What an interesting revelation this verse provides about our current version of the Book of Mormon. We are being tested. We have a limited version of the Book of Mormon which has been carefully curtailed in content, and before we get more we must prove we deserve it.
Given the need to prove ourselves, this Chapter will examine how we are managing our “trial” of faith as to our use of the Book of Mormon. It is safe to conclude we haven’t passed the test, because after 177 years we have yet to receive any of “the greater things” contained in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. This chapter will examine our history to determine how well we have met our trial and how well we have used (or neglected) the Book of Mormon during the time we have had it available.
Approximately two years after the Book of Mormon was published the Lord revealed the following:
And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—(D 84: 54–57, emphasis added.)
Two years into our Book of Mormon “trial” we provoked only a rebuke from the Lord for how we were doing. We were under “condemnation” and our minds were “darkened.” As of 1832, we were not only failing the trial, we provoked Divine ire.
In more recent times, President Benson reiterated that this condemnation continues:
As I participated in the Mexico City Temple dedication, I received the distinct impression that God is not pleased with our neglect of the Book of Mormon.The object of studying the Book of Mormon is to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before us that blessings come by keeping the commandments of God and that tragedy is the result of disobedience. By learning from the lessons of the past, mistakes need not be repeated in our own lives. You will gain a firm and unshakable testimony of Jesus Christ and the absolute knowledge that the origin of the Book of Mormon, as described by Joseph Smith, is true. Reading and pondering the Book of Mormon and other scriptures brings spiritual-mindedness…The Lord declares that the whole Church and all the children of Zion are under condemnation because of the way we have treated the Book of Mormon. This condemnation has not been lifted, nor will it be until we repent. (See D&C 84: 51–81.) (Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, p.51 and 64, emphasis added.)
We are still being tested, and we continue to fail. Just how profound our failure is does not become apparent until we examine our history. From the founding of Brigham Young University in 1875, until 1937, there was not a single course offered on the Book of Mormon at BYU. It was not until 1961 the Book of Mormon became a required course for all BYU freshmen. In fact, the Church as a whole similarly ignored the Book of Mormon. This abysmal state of neglect has been described as follows:
Chauncey C. Riddle remembers, “When I was a student [in the 1940s], the Book of Mormon was scoffed at, sneered at, by a great many of my professors on campus.” Dan Yarn, also a student in the 1940s, reports that “in a lot of wards it was hardly realized that we had a Book of Mormon …I think the general membership was woefully ignorant on the Book of Mormon. They were much skilled in the Bible. Even in missionary work, it was generally the Bible that was used.” Hugh Nibley observed, “Not long ago you would find stake presidents who had never read the Book of Mormon.” (Reynolds, Noel B.The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century. BYU Studies 38, no. 2 (1999), p. 25.)
The Church was under-whelmed with the Book of Mormon until late into the twentieth century. Noel B. Reynolds wrote about this Church-wide neglect in his article just cited,The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century, BYU Studies 38, no. 2 (1999), found at pages 7–47. He wrote: “the Book of Mormon was largely overlooked throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” (Id., p. 8.) A handful of Church leaders appealed for more serious attention to the book, “[h]owever, the Church as a whole did not respond in a dramatic way to any of these urgent messages until after President Benson’s emphatic messages in 1986.” (Id., p. 9.) Implicit in the historic neglect of the Book of Mormon by the Saints was their skepticism about its value as scripture. For over a century and a half, the Church thought the Book of Mormon was of little or no value. Yet this verse found in 3 Nephi promises there will be “greater things” given to us only when we finally take what it contains seriously.
These “greater things” are contained in a sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. Joseph was forbidden from translating that portion of the record. It is going to be withheld until we “shall believe these things, then shall the greater things [i.e., the rest of the record] be made manifest.” Since we don’t have that record it is safe to conclude we have not yet passed the test.
