“After the Manner of Their Language,” New Era, Dec. 1972, 29
The Scriptures! What a flood of images and feelings those words create: the big, heavy, blue-covered monument conspicuously weighing down the table in the front room; the dog-eared, thumb-worn, faded relic that Dad still cherishes in hand as he talks about the grand days of his mission; the stiff, black-bound volumes assigned to the chapel pulpit, presiding against forgetfulness and error.
The Scriptures! The soft Cambridge leather of a monogrammed Bible, the inflexible cardboard of the fifty-cent Book of Mormon, the rustle of tissue-thin pages, the mumble of memorized passages, rows of mysterious genealogies, lists of unpronounceable names, times of eye-drooping boredom, moments of tingling delight and wonder, words that compel us to wide-eyed attention, voices that transform our lives.
The Scriptures! Whatever else they may be, for each of us they represent a personal and often profound experience, for these images and experiences are finally our very own—they belong to no one else. Whatever you may tell me about these books, the only way I can know them is to read them, to experience them for myself.
Knowing this, it is not easy to write about reading the scriptures. Yet that is what we would try to do, not as scholars directing readers to correct pronunciations, or cultural understanding, or even doctrinal truth, as important as these things are. Rather we would like to talk in our own voices, as two men who have given something of their time to literature, who read as part of their profession, and who find themselves concerned almost daily with the expression of significant human experience. We firmly believe that the truths that make life significant find their best expression in the scriptures. And these expressions move us most when our minds and our spirits come closest to the mind and spirit that experienced and wrote the words we read, when we realize the living actuality of real men speaking to anxious minds, of real men writing their labors into the records they keep. When we can, by means of their words, enter into the lives of scriptural people, see them with our mind’s eyes and hear them with our mind’s ears, then we can indeed receive their message in its fullness.
How much like the various chords on a piano are these voices that speak to us through the scriptures—each so different, each with its own vibrant qualities, yet each one gaining in beauty when it is harmonized with the other chords, the other voices. All of the scriptures bear witness that there is unity underlying the apparent diversity in their pages.
In the Pearl of Great Price, for example, such diverse prophets as Moses, Abraham, Enoch, and Joseph Smith speak from the same book: Moses, reared as the adopted son of an Egyptian princess; Abraham, reared in the land of the Chaldeans by a family who had forsaken the faith, worshiped idols, and apparently affirmed a decision to sacrifice their son and brother on a pagan altar; Enoch, who was described as “but a lad” and “slow of speech”; and Joseph, a farm boy who knew hard work and few comforts.
In this apparent diversity of dispensations and countries and backgrounds there lies a unifying pattern that bears witness to the unchanging hand of the Lord in his dealings with the children of men. Besides the fact that each of these men was called by the Lord at a young age, besides the fact that each of them was confronted with enormous opposition, they are nevertheless united in the nature of their experience with the Lord. Each of these men, along with Lehi and Nephi and other prophets, was shown a similar vision—the vision of the creation, the peopling of the earth, the establishment of the gospel and the eventual apostasy of the children of men, the mission of Jesus Christ, and the grand conclusion. All of the prophets seem to have shared this reality.
And the effect is similar. When these men walked into a grove, or ascended a mountain, or entered some other appointed place, all were spiritual men who loved the Lord; yet each was full of youth, and promise, and life. But youth would bow before wisdom and experience, for each, through his vision in that holy place, emerged a man of God, knowing the beginning and the end, having spoken with the God of heaven as a man speaks to his friend.
It is staggering to the imagination. What effect would it have on our lives to be taken into the presence of the Lord, to converse with him, to see that vision of the whole scheme of things, only to be restored to our senses, again imprisoned in the frail flesh, and again hampered by the imperfections of human speech! How glorious must have been their thoughts, yet how stunning it must have been to retread, after such a vision, the same ground they had trod that morning, and to walk through the same doorways they had left earlier, and to greet their former companions, and to complete their routine chores. All was the same; yet all was so very different.
