruction of the Nephites is the
concentrated epic of the rise and fall of the Jaredites, who
preceded them in type and time. (For its epic milieu, see CWHN
5:285-394.) The climax of the book is the dramatic account of the
visit of the resurrected Jesus to an assemblage of righteous
SERMONS AND SPEECHES. Prophetic discourse is a dominant literary
form in the Book of Mormon. Speeches such as King Benjamin's
address (Mosiah 1-6), Alma 2's challenge to the people of Zarahemla
(Alma 5), and Mormon's teachings on faith, hope, and charity (Moro.
7) are crafted artistically and have great rhetorical effectiveness
in conveying their religious purposes. The public oration of Samuel
The Lamanite (Hel. 13-15) is a classic prophetic judgment speech.
Taking rhetorical criticism as a guide, one can see how Benjamin's
ritual address first aims to persuade the audience to reaffirm a
present point of view and then turns to deliberative
rhetoric--"which aims at effecting a decision about future action,
often the very immediate future" (Kennedy, New Testament
interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism , p. 36). King
Benjamin's speech is also chiastic as a whole and in several of its
parts (Welch, pp. 202-205).
LETTERS. The eight epistles in the Book of Mormon are
conversational in tone, revealing the diverse personalities of
their writers. These letters are from Captain Moroni1 (Alma
54:5-14; 60:1-36), Ammoron (Alma 54:16-24), Helaman1 (Alma
56:2-58:41), Pahoran (Alma 61:2-21), Giddianhi (3 Ne. 3:2-10), and
Mormon (Moro. 8:2-30; 9:1-26).
ALLEGORY, METAPHOR, IMAGERY, AND TYPOLOGY. These forms are also
prevalent in the Book of Mormon. Zenos's allegory of the olive tree
(Jacob 5) vividly incorporates dozens of horticultural details as
it depicts the history of God's dealings with Israel. A striking
simile curse, with Near Eastern parallels, appears in Abinadi's
prophetic denunciation: The life of king Noah shall be "as a
garment in a furnace of fire,...as a stalk, even as a dry stalk of
the field, which is run over by the beasts and trodden under foot"
An effective extended metaphor is Alma's comparison of the word of
God to a seed planted in one's heart and then growing into a
fruitful Tree Of Life (Alma 32:28-43). In developing this metaphor,
Alma uses a striking example of synesthesia: As the word enlightens
their minds, his listeners can know it is real--"Ye have tasted
this light" (Alma 32:35).
Iteration of archetypes such as tree, river, darkness, and fire
graphically confirms Lehi's understanding "that there is an
opposition in all things" (2 Ne. 2:11) and that opposition will be
beneficial to the righteous.
A figural interpretation of God-given words and God-directed
persons or events is insisted on, although not always developed, in
the Book of Mormon. "All things which have been given of God from
the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of
[Christ]" (2 Ne. 11:4); all performances and ordinances of the Law
of Moses "were types of things to come" (Mosiah 13:31); and the
Liahona, or compass, was seen as a type: "For just as surely as
this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to
the Promised Land, shall by following its course, to the Promised
Land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry
the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond
this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise" (Alma
37:45). In its largest typological structure, the Book of Mormon
fits well the seven phases of revelation posited by Northrop Frye:
creation, revolution or exodus, law, wisdom, prophecy, tospel, and
apocalypse (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature [New York,
WISDOM LITERATURE. Transmitted sayings of the wise are scattered
throughout the Book of Mormon, especially in counsel given by
fathers to their sons. Alma counsels, "O remember, my son, and
learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth, to keep the
commandments of God" (Alma 37:35; see also 38:9-15). Benjamin says,
"I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may
learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are
only in the service of your God" (Mosiah 2:17). A memorable
aphorism is given by Lehi: "Adam fell that men might be; and men
are, that they might have joy" (2 Ne. 2:25). Pithy sayings such as
"fools mock, but they shall mourn" (Ether 12:26) and "wickedness
never was happiness" (Alma 41:10) are often repeated by Latter-day
APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE. The vision in 1 Nephi 11-15 (sixth century
B.C.) is coomparable in form with early Apocalyptic literature. It
contains a vision, is delivered in dialogue form, has an
otherworldly mediator or escort, includes a commandment to write,
treats the disposition of the recipient, prophesies persecution,
foretells the cosmic transformations, and has an otherworldly place
as its spatial axis. Later Jewish developments of complex
angelology, mystic numerology, and symbolism are absent.
STYLE AND TONE. Book of Mormon writers show an intense concern for
styyle and tone. Alma desires to be able to "speak with the trump
of God, with a voice to shake the earth," yet realizes that "I am a
man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the
things which the Lord hath allotted unto me" (Alma 29:1-3). Moroni2
expresses a feeling of inadequacy in writing: "Lord, the Gentiles
will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing....
Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we
cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our wekaness,
and stmble beacuse of the placing of our words" (Ether 12:23-25;
cf. 2 Ne. 33:1). Moroni's written words, however, are not weak. In
cadences of ascending strength he boldly declares:
O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves
for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church
of God? Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of
Christ?...Who will despise the children of Christ? Behold, all
ye who are despisers of the works of the Lord, for ye shall
wonder and perish [Morm. 8:38, 9:26].
The styles employed by the different writers in the Book of Mormon
vary from the unadorned to the sublime. The tones range from
Moroni's strident condemnations to Jesus' humblest pleading:
"Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever
will come, him will I receive" (3 Ne. 9:14).
A model for communication is Jesus, who, Moroni reports, "told me
in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in mine own
language, concerning these things; and only a few have I written,
because of my weakness in writing" (Ether 12:39-40). Two concepts
in this report are repeated throughout the Book of Mormon--plain
speech and inability to write about some things. "I have spoken
plainly unto you," Nephi says, "that ye cannot misunderstand" (2
Ne. 25:28). "My soul delighteth in plainness," he continues, "for
after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men
(2 Ne. 31:3). Yet Nephi also delights in the words of Isaiah, which
"are not plain unto you" although "they are plain unto all those
that are filled with the spirit of prophecy" (2 Ne. 25:4).
Containing both plain and veiled language, the Book of Mormon is a
spiritually and literarily powerful book that is direct yet
complex, simple yet profound.
(See Basic Beliefs home page; Scriptural Writings home page;
The Book of Mormon home page)
England, Eugene. "A Second Witness for the Logos: The Book of Momon
and Contemporary Literary Criticism." In By Study and Also by
Faith, 2 vols., ed. J. Lundquist and S. Ricks, Vol.2 pp. 91-125.
Salt Lake City, 1990.
Jorgensen, Bruce W.; Richard Dilworth Rust; and George S. Tate.
Essays on typology in Literature of Belief, ed. Neal E. Lambert.
Provo, Utah, 1981.
Nichols, Robert E., Jr. "Beowulf and Nephi: A Literary View of the
Book of Mormon." Dialogue 4 (Autumn 1969):40-47.
Parry, Donald W. "Hebrew Literary Patterns in the Book of Mormon."
Ensign 19 (Oct. 1989):58-61.
Rust, Richard Dilworth. "Book of Mormon Poetry." New Era (Mar.
Welch, John W. "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon." In Chiasmus in
Antiquity, ed. J. Welch, pp. 198-210. Hildesheim, 1981.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Book of Mormon Literature
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