This verse is part of a larger dialogue which continues: “And if it so be that they will not believe these things, then shall the greater things be withheld from them, unto their condemnation. Behold, I was about to write them, all which were engraven upon the plates of Nephi, but the Lord forbade it, saying: I will try the faith of my people.” (3 Ne. 26: 10–11.) Failing the test means we are “condemned.” That is a sobering thought.
It may be hard to see ourselves failing this test and being condemned by the Lord. We think ourselves as great as any past generation. It is difficult to conceive there were “primitive” people who knew more than we do about Christ’s Gospel. That is one of the reasons we tend to reject the Book of Mormon. To fully accept it we must humble ourselves into accepting these “primitive” writers as our teachers.
We have fuel injected hybrid cars, cell phones and digital music. Mormon was little more than a bronze age plate-etcher, with none of the technology at his command which we have at ours. Some Saints don’t even believe there was a Mormon, or Nephi, or a visit by the risen Christ to the Americas. Mormon intellectuals in particular have been uninspired by the Book of Mormon. Throughout most of the early twentieth century there were Mormon intellectuals trying to have the Book of Mormon abandoned by the Church. Among them was Sterling M. McMurrin, about whom Reynolds writes:
He had never believed in the Book of Mormon—or even God, for that matter—and would not agree to teach it, even if required to do so. As he told one group at BYU, he had never even read the Book of Mormon. This admission may seem surprising coming from a learned man who rejected the authenticity of the Book of Mormon on the grounds that he “know[s] of no real evidence in its support, and [that] there is a great deal of evidence against it.” But like other leading spokesmen for this perspective widespread among these cultural Mormons, McMurrin had decided early on that because such a book couldn’t be true, it wasn’t worth reading. In the same interviews, McMurrin explained: “I came to the conclusion at a very early age, earlier than I can remember, that you don’t get books from angels and translate them by miracles; it is just that simple …all of the hassling over the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is just a waste of time.” (Reynolds, supra., pp. 24–25; citations omitted.)
A significant number of church members do not believe in the Book of Mormon. In connection with the recent PBS documentary, “The Mormons,” Elder Jeffrey Holland was interviewed. Only a portion of the interview was broadcast. A transcript of the full interview is available on the PBS website, found at www.pbs.org/mormons/inter views/holland.html. In it, Elder Holland states:
There are plenty of people who question the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and they are firmly in this church—firmly, in their mind, in this church—and the church isn’t going to take action against that. [The church] probably will be genuinely disappointed, but there isn’t going to be action against that, not until it starts to be advocacy: “Not only do I disbelieve in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, I want you to disbelieve.” At that point, we’re going to have a conversation. But I think we want to be tolerant any way we can. …“Patient” maybe is a better word than “tolerant.” We want to be patient and charitable to the extent that we can, but there is a degree beyond which we can’t go. …(Id.)
It is not just a matter of past intellectual distrust in the Book of Mormon. Elder Holland acknowledges this distrust continues today and is still present among some members of the Church.
One of the first great notable exceptions to this intellectual distaste for the Book of Mormon among Latter-day Saint scholars was Hugh Nibley. He held the book in awe. Brother Nibley subjected the book to a rigorous intellectual examination, and concluded it was true.
At first, the Church’s leading intellectuals thought Hugh Nibley’s faith in the book was merely a pretense. Here is an account of an interesting event:
[B]efore his 1955 debate with Sterling McMurrin, Hugh was invited to speak to a meeting at the University of Utah, of the “Swearing Elders”—a group of liberal Mormons associated with Utah universities. After giving his presentation, Hugh says they took him aside and told him “You’re among friends now, you can say what you really feel about the Book of Mormon.” Hugh simply bore his testimony that the Book of Mormon is, in fact, a true record of an ancient people and that Joseph Smith was a prophet. “Oh, were they mad,” Hugh states. “They were just boiling.” He recalls one member of the group launching into a harangue about the Book of Mormon and how “we have to get rid of it. It’s driving the best minds out of the church! You can’t see it, but with my training, I know it. Joseph Smith was a deceiver, but he was a sly deceiver.” Hugh was chilled by such reactions: “They had a real active hatred of the Book of Mormon.” These were, for the most part, members of the Church in good standing.” (Peterson, Boyd Jay. Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2002, p. 160.)