We cannot fully understand it, yet it must be something like a convert to the Church returning to his home and unsympathetic family following his baptism or like a missionary being greeted, after two richly spiritual years, by a former acquaintance who cries, unknowingly, “Where have you been lately?” It is, after all, like the experiences of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, who, having grown to an understanding of these ultimate things, cried, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37.) How Christ must have felt on overhearing his countrymen express such sentiments as “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” or “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He felt, perhaps, like giving the human race a good shaking.
But the shock has always been great. Six hundred years before Christ, the young Nephi full of the Spirit, returned from seeing Lehi’s vision and its angelic interpretation only to walk into his home to encounter his two brothers “disputing one with another”—arguing about the teachings of Lehi. Nephi was overcome with grief and shock. And Abraham speaks twice of the “withdrawal” of the Lord from him and of the relief that his knowledge left him with despite the stunning withdrawal, relief stated simply: “Thy servant has sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee.” (Abr. 2:12.) Such was also the case with Moses, on whom the withdrawal of the spirit worked so powerfully that “it was for the space of many hours” (Moses 1:10) before he regained his strength—a similar experience to that of Joseph Smith, who found himself lying on his back, “looking up into heaven” (JS—H 1:20).
How those voices speak to us, up to our necks as we are in the world of school, of work, of entertainment, of daily routine, of things. They challenge us, not necessarily to seek for the prophetic calling, for that can come to but a few, but they challenge us to catch the vision of the plan of salvation, for it has been revealed clearly to us in the scriptures. We know our destiny; we know our origins; we know our purposes. We have, then, the same knowledge that those prophets enjoyed. Through the confirmations of the Holy Ghost it can become as vivid to us as it was to them. The challenge, then, is to learn those visions, accept that knowledge, and act accordingly.
We must, in short, become spiritually acclimatized. Unfortunately, most of us need not fear the shock of mortality experienced by these men returning from their face-to-face encounters with eternity. Most of us, rather, need the spiritual acclimatization that would prepare us for the joyous shock of a world permeated by the Holy Ghost and lightened by the Spirit and light of Christ.
Enoch speaks to us from the pages of the Pearl of Great Price as an almost staggering example of a man who was loved of the Lord and who shaped his life and the lives of his people in such a way that spiritual acclimatization took place while Enoch and his folk were yet in mortality; and “the Lord came and dwelt with his people, and they dwelt in righteousness.” (Moses 7:16.) In fact, Enoch’s city, called Zion, “was not, for God received it up into his own bosom.” (Moses 7:69.)
These various voices, these sweet tones, unite in a heavenly harmony to chant to each of us that we too must catch the vision, glory in the plan of life, and live accordingly. If we listen, if we read, those prophetic voices will grow louder, dinning in our ears that “we were men, like you; we caught the vision through our righteousness; we lived according to our knowledge of that vision; we triumphed; we leave our record so that you might have the vision. You must triumph; without you our triumph is not complete.” How they must long, even now, to cry with Alma, “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!” (Alma 29:1.) Are we listening?
Of all the scriptures, perhaps the least read by Latter-day Saints is the Old Testament. Its voice is perhaps the strangest to our ears. Formidable in its vastness, this book frightens away a considerable number of readers just by the bulk of its pages. Others may be put off by the seemingly endless details of religious law that finally tell “more about ancient Israel than I really care to know.” Some may even quote the Eighth Article of Faith and put away the whole Bible with the observation that if it’s not translated correctly, no wonder it’s hard to understand.
All this is too bad. For the Old Testament is a great book, and we neglect it only at a great loss. For generations it has demonstrated its power and appeal to humanity. Consider, for instance, how much art, literature, and music arises out of Old Testament inspiration. Michelangelo’s David and Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers all speak for the book’s cherished influence. Indeed, ignorance of the Old Testament cuts us off from many of the great manifestations of genius in western culture.
But the Old Testament has a greatness that exists separate and apart from whatever artists have done with the book. Whether we read in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Genesis, or in Micah we need no trained ear to tell us that this is powerful language. Indeed, part of the greatness of this book (the King James version at least) is the language in which it is cast. For though the translators were only men, they were very special men. In the first place they were genuinely moved by the spirit of the scriptures they worked with. Second, they were men of significant literary skill, men who were working with the English language in the freshness and vigor of its youth. This was the era that produced Shakespeare, and some of the spirit that quickened that genius must also have touched the pens of the noble group of devout scholars who gave us the King James Bible. Nowhere in all scripture will we find the sustained grandeur of the language of the Old Testament.
