Briefly Ether, with Rosalynde Welch & James E. Faulconer [MIPodcast #121]
Literary scholar Rosalynde Frandsen Welch explores the book of Ether as a sweeping history in which Moroni, absorbed in the past, turns his heart to future readers whose spiritual fate will be at stake. This latest episode in our series about the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon focuses on Welch’s Ether. James E. Faulconer takes the lead as guest host.
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch is an independent scholar of Latter-day Saint literature and theology. She earned a PhD in early modern English literature from the University of California at San Diego. She is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on Latter-day Saint scripture, culture, and theology. She has served as a codirector of the Latter-day Saint Theology Seminary and as associate editor at the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges welcoming you to another episode focused on the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series.
This one focuses on the Ether volume, written by Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, an independent scholar in St. Louis and member of the Institute’s advisory board. As I mentioned in the previous episode, we wanted to bring some additional voices into these conversations. Today’s guest host is James E. Faulconer of Brigham Young University. You’ll remember him from a previous episode about the Mosiah volume. Jim was one of the editors of Rosalynde’s Ether book, so few people are more familiar with her project than he is.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at email@example.com.
It’s James E. Faulconer talking all about the book of Ether with Rosalynde Frandsen Welch.
JAMES FAULCONER: It’s really great to be able to talk with you Rosalynde about your book. I think I’ve told you before how much I enjoyed reading it and it was great to review it for this discussion. I was moved in places; I was irritated in places, in the right way—intellectually irritated. It made me want to say, “Rosalynde, let’s get in here and argue about this.”
But mostly I was moved. I really was touched. It’s beautifully written; it’s beautifully thought. I really like it very much. So, I appreciate it. I just wanted to say thank you.
ROSALYNDE FRANDSEN WELCH: Thank you Jim. I should mention that you were one of the editors of the book. So, the book itself has benefitted all along in this process from your careful reading and from your kind and generous approach to it. So, thank you.
FAULCONER: Let me start with a question about translation, because that’s such an important part of what you write about in your book. You give us an interesting and I think a compelling discussion for why the Jaredites had no scriptural tradition. And if I put it—really put it far too briefly, you would say it’s because they assumed that the language was perfect, and it didn’t need to be translated.
It seems to me then, it would appear that the point of the story of the Tower of Babel is that we need the messiness of translation, that we shouldn’t have a pure language. Would you agree with that? And if so, why? Say something about how translation fits into thinking about scripture.
WELCH: Sure. So, it was really interesting. As I first dove into this project and was reading through the book of Ether, I noticed something that really mystified me. The Jaredites had no scriptural tradition. And this was jarring and really kind of shocking after having come through hundreds and hundreds of pages of the Book of Mormon because the Nephites of course, put scripture—and translation in particular—right at the center of their spiritual practice and their church.
For the Nephites, keeping, maintaining, and translating scriptural records is right at the very center of their scriptural life. Very famously, Mosiah says “a translator is a seer and a seer is greater than a prophet.” So, translation for the Nephites is this revered, spiritual practice. And it’s not just literal translation from one language to another though of course we do see this happen as the Nephites translate these Jaredite records, but it’s also just the way that the Nephites are forced to wrestle with their sacred texts over and over and over because language changes and drifts and time changes and times change, and the people need to reconnect with their scripture. So, the Nephites have this rich, prophetic, and revelatory culture.
By contrast, the Jaredites have nothing. And I was so struck by this. No scripture, no translation, and interestingly, very little prophecy and revelation, except for, of course, the prophet Ether with his great vision at the end of the book. We only see little snippets here and there of prophets, unnamed prophets who appear and urge the people to repent, but they don’t seem to have a rich and vital tradition of revelation and prophecy.
So I started to wonder why this might be. The Jaredites believed that they were blessed to have escaped the confusion of language at the Tower of Babel. But I started to think, maybe they were wrong about that. Maybe in fact having a perfect language or believing that your language is perfect and needs no translation is actually not quite the blessing that it might seem. Maybe translation of scripture is not inevitably a weakening or a diluting of the text. If you’re working from the idea that there’s a perfect language out there and that the original exists in this perfect language, and every other translation then is a little bit worse—misses a little something, is just a little bit farther away from the full truth—then you can see how the idea of translation would be a negative.
But what we see in the Nephite culture is actually just the opposite. In fact, for the Nephites, translation is a chance to renew and to revitalize the text. To wrestle with the text, to let it get under our skin, to say, “Well, what does this really actually mean? How does this actually apply to me? How do I make this real in my language and in my life?” It forces us to really confront human and historical difference, right? Say, “Their culture was so different from mine. They saw things so differently. How can their text mean anything to me? What does it mean here in 2020?” We can make that text alive and present again in the present moment when we retranslate.
As Latter-day Saints, I think we sort of instinctively experience this every four years when we go back through our curriculum cycle. Here we’re headed back into the Doctrine and Covenants. Is it just going to be boring and mundane? Or is there a way that we can retranslate that scripture and make it come alive again in our own lives for us? We may need to also retranslate Moroni’s overall message in the book of Ether.
