“The Words Which Their Father Helaman Spake”

Brant Gardner

Redaction: Mormon takes this opportunity to insert a sermon from Helaman to his sons. Mormon has held this sermon out of its historical sequence so that he may add it here as a preface to Nephi’s missionary journey. Mormon selects this particular instruction from Helaman  to his sons specifically because of the theme of the unit. As noted below, this unit is leans heavily on the word remember. In  Mormon’s context, he has just noted that the Nephites as a whole have moved away from their God. What Mormon is doing, though his insertion of Helaman’s admonition to his sons, is to extend that message past Nephi and Lehi and to all of the Nephites. Their social ill is that they do not properly remember. Mormon uses Helaman’s exhortation to his sons as an exhortation to all of the Nephites.

Literary: It is difficult to read Helaman’s words without noting that the word remember is repeated with unusual frequency. This is a literary technique:

“According to Robert Alter, repetition of a word or phrase is one of the most common literary devices used in the narrative of the Bible (92). Martin Buber noted this stylistic element and called it Leitworter, a German word meaning “leading words,” “guide words,” or “theme words.” The Leitwort theory is that when a word, word-root, or phrase recurs significantly in a text, the reader is able to decipher or grasp the meaning of the text by noting these repetitions and thus can determine its theme as well (Buber 284; Alter 93-95; Fishbane xii). Alter further explained this repetition of key words or key phrases in a text, stating:

The repetition of single words or brief phrases often exhibits a frequency, a saliency, and a thematic significance.... The one most prominent device involving the repetition of single words is the use of the Leitwort, the thematic key-word, as a way of enunciating and developing the moral, historical, psychological, or theological meanings of the story. (179-180; emphasis added)

Michael Fishbane discusses the phenomenon of Leitworter as follows:

One particular recurrent and transparent technique is the Leitwort (theme-word). Because Hebrew words are essentially built around triliteral stems, the same stem may recur in one and the same text in different nominal, verbal, and adjectival forms. Such repetition, where it occurs, give a text special texture; and it also serves to highlight major and minor features of content. A reader may thus be guided or provoked towards certain interpretations on the basis of theme-words recurrent in one or several texts which are thereby brought into association. And what applies to words is equally pertinent with respect to larger themes or motifs. Through such stylistic means, latent networks of intra- and inter- textual meaning may be perceived by an interpreter. (xii)

The main function of such Leitworter seems to be to express the principal theme of a story. The narrative thus provides its own interpretation by repetition of what is essential to its understanding (Watson 288; Buber 52).” (Ronald D. Anderson. “Leitworter in Helaman and 3 Nephi.” Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Helaman through 3 Nephi 8: According to Thy Word [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1992], 241.)

It is precisely this emphasis on remembering that Mormon uses as his reason for inserting this discourse at this point in his narrative. The Nephites have forgotten their God. They must remember.  It is this essential recognition of the covenants of the past that led President Spencer W. Kimball to note: “When you look in the dictionary for the most important word, do you know what it is? It could be remember. Because all of you have made covenants—you know what to do and you know how to do it—our greatest need is to remember... Remember is the word. Remember is the program.”  (cited in Robert E. Parsons. “The Practices of the Church.” Kent P. Jackson, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 8: Alma 30 to Moroni [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988], 286.)

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon