“It Begins with a Family: Some Major Teachings in the First Half of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Sept. 1976, 13
President Brigham Young once made an intriguing statement that has continued to fascinate me. He said:
“Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation, or as you are with your workmen or with your households.”
He then continued with the promise, “You may understand what the Prophets understood and thought—what they designed and planned to bring forth to their brethren for their good.
“When you can thus feel, then you may begin to think that you can find out something about God, and begin to learn who he is.” (Journal of Discourses, 7:333.)
Too often many of us approach the scriptures as dispassionate observers. We want to receive instruction with no effort on our part. Ours is an age of spectators, an age that provides entertainment requiring little effort from us. However, the scriptures will not yield the excitement within them without effort on our part. President Young has suggested that we need to read them with a creative stance, to put ourselves into them. This may not be easy to do at first, but once it is accomplished the scriptures begin to take on a life of their own.
Parts of the Book of Mormon are as old as the tower of Babel; yet its themes are as current as tomorrow. Historical settings may change; people may dress differently and alter their surroundings; but mankind remains much the same. The problems of mankind are born anew in each generation. This is what makes the Book of Mormon such an intriguing venture, if one is truly interested in life.
The first half of the Book of Mormon provides an excellent opportunity for families to analyze some of the eternal problems of man, and to share in the insights of others who lived at other times and in other places. The Prophet Joseph Smith has said that through a study of the Book of Mormon and abiding by its precepts one can get closer to God than through a study of any other book. (See History of the Church, 4:461.) That is an exciting promise, one worthy of the attention of all of us.
The Book of Mormon is rich with theological truths, but it is much more than a theological handbook. Its doctrines are couched in the vibrant setting of life at many levels. In its pages one walks the back streets of Jerusalem, trudges the arid stretches of the wilderness, sails the turbulent storms of the ocean, basks in the lush, vegetated regions of nature, visits in the palaces of kings and the hovels of the poor. And although the focus of the book is on the national level, one sees much of family life and relationships.
The Book of Mormon is the most family-oriented book we have in the standard works. Only the early part of the Old Testament comes close to providing such vital insights into the problems and joys of families.
Lehi is not only a great prophet, he is also a concerned father who wrestles with many of the same problems as fathers today. We need to remember this facet of Lehi’s life and to compare his insights and problems with our own. Too often we try to read the scriptures in an imaginative void, to make them speak without any effort on our part. They become much richer as we blend our own experiences with those presented and as we make this venture a type of dialogue with the scriptures. We can take a vital lead from Nephi’s suggestion: “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” (1 Ne. 19:23.)
For example, parents will probably see things in the Book of Mormon that escape those who have not had the experience of parenthood. They should understand more easily why Lehi, in his vision of the Tree of Life, did not notice the filthiness of the water as Nephi did, though both prophets were shown the same vision.
Nephi records, “So much was his mind swallowed up in other things that he beheld not the filthiness of the water” in the vision. (1 Ne. 15:27.)
As a father, Lehi had concerns which Nephi did not share, namely, his responsibility as head of the family. At the point in the vision when Lehi was shown the river, he began to be concerned about his family. He saw his wife and two of his sons and beckoned to them to join him. Further, he became worried when he found that Laman and Lemuel were not with them, and he directed his full attention to a search for the two wayward brothers, neglecting the particulars of the vision.
On the other hand, Nephi had not yet had the experience of fatherhood, and he therefore approached the vision from a different viewpoint. He was more interested in the particulars of the vision and focused on such details as the filthiness of the stream, which his father had also seen but had not observed closely because of his concern for his family.
Mothers should understand the heavy burdens placed upon Sariah as she left her home, her belongings, and her attachments to her friends and journeyed into the uncertainties of life in the wilderness, simply because of her faith in her husband, whom others called a visionary man. It should be remembered that she had not received the visions herself. A mother should be able to empathize with Sariah when she reached her extremity in the wilderness and murmured, fearing that she had lost not only her home and belongings, but her four sons as well. (See 1 Ne. 5:1–7.)
Fathers should understand the equally heavy burdens which Lehi bore, having his own faith undermined and tried by the doubts and legitimate concerns of his wife. Knowing that the Lord had directed him and that things would probably culminate in a positive manner did not alleviate the frustrations and perplexities of the moment. Lehi’s faith as a prophet was forced to wrestle continually with his concerns as a father. His role was a complex one and recognizing this complexity adds to our understanding of the total dimensions of life. Those who see Lehi only in his role as a prophet miss much of what the Book of Mormon reveals about fatherhood.
Brothers and sisters in a family will find interesting aspects of their own lives illuminated by the frictions that developed among the children of Lehi and Sariah. Some will be able to empathize with Nephi’s frustration in not being able to understand fully his wayward brothers who would not support their father, the prophet of the Lord. Others will empathize with Laman and Lemuel and their frustrations with their younger brother and his seemingly “holier-than-thou” attitude. Still others will find themselves in Jacob’s position, wanting to love and respect his elder brothers and to look to them for examples, only to find discord among them.
Those who read the writings of Jacob and forget the trauma of his early life will miss much of the pathos in his sermons on the family. Having been a witness to family conflict, having experienced the terrifying journey across the ocean with the added turmoil of fighting between his brothers, with the sickness of Lehi and with Sariah brought near to death, with the prayers and pleadings of Nephi’s wife and children—having seen the splitting of the family after Lehi’s death, Jacob brings to his sermons profound insight into family life. His later sermons reflect the sensitivity born of his early beginnings.
As the child is father of the man, the family is father of the nation in the Book of Mormon. As one moves forward in one’s reading, these family relationships should never be forgotten. They add much interest and greater dimensions to the account. When the split occurs between the brothers, and when battles begin between Nephite and Lamanite, one should remember that these initial battles were not between strangers, but between cousins and people who knew each other well.
We should remember that when Sherem came to oppose Jacob (see Jacob 7), Jacob probably knew his parents, or at least his grandparents. Who among us, when he finds the son or grandson of a friend, fails to see that person in the light of the parent he knew? And how much more intense is our concern for that son or daughter if he or she is rebellious? or how much greater our happiness if they have become a credit to their parent—or friend or acquaintance? Recognizing this relationship between Jacob and Sherem adds greater impact to the account.
How interesting it is to watch the children of our brothers and sisters, the children of cousins, or the children of close friends, and see them mature and take on responsibilities themselves. The Book of Mormon enables us to do something akin to that. These people had concerns like our own, and we need to remind ourselves of this constantly. They also were, to a degree, a product of their family setting. The Book of Mormon allows us to follow these families through several generations and to witness the problems that can occur within the family setting over long periods of time. Very few records in history do this more effectively.
Youth who have fathers and mothers in responsible positions in the Church should find a special interest in the account of Enos. They should sense something of the burden of mind he carried into the forest, being the son of a prophet, the nephew of another prophet, and the grandson of a third. As a person comes to maturity he must find out some things for himself; he must establish his own value system; he must make his own way. Those today who find themselves in this same situation will sense something of the urgency of the prayer of Enos.
Sometimes this burden becomes too much for some to carry. Erroneously, they decide that to become individuals in their own right they must leave the path of the parent. Unfortunately, the story of a rebellious child of a Church leader is an oft-repeated one. In an attempt to prove their freedom to their peers, they launch out in an attack on the life-style of their parents. Such young men and women should understand and learn from the experience of Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah. Sons of a king and of a prophet of God, they found that rebellion is not the path to happiness, nor to true self-fulfillment.
On the other hand, some parents will find themselves in the same predicament as Alma the Elder, having been rebellious youths themselves, having repented and brought their lives into conformity with the gospel, and then finding their own children falling into the same foolish mistakes. What had Alma the Younger known of the early life of Alma the Elder as one of the wicked priests of King Noah? Was he possibly justifying his own unrighteous actions on the basis of his father’s early experiences? And how does a father who has had problems in his own youth counsel a wayward son, knowing intimately the problems and desires that stimulate the rebellion? Alma the Younger’s counsel to his son, Corianton, in Alma 39–42, provides some important insights. Who among us, who has had this problem, can read the account of Alma without a personal interest in the narrative?
Sometimes grandparents have greater influence on grandchildren than do parents. Although I would not wish to imply that this was fully the case with the sons of Mosiah, I can never read the account of their missionary efforts without remembering the last speech of their grandfather, King Benjamin, to his people. (See Mosiah 1–4.) I have often wondered if the sons of Mosiah had a record of that speech. Certainly their grandfather would have had much cause for pride in the way his grandsons eventually adopted his values and put his principles into action.
The Book of Mormon is filled with such familial relationships, many of them only implied. For example, who was the wife of Alma the Elder? Who was this woman who came through the wilderness experience with Alma and struggled with him through the rebellion of their son?—or had she died and left Alma to carry this heavy burden himself? And what are we to say concerning the wife of Alma the Younger, who reared three sons (at least) while he was gone so much of the time, serving as a missionary for the Lord. She has to be one of the great souls of the scriptures.
Some of the most interesting aspects of the Book of Mormon are these unwritten parts, the parts we must fill in with our imagination if we are to read the scriptures as President Young suggested we read them. It becomes necessary for us to fill in the gaps and to attempt to reconstruct those relationships which are not mentioned specifically, but which are part of the family history of these people.
