The Book of Mormon as Sacred Tragedy
The original intent of this piece was just to post similar observations available in this piece on Ether 12 which were sent to a friend studying philosophy at BYU, February 18th, 2021. However, it became immediately clear additional context and build-up was needed as the thoughts on Ether 12 were originally sandwiched within a discussion on what good exegesis and hermeneutics of the Book of Mormon would look like, of which did not feel to be particularly relevant to my purpose as a missionary. As a result, this post was expanded in an effort to offer up a theological skeletal framework to the observations on Ether 12 before being crafted into an essay in its own right from December 16th–19th, 2021.
The Book of Mormon contains a particular and specific ‘mode of faith.’ In my view, the mode of faith explored in the Book of Mormon is extremely helpful for understanding what it means to be human, especially in “the Last Days.” The Book of Mormon is, at its heart, a tragedy; from beginning to end the reader watches in horror as an entire family falls completely and utterly apart. The reader can’t do anything to stop it, they must simply press on and find hope in the redemptive moments when the people heed the warnings of the Prophets and feel the pains of Godly sorrow as they lament the loss sin causes.
The reader sees just as Enoch in Moses 7 as the Satan wields “a great chain in his hand [as it] veil[s] the whole face of the earth with darkness.” The reader is forced to process all throughout the story as the Satan “look[s] up and laugh[s], and his angels rejoice” (Moses 7:26).
However, in all the muck of human tragedy, there is beautiful healing redemption articulated in the text! And those who read with the companionship of the Spirit will see it, and they will see it powerfully. As this happens, the reader’s attention will turn as Enoch’s attention did to see “angels descending out of heaven, bearing testimony of the Father and Son,” “the Holy Ghost [falling] on many,” and those they read about being “caught up by the powers of heaven into Zion [see especially 4 Nephi 1:1–18]” (Moses 7:27).
Readers will also learn powerfully of the condescending God who leads the Lehitic people in their weakness, and despite their own personal and collective failings, calls Prophets who testify powerfully which, often enough, cause the people to repent and turn back to God and be made a clean and just people again.
However, again and again the Satan speaks pride into their hearts, and not long after, almost without fail, the reader will see these people turn back to sin again and again even after tasting of God’s good redemption. Before, finally, just as Enoch, they will see this same God look upon this residue of humanity — this branch of Israel of whom they have become well-acquainted — and witness and bear record that that God most assuredly wept for the sins of this people (Moses 7:28). They will see this God weep and fight against that sin the entire book again and again only for the people to continue to reject God.
In the end, God could not stop them from destroying themselves, and God gave them over to the consequences of their sins. They had become corrupted just as the people in Enoch’s day, and the reader can almost hear God’s voice say just as it said to Enoch,
“Behold these thy [siblings]: they are the workmanship of Mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge in the day I created them. And in the Garden of Eden gave I unto [humanity] [their] agency. And unto thy [siblings] have I said and also given commandment that they should ‘love one another,’ and that they should ‘choose Me, their Father,’ but, behold: they are without affection, and they hate their own blood, and the fire of Mine indignation is kindled against them, and in My hot displeasure will I [allow destruction to fall] upon them, for My fierce anger is kindled against them” (Moses 7:32–34).
It’s heartbreaking. As the reader grows older (or if their first interaction with the text is in their old age), they start to see that this book is not a fairy tale. It’s real life. It’s hard, and gripping. It’s tragic. The reader will relate their own tragedies to that of the book. They will see they can find solace that humanity has fallen before, and yet the God of the book — the God the book calls its readers to worship — continues to partner with humans despite their moral failings insofar as at least a few of them choose to simply try.
The reader will be keen if they notice the cries of repentance — personal and global, communal and individual, in the church and in society at large — and see that even with tragedy comes joy, fulfillment, goodness, and care if humans simply choose to follow God by partnering with God’s loving Son, Jesus Christ, by “mourn[ing] with those that mourn,” “comfort[ing] those that stand in need of comfort,” and “bear[ing] one another’s burdens” (Mosiah 18:8–9) as they attempt to reflect the Messiah they worship by trying to take upon themselves “their [siblings] infirmities [insofar as they are able], that [they] may be filled with mercy according to the flesh — that [they] may know according to the flesh how to [partner with Christ in His mission to] succor [their siblings] according to their infirmities” (drawn from Alma 7:12).
