A Brief Commentary on the Title Page of the Book of Mormon

October 9, 2007 | 40 comments
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The title page of the Book of Mormon is a really fascinating passage of scripture. I think that it provides a very useful model for thinking about scripture in particular and revelation in general.

In two paragraphs, it summarizes the contents of the Book of Mormon, repeatedly emphasizing divine involvement in the production of the book. The Title Page insists that the book:

Was “[w]ritten by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and revelation”

Was “hid up unto the Lord”

Came “forth by the gift and power of God”

“The interpretation thereof by the gift of God”

“[I]s to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers”

Was written “that they may know the covenants of the Lord”
Was made for “the convincing of Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD”

In short, the Title Page is uncompromising in its insistence on the divinity, inspiration, and importance of the Book of Mormon. It closes, however, with this intriguing passage:

An now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-set of Christ.

Having insisted on the divinity of the book and the reality of the revelations from which it came, Moroni frankly acknowledges that it may contain “faults.” I have heard the Title Page used on more than one occasion as a proof-text against the notion of scriptural or prophetic infallibility. I’ve used it this way myself. However, I suspect that we are missing something fundamental if we stop there. Moroni is doing more than simply acknowledging faults. He is also giving us some clues as to how to deal with them. First, he provides us with a source for the faults. They are “the mistakes of men.” I take it that what Moroni is saying is that the prophets and authors of the Book of Mormon, inspired men that they were, were also human and it is unfair and unrealistic to suppose that what they teach will be without fault or mistake. Notice, what Moroni is providing here is essentially a conceptual coping mechanism. How do we deal with the apparent contradiction of finding faults in scripture? If God is perfect, then his work should be without fault, right? The answer is that scripture is both human and divine and the faults are human.

Moroni, however, wants to do more than provide an intellectual coping mechanism. There is more at stake here, he in effect says, than simply our understanding. Hence, he couples his coping mechanism with a warning. Having found the faults and knowing their source, what we do is even more important than how we understand. Notice, being confused doesn’t seem to place us in danger when we are brought before the “judgment-seat of Christ.” Rather, we are in danger if the “faults” and “mistakes of men” cause us to “condemn . . . the things of God.” In other words, understanding — and even I take it discussing — that there are mistakes and faults is not sinful. Condemning God’s work because of those mistakes and faults is. Notice, it is only a particular kind of speech that is flagged as sinful, yet we can nevertheless sin in our speech.

In the end Moroni provides both a conceptual and a moral response to the fallibility of scripture. We must both understand why the faults should not vitiate our faith and how our reaction to those faults can be sinful or not.

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40 Responses to A Brief Commentary on the Title Page of the Book of Mormon

  1. Frank McIntyre on October 9, 2007 at 11:55 am

    When Moroni said “the things of God” I can see some people reading it as referring to the Book of Mormon and other scripture generally, while other people see it as only referring to the parts of scripture that they recognize as divine.

    And yet, who in their right mind would condemn something they _know_ to be divine? So I am not sure there is much content to that interpretation. Perhaps there are other ways of reading it, more probabilistically, that mixes the two. For example, the law of witnesses suggests that parts of the book that are repeated internally or by other prophets are likely to be divine, and so should not be condemned (or “judged unfit”).

  2. Nate Oman on October 9, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    Frank: I read it as saying that one should not condemn the Book of Mormon (or any other inspired text) because some parts of are faulty. Indeed, I am inclined to extend it farther and say that we are not to condemn the faults either, although what exactly is meant by “condemn” is open to interpretation. I do think that what we have here is some sort of precautionary principle whereby we are to withold condemnation from risk of condemning the things of God.

  3. Julie M. Smith on October 9, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    Is this your commentary on the Beck affair?

    No, wait, don’t answer that. We’ve already got 10K threads on that topic and we don’t need another.

    This is good work, regardless of its impetus.

  4. Nate Oman on October 9, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    This is a commentary on the Title Page of the Book of Mormon. Apply as you see fit.

  5. Adam Greenwood on October 9, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    Excellent, Nate O.

    When Moroni said “the things of God” I can see some people reading it as referring to the Book of Mormon and other scripture generally, while other people see it as only referring to the parts of scripture that they recognize as divine.

    And yet, who in their right mind would condemn something they _know_ to be divine?

    The Title page doesn’t say that you have to know that they’re of God before you get yourself in trouble for condemning them. I think you can read this as saying–yes, there are probably mistakes here, and the mistakes are our fault, not God’s, but you decide that parts of this book are mistaken at your own peril. Interesting. Of course its not clear that having private reservations about some passages or assumptions is ‘condemnation,’ and Nate O. might be right that all condemnation means is that one should not throw out the baby (the book as a whole) with the bathwater.

