“The Second Generation Had All Passed Away Save It Were a Few”

Brant Gardner

Mormon begins to turn his attention away from the constructed pseudo-millennial conditions of the first two hundred years to events of the second two hundred years. An important part of this end-story is the record itself. Handing on the record has always been part of Mormon’s larger story, but now he focuses more on the record than on the specific events it chronicles. He is moving from generic history into specific—his own.

The command to create this record dictates what we see in the record; therefore, this concentration on the record itself is not surprising. Mormon’s careful recording of the Savior’s admonitions about record keeping—particularly, the role of this very record that Mormon is creating—acquires new significance in this context.

This part of the plates’ transmission begins with Nephi3 as recorded in the book’s headnote. However, the record gives no indication that Nephi3 wrote on the large plates until Mormon describes the record’s transmission from Nephi3 to his son Amos1. Mormon has so completely recast Nephi3’s record that we cannot confidently identify any particular passage as Nephi3’s.

The large plates of Nephi have been part of the Nephite dynastic record. When that government dissolved, the large plates would have stayed with the tribe whose members had previously ruled in Zarahemla. Nephi3’s record, upon which our 3 Nephi is based, apparently was a personal, not an official, document (3 Ne. 5:9–10). Although Mormon does not describe record-transmission between the end of the book of Helaman and 4 Nephi, probably the transmission was dynastic—that is, when the government was reconstituted after the Messiah’s visitation, the large plates are once again held in the ruling dynasty.

In addition to Nephi, this book also contains the record of Amos1, Amos2, and Ammaron. Mormon provides no information on Nephite government; but textual transmission has followed political fortunes to this point. In almost all other cases, the book name changes when there is a dynastic change. (See Mosiah, Part 1: Context, Chapter 2, “Mormon’s Structural Editing of the Book of Mormon: Chapters and Books.”) Sometimes the change has been only political, but sometimes the record has moved from political/religious hands to a strictly religious keeper. Nephi2 was outside the political arena; so I argue that the name change to our 4 Nephi reflects the creation of a new dynastic record. It is the only evidence of the Nephites’ post-Messiah political organization during their golden age. If Nephi, the son of Nephi, became the ruler, he would also have been the de facto keeper of the records. This pattern would further suggest that Amos1, Amos2, and Ammaron succeeded him as Nephite rulers for the first three hundred years. When Ammaron closes and conceals the record, it is not only the end of the dynasty, but also the symbol of great upheavals in the Nephite world.

Culture: Religious, not political, dissenters take “upon them the name of Lamanites” (v. 20), an important development in Mormon’s story. Given the link between religion and government in the ancient world, they would also have separated themselves politically, but Mormon’s emphasis is on religion. Until the end of the Book of Mormon, the Nephites’ destruction does not really involve the destruction of so-many thousand individuals (although there certainly was widespread slaughter) but, more significantly, the annihilation of believers in the Atoning Messiah. The political organization dissolves, but only after its religious underpinnings are gone. The Book of Mormon story is spiritual, not political. Therefore, the important division is religious. When this group of dissenters rejects the gospel, they destroy the unity of religion that has endured for two centuries. Indeed, Mormon will describe increasing religious diversity—competing religious ideas with their attached political systems that eventually pull Nephite society apart.

Chronology: Two hundred years in the Nephite year-count would correspond to A.D. 196.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6