The thing is, the Book of Mormon doesn’t leave its readers unprepared for the incoming story. It actually gives readers a bird’s-eye-view early on of one of the most prominent continuously-reiterated lessons readers will learn as they continue to digest the incoming narrative. In 2 Nephi 2:11–12, the Prophet Lehi teaches one of his most profound observations, saying:
“It must needs be that there is an opposition in all things. If not so,
Righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness,
Neither holiness nor misery,
Neither good nor bad.
Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one;
Wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead,
Having no life neither death,
Nor corruption nor incorruption,
Happiness nor misery,
Neither sense nor insensibility.
Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught;
Wherefore, there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation.”
Lehi’s point, polemic in nature, is rather clear: there is no point in living if there aren’t any options. Humans would not exist for any purpose, Lehi teaches, if they didn’t have the ability to choose between good and evil and joy and misery. Beyond this, however, Lehi continues by telling us there is no point to existence if we don’t try to do good — even if we know we will fail, sin, and make mistakes, there is a Messiah who can heal us and cause our effort to yield good fruit through His matchless grace and love.
Readers are reminded again and again that though it ends poorly for the Lehites, the God of the book promises them eventual redemption and reconciliation, and in between all the misery and struggle, there is so much joy and triumph when the Lehitic people choose to follow Jesus Christ and His example and care for those around them. As Lehi states:
“Adam [and Eve] fell that [humans] might be,
and [humans] are that they might have joy.”
(2 Nephi 2:25).
The last Lehitic Prophet, Moroni, writes towards the end of the book, “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him, but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31, emphasis my own). The Book of Mormon asks us to do better. It asks us to emulate the Lehites highest highs, and learn from and reject their lows and poor choices.
We cannot expect to “learn to be more wise” than the Lehitic people and writers if we don’t take the text on its own terms and understand its varying surrounding cultural contexts. We cannot understand the text in its breadth and complexity if we simply treat it as a collection of platitudes we learn to recite whenever verbalizing our understanding of those platitudes becomes personally advantageous. It will always be my opinion that the Book of Mormon deserves so much better than that. It’s a text with complex characters who construct a theology that suited them and their needs “according to their language, [and] unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3).
How can we understand the needs of the characters and apply the solutions the authors of the Book of Mormon offer in response to those needs to our own situations if we refuse to take the text on its own terms? Well, to put it simply: we can’t. So, what are we to do? How can we take the text on its own terms and yet apply its teachings to our own surroundings?
The Book of Mormon actually answers this question really well by giving us an example of a Prophet who, in Ether 12, does exactly what it asks of its readers. Ether 12, simply put, is a masterclass in the theology of meaning-making. It contains a living discussion on faith, personal tragedy, lament, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and understanding and applying a mode of faith in a Christ that heals amidst human failings and societal disaster following historical chaos and injustice. It speaks of human triumph and civilizational collapse.
This chapter contains some of the most rich and beautiful descriptions of faith. It is layered with historical depth and nostalgic longing. Latter-day Saints quote passages like verses 4, 6, 12, or 27 often without even realizing the whole chapter’s beauty or factoring in the writer, Moroni, and what this chapter might have meant to him as he wrote them. So, what can we learn when understanding Moroni as a Prophet with particular rhetorical goals and personal needs? Well, as it turns out, quite a bit about what the Book of Mormon’s mode of faith looks like to someone who is — quite literally — living through the end of the world.
Moroni was the son of a Prophet-historian, Mormon, who had a divine commission to compile a spiritual history of his people. He had pored through a vast array of historical and theological sources and determined what he felt was most important to define his peoples’ historical theology. He most certainly educated Moroni on the various idioms, ideas, histories, poetry, and myths of his people.