  6. Steve Evans on October 9, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    Nate, I agree with your interpretation in No.2, as it also seems to mesh with subsequent passages of the Book of Mormon where Moroni and others beg us not to reject these words because they have faults or weaknesses. It would seem that there is an undercurrent through the book, an awareness of its shortcomings but a concern that the central message not be cast aside as a result. I’m not aware of this type of awareness in other scripture, but it’s an aspect of the Book of Mormon that I find extremely moving and endearing. These passages are very much linked to my testimony of the book.

  7. Nate Oman on October 9, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    “yes, there are probably mistakes here, and the mistakes are our fault, not God’s, but you decide that parts of this book are mistaken at your own peril. ”

    Adam: I am not sure that I agree with this reading. What Moroni counsels against is “condemning.” I take it that this is something different than thinking or even deciding. In philosophical jargon, it seems to me that it is some sort of performative speech act, like a command or a promise, rather than a mere opinion — expressed or unexpressed — about the meaning or truth of a particular passage.

  8. Nate Oman on October 9, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Steve: It is an interesting question of whether other books of scripture have the same sort of self-consciousness. I suspect that part of this is that the Book of Mormon, more than any other text we have, is the product of one or two or perhaps three minds. The Bible, in contrast, is the product of far more minds, and hence it has a less unitary voice to it. Nor do I see the same sort of textual self-conscioness in the Doctrine & Covenants or the Pearl of Great Price.

  9. Nate Oman on October 9, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    One other point to think about: In the Book of Mormon itself the sorts of faults that it seems most concerned with are stylistic, namely the fear that the language of the book will be mocked. I am not sure what to make of this, and what effect — if any — it has on my reading of the Title Page…

  10. Steve Evans on October 9, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    It’s interesting to wonder what kinds of faults Moroni et al are thinking about. Too many “it came to pass”es? I agree that their concerns are stylistic, but that’s more important than it initially appears. For the Nephites, in any event, oratory was central to preaching and understanding the gospel, and they feel it to be superior in effect: “we are not mighty unto writing as we are unto speaking,” etc. In turn I’m led to wonder the effect of the medium on the message; what if talking about the gospel in person really IS more effective in conveying the Spirit? Who is “mighty unto writing?”

  11. Frank McIntyre on October 9, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Speaking of language, Augustine talks fairly extensively about the uneducated writing in the Gospels being a stumbling block to his acceptance of Christianity. Obviously he got over it.

    Nate: “I do think that what we have here is some sort of precautionary principle whereby we are to withhold condemnation from risk of condemning the things of God.”

    Obviously I am fine with that approach, as it is the same as mine.

  12. danithew on October 9, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    I find it interesting that we are told the Book of Mormon consists of two (maybe three if you include the idea of “a record of the Lamanites”) abridged records.

    That use of the word abridgment, coinciding with the limited but very real concession that human error can creep into a sacred record, should prevent Mormons from ever trying to claim that the Book of Mormon is everything or the end-all-be-all or that every word was dictated by divinity, etc. and etc.. I appreciate that, considering claims we sometimes see in regards to the Bible or the Qur’an.

    I try to imagine what it would be like if the Bible or Qur’an had a preface such as this.

    Just thinking about the use of the word “abridgment” a little bit … from what we are told in the record itself, the Book of Mormon is a specially compiled set of extracts from a much larger prophetic/historical record. In that way it is literally an abridgment. But on another and different level, even the “unabridged” records are actually abridged from the get-go. Every writer has to be selective, has to leave certain things out. No writer is capable of writing a complete and total record that somehow includes every potential detail or every fact.

    There is a Bible verse that comes to mind sometimes, when I think about this:

    John 21:25
    And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.

  13. Ardis Parshall on October 9, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    This is a commentary on the Title Page of the Book of Mormon. Apply as you see fit.

    Okay. I will apply it by broadening Moroni’s caution not only to the Book of Mormon but to the work of God in general: Don’t condemn Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and contributions because of what you see as his human faults. Don’t condemn the messages of General Conference because you think a particular passage was inartfully worded. Don’t condemn an apology because it used the word “regret” rather than your preferred term.

  14. danithew on October 9, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    I recently went around looking for those little Book of Mormon charts where you can mark off the chapter numbers as you read them. It actually bothered me that so many of them began with 1 Nephi Chapter 1. I think the Book of Mormon title page is important enough that it should be the place where Book of Mormon study begins – whether it is personal study or in a classroom.

    Picky, picky, I know. Still …

  15. Dr. B. on October 9, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Or perhaps Moroni was looking ahead to all the translators–French, Chinese, Tagalog–whose mortal abilities would be involved in this work?