Brother Nibley’s prolific defense of the book spanned decades. His Collected Worksseries contains many volumes of his apologetic work. He took on the critics, and showed how difficult it would have been for Joseph Smith to have fabricated a book that was not only complex, but one that anticipated discoveries not made during Joseph’s lifetime.
The Church continues to react to intellectual criticism of the Book of Mormon. Our believing community of scholars remains committed to defending the antiquity of the Book of Mormon against hold-over insecurities of intellectualism and doubts. We still have a Mormon intellectual community which does not believe the Book of Mormon’s antiquity, and therefore doubt its authenticity. Some of them wear their skepticism as a badge of honor. Our faithful scholars are still trying to promote faith in the book by using scientific or scholarly tools to establish it as an ancient text. Proving it is ancient (should they ever be able to do so) does not produce faith, and convinces doubters only temporarily until the next scholarly rebuttal arrives; then things must cycle through the debate again.
We owe much to Hugh Nibley for urging the Church to take the Book of Mormon seriously. Decades before President Ezra Taft Benson reiterated the Church was under condemnation for failing to believe the Book of Mormon’s validity, Brother Nibley defended the book as an authentic ancient text, rather than something Joseph Smith made up.
Hugh Nibley has been interested in the Book of Mormon from a very early age. In our modern Church, this really does not seem so strange, but at the time of Hugh’s youth, the Book of Mormon was largely ignored. Significantly this change is somewhat his doing. In his essay “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century,” Noel Reynolds, BYU political science professor, demonstrates that our present concern with the Book of Mormon is a very recent phenomenon. “The early Saints valued the Book of Mormon as evidence of the Restoration, but by the Nauvoo period, focus on the book had already decreased.” And in the twentieth century, Reynolds documents that in general conference addresses, Church manuals, books published for the LDS audience, courses of study both at BYU and throughout the Church Education System, and even lessons given by our missionaries, focus on the Book of Mormon has been cursory and sporadic until very recent times. “Not long ago you would find stake presidents who had never read the Book of Mormon,” states Hugh Nibley. The reason for the previous generations’ neglect of the book may be understandable. Hugh Nibley commented to one correspondent: “Our ancestors for example spent little time reading the Book of Mormon—even for the youthful President Grant it was nothing but a bore. People tried to get interested in it from a romantic point of view; its strangeness exercised a kind of fascination. It was a happy generation to which the abominations of the Nephites and Jaredites seemed utterly unreal.”
Reynolds documents the dramatic shift in perspective: “The last few decades have produced a significant revolution in the LDS community in terms of the increased understanding and competent appreciation for the Book of Mormon as an inspired work of ancient scripture.” Both scholars and the general populace of the Church, Reynolds demonstrates, “strive to understand the Book of Mormon as an authentic document and to give diligent heed to Christ’s gospel that it contains.” Hugh Nibley has certainly inspired much of this change in focus. Elder Neal A. Maxwell has stated that Hugh’s influence on the new generation of Book of Mormon scholars—his “intellectual reconnaissance,” as Elder Maxwell has called it—is among Hugh’s greatest contributions to the Church. Elder Maxwell compares Hugh to “an early explorer” who has staked claims on various mine shafts, sampled the ore, and signaled to his students where the ore lies. Maxwell continues, “What’s now happening is that his …students are coming on and they go all the way into the mine and come out and say, ‘Yes, it really was a rich vein to be explored.’” But Hugh has also inspired the rest of us to take the Book of Mormon more seriously—to look at the text more closely, to reevaluate our assumptions, and to pay closer heed to its teachings. (Peterson, Boyd Jay. Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2002, pp. 246–247, footnotes omitted.)
We owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Nibley for his pioneering work. He wrote to convince us the Book of Mormon was an authentic volume of scripture and, as a result, Joseph Smith was a prophet called by God. I have been entertained, informed, delighted and thrilled by reading Brother Nibley’s work. I owe much to him. That having been said, it should be remembered that he worked in a climate of intellectual hostility, and so used his considerable scholarly talents to prove, by argument, the Book of Mormon was an authentic ancient work. His chose the role of the apologist. He was not trying to cure the real defect, which is our abysmal use of the Book of Mormon as a guide. Rather, he was trying to get us to accept it as authentic scripture.
A logical outgrowth for Hugh Nibley of the authenticity of Middle East traces in the Book of Mormon is the conclusion that Joseph Smith really was who he claimed to be—the translator of an ancient document “by the gift and power of God” (Book of Mormon title page) and a divinely called prophet. …
For Hugh, the brilliance of the Book of Mormon’s literary achievement confirms that Joseph Smith could not have written the book—he wasn’t capable of writing it. But this does not decrease Joseph’s stature; rather it raises it. Joseph is not a “religious genius” with a brilliant “religion-making imagination,” as Harold Bloom has declared him, but a prophet of God. (Id., p. 256.)
His was a wonderful undertaking. He would have us conclude on the strength of his logic, that the Book of Mormon must be scripture. However, this betrays the scholar’s weakness. A scholar may try to prove Joseph Smith must have been a prophet because there is no credible alternative explanation, but this alone does not make someone convert. Conversion is in the heart, not the mind. Once the mind is persuaded, it can be persuaded again by the next scholar’s better-expressed argument.
Brother Nibley knew the limits of his scholarly work. He explained: “…Our business is to raise questions, not to answer them. …This is the very beginning of Book of Mormon research, not the end: it would be a paralyzing and a foolish thing to start making pontifical pronouncements at this early date. On to the fray!” …Throughout, his focus has steadfastly remained fixed on establishing the ancient Middle Eastern setting for the Book of Mormon. (Peterson, Boyd Jay. Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2002, p. 252.)
Scholars do not convert. Our believing scholars challenge Book of Mormon critics by proving their best arguments against belief are weak. When we are at last satisfied the Book of Mormon has an ancient origin, then what? If reason suggests Joseph Smith was a prophet, do we then have a testimony?
Brother Nibley’s efforts have been followed by Latter-day Saint scholars whose work has built upon his pioneering efforts:
In the four decades since Hugh launched his impressive reconstruction of the Book of Mormon’s ancient world, the evidence in favor, documented both by Hugh and by other Mormon scholars, has grown exponentially. Hugh has influenced a whole new generation of Book of Mormon scholars. John Welch has examined literary evidence, in particular the use of the ancient poetic form of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon and has published a book exploring the temple rituals preserved in the book. Stephen Ricks professor of Hebrew, has followed Hugh’s lead in examining kingship in the Book of Mormon. William Hamblin, a history professor, has further considered warfare in the Book of Mormon, while Paul Hoskisson, professor of ancient studies, has looked more attentively at proper names in the Book of Mormon. Donald Parry, a professor of Hebrew, has focused on Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. (Id., p. 255.)
Scholarly efforts may strengthen the testimonies of the Saints, but they do not produce a testimony, and they rarely convert unbelievers. If conversion resulted from having the better argument in the scholarly debates, our scholarly critics would be converting to our faith, as we present the better view. Evangelical scholars, Owen and Mosser acknowledged our arguments are superior, but were not converted. Instead they asked for anti-Mormon scholars to rally to meet the better LDS arguments.
Our scholarly limitations have been described by Elder Neal Maxwell. He has given an inventory of our lack of appreciation for what the Book of Mormon offers. As Elder Neal Maxwell put it:
…the contents of the Book of Mormon have been supplied by about two dozen prophet-leaders; the editing was done, primarily, by three prophet-historians; and the final translation was performed by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith had the unusual gift of translation given to only a select few prophets (see Mosiah 8: 12–18; D&C 28: 11–16; D&C 1: 29).