I argue in my book that Moroni was obsessed with this question of how can the Gentiles be saved in the Latter-days. They’re not a part of the covenant, Nephite theology teaches that salvation in Christ comes through covenant. So, how is it that the Gentiles will be saved? And he comes to the conclusion that it’s through faith, just like the Brother of Jared. If the Gentiles in the latter days will exercise the same faith that the Brother of Jared did, then they too will receive salvation and indeed will be able to enter the presence of the Lord.
For us in the present day, I don’t think that’s a burning question. I don’t think most of us really wonder whether or not salvation is available to people of European descent in North America. So, we might have to translate Moroni’s question into our present day and age. Moroni had this deep hunger for Christ to touch every life. He had a burning conviction that salvation in Christ is available to each and every soul across time, across place, across every ethnic boundary.
So maybe in this day and age, we translate the book of Ether by asking, What groups are currently outside the reach of Christ’s love? Outside the reach of the covenant community? How can we find them? How can we bring them into this community? Thinking in those terms, that is a translation of scripture that brings it alive and makes it new and brings Moroni’s intent into new life and new realization in the here and now.
FAULCONER: Would you be willing to say something like, when you re-read the word “translation” perhaps what we can substitute for that would be something like “revivify”—bring back to life again?
WELCH: Absolutely. I like to talk about this phrase, “the renewal of all things.” And in this great vision that I refer to that the prophet Ether has, that closes out the theological portion of the book of Ether in Ether 13. He talks about this, “All things are made new in Christ.” And I think the same is true in scripture. Translation is that revivifying or making it new and bringing back to life in the present.
FAULCONER: That’s helpful to me because as I was reading your book, one of the things that I suppose you “revivified” for me was the whole discussion about the finger of Jesus Christ touching the stones. Would you mind saying something, just give us a précis of how you understand that in terms of which you call the “weakness of God.”
WELCH: Yes. I started to wonder as I spent so much time with Ether 3, which is probably the richest theological chapter in the book of Ether, the wonderful story of the Brother of Jared’s theophany, what theologians would call a theophany, or his visit, his encounter with God. And I wondered, why is it that the Lord would show Himself to the Brother of Jared first in his finger?
You know the very first verse in the book of Ether, if I’m not mistaken, talks about the hand of the Lord. How the Jaredites, this ancient people, were swept off the land by the “hand of the Lord.” So, the hand of the Lord there is powerful and forceful. It’s associated with God’s strength and His sovereignty to administer and to punish the wicked. Compare that image of the hand of God with the idea of the finger of God. Compared with an arm or with a hand, a finger is small, and a finger is weak.
When my babies were little I used to try to come in from the car, just loaded down with baby and diaper bag and grocery bag and I’d try to hook one more grocery bag on my little finger and see if I could lug everything into the house and a finger is weak. That finger would be aching and sore by the time we made it into the house. A finger is weak.
We’re also told that the finger of the Lord is this same body that he showed—in the image of the same body that he showed to the Nephites. That suggests to me that the Lord’s finger might have been mangled, might have been wounded from—with the marks of the crucifixion, just as it was when he showed His body to the Nephites.
So, there’s this interesting moment then when the Brother of Jared sees this finger of the Lord come through the veil and he falls down in fear. And the Lord asks him, “Why are you afraid?” And we get two answers in the text. The first answer that the Brother of Jared gives is because “I was afraid that the Lord would smite me.” That has never really made sense to me because a finger is not strong, and a finger is not threatening.
I think we get a better answer, a more persuasive answer a little later in the text when Moroni reviews this moment. And he tells us the Brother of Jared fell in fear because he saw the Lord’s finger and he knew that it was the finger of God. Maybe in that moment, the Brother of Jared saw that finger, it wasn’t a massive finger, it wasn’t the finger of a superhero, it was a body of flesh and blood, or it looked like in the image of flesh and blood. He was depending on this God, on this Lord, to deliver them across the ocean on a dangerous trans-oceanic voyage. In fact, he was involved at the moment in trying to figure how they could safely cross these seas and he was depending on the Lord to carry them safely across.
So imagine his alarm when he sees the finger of God and it looks weak and humble as his own. How is this finger supposed to quell the waves and supposed to carry the Jaredites safely across the ocean? Maybe that is what caused the Brother of Jared to fall in fear at that moment. And if that’s the case, to me that makes his faith all the more inspiring. And the real quality of his faith becomes clear. It’s maybe not that hard to have faith in something that’s overwhelmingly strong. But it takes more to have faith in something that refuses force and refuses violence. And this is the faith, the faith of the Brother of Jared, that we’re called to emulate in our own lives.
