“Nephi Did Keep the Records”

Brant Gardner

Culture: This verse provides important information about the status of Nephite politics at this point. Nephi2 had once been the chief judge of the land, at a time when the people still generally followed the gospel. As defections continued, the statistical balance shifted until the voice of the people (a majority of whom were now Nehorites), confirmed new political (Gadianton) rulers and Nephi stepped down from the judgment seat. The fact that the political change coincided with a religious change was not accidental. Politics and religion were inseparable, and change in one almost always correlated with a change in the other. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 32:1.)

As the Nephites grew more interested in the outside world, in the wealth and social hierarchies associated with wealth, they also imported the cultural, political, and religious ideas that accompanied those values of wealth and status. The shift in the voice of the people simultaneously pushed for a different political leadership as it accepted and embraced a new “gospel.” There was no way for the two competing religions to share power. Just as the righteous Nephites had attempted to eliminate the order of the Nehors, so did the Nehors dominate the righteous Nephites when they gained power (Alma 2:1–4, 14:8).

It is against this political and religious background that we must see this particular verse. Nephi2 gave his son, Nephi3, a charge “concerning the plates of brass, and all the records which had been kept, and all those things which had been kept sacred from the departure of Lehi out of Jerusalem.” The mention of the brass plates strongly suggests that the other “sacred” things were the items transferred from ruler to ruler in the righteous Nephites political lineage as legitimizing emblems of the succession. These traditional items are catalogued in Mosiah 1:15–16:

And it came to pass that after king Benjamin had made an end of these sayings to his son, that he gave him charge concerning all the affairs of the kingdom.
And moreover, he also gave him charge concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass; and also the plates of Nephi; and also, the sword of Laban, and the ball or director, which led our fathers through the wilderness, which was prepared by the hand of the Lord that thereby they might be led, every one according to the heed and diligence which they gave unto him.

The symbolic passing on of these relics was tantamount to the transferring of the crown and scepter for European monarchs. They were part of the package of authority wielded by the Nephite kings and would have been passed to the line of the judges. These items were kept together and made their appearance in Joseph Smith’s day as witnesses to the Book of Mormon, thus preserving their function as legitimizers of authority. David Whitmer’s account is the most explicit:

It was in June, 1829—the latter part of the month, and the Eight Witnesses saw them, I think, the next day or the day after (i.e. one or two days after). Joseph showed them the plates himself, but the angel showed us (the Three Witnesses) the plates, as I suppose to fulfill the words of the book itself. Martin Harris was not with us at this time; he obtained a view of them afterwards (the same day). Joseph, Oliver and myself were together when I saw them. We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon but also the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates. The fact is, it was just as though Joseph, Oliver and I were sitting just here on a log, when we were overshadowed by a light. It was not like the light of the sun nor like that of a fire, but more glorious and beautiful. It extended away round us, I cannot tell how far, but in the midst of this light about as far off as he sits (pointing to John C. Whitmer, sitting a few feet from him), there appeared as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the Sword of Laban, the Directors—i.e., the ball which Lehi had—and the Interpreters. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with his hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life, declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.

These items, which represented Nephite authority, are now in the hands of Nephi3, who has no political authority. Their presence outside the lines of political power reveals exactly how far Nephite apostasy had developed. The departure from the past is so complete that these relics of authority are no longer valued. Apparently Nephi2 took them when he left office and his successors did not challenge his possession of them. He now passes the sacred relics to his son.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5