Moroni must have grown up hearing grand tales of his first parents, Lehi and Sariah, and their mythically-valiant son Nephi; of Lamoni, Abish, and Samuel; of Moses, Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, and Eve; perhaps even growing up hearing time and time again as his father embellished tales of the virtue of his probable-name-sake, Captain Moroni, a man Mormon, his father, was quite fond of.
Moroni must have been told of how Jesus, the long-foretold Messiah, had healed all of his people hundreds of years ago of their physical and spiritual ailments causing them all — Lamanites and Nephites alike — to have lived in wondrous, joyful peace for a long span of two-hundred years (4 Nephi 1:22–24).
Despite all this, however, Moroni was subjected to life in a time where none of these miraculous things happened because of a lack of faith among his people; the Kingdom of God no longer existed on Earth and all he could hope for was to attain it in a coming life hereafter; he saw nothing but pride, envy, inequality, iniquity, and the final destruction of his people; and he feared that he, the last record-bearer of his people, would bring a history that he, his father, and their predecessors had labored tirelessly over and found life-giving beauty and meaning through to gentiles whom, upon slaughtering his people, would only mock because he and his people were “mighty in word by faith, but … not … mighty in writing” (Ether 12:23).
At the time Moroni wrote Ether 12, he was wrapping up the project of compiling, abridging, retelling, and most-assuredly reflecting on the history of the Jaredites, which he entitles “the book of Ether.” In Moroni’s brief introduction to the text (not including why he does not include a similar-to-Genesis narrative in his compilation) (Ether 1:1–2, 5–6), he only uses 80 words to introduce the text. Of those 80 words, Moroni uses 18 to describe the peoples’ eventual destruction (two separate times). That’s nearly a quarter of the introduction dedicated to mourning this peoples’ destruction. This doesn’t seem to be accidental either, this seems intentional.
Moroni almost seems to be captivated by this people’s destruction. He seems disposed to an interest in it from almost some other-worldly force, or, perhaps, we need only look to his life to understand this interest.
Moroni had beheld his people not only “dwindle in unbelief, but … willfully rebel against the gospel of Christ” (4 Nephi 1:38). He had watched as his people participated in some of the most atrocious dehumanizing acts (e.g. Moroni 9:9–11). He had seen where the Lamanites and Nephites, who had begun as one Family, had now hunted one into destruction, and the other was living in awful, awful sin (e.g. Mormon 4:14). He was the only one left who would “not deny the Christ” (Moroni 1:3). I don’t think it’s that far-fetched to postulate that Moroni had had a faith crisis, possibly several, perhaps even a recurring faith crisis that left him cold, bitter, or depressed. However, looking at the other options around him, what else could he cling to if not Jesus, the Messiah his ancestors had trusted?
In Ether 12:4, Moroni quotes Ether as saying, “Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world — yea, even a place at the right hand of God — which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of [humans], which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.” Moroni must have personally related to Ether. Ether, just as Moroni, had witnessed the destruction of his people. Ether had watched as he alone would not deny the God who had delivered his people, and, yet, Ether remained in steadfast testimony until the end of his days hoping that it would one day mean something — that, in the long run, he would be justified in his faith.
I imagine Moroni found solace in Ether’s mode of faith. Ether spoke just as Moroni felt. Ether saw his society crumble, and he, just as Moroni, could only “hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God.” Both their mortal earthly experiences offered no respite — they could only but hope for what came in the Hereafter.
Over eight hundred years separate these two humans, and yet, through the Spirit of Prophecy and Revelation they are brought together to offer one of the most beautiful dialogues of faith, and this dialogue is necessarily born out of a dialectic regarding the similar, but entirely separate, tragedies they had both lived and experienced.
Moroni’s understanding and expansion of Ether’s dialogue on faith — his hermeneutics; his “likening” — is telling. He writes, “And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). Moroni reads something into Ether’s words Ether never states explicitly. Ether “hopes for a better world” that he cannot see and so he “abound[s] in good works, being led to glorify [the] God” he worships and can’t see, “prophes[ing] great and marvelous things” currently invisible, but that he is convinced are yet to come (verses 4 & 5). Moroni calls this faith. However, what Moroni does next is what’s interesting. Seeing the similarities in his own experience and Ether’s, he supplies an added belief that a person “receive[s] no witness until after the trial of [their] faith.”
