Mormon's Hidden Message
by Raymond C. Treat
0ne evening, while preparing to teach a church school Book of Mormon class, I was reviewing the major verses dealing with geography. While going over Alma 13:68-14:1, I noted, as I had in times past, that it was Mormon himself who had inserted this geographic information while abridging from the large plates of Nephi. Even though I had been intellectually aware for some time that this was the case, at this particular moment, the true significance of this fact was quickened in my spirit, and I became excited.
The next day I made the statement to the class that Mormon was the leading geographer of his day because he was the leading general. This was the first time I had ever had this thought. In fact I was astounded to hear myself say it. Immediately I thought to myself, "Why yes, that's true!" Later, after thinking about it, I was amazed that this idea had not occurred to me before because all of my college training, before I became an adult convert in 1960, was in military science. In college I had studied every significant battle in the history of mankind. The idea that a successful general had to have an intimate, thorough knowledge of geography had been well ingrained in my mind.
Needless to say, this quickening of my intellect by the Holy Spirit with this simple but profound concept has made me much more interested in and excited about the study of Book of Mormon geography.
For many years most Book of Mormon believers have stayed away from a serious study of Book of Mormon geography. There are probably two basic reasons for this lack of interest:
- It has been assumed that geography is not essential to an understanding of the message of the Book of Mormon.
- We have assumed that the great upheaval at the time of the crucifixion of Christ so changed the topography of the land as to make it impossible to identify any particular land or city.
Let's look at the first assumption, i.e., that geography is not essential to an understanding of the message. In order to obtain an adequate understanding of any scripture we must ask ourselves five basic questions:
Who is speaking?
To whom is he speaking?
What is being said?
When is it being said?
Where is it being said?
The usual approach to study includes the first three points-who is speaking, to whom is he speaking and what is being said. Because more effort is required to learn the when and where, these points are usually the last to be considered. However, the message of the Book of Mormon or of any scripture can only be properly understood within the total framework of the five questions above including when and where. In other words, time and location (geography) are essential to a full understanding of any scripture. I believe Mormon and the other record keepers shared this viewpoint as they were careful to note time and location throughout the records.
The second assumption for a lack of interest in Book of Mormon geography is that the great upheaval made identification of lands and cities impossible. This viewpoint is probably based on the following verse among others:
For behold, the whole face of the land was changed
because of the tempests and the whirlwinds and the
thunderings and the lightnings and the exceeding
great quaking of the whole earth; 3 Nephi 4:10
It has been assumed that because the whole face of the land was changed, we could not locate with any degree of confidence any of the cities or lands mentioned in the Book of Mormon. To deal with this question adequately we must take a close look at Mormon's life.
Mormon was born in the land northward and commissioned by Ammoron at the age of 10 to observe the things of his people and to record these observations on the large plates of Nephi at about the age of 24. He was also given the responsibility for the care of all the other records. At the age of 11 he was taken to the land southward:
I, being eleven years old, was carried by my father into the land southward ...
At the age of 16 he became the leader of the Nephite armies:
And notwithstanding I, being young, was large in
Therefore, the people of Nephi appointed me that I
should be their leader, or the leader of their armies.
With the exception of about 15 years (about A.D. 362-377), he remained the leader of their armies until his death in A.D. 385. Mormon led the Nephite armies in the land southward until A.D. 350 when the Nephites were restricted by a treaty with the Lamanites to the land northward (the land north of the narrow neck of land).
Thus Mormon lived in the land northward about 45 years and the land southward about 30 years. Therefore, we can safely say that Mormon, the leading general of the Nephites, was also the leading geographer of his day and was intimately acquainted with the geography of both the land northward and the land southward.
Mormon was also the chief abridger or, we might say, the chief editor of the Book of Mormon. He had many records at his disposal from which he compiled the Book of Mormon. This was probably done sometime during the years A.D. 380 to 384 while at Cumorah preparing for the final battle which occurred in A.D. 385. Like any editor, he had opportunity from time to time to add his own comments, which he did.
While abridging the story of the four sons of Mosiah on their missionary journey to the Lamanites, Mormon inserted his own exposition on geography (Alma 13:68-80), which we now recognize as the main reference on geography in the entire Book of Mormon. This remarkable passage identifies and gives the relative location of the following important geographic locations in the Book of Mormon:
land of Nephi land of Desolation
narrow strip of wilderness small neck of land
land of Zarahemla land northward
river Sidon land southward
This is the main geographic reference because it is the only one which describes all the major lands and their relationship to each other. Even more importantly, it was Mormon himself, the leading geographer, who was the author of this information. Mormon was abridging from the large plates of Nephi when he paused in his work of editing and inserted the geographic description of Alma 13:68-80. This becomes clear if we compare Alma 13:68 and Alma 14:1:
And it came to pass that the king sent a proclamation
throughout all the land, amongst all his people ... Alma 13:68
Behold, now it came to pass that the king of the
Lamanites sent a proclamation among all his people ... Alma 14:1
The verses are the same. After engraving the first part of Alma 13:68 from the large plates, Mormon inserted his own information on geography and then picked up the account from the large plates by repeating the same passage in 14:1. This means that all the information between these two verses was written by Mormon. This is verified in verse 82 of Alma 13:
And now I, after having said this [referring to verses 68-81],
return again to the account of Ammon and
Aaron, Omner and Himni, and their brethren.
In addition, it should be pointed out that the almost 400 geographic references in the Book of Mormon passed across the "desk" of the editor, Mormon. Mormon had the expertise to know whether these references were still valid at the time he was working on the abridgment more than 300 years after the upheaval.
Why did Mormon insert this major reference to geography? There are several possibilities to consider:
- To aid the Gentiles in locating the remnant.
The geographic references make it possible for the Gentiles (us) to locate and identify the present-day posterity of Lehi. By identifying the original locale for the Book of Mormon story we can trace the movements of succeeding generations to locate the remnant today. This is necessary in order to fulfill the commission given to us by Mormon to take the record to the remnant.
- To locate the hill Cumorah.
Mormon clearly indicates that Cumorah is the depository of all the sacred records. Because of
its strategic military position, it was also described geographically and thus made easier for
us to locate. Although no one will obtain these records for personal gain (Mormon 4:18-19),
why would Mormon give so much information concerning the location of the records? The apparent reason seems to be to confirm the faith of present-day believers when the Lord begins to reveal these records to those for whom they were promised. While the method of revealment is not known to us, many believe it will come by means of the scientific world in a manner similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls or the library at Ebla.
- To provide a historical base similar to the Bible.
By including geographic references in conjunction with specific time periods, the entire claim for the book is raised from one of possible allegory or myth to a definite claim for historicity. The book claims to be a history of a specific people for a specific time period in a specific place. Mormon knew that to consider this record an allegory would condemn it and make it as useless as if it were a fraud.
- To enrich the understanding of the reader.
As stated previously, when we seek the fullest understanding of scripture we must provide the elements of time and place. This was very carefully provided for us by the record keepers. They desired for us to have the total picture.
The only possible conclusion we can reach is that the study of Book of Mormon geography is a valid and timely subject. We should no longer relegate it to a secondary position but recognize that we have a clear mandate to pursue this topic. Mormon's hidden message gives us the assurance that our efforts will be fruitful.
This article taken from Recent Book of Mormon Developments vol. 2, p 141-143