Authors of the Book of Mormon

by H. Clay Gorton

The Large Plates of Nephi

Two sets of records were used in preparing the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Nephi began by starting a detailed record of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions of my people. [1] This record was begun after the colony had reached the promised land, where they found all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper. [2]

Nephi further explains that on these plates he engraved a record of the journeying of the colony in the wilderness, the record of his father, the genealogy of his fathers, the prophecies of Lehi, and many of his own prophecies. [3] These plates were maintained by Nephi’s successors through the thousand-year history of the Nephites, down to the time of Mormon and Moroni, and were the record abridged by Mormon and hid up in the Hill Cumorah. Although the phrase "the large plates of Nephi" is nowhere mentioned in the Book of Mormon, this set of plates came to be called the Large Plates of Nephi. The use of this term was probably initiated by Elder B.H. Roberts. [4]

Mormon made his abridgement from the Large Plates of Nephi. After abridging this record down to his own day, he continued by adding a record of the things which I have both seen and heard, [5] a history of the Nephites and Lamanites during his day. Following his death in battle, his son, Moroni, added two more chapters to his father’s record. He then made a brief abridgement of the record of the Jaredites, taken from the twenty-four plates found by the people of Limhi in the days of Mosiah, [6] following which he wrote his own account. In his record he included two epistles written by his father, Mormon. (Moroni 8, 9)

For the most part Mormon’s abridgement recounts the history of the Nephite and Lamanite nations in his own words. As he writes the abridged account, he frequently begins passages with the familiar phrase, and it came to pass. In fact, this phrase is used an average of once in every four verses in the Book of Mormon.

Embedded in the abridgement are two other types of writing. One consists of Mormon’s and Moroni’s commentaries on the records they are abridging. It was undoubtedly necessary to use a process of selection to choose what part of the record they would abridge. Their sources were volumin­ous. In 3 Nephi 5 Mormon recounts, yea, this book cannot contain even a hundredth part of what was done among so many people in the space of twenty and five years; But behold there are records which do contain all the proceedings of this people. This phrase is an example of Mormon’s commentaries. It does not represent the abridgement of another record, but a comment by Mormon on the limitations of his abridgement.

The first instance of Mormon’s commentaries is found in Mosiah 23:21-23. Alma had led those who believed the words of Abinadi into the wilderness to escape the armies of King Noah. After fleeing eight days into the wilderness they established themselves in a very beautiful and pleasant land to enjoy a newfound freedom. The record continues that they began to prosper exceedingly in the land of Helam; and they built a city, which they called the city of Helam. [7]

At this point Mormon interjects a commentary, apparently to justify the fact that their troubles are not yet over. He states in continuation of the previous quote, Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith. Neverthe­less—whosoever putteth his trust in him the same shall be lifted up at the last day. Yea, and thus it was with this people. For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob. [8]

Frequently Mormon’s commentaries are introduced by identifying phrases such as and thus we can see, and thus we may behold, and and thus we may plainly discern. The commentaries are typically only one or two verses in length. However, there are occasions where both he and Moroni interpose essentially entire chapters of commentary in the record, such as Helaman 12, 3 Nephi 5:8-26 and Ether 12:6‑41. In all, Mormon wrote 125 verses of commentary and Moroni 96 verses.

The other type of writing embedded in the abridgement, and one that is used prolifically, is that of direct quotation. In studying the authorship of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon it is important to know when an author is being directly quoted. For instance, in the first chapter of Mosiah Mormon quotes King Benjamin in 10 out of 18 verses. Chapters two through four are dedicated to King Benjamin’s farewell address to his people. This address is not abridged, but is quoted in the words of King Benjamin. Mormon sets the scene in the first eight verses of chapter two and the first four verses of chapter four. All the other verses were apparently a direct copy from the record on the Large Plates of Nephi. It is not surprising that this address should be written verbatim on the Large Plates since it was written and passed out to all those who could not accommodate themselves within the sound of King Benjamin’s voice when he gave the address. [9]

Another example of extensive quotation is found in Alma 36 through 42. This section of the Book of Mormon carries headings identifying the chapters as the counsel of Alma to his sons Helaman, Shiblon and Corianton. One could also assume that these chapters were transferred verbatim from the Large Plates.