Beneficial and wonderful as the Holy Bible is, it did not encompass the same consistent pattern of emergence as the Book of Mormon, with prophets at every stage - writing, selecting, editing, and translating.
There are even special portions of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price which represent, as it were, “implants” of whole blocks of precious truth which can transport us outside and beyond the brief and tiny place we presently occupy in time and space. As Richard L. Bushman has written, “In some passages the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses appear to come from another world entirely” (Bushman, p. 77).
Ironically, there has often been more discussion as to the “origins” of these scriptures than about the precious truths they contain.
Though published for decades, some of these truths still have not received our full appreciation. Perhaps similar neglect was a part of the reason for the condemnation the Church received from the Lord in 1832 because, among other things, the Book of Mormon had been treated “lightly” (see D&C 84: 54, 57).
For some Church members the Book of Mormon remains unread. Others use it occasionally as if it were merely a handy book of quotations. Still others accept and read it but do not really explore and ponder it. The book is to be feasted upon, not nibbled (see 2 Nephi 31: 20). Apparently Church members were similarly spread out on the spectrum of utilization and appreciation in Joseph’s day-hence his testimony from jail as to the Book of Mormon, his “keystone” statement, and the instructive episode in Philadelphia are even more understandable.
Quite understandably too, among early Church members the use of the Bible was much greater than the use of the Book of Mormon. Even Joseph, who had been schooled in the Bible, had scarcely had time to translate and begin to assimilate the Book of Mormon, let alone to articulate extensively regarding the gems in that book of whose truthfulness he testified. The unfolding process by which these scriptures “shall grow together” (2 Nephi 3: 12) was, therefore, a gradual development to be accelerated in the second century of the Restoration, such as with the new editions of the scriptures published in 1979 and 1981.
In any event, for centuries the Lord oversaw the painstaking work of prophets engraving, as they did, upon the plates which would be the basis of the Book of Mormon. He could scarcely be true to those diligent men, whom he loved and called, had he ignored the modern Church’s casualness about the Book of Mormon. After all, merely holding or reading a menu is not the same thing as eating a fine meal. (Maxwell, Neal A. But for a Small Moment. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986, pp. 27–29, emphasis in original.)
We continue merely to read the menu. We have prepared volumes of scholarly apologetics attempting to prove an authentic menu offering Early American cuisine. But we aren’t ordering from it, nor partaking of the nourishment it provides. Its greatest delicacies remain untasted.
The Book of Mormon offers us tantalizing proof of the “greater things” being kept from us. The verse considered in this Chapter tells us we will not obtain these things until we take seriously what we already have. When at last we do, here is some of the feast which we might then enjoy:
And now it came to pass that when Jesus had told these things he expounded them unto the multitude; and he did expound all things unto them, both great and small. And he saith: These scriptures, which ye had not with you, the Father commanded that I should give unto you; for it was wisdom in him that they should be given unto future generations. And he did expound all things, even from the beginning until the time that he should come in his glory—ea, even all things which should come upon the face of the earth, even until the elements should melt with fervent heat, and the earth should be wrapt together as a scroll, and the heavens and the earth should pass away; And even unto the great and last day, when all people, and all kindreds, and all nations and tongues shall stand before God, to be judged of their works,whether they be good or whether they be evil—If they be good, to the resurrection of everlasting life; and if they be evil, to the resurrection of damnation; being on a parallel, the one on the one hand and the other on the other hand, according to the mercy, and the justice, and the holiness which is in Christ, who was before the world began. And now there cannot be written in this book even a hundredth part of the things which Jesus did truly teach unto the people; But behold the plates of Nephi do contain the more part of the things which he taught the people. And these things have I written, which are a lesser part of the things which he taught the people; and I have written them to the intent that they may be brought again unto this people, from the Gentiles, according to the words which Jesus hath spoken. And when they shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them. (3 Ne. 26: 1–9, emphasis added.)
