“Be Taught in All the Language of His Fathers”

Brant Gardner

Culture: These verses provide some tremendously important information but so matter of factly that it is easy to miss their significance. Benjamin was obviously a good father who taught his children. Certainly he taught them the gospel. Significantly, however, he is teaching his sons the words of two different record traditions. The second is actually named (the brass plates), which identifies the first by elimination as the large plates. “The prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers, which were delivered them by the hand of the Lord” are obviously not on the brass plates but were the prophets in their own Nephite tradition. The plates of Nephi are part of the items transferred upon the bestowal of kingship, as we will see later, so they are quite literally “delivered” (Mosiah 1:16). The phrase “by the hand of the Lord” recognizes the sanctity of the charge to preserve the plates. Mosiah had obeyed this charge by bringing the plates with him during the exodus from the land of Nephi.

Second, Mormon summarizes that Benjamin “caused that they should be taught in all the language of his fathers.” Language in the Book of Mormon can mean both linguistics and also the larger category of culture. (See commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 1:2–3.) Here, it probably has its linguistic sense, for such instruction was to assure “that thereby they might become men of understanding; and that they might know concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers.”

The cultural meaning might still explain “men of understanding,” but the final phrase ties the teaching of “language” to the words of the large plates. Benjamin’s sons learn the language specifically for the purpose of knowing “the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers.” The minimum possible interpretation is that they were taught to read. However, the meaning of “language” meant more than literacy alone; it also means a specific language as the next verse clarifies.

At this point, however, it is enough to note that literacy was sufficiently unusual that it was mentioned even in Mormon’s abridgment. There is, naturally, no mention of the fact that a child learns the spoken language of his or her parents. That is expected. Clearly, these sons are learning a second language.

Redaction: Verses 1–2 are wholly Mormon’s words. They are based, certainly, upon the data on his source plates, but these verses summarize what was surely more detailed data from the plates of Nephi. Mormon’s editorializing continues until the middle of verse 3 where he cites Benjamin’s discourse to his sons. Mormon explains that he has selected this discourse because in it Benjamin describes why the information on the plates is valuable. Mormon would be very sensitive to this explanation, for his task in abridging the record was to preserve that value for future generations. He therefore saw this discourse as directly relevant to his purposes in creating his plates.

Mormon’s contexting for this embedded discourse is a quick sketch of the necessary historical background to explain the discourse, but his purpose is to preserve the discourse, not to recount history. That we may extract historical/anthropological data from his introduction is felicitous, but Mormon was not consciously attempting to communicate these items of information. Indeed, virtually all of Mormon’s choices are governed by spiritual rather than historical criteria, as we would understand these terms.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3