Part of the power of the Old Testament comes from its great stories: the conflict of Cain and Abel, the migrations of Abraham, the compassion of Joseph, the mourning of David, the wickedness of Jezebel. There are many heroic stories, not just of men but of women too, women like Ruth and Esther. The stark simplicity with which these narratives unfold on the pages of this book give them an impact greater than any novelist or dramatist has yet been able to capture. The account of Job and his predicament, for instance, has been retold time after time by our best playwrights and storytellers. In each case the play or novel about Job somehow turns out to be something less significant than the profound biblical drama that first inspired the writer. Despite its age and anonymity, the Book of Job remains the greater work.
But the true greatness of the Old Testament does not lie in a set of isolated episodes nor in some collections of fine poetry, significant as these may be. Greater as a whole than any collection of its parts, the Old Testament is a living, viable, concrete, impressive account of a nation. It is a religious record of a people chosen by God establishing themselves and trying to maintain their identity as a chosen people before a world whose values and way of life are not those of the Lord. It is a remarkable, sometimes surprising, yet always honest account of the heroics and weaknesses of men and of nations and of the patience and justice of God. It is in these pages that we see what it means to be a chosen people.
Finally we need to remind ourselves that the pages of the Old Testament contain the definitive record of four completed gospel dispensations. And if we truly wish to understand those dispensations, if we truly wish to know what the blessings of Father Adam, of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob are, if we truly wish to know the purpose of this earth and the meaning of what happens here, then what better place to start than “In the beginning. …”
As with the voices of the Old Testament, the voices of the New Testament similarly remind us of listening to a cherished recording of a family get-together recorded in the late 1930s or early 1940s. The voices are warm and endearing, but they must be heard through scratches and other imperfections imposed by time and by less sophisticated machines. We listen carefully for the familiar tones, ignoring the noises as best we can.
With the scriptures, too, we must keep in mind that they were written, except perhaps for the Book of Mormon, in other times, for another audience. The writers of the four Gospels, for example, desired to proclaim a new covenant in Israel, to testify to first-century Christians and nonbelievers that Jesus was the Son of God. They take for granted the laws, the traditions, and the social customs of their times, things that have greatly changed over nearly two millennia. They often leave unanswered those questions that interest us today but were of little concern to those who had either known Jesus personally or knew of him through others who had. Two thousand years later we look in vain to find a description of Jesus, of Mary, of Peter, of Paul. We must sift through accounts that speak of “whited sepulchres,” of unusual social traditions, of Sabbath customs with which we are totally unfamiliar.
But the voices are there. It lies with us, as modern readers, to read and listen to those New Testament voices just as we listen to comfortable old records or view the old photographs in our family albums—we ignore the scratches; we look past the formal poses to the human and divine truths and riches beneath. We know that voice as Aunt Lily’s who walked across the plains and was a loving and tender mother, a woman of the Lord; we know that this photograph of Grandfather Williams is but a formal, stylized, and rather forbidding pose of a good, noble, and gentle man. And in the scriptures we also learn that beneath the strange customs and the archaic language lies a chorus of vital voices that can speak to us of the way to eternal life. The way has not changed one bit through the years though the signs along the path may be written in a different language and the travelers attired in different garb.
Even the sweetest voice of the New Testament, that of the Lord himself, we are allowed to hear only secondhand as filtered through the minds of other men who lived long long ago. Reading of Jesus requires that we read carefully and prayerfully in order to wrest from the New Testament a conviction of the reality of Jesus Christ. The task is made easier because we have the support of other, more recent voices that clarify these earlier voices, and we have, in addition, the still, thrilling voice of the Holy Ghost granting us our own personal witness.