However, there are a number of instances where conversations between two people are recorded in the first person. One example is found in Alma 18:22-34 where Ammon is teaching king Lamoni about the nature of God.

Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni:

"Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? And this is the thing that I desire of thee."

And the king answered him, and said:

"Yea, I will believe all thy words."

And thus he was caught with guile. And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him:

"Believest thou that there is a God?"

And he answered, and said unto him:

"I do not know what that meaneth."

And then Ammon said:

"Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?"

And he said,

"Yea."

And Ammon said:

"This is God."

And Ammon said unto him again:

"Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?"

And he said:

"Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens."

And Ammon said unto him:

"The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels."

And King Lamoni said:

"Is it above the earth?"

And Ammon said:

"Yea, and he looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning."

In the literary culture of today, quoted statements are purported to be verbatim pronouncements of the person being quoted. However, in other cultures it may not have been so. Such a passage as the above conversation could have been a literary style of Mormon as he extracted from the Large Plates the experience reported above. That seems foreign to us because of our own cultural heritage. But Mormon quotes sources that could not have been verbatim utterances. In many cases he quotes the people. For instance, in Mosiah 5, after his farewell address, King Benjamin sent among the people to learn if they had believed the words which he had spoken to them. Mormon writes in verses 2-5,

And they all cried with one voice, saying:

"Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us.

Undoubtedly, the words they all cried with one voice would be rendered today as "they were all of the same mind, or opinion," and would not imply that they all spoke the same words in unison.

Other instances where Mormon is quoting what a group of people are saying are found in Mosiah 12:9-16, 18-24; 20:13; Alma 2:24-25; 10:24, 28-29; and 31:15-18. In the last reference, however, Mormon is quoting a fixed prayer that each person uttered from the top of the tower they called Rameumptom, or the holy stand. Since it was a fixed prayer, we might assume that Mormon’s words were a direct quotation of the original text.

There is yet another type of quotation used by Mormon in his abridgement of the large plates of Nephi. This could be called an embedded quotation, in that Mormon is citing a quotation made by a person that he himself is quoting. Mormon has Abinadi saying,

Yea, even doth not Isaiah say:

"Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" [10]

Abinadi continues by quoting all of Isaiah 53 with only six minor variations from the text of the King James Version of the Bible.

This raises the question of yet another variable to the wording of the Book of Mormon. Undoubtedly, Joseph Smith used the wording of the King James Version of the Bible with which he was familiar to express direct quotations from the Bible. [11] The question remains as to the influence of Joseph Smith on the wording of the entire Book of Mormon that he translated from the Egyptian language. This subject is treated in a separate paper by the author, entitled The Language of the Egyptians. [12]

Perhaps the most in-depth example of an embedded quotation is found, not in Mormon’s abridgement, but in 2 Nephi 3 from the Small Plates of Nephi. The first four chapters of 2 Nephi are dedicated to the words of Lehi. In 2 Nephi 1:1 Nephi says, And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of teaching my brethren, our father, Lehi, also spake many things unto them. In chapter 3 Nephi quotes his father, Lehi, addressing his son, Joseph, in which Lehi quotes Joseph of Egypt, who quotes the Lord. The questions remain—did Nephi quote Lehi verbatim, and did Lehi quote Joseph verbatim, and did Joseph quote the Lord verbatim?