So, in this sense, the finger of the Lord might be a symbol of what Paul calls the “weakness of God.” When we talk about the “weakness of God” it’s shocking, right? And it’s supposed to be shocking. It’s supposed to disorient those who venerate God only for his strength and for his triumph. But the message of the Christian gospel is that Christ crucified and resurrected is our image of power. The God who voluntarily gives up control or dominion or compulsion in the language of D&C 121. This is a power to be sure, but it’s a power that refuses coercion, that refuses domination and it only works by way of persuasion and gentleness, meekness and love. And I think that that is what the image of the finger of the lord speaks to the Brother of Jared in that moment. Or at least, that’s what it speaks to me.
FAULCONER: I can imagine someone who hears that reading that you’ve given us and then says, “Well, what about Mosiah 4 where we’re told that we have to remember God’s power and our nothingness?” Or even the Lord’s Prayer where we begin by acknowledging his power; we end by acknowledging His power. How do you put those together?
WELCH: That’s a great question. I think when we look at Mosiah 4 and we remember what came right before it in Mosiah 3. Which is Benjamin recounting what the angel showed him, which is Christ as human who came down among the children of men in a tabernacle of clay and humbly healed them, sat among the weakest and the despised and then gave up his power, gave up indeed his life. This in the context in which we’re to understand God’s power. So, God is powerful, Christ is powerful, but it’s a certain kind of power that refuses force, refuses domination, and instead only works through love and gentleness.
FAULCONER: That’s wonderful, thank you. Would you be mind doing the same kind of thing—help us understand your understanding of the story of the sixteen stones? Because I also think that the way that you have done that is quite different than what most Latter-day Saints expect and also, I think, very helpful.
WELCH: Sure. So, this was such a fun moment. There’s always these moments when you start to engage really, really deeply with scriptural text and you’ve read it once, you’ve read it twice, you’ve read it three times. You’re really familiar with it and you can start to tease out much more subtle textures and structures that are hiding there. And I started to notice this phrase jumping out at me. And it’s a very common phrase. The phrase is “these things.” And I started to notice it everywhere. As I was reading through, especially the books of Mormon, Ether, and Moroni, these last three books of the Book of Mormon. Right as Mormon and Moroni are reflecting most intensely on this project that they’ve undertaken to create scripture—to redact these plates and create a record that will be received by the Gentiles in the last days as scripture.
Probably most readers will remember this phrase from the famous verse Moroni 10:4, the promise of Moroni that every Latter-day Saint missionary shares, “When ye shall receive these things, I exhort you to ask God in the name of Christ if these things are not true.” So that’s where we see this phrase. So, I started to wonder, what do they mean by “these things?”
I did a quick search, having the scriptures online makes it so easy not to quickly search “these things” and get an overview of the way that a particular word or phrase is used. And I started to notice that in almost every case this phrase occurs, it is in fact referring to the project of scripture making in the Book of Mormon itself. When they talk about “these things,” they’re talking about the record that’s going to become scripture that they are engaged in making.
But when you look more deeply, especially if you pull open the dictionary from 1828, you’ll see we tend to think of a thing as an object, right? Just a thing, an object lying around. But it has other meanings. And the most important meaning earlier was actually as an event or a process.
So, I started to wonder, is there a way that we can think about the Book of Mormon not so much as a thing, but as a process or as an event? And I think there is. When we think about the Book of Mormon precisely in the making of it and the receiving of it, that is where the power of the Book of Mormon comes into play, it’s in its reception.
So, then as I once again started from the beginning of the book of Ether and worked through it again, something else jumped out at me. I found that right at this crucial high point of this fabulous story of the Brother of Jared asking the Lord, “How can we have light in our barges?” And the Lord says, “Well, you tell me. You figure it out and we’ll go from there.”
So, he makes these stones, he somehow melts them out of the rock, these sixteen small, white stones and then he brings them before the Lord, and he prays to the Lord and he offers him these stones. And he says, “Behold, these things which I have molten out of the rock.” And that jumped out at me and I started thinking, “Well, I wonder whether Moroni is seeing in the story of the Brother of Jared something of his own experience in redacting these plates and creating this record that somehow needs to become scripture.”
As I went with that thought, I noticed that the same language is used for both the Book of Mormon and the stones, this very striking language of “shining forth in darkness.” So, in Mormon 8, which is actually Moroni’s voice, Moroni speaking here, talking about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in the last days. He says, “It shall be brought forth out of darkness unto light. It would be brought out of the earth and it will shine forth out of darkness.” And that’s exactly, of course, how the stones are described. They’re brought forth out of the earth and using that same phrase they “shine forth” in the darkness of the barges.
So that strengthened my sense that Moroni sees an important connection here between the stones and the text of scripture. They both have these humble, earthly origins. Moroni, more than any other Book of Mormon narrator or author I think, is very open about his imperfections, his anxieties and his weakness in writing. But both the stones and the scripture are touched by the finger of God. And when they are touched, then their earthly material is transformed, and they begin to shine forth with the love and the power of God. So, I kept thinking about that and I wondered, for Moroni, when is this moment when the Lord touches scripture?