Reading carefully in the Gospels, we find in the quieter moments of Christ’s life gentle witnesses to his humanity and, therefore, his reality. Looking beyond the glorious occurrences at his birth, his baptism, his agony in Gethsemane, his death, and his resurrection, we can hear haunting voices bearing witness to us that Jesus was, after all, a man—a very special man, but a man with warm and tender feelings. His gentle “suffer little children to come unto me” (Luke 18:16) suggests that Jesus must have loved clear mornings, and walks by the lake, and lovely sunsets, and brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers just as he did little children.
And who has not been haunted by the sweetness of that moment on that distant but very real Sunday morning when the weeping Mary, full of grief and begging the supposed gardener for the whereabouts of Jesus’ crucified body, heard that one poignant word, “Mary,” uttered by the Savior of the world, not with grandeur, though it was grand, but with a gentle, loving, and tender softness so full of meaning and reality that it has never ceased to reverberate on the hearts of millions who have taken immense comfort in that softly uttered word that stunned Mary with the reality of the resurrection. (John 20:1–16.)
Jesus was a gentle man. Look closely at the record. His miracles were performed without flamboyance; they seem to have been performed almost hesitantly. There was no magic, just authority when he took the deceased daughter of Jairus by the hand and said, simply, “Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.” (Mark 5:41.) Again and again his quiet, confident words echo in our hearts: “Thy faith hath made thee whole” (Matt. 9:22), “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43), “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39), “Father, forgive them”; (Luke 23:34). The words urge us, even two thousand years later, to look beyond the act, the miracle, to the man-God behind the miracle, to ponder not his actions but rather the reforms that he so desired to bring about in us as individuals, to ponder the knowledge that his gospel would foster within us those kinds of reforms that would be rewarded, not with materialistic wealth, but with spiritual riches, not because we belong to a chosen nation or people, but because we are individually worthy of entrance into the kingdom of God. We still marvel through the haze of time at the unspeakable greatness of these words and of him who uttered them.
And while we appreciate the warm humanity of the Lord, it is perhaps easier for us as readers of the New Testament to identify ourselves with Peter and Paul and the other disciples. They, like us, were human beings, but they were men who overcame the very persistent flesh through valiantly following the Master’s voice. How like some of our lives is the transformation that occurred in Peter as he changed from being an impetuous, faithful, but not fully comprehending disciple to a denier of his Lord, to a man of God, full of the Holy Spirit, who could say to a lame man, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” (Acts 3:6.) Or the change that occurred in Paul, that brilliant young Pharisaic zealot who vigorously persecuted the Christians, yet who, through that life-changing vision on the way to Damascus, became a Christian zealot instead.
In Peter and Paul we see mirrored our own weaknesses, our own stubbornness, our own hesitation before change. Even the mighty Peter, full (as we are) of traditional biases, refused to allow gentiles admittance into the Church—until Cornelius and an angel and a vision convinced him that he must utter, as President of the Church, that new missionary policy, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10:34.)
But both of them did change, and by their changes set a pattern, an example of well-cut designs that we modern-day Saints may follow in reaching for eternal life. Reading in the New Testament can teach us, through intent listening to those ancient voices, that the Lord was once a man with feelings like ours and that he understands us; he knows of our heights and depths and, most important, of our potential for he achieved the highest potential of all. And the other voices, such as those of Peter and Paul, speak to us in similar though different tones. They whisper, in essence, We were men; we erred, like all men; we repented; the Lord took us by the hand and prompted us to act like men destined for eternal life.
These voices, like an old recording of Enrico Caruso—scratched in places, muffled in others—are indelibly inscribed for us to hear. Listening intently, and listening imbued with the Holy Spirit, we find the voices moving and certain and refining. Frequent listening to them and practicing of their eternal notes will lead us step by step into that harmony with God called eternal life.
In a voice different from those of the other prophets we have considered, Joseph Smith, Jr., speaks to us in nineteenth-century American accents, smacking of the frontier, of hard work, of bubbling youthful enthusiasm for the dignity of the individual. Yet this same voice spoke with God the Father, with the Lord Jesus Christ, with several messengers of the Restoration sent from the throne of God. Joseph’s voice speaks to us loudly and clearly of truth; it speaks above the raucous sounds and discords of our day to assure us of a plan, a destiny for those who would follow God.
