“Kept and Preserved by the Hand of God”

Brant Gardner

Culture: Benjamin provides important information in this explanation. First, the ability to read the prophetic record has been a prerequisite to the existence of continued belief, in contrast to “our brethren, the Lamanites.” In this particular case, however generalized “Lamanite” has become, Benjamin obviously refers to the original Lamanites, the brothers of Nephi. He thus positions the Nephites and Lamanites of his time far apart with respect to religion, a positioning that he attributes directly to Nephite possession of the sacred records—both the brass plates and whatever record Lehi had made.

By not having access to the brass plates, the Lamanites would be deprived of much of what we consider to be the Old Testament. They would probably have had no copies of Lehi’s records, and they would have had no access whatever to Nephi’s writings, simply because Nephi did not begin his record until after the separation between the two groups. Benjamin assumes that, whatever the religious beliefs of the Lamanites in his day, they do not reflect the true religion. He attributes this condition to their inability to read the accounts, which is not a statement about their literacy but a statement about their lack of a text. As a second problem, Benjamin notes that not only have they lost their religion, but that they “even do not believe them when they are taught them, because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct.” This tells us that there have been unrecorded missions to the Lamanites.

Benjamin’s argument to his sons emphasizes the necessity of reading the plates (learning Egyptian), since the alternative is becoming like the Lamanites and losing their religion. What he fails to explain is why reading the plates should be so essential. Obviously, the Lamanites would not have originally been illiterate and they could have copied (or written) their own scriptures. Further, the original Lamanites could have maintained their religion through oral means. The achievement of other nonliterate peoples in reciting foundational myths, memorizing lengthy and complex genealogies, and linking the observance of certain laws and practices with specific principles and commandments is both well known and stunningly impressive to Western observers who rely on printed texts instead of trained memories.

Linking action to belief—a strong component of any religious ritual—would only impress each more firmly in the memory. Indeed, as Benjamin makes clear, the Lamanites of his day do in fact have an active oral tradition, but this tradition is so powerful in its worldview that it prevents them from adopting Nephite ways (including the true religion), even when they learn them.

Societies all change over time, and the literate ones simply have better records of those changes. Some variation in the traditions between Nephite and Lamanite might be attributable to written versus oral recollections of the Old World religion, but clearly the Lamanites had made deliberate choices to remember differently from the Nephites. Almost certainly it was cultural change more than a lack of a particular written record that caused the divergence between the two. The best explanation of the wide divergence, as I see it, was that the Lamanites adopted native culture so completely that the Nephites appropriated the name “Lamanite” as a generic label for all non-Nephite peoples. For their part, they mightily resisted that native influence, returning repeatedly to their sacred texts to provide sanction for such efforts. The people of Zarahemla occupied a transitional zone between the Epi-Olmec cultures and the Maya. Obviously, they, too, had succumbed to the native influence; but because they could be recalled to their Israelite origins by hearing the true religion (and “true culture”) preached to them, they were numbered among the Nephites.

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