Moroni knows what Ether is going through, and so, seeing Ether’s mode of faith, he makes an assumption about the process it took Ether to develop that faith. It is this assumption Moroni attempts to defend in the coming verses as he lists many events that follow this pattern in Jaredite, Israelite, and Lehite histories (verses 7–22, 30–31). Following this, Moroni weaves this discussion into a likening of the Brother of Jared’s theophany to the construction of the Book of Mormon and uses that hermeneutic angle to reassure himself in God’s purposes in helping him and his people write this book. Moroni’s mode of faith here shows rebirth after a faith crisis — it describes hope where there should be none. It shows Moroni trusting in the unseen plans of the Lord in the future as he reflects of the unseen miracles He performed in the past. He trusts the Lord because he remembers the trust of his ancestors. It’s beautiful.
After living through tragedy, Moroni builds faith on an unseen God who performed miracles in the past, and in that God’s unseen purposes in the future. He simply trusts God — even when all his life he has seen nothing but tragedy and destruction, he trusts in God’s promises. Moroni knows that that God has not let his people down before, and he also knows that all he needs to do to invite that God’s grace into his life is trust that God‘s plans for the future.
Upon reading the Jaredite’s history, Moroni writes ,“if there be no faith among the children of [humans], God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, He showed not Himself until after their faith” (Ether 12:12). It is only after Moroni lives into this trust in an unseen God with not-always clearly distinguishable purposes, we are led to believe, that he “talked with [Jesus] face to face” (verse 39).
He saw that these people, the Jaredites, much like his own people, determined that God had forsaken them. Because these people would come to see no miracles in their own lifetimes, they disinvested in the traditions of their ancestors assuming no such miracles had ever happened. However, Moroni asserts this is only so because they lack the faith of their ancestors — they lack the mode of faith Ether and Moroni have discovered through the histories of their peoples.
As the reader continues, they will notice that towards the end of the chapter, Moroni’s anxiety is clear.
Moroni knows, upon listening, reading, and recounting these dual-histories of these fallen peoples how faith in Christ can combat a civilization’s own self-destruction.
Moroni knows an active reimagining of your situation can yield good fruit.
Moroni knows that remaining “steadfast, always abounding in good works [that] [lead] to glorify[ing] God” can purify one’s heart to avoid the sins of dehumanization, pride, and lust for power.
Moroni knows that he has an antidote to the problems the Gentiles will face and he wishes to stop needless suffering because he has already beheld so much of it.
Moroni knows that somehow through recounting his people’s history — this dense, gripping, beautiful, ultimately tragic story of one Family — the Gentiles would have the tools to liberate all of their siblings side-by-side with the Christ the book implores them to worship, if they choose to find that Christ in his people’s history just as he chooses to find that Christ in the Jaredites’.
Moroni has the answers the Gentiles need, but he’s not sure they’ll accept it as they ought.
Moroni expresses this anxiety in the following lengthy (but important!) quotation, and the Lord’s response is quite instructive:
“And it is by faith that my [ancestors] have obtained the promise that [the Book of Mormon] should come unto their [siblings, the Lamanites,] through the Gentiles …
And I said unto [God]: ‘Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing. For, Lord, Thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but Thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for Thou hast made all this people that they could speak much because of the Holy Ghost which Thou hast given them, and Thou hast made us that we could write but little because of the awkwardness of our hands.’
‘Behold: Thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for Thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as Thou art unto the overpowering of [humanity] to read them. Thou hast also made our words powerful and great even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words, and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.’
And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: ‘Fools mock, but they shall mourn! And My grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness. And if [humans] come unto Me, I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto [humans] weakness that they may be humble. And My grace is sufficient for all [humans] that humble themselves before Me; for, if they humble themselves before Me and have faith in Me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.’” (Ether 12:22–27).
Moroni receives consolation that his participation in the work of salvation is valuable. He receives an assurance God will use him for good. He does not see the result, but he trusts in God regardless just as Ether and his ancestors had before him. Moroni finds solace and a vibrant mode of faith in the record of Ether despite its tragic end just as he hopes we will find the same in the record of his people despite its ending in a similar tragedy.