The major concerns of these families of the Book of Mormon are extremely relevant to our own age, because they are eternal concerns. They focus on facets of life which never change, those issues that are vital to self-fulfillment—that elusive goal which all of us seek, but few of us find. These concerns are locked into three major problems we all face in life.
First, we look for guides in our pursuit of happiness. In constructing a value system we ask ourselves, almost from the time we first become aware of life, “What brings me greatest satisfaction?” “What or whom can I trust in this life?” “In what or in whom shall I place my faith in my pursuit of personal satisfaction?”
Second, as we become older and more aware of ourselves as being separate and distinct from others, we begin to wrestle with our self-image. As we have greater opportunities to compare ourselves with others, we also begin to ask ourselves, “What is my potential?” “Am I able to achieve the goals I set for myself?” Ultimately the question becomes “Is there hope in life for me?”
Third, through all of this we attempt to decide what our relationship will be with others. We ask the question, either consciously or otherwise, “What do they have to do with me?” “Should I be of assistance to them in their frustrations, or do they exist to serve me in the pursuit of my own selfish ends?” “Do I serve, or do I exploit?”
Interestingly, these are the three major issues on which the Book of Mormon prophets placed their emphasis. All that they taught comes back to the three major principles of faith, hope, and charity. Though we usually associate this triad with Mormon in the latter part of the Book of Mormon and with Paul in the New Testament, it was introduced into the Nephite scriptures by the first Nephi (see 2 Ne. 31:19–20) and continues to be used as a focal point by all of the prophets of the book. As you read through the Book of Mormon this year, watch for this triad and use it as the major focal point of your own studies. It can be vital for those who are grasping for an understanding of the gospel.
The first point of the triad, faith, is vital to the lives of all of us. All of us have to choose some individuals or principles to follow. None of us can escape this decision. Our model may be a parent; it may be a teacher; it may be a friend or someone we admire as our hero; it may even be an abstract principle (although I would suggest that principles do not really live in our lives until we see them embodied in the life of another person). Whom we trust or what we trust determines the course our lives will follow, and ultimately it determines what we will become. The choice of models is perhaps the single most important type of choice we make in life.
In our age, the age of the antihero, we have much to learn from the Nephites. For their prophets, the focal point was Christ. For them, faith in Christ was not only the first principle of the gospel, it was also the last. Christ was all that the Christian needed to know. He was the model. He was the Truth. He was the Light. He was the Way. Nephi recorded that his people talked often of the Master; they rejoiced in Christ; they taught about him; they prophesied concerning him; and they wrote about him in order that their own children might have a model to observe. (See 2 Ne. 25:26.) And Nephi concluded his own writing by commenting, as he addressed himself to all the world, “Hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ.” (2 Ne. 33:10.)
Following the Master leads one to embrace the ordinances within his Church. Through these ordinances, such as baptism, one makes covenants to follow the life-style of the Master and to rely wholly on him for help and strength in accomplishing this end. The disciple of Christ seeks to become more knowledgeable; he adds to his character such Christlike qualities as virtue, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, humility, diligence, etc. All of these qualities are embodied in the Master and his life-style, and our acquiring them flows out of our faith in him.
Nephi came to this realization early in life in his experience with the vision of the Tree of Life. It led him to attempt seemingly impossible tasks. His motto became “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Ne. 3:7.)
This is the same spirit which launches young men and women into the mission field, which allows them today to face difficult tasks that confront them in life, and which enables the programs of the Church to succeed. In our day we ought to make certain that our focus is not diverted from the person of the Master. It is well to stress his teachings; it is well to build up his kingdom; but unless we keep him, as a person, central in our meetings and other activities, unless we remember him as we covenant to do in the sacrament, it becomes easier to lose our way. The structure of the gospel rests firmly embedded in the cement of a personal relationship with him.
Alma the Younger found this out the hard way. Often as a younger man he had heard his father speak of the Master; but he, like Laman and Lemuel, was past feeling, and he grew to be worldly and rebellious. He was responsible for leading many of the Nephite people to spiritual destruction. Finally the Lord brought him through a chastening experience to help him realize the error of his way. For three days and nights his soul was “racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.” (Alma 36:16.) He longed for extinction—not just for death, but for extinction.
Finally, in the depths of his anguish and torment, he remembered his father’s teachings about Christ. His mind cried out for help, and help came. Through the aid of Christ his past was forgiven, and he wrote, “My soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
“… There could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. … There can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.” (Alma 36:20–21.)