In Ether 12, we have Moroni’s most sustained exploration of what it means to make scripture and how scripture changes from just words on a page into something that’s living and that has power and authority in people’s lives. And Moroni is just consumed with this anxiety that because of his own imperfections and the mistakes that are in the record, when it’s received by the Gentiles in the modern era, they will laugh at it. They will mock it and they’ll reject it. And the purposes of the Lord will be frustrated because of Moroni’s own weakness.
And so, he brings this to the Lord with great humility and says, “Lord, what are we going to do about this? I don’t think that what I’ve made is good enough. They’re going to laugh at it, they’re going to reject it.” And the Lord reassures him. And this is where the famous verse in Ether 12:27 about the Lord will “show us our weakness and will make weak things strong.”
This comes precisely in this context of thinking about the Book of Mormon, the weakness of the Book of Mormon and how it is that it can shine. That it can be made to shine. And the Lord tells him, “Don’t worry. You do your best and when the Gentiles receive it, I will give them grace. I will give them grace and if they receive that grace, they then will receive the book with charity. They will receive it as scripture, and it will speak to them and it will do the work that I intend for it to do.”
So, the moment when the Lord touches those stones or the Lord touches that scripture to transform it from words into scripture seems to be the moment when it’s opened by a reader.
It’s in that moment when we open it and we come to those pages and those words with love, with real intent, with sincerity, the Lord gives us grace and through that grace we can receive these imperfect but living words with charity and that is when the Book of Mormon becomes scripture.
Ultimately I argue that Moroni has a very unique theology of scripture, a unique understanding of what scripture is that gives a special role to the reader. The real meaning of the Book of Mormon doesn’t so much lie in its provenance, in its history, in its origin, all that is important and it’s interesting, but it’s real power as scripture lies in the moment when it’s received and opened by a reader.
FAULCONER: I really like the way that you talk about those things. But that does take me to this other question about scripture. You talk about the problem of unethically appropriating the sacred text of another tradition. We see this happening, at least I think we see this happening a lot in North America, when people use the text of Hinduism or Buddhism and often twist them really in very strange ways to make them fit the latest self-help, whatever is popular. And you and Grant Hardy argue that Moroni has done this with Ether, though you’re also willing to cut him quite a bit of slack for doing so and that’s not to say that you condemn him in any sense.
But this does raise this issue, right? Because for Christians, this is a fraught problem. How do we avoid, for example, appropriating the Hebrew bible, yet at the same time, apply it to ourselves as Christians? As Latter-day Saints we’re taught that the Father has spoken to all of his children, so how do we honor that insight without unethically appropriating the text where he’s done that? How do we hold these things, these two values on the one hand that we don’t unethically appropriate the text that belonged to other traditions—that’s one side of things—and on the other hand, how do we then use this theory of translation that you’ve described?
WELCH: This is such a meaty and interesting question and it was one of my favorite chapters to write because it allowed me to dig into a dimension of the Book of Mormon that I had really never been aware of before.
So just to give a little bit of context, you alluded to this, but in the first chapter of my book I give a sort of big-picture overview of what I think Moroni’s overall purpose is with the book of Ether, and I argue that he reads the book of Ether with a very particular purpose in mind. He’s inherited this sort of indigenous, sacred text from the people who lived in this land before his own people, the Nephites, it’s long had this kind of mystique among the Nephites. There’s something special and kind of mysterious about these twenty-four gold plates and the mysterious record that’s on it. And Mormon has promised that it will be included in the record so it falls to Moroni then to find a way to integrate this odd sort of heavy, depressing book into the Book of Mormon as a whole right here at the very end of it.
So you can see him working to try to make sense of the book and figure out how he can make it a seamless part of the Book of Mormon. And I argue that he lights upon this way of seeing history as a triangle, in three layers. He sees the Jaredite people, the Nephite people, and then finally the European Gentiles of the latter days as deeply connected through history by this place. They all inhabit the same place that’s called the “Choice Land” or the “Chosen Land” and because of that, their histories follow this same pattern.
They’re brought to the chosen land through the providence of the Lord, they’re given commandments, they’re given a theophany or a visit of Jesus Christ Himself and the gospel of Jesus Christ, but then ultimately, at least for the Jaredites and the Nephites, they fail to keep that gospel alive. And they dwindle in unbelief and ultimately, they are destroyed, and they are swept off the land.
And he’s looking forward to the time when the European Gentiles will come to this same place and he says to us, he says “Listen, I am talking to you and I am telling you what these texts say. You can look at their history and know what awaits you. If you do not repent the same thing will happen to you. You will be swept off the land and the remnant of the house of Lehi will come in and take your place.”
So, this is how Moroni approaches the book of Ether and he highlights anything that seems to chime with Nephite experience. Every connection to Nephite religion, the visitation of Christ among the Nephites, he points out, “Oh, where this happened in the book of Ether, this is actually what happened among the Nephites, this is the place.” So, he’s mapping the geographies as well.
So, Moroni is not interested necessarily or not interested firstly in Jaredite experience for its own sake. Jaredite history, and people, and culture and civilization and understanding the deep logic of the Jaredites themselves, but he’s primarily interested in finding these resonances with Christianity, with Nephite Christianity, and especially with the future experience of the Gentiles in the latter-days.