  16. Peter LLC on October 9, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    I believe there is an argument to be made that when one condemns the human faults of a prophet, an inartfully worded message or an apology that isn’t, one is not actually condemning the things of God, but those of man. While I appreciate it when others cut me slack, I don’t expect my failings to be considered divine.

  17. Nate Oman on October 9, 2007 at 2:00 pm

    Peter LLC: It is not clear to me that Moroni contemplates an neat seperation between the human and the divine, other than as a conceptual device for dealing with confusion. To borrow another scriptural image, let’s think of God as a potter and human beings as clay. If God takes human beings and makes a pot, the pot is a thing of God while also being a thing of man.

    I think that you also may not be quite precise enough in how you think of “condemning.” It seems to me that “not condemning” is different than “considering divine.” To withold condemnation is not the same thing as assuming divinity. I would submit that it is not even the same thing as witholding all criticism, although I am not quite certain how I draw a line between criticism and condemnation.

  18. Ardis Parshall on October 9, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Non sequitur, Peter — I didn’t even hint at condemning those who note faults; I wrote only about condemning the word and work of God when it is delivered through imperfect human beings.

  19. Steve Evans on October 9, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    Ardis, I’m not sure Peter was talking about your remark.

  20. Ardis Parshall on October 9, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    He referred to the three examples I used, none of which anyone else has used, so I’m sure.

  21. Steve Evans on October 9, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    okey-dokey then. Carry on.

  22. Jim F. on October 9, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    Nate, thanks for pointing out how interesting the title page is. A couple of other points that I find interesting:

    Though we might expect an ancient book of scripture to divide the world into Israel (or Jew) and Gentile, its division is Lamanites, on the one hand, and Jews and Gentiles, on the other.

    It is written “way way of commandment, and also by the the spirit of prophecy and of revelation” (my italics). Its purposes (from the second paragraph) are

    (1) To show the remnant of Israel (is this the same as “the Lamanites”?) what the Lord did for their fathers so that they will know they are not cast off.

    (2) To convince Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ. At first glance this does not seem unusual. However, if we remember the previous division–Lamanites vs. (Jews and Gentiles)—then this particularly emphasizes convincing those who are not Lamanites. I’m not sure what to make of that emphasis, but it is worth thinking about.

  23. D. Fletcher on October 9, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    It is fascinating to me, that one might call this title page “scripture.” Was it revealed? Was it on the plates? Or was it… in Joseph Smith’s own voice? And if so, he certainly could write words that sound like scripture.

    Just saying…

  24. Steve Evans on October 9, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    D., the Title Page was indeed on the plates. Joseph Smith declared is the title page to be “a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates.” (History of the Church)

  25. Steve Evans on October 9, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    er, Joseph Smith declared the title page. Please ignore the extra verb in that sentence.

  26. D. Fletcher on October 9, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Is it ever referenced as scripture? As in I Nephi 1:1 ?

    It’s really an odd one. I think the “condemn” line is self-referencing — Joseph saying, “don’t look for errors, because you’ll find them.”

  27. Nate Oman on October 9, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    D.: I have seen the title page referenced as scripture in church materials, and as Steve points out Joseph said that it was translated from the plates. I see absolutely no reason that it should not be treated as part of the text, although strictly speaking it should go at the end of the book rather than the beginning.

  28. Nate Oman on October 9, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Jim F.: Those are interesting questions. I think that the disjunction between commandment and revelation is to emphasize that even the “uninspired” parts of the book are divine creations, albeit by way of commandment rather than direct revelation.

  29. Adam Greenwood on October 9, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    I am not sure that I agree with this reading. What Moroni counsels against is “condemning.” I take it that this is something different than thinking or even deciding. In philosophical jargon, it seems to me that it is some sort of performative speech act, like a command or a promise, rather than a mere opinion — expressed or unexpressed — about the meaning or truth of a particular passage.

    If you read the last sentence of the comment you’re responding too, you’ll see that I agree with you.

  30. Adam Greenwood on October 9, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    I think that the disjunction between commandment and revelation is to emphasize that even the “uninspired” parts of the book are divine creations, albeit by way of commandment rather than direct revelation.

    The idea being that the parts written by way of commandment were the parts where God directed that something be written on a theme but left the content to the writer? By analogy, would we say that church records are written by way of commandment but rarely by way of inspiration?

  31. Sonny on October 9, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    Excellent commentary, Nate. Kind of makes me feel guilty for always zipping though the title page and not fully appreciating what I could have been learning from it.

    Thank you.

  32. Kevin Barney on October 9, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    I agree with Nate’s 27 that the title page really should come at the end of the book. It is an elaborate colophon, Greek for “finishing touch,” which was a common convention in ancient writing, generally placed at the end. It has been “translated” into the modern convention of a title page and thus placed at the beginning of the document. for our benefit.