This brings us to the second point of the triad, hope. The key words of our day are the terms spoken of in existential philosophy: despair, anguish, and alienation—all of which are directly opposed to the principle of hope. The Book of Mormon responds that the end of man’s existence is happiness. “Men are, that they might have joy” is the message of Lehi to his son Jacob. (2 Ne. 2:25.)
However, in our own day, most of our literary and dramatic arts focus on tragedy; our newspapers are filled with accounts of deception, perversion, and man’s inhumanity to man. Disillusionment, cynicism, and lack of trust abound on all sides of us as a result. Helplessness and hopelessness are easy to understand.
The Book of Mormon prophets recognized this possibility in man. After a period of war and strife which Benjamin had known all of his life, the aged king recorded: “The natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man.” (Mosiah 3:19.)
However, anyone who puts this forth as the Book of Mormon concept of man has failed to see the teachings of the Book of Mormon prophets in their full perspective. Benjamin’s son, Mosiah, in turning over the government to a system of judges, wrote: “Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.” (Mosiah 29:26.)
Few statements from political science have been more optimistic. The Book of Mormon recognizes man as a child of God and holds out the possibility of joy, even to those who have made grievous errors—this on the condition of a change in their lives, on the condition of coming to Christ with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Some of the greatest individuals in the Book of Mormon had been wayward souls, men who recognized the error of their ways and made amends through the love and help of Christ. The Tree of Life is always within grasp. The Book of Mormon is perhaps the greatest witness in literature to the power of repentance.
Alma the Elder, prophet of God and leader of the church, was once counted among the corrupt priests of Noah, until Abinadi came with the message of Christ. His son, Alma the Younger—accompanied by his friends, the sons of Mosiah—devoted his entire energies to the destruction of the kingdom of God and the undermining of his father’s work, until the Lord in his infinite love took a more direct hand in the matter and helped him to find his way back. These men, along with Amulek—who characterized his early life with these words: “I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hear; … I went on rebelling against God, in the wickedness of my heart” (Alma 10:6)—and Zeezrom, who had earlier been a corrupt and argumentative lawyer, became some of the most powerful missionaries in Nephite history. Alma and his son both became prophets of the Lord. Anyone who forgets the earlier experiences of these missionaries to the Zoramites misses much of the intensity of the drama of that mission.
These missionaries are a good example of the third point of the triad, the principle of charity, which the Book of Mormon defines as “the pure love of Christ.” (Moro. 7:47.) Once an individual focuses steadfastly on the Master and gains the confidence in himself which is born of hope, these qualities then find an outlet in service and love extended to others. The Book of Mormon is a book of love; it is a book of service.
Nephi spoke of being “encircled about eternally in the arms of his [God’s] love.” (2 Ne. 1:15.) One would have to search long to find a more beautiful and descriptive metaphor in literature. Jacob, the child of the barren wilderness, spoke of feasting upon the love of God. (See Jacob 3:2.)
This love of the Master was not just an abstraction, an attribute of God’s perfection in the eyes of the Nephites; it was a love born of common experience with mankind. Alma recorded of the Master:
“He shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; … he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
“And he will take upon him death, … and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know … how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:11–12.)
Those who felt the impact of this love of Christ extended it to those they knew.
Much as I admire the young and idealistic Nephi, whose faith led him to be obedient to every command of God, I must admit that I am attracted more to the mature Nephi, who, as a father and a prophet of God, records: “O the pain, and the anguish of my soul for the loss of the slain of my people! … it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord” (2 Ne. 26:7), and “I pray continually for them [his people] by day, and mine eyes water my pillow by night, because of them; and I cry unto my God in faith, and I know that he will hear my cry” (2 Ne. 33:3). These are statements born of anguish and love on the part of a father recognizing more fully the worth of a soul.
These feelings are representative of all the prophets that follow Nephi. They are not eager to call down the wrath of God upon the sinner; they are trying in a compassionate fashion to do all possible to bring their people to a condition of joy. One of the most beautiful examples of this is the last speech of Benjamin, in which he counsels his people to serve each other, to render to every man according to his due, to teach their children to love and serve each other. For, he records, “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” (Mosiah 2:17.)
True Christians, according to Benjamin, will not suffer that beggars ask in vain. They will impart of their substance to the poor, they will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and administer to their relief, both spiritually and temporally. (See Mosiah 4:12–26.)
Faith, hope, and charity—these were the attributes of character that the Nephite prophets constantly brought before their people and before their families. They are attributes that we should seek in our own lives. They are three qualities that will guarantee us life with our Father in heaven throughout eternity.
Truly, the Book of Mormon is a text for our times; it is a text for all times. However, to get the most from it, we must learn to read it creatively. We must, as President Young suggests, read it as if we wrote it. Then we can begin to understand what the prophets understood, and begin to find out something about God.