So, you might say then in a term that is used, that’s become current these days, that Moroni is guilty of culturally-appropriating the book of Ether, this indigenous, sacred record and using it for his own purposes. As you alluded to Jim, I am willing to cut him some slack precisely because I think this process of retranslating, re-contextualizing scripture is revitalizing and not diminishing to scripture. So, I think ultimately Moroni serves the Jaredite record in what he does, but the ethics of it are tricky and I think we have to be very very careful in the way that we do it and this is what you’re getting at.
How can we read the sacred text of another culture that isn’t our own, but treat it with the respect that it’s due, while also making it mean something in our own lives? And I think the Book of Mormon itself, and this is what was new to me and so exciting, the Book of Mormon itself and the Book of Mormon writers reflect on this question pretty extensively. And the first one to do so is Nephi, Nephi himself. And he does this in the context of his use of Isaiah.
He extensively re-contextualizes and reinterprets Isaiah for his people. And what Nephi teaches us is that you can’t separate the ethics of borrowing texts from the ethics of humane and ethical treatment of people. You can’t separate out a text and its people. So, if you want to borrow the text, the sacred text of another group, you must make sure that you treat the members, the living human bodies and members of that group with the same respect and care.
And there’s this really wonderful passage in 2 Nephi 29 where he just lays into the Gentiles of the last days. He’s had this vision and he sees how these early Christians, or I guess early modern Christians will just mangle the text of the Bible. He sees them as ripping out these “plain and precious truths” about the covenant and so disfiguring the sacred text of the Jewish people while simultaneously hating, despising the Jewish people themselves.
And Nephi has no patience for this, and he very forcefully condemns this. He says, “What did the Gentiles mean? Did they remember the travails and the labors and the pains of the Jews and their diligence unto me in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles? Oh, Gentiles have you remembered the Jews mine ancient covenant people? No, you have cursed them. You’ve hated them. And you have not tried to help them and recover them.” And he goes on and on like this.
So, the first thing I think that Nephi teaches us is that you need to be aware of, respectful of, and humanely treat the tradition and the culture and the people from whom you’ve borrowed the text. Mormon then picks up on this and he sort of reiterates what Nephi is teaching here and he has this really beautiful language in Mormon 5. He imagines a different future. He imagines a future where the Gentiles indeed do care for the house of Israel. They do realize and know where their blessings come from, through the covenant and through the sacred scriptures of the Jewish people. He reiterates this idea that if you value the text then care for the people from whom it comes and humbly recognize your own indebtedness to their labor and their sacrifice in preserving and transmitting the text.
And then I think, finally, Moroni offers one additional insight. And now, as I’ve argued, I think Moroni himself maybe could do a little better on this score. He could maybe give the Jaredite people a little bit more credit and dignity on their own. But nevertheless, Moroni I think has this strong sense of textual ethics. He too strongly condemns the Gentiles who disfigure, he uses the word “transfigure” the Bible, who change it and alter it and appropriate it for their own purposes. But then he adds this next layer, “and then they profit from it.” He’s enraged and incensed by these Gentile Christians who appropriate the Hebrew Bible, change its meaning and then build these churches to enrich themselves on it. So, Moroni would say, “Whatever you do, don’t profit and enrich yourself on the basis of an appropriated text.” Instead, I think he says, “Be more wise than I was. Resolve to treat people across ethnic lines and their sacred text with respect and care.”
I think the last thing that I would say is just, I came to realize what a big deal this is in the Book of Mormon, this idea of textual ethics. The ethics of reading sacred scripture. This isn’t just a kind of set of social conventions that it’s nice to observe. On the contrary, in the Book of Mormon the transfer of texts between peoples is the way, it’s the way that the Lord intervenes in the modern era to accomplish His purposes in history. It’s the coming forth of the Bible from the Gentiles to the seed of Lehi and then in return the coming forth of the record of the seed of Lehi, the Book of Mormon, to the Gentiles. It’s precisely this reciprocal transfer of texts and then crucially the building of relationships and community that can culminate in this New Jerusalem that bares the Lord’s finger, I should say, the Lord’s finger and the Lord’s hand in history in the modern era. So, we have to get these ethics right because there’s a lot at stake around these questions in the Book of Mormon.
FAULCONER: That’s very helpful. Thank you. I really like what you have to say there.
But I’d like to now get to one of those places where perhaps you and I might argue a bit. And that has to do with the—you say in Ether, Moroni gives us a “theology of after.” He understands the reception of the Law of Moses as a miracle, it sets aside the laws, meaning it’s a type for Christ. You focus on the extraordinary circumstances under which the Law was given. I mean, I agree with all those kinds of things. But whether that’s a “theology of after” is, I think, questionable.