  33. Sarah on October 9, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    The title page is actually referenced pretty frequently. The BYU scripture citation project (scriptures.byu.edu) has it cited 53 times in Conference addresses between 1942 and April 2007 — as often as Matt. 28:19-20, and just once less than the third Article of Faith.

  34. Robert C. on October 10, 2007 at 5:35 am

    Great post Nate. Regarding the stylistic weaknesses, I\’ve always thought that, given the BOM\’s preoccupation with Isaiah, that there\’s sort of an apology and self-consciousness among the BOM writers that they\’re not writing text with the kind of structural and poetic sophistication of Isaiah. That\’s not to say that the text doesn\’t have rich structure or poetical content, simply that it probably isn\’t as rich as the Isaianic texts that are quoted at such length. (Joe Spencer has a manuscript he\’s shopping around for publication which deals with some of these issues quite well, including a rich analysis of the structure in the small plates.)

  35. Robert C. on October 10, 2007 at 5:59 am

    Also, I think this difference between “faults” in the text vs. “mistakes” of men is intriguing. “Fault” is such a rich word, and “fault-finding” an intriguing phrase, esp. in a religious context where incompleteness, blemish, un-wholeness, etc. are such important themes. Makes me think of the linguistic turn in philosophy and all the problems of (post Babel?) language and communication that we seem to face in this world (Derrida’s play on seismic faults in language comes to mind esp., though I haven’t read much Derrida…). “Wresting” the scriptures seems a common BOM theme also, so perhaps this is a sort of conditioned self-consciousness on the author’s part (do you think Mormon or Moroni or someone else wrote this??), perhaps in a post-Korihor, post “reasonableness” (cf. Helaman 16:18) society where concern for twisting one’s words became necessary.

  36. mrs on October 10, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    One interesting question about possible faults of men is exactly how a good a history it is. The level of objectivity required for “history” was in a lot of flux up until the last hundred years or so. Leaving Joseph’s translation process aside, when so much of it is an abridgement of records that were hundreds of years old when Mormon (a professional soldier, not historian) saw them, what factual information is being conveyed correctly, even with the best intentions of the writers?

    One possible example of this is the account of Mulekites as descendents of Zedekiah. Despite the claim, “their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them. But it came to pass that Mosiah caused that they should be taught in his language. And it came to pass that after they were taught in the language of Mosiah, Zarahemla gave a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory” (Omni 1:17-18). That doesn’t seem compatible at all! How do we know they didn’t say to themselves “Hey, this powerful group came from across the sea — we’re going to say the same thing, only we descended from royalty, so we can assert authority!” is the most famous proponent of this possibility. In the middle ages, people always modified their genealogies to assert their standings in society.

    So, a book could be true (in the sense that all authors were recording things to the best of their understanding and ability) and not be reliable in a historically accurate.

  37. mrs on October 10, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    That was supposed to say “Orson Scott Card is the most famous proponent of this possibility”, with Orson Scott Card linking to: http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-bookofmormon.html

    Obviously, I don’t know how to use HTML in WordPress :(

  38. Adam Greenwood on October 10, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Mormon (a professional soldier, not historian)

    I’m not sure that distinction makes sense in the Book of Mormon

  39. Rob on October 13, 2007 at 10:51 am

    Adam, while we may have a slightly different modern take on what a “professional” soldier or historian might be, I think one could make a strong argument that in Nephite society, as in most historically known complex societies, there would have been hereditary craft specialization–not everyone did everything in the society, and specializations and attending ranks were passed down from father to son. There would have been scribal traditions–which we see in the BoM, with plates passed down from father to son for most of the history we’re given. Military leaders would also have had similar positions–and we often see that in the BoM as well. So while we don’t have tons of information about how that worked in Nephite society, there is some evidence of it in the BoM, and we can use our understanding of other Mesoamerican societies to think about how this might have worked.

    In the case of Mormon and Moroni, they were obviously schooled in a scribal tradition, but it may not have been their primary traditional role in society. They may have known that they weren’t the most adept scribes–they were hereditary military leaders. For whatever reason, Mormon was given charge of the plates at a young age, and somehow picked up enough writing ability to finish out the record and compile the plates. We don’t know how he got plates, or if he had to have new plates manufactured for his abridgment. There are a lot of unanswered questions about all of that.

    I guess that’s just a long way of saying that while we might have a different modern understanding of what it means to be a professional soldier or historian, it is safe to say that there were probably recognized differences between scribal and military positions during much of Nephite history.

  40. Eric Nielson on October 13, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    Steve-

    The brother of Jared was described as being mighty in writing.