Another voice, Joseph’s softer, human voice, whispers insistently that he was, after all, one of us, a man with whom we can identify. And in that identification we find an example, another voice urging us to “ascend unto the hill of the Lord.”
Joseph climbed the hill of the Lord. It was not easy. Some would have had him immortal, unhuman, but he insisted on matching his strength with that of his youthful friends, on sliding on the ice on the Mississippi with his children, on enjoying, in those fleeting moments that remained to him, the life of a family man. He insisted that “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 265) and in that statement reminds us of the Lord’s instruction to John the Revelator that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). Joseph reminds us that each of us must climb the hill of the Lord in order to stand in his holy presence.
There is the difficulty. For while each of us has an occasional Mount Sinai in his life, a Mount of Transfiguration where we can soar, momentarily, into the presence of the Lord, each of us also finds our Gethsemanes where we seem forsaken, where we feel like Joseph of Egypt must have felt during those fearful hours he spent awaiting death in the pit dug for him by his own brothers.
For most of us, however, our lives are more like a rolling landscape, full of gentle inclines and downward slopes. Our daily walk will lead us, unpanting, up a slope where we eventually reach a reasonable spiritual height, the view not a dizzy one, the air not too thin, the precipice not too frightening. Then we stride off again only to find ourselves being led downward toward a bottom land that, in turn, is not too dark, not too discomfiting, for although the shadows are longer and the foliage a bit thicker, we can still see the pathway ahead and note that somewhere soon it will begin its gradual ascent.
Most of us continue to tread these gentle slopes. Most of us avoid the Sinais and the Gethsemanes, for both demand a great deal of exertion. Instead, we are content to point to the recorded voices of those who dared to live more bravely, who dared attempt to scale, with a hand in the hand of the Lord, the dizzying heights. We know that such climbing makes them candidates for an ungentle fall into the depths, for we have read the scriptures enough to realize that great heights are conquered only by those who have been willing to suffer great setbacks.
It is with a kind of awe that we watch a fellow mortal leave our vales and hills to scale the peaks of spiritual greatness. We admire the effort, yet we look about us with some alarm, wondering if others expect us to start scaling. It is with that kind of awe and wonderment that we listen to the clear voice of Joseph, sounding to us from the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Joseph had his several Sinais. He saw the Father and the Son, John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Moroni, Elijah, and others; he spoke in the Kirtland Temple with the Lord Jesus Christ; he experienced those rapturous moments when, virtually transfixed and transformed, he sat or stood before his brethren and became the mortal mouthpiece for the voice of the Lord to this dispensation. We wonder; we thrill; and we say: “That was Joseph. Such shall never happen to me.” And so we clamber quickly down from the foothills of glory to the well-trodden paths of routine complacency.
Reading the Doctrine and Covenants closely, however, we cannot remain complacent, for the voice of Joseph whispers yet another message. He, too, had his Gethsemanes. How must young Joseph Smith have felt in that long three years between his amazing First Vision in the Sacred Grove and the appearance of Moroni? There were doubtless moments when he felt forsaken, unworthy, despairing, moments when the persecution that encompassed him must have made him long for yet another confirmation of his prophetic calling. Yet the heavens were quiet. And in this silence Joseph tells us that he “frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature.” All of these led him into “divers temptations” that he felt were “offensive in the sight of God.” The offenses were not “great or malignant sins,” he assures us, but they were sins of levity that must have been setbacks for Joseph, who wanted so much to have further communion with the Lord. (JS—H 1:28.)
We identify here with Joseph. We cling to the thought that he, like us, like Peter, like Paul, was prone to sin. But Joseph, like them, does not allow us much comfort, for he showed his own bent; he showed us, Sinai-climber that he was, that he refused to accept his fallen position. He cleansed himself. It was while he was pouring out his heart in “supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation,” that he might know of his standing before the Lord, that the Angel Moroni made his first appearance to the young man. (JS—H 1:29.) Again through his own effort, magnified by the Lord, who will take all of us who make such effort by the hand, Joseph swept from the floor of the canyon of despair to the height of the mountain of glory to bask there in the vision and presence of Moroni, a messenger direct from the throne of God.