The Small Plates of Nephi

Nephi also received a commandment of the Lord to make a second set of plates in which to engrave an account of the ministry of his people. [13] In 1 Nephi 9, Nephi reveals that the Lord commanded him to make the second set of plates for the more part of the ministry. Jacob records that when Nephi turned this record of the account of the ministry over to him, he gave him a commandment that he should write on it the things which he considered to be most precious… and if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates, and touch upon them as much as it were possible, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our people. [14]

This second set of records was also called the Plates of Nephi. [15] However, as mentioned above, they were differentiated by Jacob as being the small plates. [16] These records contain the first person accounts of Nephi and Jacob. They were then passed from father to son, including Enos, Jarom, Omni, Amaron (who wrote in 279 B.C.), Amaron’s brother, Chemish, then continuing with Chemish’s son, Abinadom, and his grandson, Amaleki. Amaleki was the last author in the Small Plates, and wrote apparently in about 130 B.C.

When Mormon began his abridgement of the large plates of Nephi, he was unaware of the existence of the Small Plates that contained the sacred writings of Nephi and Jacob and their successors. It was not until he had abridged the Large Plates down to the reign of King Benjamin, about 130 B.C., that he became aware of their existence. At this point he interposed the account of their discovery in his abridgement of the Large Plates, as The Words of Mormon, in part saying

And now, I speak somewhat concerning that which I have written; for after I had made an abridgement from the plates of Nephi, down to the reign of this king Benjamin, of whom Amaleki spake, I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi. [17]

Mormon was so impressed with the message of this re­cord— particu­larly because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ, that he added it to the record he was compiling before continuing his work with the abridge­ment of the Book of Mosiah. It is important to note that Mormon did not abridge this account, but added the plates to his own record as he found them.

After Joseph Smith had translated Mormon’s abridgement of the Large Plates from the time of Nephi down to where the Small Plates were inserted, he allowed Martin Harris to take the translation to show to certain members of his family. This translation, comprising 116 pages of handwrit­ten copy, was lost by Martin Harris and never returned.

Those who stole the record planned to alter it so that when the Prophet retranslated the stolen part, they could bring it forth and claim that because the two versions were different Joseph was not a true prophet. To foil this plan the Lord instructed Joseph not to translate again the same account from the Large Plates, but rather to translate the smaller plates, which covered the same period of time.

It is interesting that Mormon refers to this second set of plates as containing a small account of the prophets. This would imply that the record of the same period on the Large Plates would have been much more extensive.

This second record, the Small Plates, which comprises the first part of the Book of Mormon, is not an abridgement, but is Joseph Smith’s translation of the original inscriptions by Nephi and Jacob and their successors covering the period from 600 B.C. to 130 B.C. Unfortunately, the writings of those who followed Nephi and Jacob are very brief, so that little can be deduced about language changes during that period of time. However, the writings of Nephi and Jacob are rather extensive, and undoubtedly reveal the manner of writing of their day. They may be expected to be different in some respects from the writings of Mormon and Moroni, who wrote 1000 years later than the first writers of the Small Plates.

Further, the Small Plates contain an even more ancient writing. Nephi quotes two chapters and Jacob quotes fifteen chapters of Isaiah. These chapters were transcribed from the Brass Plates of Laban, which could have been an ancient document even in Nephi’s time. [18]


[1] 1 Nephi 9:4

[2] 1 Nephi 18:25

[3] 1 Nephi 19:1-2

[4] Roberts, B. H., Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 1, Ch. 14, p 170

[5] Mormon 1:1

[6] Book of Ether, heading

[7] Mosiah 23:20

[8] Mosiah 23:21-23

[9] Mosiah 2:8

[10] Mosiah 14

[11] See Gorton, H. Clay, The Legacy of the Brass Plates of Laban, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, pp. 269-73, 1994. This book analyses the differences between the Book of Mormon and the Bible version in each of the verses in the eighteen chapters of Isaiah found in the Book of Mormon. These differences are compared with the wording of the corresponding Isaiah chapters in English translations of the Septuagint, the Vulgate and the Massoretic Hebrew texts.

[12] to be published

[13] 1 Nephi 9:3

[14] Jacob 1:2-4

[15] 1 Nephi 9:2

[16] Jacob 1:1

[17] The Words of Mormon 1:3

[18] Gorton, H. Clay, op. cit. pp 17-18