Doesn’t the Book of Mormon as a whole, to say nothing of Moroni’s concerns, commend itself to us as a theology of looking forward? The book is given to those who live in the latter days, the last days before the coming of Christ. As Abinadi and other Nephite prophets looked forward to His coming in the earlier days, aren’t we expected to be looking forward to the coming of Christ in the last days? So, is there a tension in Ether between after and before? Or how do you deal with this before and after question?
WELCH: This is such a fun one. Yes, yes, indeed. The book of Ether performs this sort of beautiful and complicated dance through history. Even just it’s placement in the Book of Mormon. It’s a prequel right? It tells what came before the story of the Nephites. But it appears here at the end of the Book of Mormon and at the same time it’s looking forward to the Gentiles. So, in itself it kind of performs this complicated dance and movement through time and I think this tension between after and before is actually really integral to what Moroni is trying to do.
So yes, you’re right. From the beginning, the Nephite religion is centered around this idea of the coming of Christ, right? And looking forward to Christ. Famous verse in 2 Nephi 25—we “look forward with steadfastness in Christ until the law shall be fulfilled when he comes.”
But at the same time there’s another idea running through this. There’s the idea that all things typify Christ from the beginning of time. Not only the Law of Moses, but all things that are created bear the image of Christ in them. And so, because of this, Christ is actually all around us in everything that exists. And in that way, the Nephites can have this really peculiar structure of belief. They believe that Christ is coming, but they believe it as if he had already come. This is repeated a couple of times in the Book of Mormon. The Nephites look forward to Christ’s coming, but the nature of their belief is as if he had already come, was already with them.
So ultimately, the way I understand this, is that it is not primarily a question of chronology and history. I don’t think Nephite prophets want us to be overly fixated on a particular point in history wondering when that is, when it will happen, how long ago it was, these questions of history and chronology. I think, instead, they want us to understand looking forward to Christ as a kind of spiritual orientation. It’s a way of seeing the dimension of Christ that is in all creation and in all things and in all moments.
In fact, Moroni says that he’s worried that if his people focus too much on the chronology, on the coming of Christ, that after Christ comes, they’ll harden their hearts and they’ll cease looking forward. They’ll say, “Okay well Christ came, we don’t have to look forward to that anymore.” And they’ll stop seeing Christ in the world, in the present world. And indeed, I think Moroni’s fears were born out as we see this sad decline of the Nephite revelation.
So chronology, chronological history, and when Christ will come and where we are in relation to that is just a hook or a metaphor to get us to see Christ in all things. And so, I think Moroni, as I say reading this really interesting argument in Ether 12 as he talks about how miracles come after our faith. I’ve built this idea that he’s responding to Nephi. If Nephi is building a theology around looking forward to Christ, Moroni is trying to respond and build a theology.
Well what happens if you came after Christ? You came after—the Gentiles living in the present day, they live two millennia from when Christ came again. So, what are they to do? Does the power of Christ still reverberate through the universe? He fears that the Gentiles will believe that God has stopped working in the universe. That it all happened too long ago, that’s all over and done with, miracles have ceased, we’re too far away from Christ and that’s just not how God works in the world anymore.
But Moroni could not disagree more, and he says, “No, God is still at work in the world. Christ is still present in all things. You just have to have the eyes of faith to see it.” He wants to shift a too-obsessive focus off the past in the future, whether that’s the First or the Second Coming, because you’re right, we live in the latter days and we too are looking forward to the Second Coming.
But if we focus too obsessively on the chronology of it, I think that can lead us to look past what is right in front of us. The dimension of Christ that exists in all things now. And I think for both Nephi and Moroni, the interesting ways that they play with time and getting us to focus on Christ, I think it’s not a coincidence that both of them end up on this idea of hope. Yes, we hope for a better world, we hope for Christ to come. But hope is actually an anchor. Hope is an anchor to our souls. An anchor roots you where you are. You drop your anchor and you’re rooted to the place where you are now.
So, I think their vision of hope and salvation in time focuses on the now. Can we see an image of Christ in the faces that we will encounter today? Can I be in the presence of the Lord now? Can I see the outlines of the kingdom of God in this broken world that we live in right now? Can I live with the kind of faith that the Nephites had looking forward to his coming, but living as if he had already come? So, hope is what allows us to live the chronology of the gospel out of order. And to be in the presence of the Lord now without having to wait.
FAULCONER: You know, one of the things that really struck me as I was reading your book is that very notion of being out of order. Because you may or may not know, as I was reading the book of Mosiah to write my book, I was really for the first time ever, I noticed that it’s out of order. Now, that’s embarrassing to have to confess that, but I hadn’t noticed after many years of reading this reversal of the later things came first and then at least in terms of the book as we have it. What would have been the case if we have the original, the missing pages is another question.
But as we have it, the book of Mosiah begins with the later things and then moves to the earlier things. And it really struck me that the book of Mosiah is structured that way and as you point out, the Book of Mormon as a whole is structured that way. How does that play into what you were just talking about? This undercutting of our focus on chronology?