Christ’s prophecy of all mankind’s history is withheld. Who can doubt the greatness of this material? It is not available and will not be made available until we believe the current portions of the Book of Mormon.
This is not all, however. We find this offering as well:
Behold, it came to pass on the morrow that the multitude gathered themselves together, and they both saw and heard these children; yea, even babes did open their mouths and utter marvelous things; and the things which they did utter were forbidden that there should not any man write them. (3 Ne. 26: 16.)
Had these forbidden things been included in the record, what knowledge might we obtain? Christ’s resurrected ministry is not the only information we may eventually receive. His pre-mortal ministry included an interview with the Brother of Jared:
And the Lord commanded the brother of Jared to go down out of the mount from the presence of the Lord, and write the things which he had seen; and they were forbidden to come unto the children of men until after that he should be lifted up upon the cross; and for this cause did king Mosiah keep them, that they should not come unto the world until after Christ should show himself unto his people. (Ether 4:1.)
We have only a limited account of the pre-mortal visit of Christ with the Brother of Jared. Further, we do not have the full account of the prophecies contained in the plates of the book of Ether. Moroni limited his translation. He tells us:
And I was about to write more, but I am forbidden; but great and marvelous were the prophecies of Ether; but they esteemed him as naught, and cast him out; and he hid himself in the cavity of a rock by day, and by night he went forth viewing the things which should come upon the people. (Ether 13: 13.)
What he refused to give us was the full account of the prophecies of the last days.
We also have these words from Nephi:
And behold, I, Nephi, am forbidden that I should write the remainder of the things which I saw and heard; wherefore the things which I have written sufficeth me; and I have written but a small part of the things which I saw. (1 Ne. 14: 28.)
Nephi’s full vision has not been made available in the current translation. We need to remember we would be far better informed about the past and future if it were available.
From the time the Book of Mormon came into modern print, it has been received skeptically. Even among those who believe it to be true, there has been little done to explore its vital teachings. From Joseph Smith’s time to our own, we have not moved forward as we should have. John E. Clark’s paper from the Joseph Smith Symposium included this observation about Joseph himself:
[The Saints] presume that Joseph Smith knew the contents of the book as if he were its real author, and they accord him perfect knowledge of the text. This presumption removes from discussion the most compelling evidence of the book’s authenticity—Joseph’s unfamiliarity with its contents. To put the matter clearly: Joseph Smith did not fully understand the Book of Mormon. I propose that he transmitted to readers an ancient book that he neither imagined nor wrote.
…Thanks in large part to his critics, it is becoming clear that Joseph Smith did not fully understand the geography, scope, historical scale, literary form, or cultural content of the book. (Clark, John E. “Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins.” The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress. Edited by John W. Welch. Provo: BYU Press, 2006, p. 85.)
The Book of Mormon has been with us for 177 years. Yet it has been largely ignored or misunderstood for most of that time. Scholars have been working to give us reasons to believe it is an ancient text since the 1940s with the pioneering work of Brother Nibley now being expanded by teams of qualified experts. However, the work needing completion does not involve the scholars. It involves belief, obedience, and faith in the message contained in the book.
We do not need more scholarly “proofs” or arguments to remove the darkness which covers our minds. We need more faith. The Book of Mormon has been given to us in its current iteration to try our faith. When, at last, we believe in it, only then will greater things be given to us.
The verse of this Chapter is a revelation to us about us. It tells us what we have done or failed to do, if we are candid with ourselves. We have yet to receive what the Book of Mormon offers.
The primary volume of scripture cited in my prior book The Second Comforter was the Book of Mormon. That book illustrates how the greatest and most sacred doctrines of this Dispensation are found in the Book of Mormon. This third book continues the effort to show the treasury we have in the doctrines of the Book of Mormon. It is the single greatest volume of scripture we possess. Hopefully the eighteen verses discussed here will illustrate what is waiting to be understood through careful, inspired reading of the Book of Mormon. It is the Book of Mormon, and not this or any other commentary, which deserves your respectful attention, prayers and faithful obedience.