Moroni’s anxiety in the production of his record is calmed through the reassurance of the God his ancestors have trusted, and he finishes his sermon with beautiful stirring faith in the future promises of that God: “And now I, Moroni, bid farewell unto the Gentiles, yea, and also unto my [siblings, the Lamanites,] whom I love until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ where all [humans] shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood” (Ether 12:38, emphasis my own). He knows the goodness of his record, and he does not hold himself accountable for potential rejection by future readers. As far as Moroni is concerned, they can choose to find faith in his people’s history just as Moroni chose to find a living mode of faith in the Jaredites’ record, and he is not responsible if those readers choose to reject it based on its imperfection.
These, and others, are among the insights one can gain from a close reading of Ether 12. Verses 4, 6, 12, and 27, are quoted often by Latter-day Saints but their deep religious significance is missed when they become simple doctrinal platitudes instead of deeply personal theology constructed by the author, Moroni, informed by his own personal experiences, and his context as a scriptural editor, prophet, and historian. Moroni’s people are dying. There is significance in his focus on an already-dead people.
The Book of Mormon story may end in tragedy, but its narrative ends in hope. The entirety of the Book of Mormon ends with trust and hope in humanity. It is written to the end that human beings will decide to use their agency to “choose liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all [humans], [and not] to choose captivity and death according to the captivity and power of the Devil” (2 Nephi 2:27) as both the Nephites and the Jaredites ultimately, unfortunately, decided before them.
The choice, Moroni personally demonstrates to readers, is their’s. They can choose how they receive the Book of Mormon. They can choose if they condemn the writers, ignore their flaws, or decide to learn both from their triumphs and from their short-comings. The reader can decide, definitively, if they will blame the fall of the Nephites on the God in whom they trusted, or in the choices of those who were supposed to serve that God.
Scripture is about people. As we read Scripture, the characters’ and authors’ humanity, if made available, should be the first thing we connect with — their greatness should inspire us, and God’s choice to work with them despite their failings should give us faith and hope.
The mode of faith expressed in the Book of Mormon, simply put, is one of hope. Hope that God, with the help we offer when we choose to partner with Jesus the Healing One, can set things right. That, though we have fallen from Paradise, we are not castaways forever set adrift in a cruel and unforgiving world. Even as we witness tragedy, even in our grief and our Godly sorrow, we can hope in a better tomorrow. It is with that “hope for a better world” we can find the energy to make change, and it is in that faith exercised as we attempt to make change that we see the very face of God.
It is with that hope we can choose to be co-redeemers with Christ working to make a better world. Looking back, I don’t believe the Book of Mormon shows us how we can gain hope despite tragedy, but, rather, I believe the Book of Mormon shows us how we can have hope as we travel through tragedy. Moroni doesn’t say we can gain strengths after defeating our weaknesses, Moroni says something even more radical: God, if we humble ourselves and trust, can somehow make even our human weakness strong (Ether 12:27).
The Book of Mormon’s mode of faith is unique, and it is one I greatly admire. Moroni’s hope that the record will be accepted by future Gentile readers isn’t based on his trust in Gentiles, he knows human weakness far better than that. Moroni’s hope in the future acceptance of his people’s record isn’t in his people’s ability to be perfect examples or write a flawless story, he knows of his people’s failings all too well for that. Moroni’s trust is in the God he follows because he trusts that God’s consistent promise-keeping.
The God Moroni serves makes covenants with individuals, and entire families and peoples and nothing can stop that God from fulfilling those obligations. Moroni’s trust is not in the people he’s learned about, the people around him, or those in the future — Moroni’s faith is faith in God.
Moroni’s instruction is clear: “If there are faults” he writes introducing the record, “they are the mistakes of [humans]; wherefore, condemn not the things of God that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ” (the Title Page of the Book of Mormon, paragraph two). Though humans will choose not to keep their promises time and time again, and will fracture into factions, hate their neighbor, and reject a hope for the future in pursuit of self-interest, God, Moroni and those who wrote before him are convinced, will never abandon us and will never break a promise.