WELCH: I love this. I geek out on this type of thing. So yeah, like I said, I think the Book of Mormon is a dancer. It loves to dance through time. I think often we might adopt one of two different models of sacred time. One is this model that the farther back you go, the closer you are to God. The more ancient something is, then the more original it is, the closer to the original revelation, the closer to the moment of creation, the time when God was with Adam and Eve in the Garden. So, if you can just get back far enough, you can have a better view of who God really is and how God works in the world, closer to those original revelations and the purest truth.
Or, you might have a sort of opposite model of time, this idea of progress, of eternal progression. The idea that the more we progress as a society, as a church, then the more enlightened and the more ethical we are and the closer we get in this kind of beautiful upward crescendo towards the fullness of truth. I think the Book of Mormon wants to shake both of those up. I think it rejects both of those models of time. It doesn’t throw away chronological history entirely, in fact it’s kind of obsessed with chronological history in some ways in this sort of drumbeat of the transfer of these documents from person to person.
So, it recognizes the reality of time. Time is essential to how we experience the world, a kind of baseline. So, it recognizes that, but it shows us that things can happen out of the order we expect within that chronology. Just as the Nephites, they looked forward to the coming of Christ, the renewal of all things, but they experienced it as if it had already happened. And it offers to us that same promise. You too can look forward to the Second Coming of Christ as if it had already happened. You can live in that blessed future now. There’s also, sort of, the Book of Mormon repeatedly imagines this future scene after resurrection where we are resurrected, and we’re brought to stand at the bar of God.
But it also tells us, you can experience that now. You can move through the plan of salvation all the different stages, out of order. There’s sort of this amazing scripture that I never really noticed before in Alma 34 actually, Mark Wrathall in his brief theological introduction to Alma 30 through 63 brought it to my attention. But Amulek is talking to the Zoramites and he tells them, “Now is the day of your salvation.” That moment when you’re standing before God, it can happen today. And if you repent then the plan of redemption will occur immediately to you. so, there’s a way that when we seek that union of Christ, events can start coming out of order. We can be in the presence of the Lord now.
Right at the head of the Book of Mormon in Lehi’s beautiful dream, I think that sets the tone that Lehi walks immediately to the tree and partakes immediately of the fruit. Experiences the love of God in his life at that moment and that is the promise of the Book of Mormon and what it’s trying to teach us in the ways that it plays with chronology, shifted around and lets us experience things before we think that they’re supposed to happen.
You might say that the Book of Mormon is impatient for Christ. The Book of Mormon wants to make Christ present immediately, long out of order. Forever the Book of Mormon has always been criticized that it’s anachronistic and how is it that the Christian gospel could have existed among Jewish people centuries before Christ came. But that’s precisely the point. It’s impatient for Christ and it wants to bring him immediately into our lives and into our experience out of order, before he’s supposed to be here. And I think it also encourages us in the same way to be impatient for Christ and to seek to be in his presence immediately as Amulek says, “To seek him now.” And realize that we can experience that joy and that unity with Christ in the present.
FAULCONER: Thanks a lot. But that raises another question for me. Something that you point out is that the Brother of Jared has this huge wonderful vision of Christ. It’s recorded there and yet, it’s forbidden to be told, to be made public, until Christ would make it manifest in his ministry as we’re told in Ether 4:1. So, if this presence of Christ now is so important, why is it that this particular manifestation of Christ is kept secret for so long?
WELCH: This is such a fun part of the text and partly fun because it’s just so complicated. There’s so much intrigue and interest around the sealed vision of the Brother of Jared. When will it be revealed? Who gets to see it? How? All these questions. But you point out something that I hadn’t really recognized before, which is that not only is the vision sealed in the latter days, but it was sealed anciently from the Nephites as well.
The Lord tells the Brother of Jared, “I’m going to give you this amazing panoramic vision and I want you to go down from the mountain, I want you to write it all down, and then I want you to seal it up. I’m going to give you these two stones, you need to seal those up with it too because it is not allowed to go forth to anybody until the time when I am lifted up upon the cross.” I think that’s the exact language that is used. So, until Christ comes and is crucified.
And then Moroni reiterates that and says, “this is the reason why when Mosiah originally translated the book of Ether, he did not let this part of Jaredite experience be made public.” It wasn’t known. This was hidden and suppressed among the Nephites until Christ comes and Moroni tells us that when Christ comes, then he shares this vision with the people that are with him there among the Nephites.
Now, the Book of Mormon itself doesn’t make reference to that. So, it’s kind of a mystery. When did that happen? Why isn’t it mentioned? But that’s what Moroni tells us is that the vision of the Brother of Jared was sealed until Christ came in person.
So, your question is, why? Why does it have to be the case? I think there are two reasons we could consider. One of them is sort of mundane. One of them is a little deeper. I think the mundane reason is as I said earlier, Moroni sees history working in patterns. And these patterns get played out again and again and again. In Jaredite history, in Nephite history, and finally in Gentile modern history. And so, this is the way it happens for the Brother of Jared, right? He has this remarkable visitation of the Lord, this encounter with the Lord, he sees him face to face and only then is this vision opened up to his eyes.