Like our lives, Joseph Smith’s life had its Nephite-like soarings and plungings. One month Joseph would be at his heights, standing before his people and expounding the doctrines of eternity, the spirit burning within him; the next month he would be languishing in a prison, frustrated in his attempt to regain his freedom, frustrated in his attempts to direct the Church from a dungeon, frustrated in his ability to care for his wife and children.
While in Liberty Jail, Joseph, nearly broken by months of imprisonment, underwent a Gethsemane. In a cry reminiscent of the Lord Jesus Christ’s utterance, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39), Joseph cried out to the Lord, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (D&C 121:1). Pleading with the Lord, he cries, “Let thy hiding place no longer be covered … let thine heart be softened.” (D&C 121:4.)
Here is a prophet of God, one who has looked upon eternity and upon the faces of God and his Son, a man who has seen the beginning from the end. Here is a prophet who cries out, “O God, where art thou?”
Is this lack of faith? Is this a justification for our own occasional moments of despair? Hardly. Joseph knew the Lord as we must come to know him. Joseph knew that he would be answered. And he was. The voice of the Lord came to him softly and sweetly. “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment.” (D&C 121:7.) What a joyous promise amidst such despair, a promise capped by the words that should be burned into the hearts of each of us, for they have meaning for all: “if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:8.)
As loudly as any voice crying in the wilderness, Joseph Smith’s voice rings in our own ears, urging us to seek for the Sinais, to reach for the pinnacles. In achieving those summits we will gain the knowledge that will carry us through our Gethsemanes. With an eye single to the glory of God and a firm grip on the iron rod, each of us is challenged by the voice of Joseph to scale the heights. To those who forsake the rolling hills the promise is great. All we can lose is our fear of heights; and all we can gain is eternal life.
But voices that speak from the Book of Mormon are perhaps the most familiar to us of the latter-days. Nephi, Jacob, Mosiah, Alma, Mormon—just to mention the names excites memories of cherished spiritual experiences. Even for those who read little, the names sound like old friends. We accept all the standard works as scripture, but it is to this volume alone that we usually refer when we say, “I love that book.”
And many rightly love that book. For it was while they dwelt with Lehi in a tent, or listened to Alma the younger, or grieved with Mormon that the manifestations of the divine message first made themselves felt in their hearts, the promise fulfilling itself as the Holy Ghost bore its spine-tingling witness: “This is true—this is the everlasting gospel.”
In few other places in our scripture is that gospel presented as it is in the pages of the Book of Mormon. The Old Testament has its moments of pity, but it has its time of harshness too. The Doctrine and Covenants has its sweet passages of tenderness, but it too sprang out of turbulence. The Book of Mormon, however, is a volume full of compassion and laden with tenderness. This is all the more remarkable when we think of the context of sustained conflict and tragic destruction that continue almost without interruption throughout the book. Let us cite just one example from the closing chapters to demonstrate the remarkable depth of Christian love and sustained faith that are so vividly presented in the voices of this book.
Consider Moroni. He had probably seen his father at work on the formidable task of abridging the voluminous records of Nephite history, and he knew something of the seriousness of his father’s prophetic calling as well as the wickedness of the Nephites. So he must have known of the considerable collection of records for which his father was responsible, and, at the impending destruction of his homeland by the Lamanites, may even have helped Mormon move the collection from the hill Shim to the Hill Cumorah. As a young man (we don’t know how young, of course), he was called to the ministry himself. But it must have been a discouraging mission, considering the wicked condition of the people. Indeed, the only concrete item to come down to us about his mission is the letter his deeply concerned father sent to him in response to a dispute regarding infant baptism. (Moro. 8.)
But the mission did not last long, for it was but a few years later that Moroni was standing in front of a contingent of fighting men instead of a congregation. With his father and the other captains of ten thousand, Moroni watched the dust of an approaching Lamanite army, an army in which even the usually shortsighted Nephite people saw their own impending destruction. Was Moroni afraid? Was he worried about his father now no longer a young man? What about his other relatives? And what about the new plates of gold recently abridged by his father? Had Moroni helped his father hide them from the battle they all knew was imminent? All we can say, of course, is that Moroni was there and that he survived. But he was there. He knew the sweat and dust and shouts and screams of a battle in which a quarter of a million people were slaughtered with swords, axes, and clubs. And the next morning he stood by his father and twenty-two other survivors on top of Cumorah and saw and smelt the carnage.
In the days and months that followed, he knew what it was like to be hunted like an animal, to hide and to run, to be watchful, cold, and hungry. He knew finally what it was like to be alone: “And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people.” (Morm. 8:3.) Alone! No one to help stand watches against the Lamanites. No one to help find food or prepare it. No companion to talk to. No sounds except those of wind and water. No voices except his own and those of the wild creatures about him. Just Moroni, alone, staring into his solitary fire, watching the big dipper turn around the pole star each night, wondering about the days and weeks to come: “And whether they will slay me, I know not.” (Morm. 8:3.)
But avoiding capture was complicated by what must have seemed at the time an impossible task: The Lord would have Moroni return to that library of records hidden by his father and there take out the twenty-four gold plates of the Jaredire record, translate them, abridge them, and add these to the record his father had already made. This was a task Moroni had not planned on. But he must have found some way, alone, to smelt the ore and hammer out his thin sheets of metal, for by A.D. 421 the abridgment was finished and the record added to the other gold plates.
With what memories Moroni must have climbed Cumorah and handled the heavy gold record for the last time. What recollections of battle, of flight, of hunger, of strain and labor filled his mind as he recalled his tedious and long labor and the God-given task, now completed. After more than twenty years of responsibility for the record, with what sense of relief he must have set the plates in their box. And though we cannot know, it would seem appropriate to imagine that before he left that spot, perhaps before he pushed the last bit of earth back around the stone cover or brushed out the telltale signs of his own footprints, he would have knelt to pour out his heart to the Lord, saying in essence, “It is finished.” Alone for twenty years, without the encouragement of fellow members, without the advice of high councils, Moroni sustained his faith, did his work, and fulfilled his prophetic destiny.
This is a great story and a great man. But the dimension of his greatness cannot be fully appreciated until we remember that not one word of hate or bitterness or vindictiveness appears in the writings of this man. The Lamanites had killed not only his fellow-Nephites but his own family as well. Yet he refers to those who slaughtered his father and sought to kill him as “my beloved brethren,” not once, but many times. Nor was Moroni’s compassion limited to the Lamanites. He was equally concerned about the wickedness of the gentiles who now live on the American continent or, in other words, about us. “I prayed unto the Lord,” he tells us, “that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity.” (Ether 12:36.)
Although these were some of the last words written for the Book of Mormon, they are not the last we hear of the prophet Moroni. His message to the world was not finished when he set the lid in place that day on Cumorah. We meet him again, not as a hunted man, not as a fugitive hiding in dark forests, but as an angel, speaking, as John the Revelator had foretold, “with a loud voice.” (Rev. 14:7.) This voice has come to be the symbol of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the latter days. “Not only was his robe exceedingly white,” Joseph Smith writes, “but his whole … countenance truly like lightning. … He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni.” (JS—H 1:32–33.)
Yes, Moroni—that once lonely man, now standing before Joseph Smith, lifting his voice to the whole world. This seems to be the message of all the scriptures: Through the gospel of Jesus Christ man can indeed be exalted and glorified; he can come to dwell in the presence of God.
And just as Moroni spoke to Joseph Smith, so he and all the other prophets are waiting to speak to us if we will but open the books and listen. They wait with their blessings, sermons, and admonitions, their stories and examples, their parables, poems, histories, song, and biographies, their testimonies. They wait as anxious to speak to us as was Moroni to Joseph Smith. They wait because they love us, just as Moroni in the greatness of his own head had learned to love all men. Moroni’s voice might well be the voice of all the prophets who write to us from all times and all places:
“And now I, Moroni, bid farewell unto the Gentiles, yea, and also unto my brethren whom I love, until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood.
“And then shall ye know that I have seen Jesus, and that he hath talked with me face to face, and that he told me in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in mine own language, concerning these things;
“And only a few have I written, because of my weakness in writing.
“And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever. Amen.” (Ether 12:38–41.)