So, for Moroni then, this is the pattern, and this is how it has to play out for the Nephites. It is only once they have had their encounter with the Lord that, like the Brother of Jared, this panoramic vision of all, can be opened to their eyes. And that’s exactly what he tells us, the modern readers of the Book of Mormon will happen to us. If we repent, he says, then we too can be in the presence of the lord and we too will have the vision unsealed and opened to our eyes. And so, I think the mundane reason is just simply that’s how it happened for the Brother of Jared, that laid down the historical pattern and then that’s how it had to play out among the Nephites and the Gentiles.
But if we wanted to go a little more deeply, I think there’s a way that we can think about this as a kind of play between unity and diversity. What was it that the Brother of Jared really saw? Of course, we don’t know all the details because it was sealed. But what we do know is that he saw all the inhabitants of the earth.
Just think about that for a minute. What would that be like to see all the inhabitants of the earth? What would it take to be able to take in the unimaginable differences in human experience and historical experience? Even imagine the life of your grandmother. How different is that from your own life? And then imagine the life of your deep ancestors, millennia in the past, how can you take in that breadth of human experience. I think only through this kind of deep reconciliation and unity with Christ. I think when we are in the presence of the Lord, when we are reconciled to him, then we’re given a portion of his charity and his love and in that way, we’re better able to take in and appreciate the diversity of his children.
I’m reminded of Elder Cook’s talk in General Conference just a couple of weeks ago, where he says that unity and diversity are not opposite when we are rooted in Christ. So, when we are in the presence of the Lord, whether that be now today as the Book of Mormon promises we can be, or in the future, then we’re able, I think, to really apprehend, appreciate, and come to terms with the beautiful and immense breadth and diversity of the human family. Of the sons and daughters of Christ whom we are bound to by covenant.
So, I think that’s what I would say about that. We need to be united with the Lord to be able to take in what it is he wants to show us and share with us.
FAULCONER: Thank you. It’s been really a privilege to talk with you about these things. Both because we both like the Book of Mormon so much, but also because I have just appreciated getting to know you better through reading this book and being able to talk this way. But I’d like to finish with one, perhaps very mundane, perhaps even silly question. It struck me as I was reading, you talked about how the Book of Mormon is a critique of Manifest Destiny. Can you say something about that?
WELCH: Absolutely. I see this as one of the deep, deep messages of the Book of Mormon. European settlers arrived in this chosen land and they had the idea that this land belonged to them. It was manifest to them that they were entitled to this country and this land.
But the meaning of the book of Ether is precisely the opposite. There’s no chosen people. Have you ever noticed that in the Book of Mormon? There’s no chosen people, there’s only a chosen land. And the land belongs to God. And the Book of Mormon shows through the layered experiences of the Jaredites, the Nephites, and then the projected experience of the Gentiles that the land does not belong by right or inheritance to anybody. Not to the Jaredites, they’re swept off. Not to the Nephites, they’re swept off. And the possibility that the Gentiles themselves will be swept off is held out again and again in these visions of the future.
If there is any group to whom it seems there’s some kind of deep connection and right to the land, it’s the children of Lehi whom the Book of Mormon imagines as the indigenous, native peoples of the Americas. So, in this sense the Book of Mormon is a firm rebuke to kind of triumphalist European notions that they’re entitled to, the young American Republic is entitled to the American continent from sea to shining sea.
And it says, “Not so fast” as President Benson has said, “We’re all only tenants on this land and we have no eternal right to it.”
Jesus Christ is the God of the land, as Moroni tells again and again and it’s only through obedience to His commandments and respect as Nephi and Mormon and Moroni teach us, respect to the peoples that were here before us and an understanding of our deep interrelationship in these covenant purposes of the Lord that we can inhabit this land in peace and in harmony as he wants us to.
FAULCONER: Thank you very much. As I say, I want to thank you on my behalf, as well as on behalf of the Maxwell Institute.
WELCH: It’s my pleasure. It was wonderful to talk about these things with you Jim. Thanks for all you’ve done for the book and thanks for this great conversation.
FAULCONER: Thank you.
HODGES: That’s Dr. James E. Faulconer talking with Dr. Rosalynde Frandsen Welch about her brief theological introduction to the book of Ether. If you’re listening to this episode on its release date in November 2020, you might be wondering when Ether will be available. We’re still aiming to get all of the brief theological introduction volumes out by the end of the year. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the Alma volumes, Helaman, and 3rd, 4th Nephi all become available for pre-order. You can check those out at mi.byu.edu/brief.
The Mormon and Ether volumes should be pre-orderable very shortly. If you want to be notified early about that, you can subscribe to our newsletter. Go bit.ly/maxwellnews. I put those newsletters together and send them straight to your inbox.
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Alright we’ll be back again soon with the concluding episode of our series on the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon. We’ll be looking at David Holland’s book on Moroni with Spencer Fluhman returning as guest host. We’ll see you then on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
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