This all started a few weeks ago when our primary president came to me with an interesting request. She wanted the kids to meet a very special visitor: the great Nephite prophet, Moroni. So I found myself this morning standing in front of a bunch of kids, wearing a white nightgown, holding a homemade aluminum foil leaf of the Gold Plates, and telling them “my story.”
While I was making notes last night of what to tell them, I realized this is a fantastic way to study the scriptures. No, not the dressing up and the props. I mean the focusing on the narrative. So often when we read the scriptures, we focus on specific verses that tell a specific incident or highlight a specific doctrine. This is awesome for a lesson on faith or something, but we tend to miss the narratives. These people were real, and their whole lives tell stories that go way beyond a few key verses to memorize. We need to understand the story of their people, their parents, the political situation at the time, and their impacts on their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And eventually, the impact their story has now had on tens of millions of readers today. We have to look at their lives as a whole to get that picture.
I think I’m going to start doing that from time to time in this blog– calling out one individual and profiling him or her, talking through their whole life and the impact they had on their time and ours. So to start that out here is a much more expanded version of the short history I gave to the Primary today.
Hello, my name is Moroni.
Moroni’s family history and childhood
To know Moroni first you have to know his father, Mormon. Unlike many Nephite prophets, we don’t know Mormon’s parentage for sure; the only thing Mormon tells us for sure is that he is “a pure descendant of Lehi.” But the trend was that many prophets in the latter half of the Book of Mormon were descendants of Alma. Mormon also says he was named after the land of Mormon where Alma and his people settled, so it’s plausible that Mormon was also a descendant of that family line. We also know that Ammaron, the record-keeper who would give him the plates was a descendant of Alma, so if Mormon wasn’t a family member, he was at least close to the families of the prophets.
Mormon was noted as a “sober” child and “quick to observe.” In a civilization that was quickly sliding into anarchy and chaos, that stood out quite a lot. Enough to earn the trust of the Lord and of Ammaron, at least. Since he could read, translate, and record the exiting Nephite records, Mormon was likely multilingual. He was pure in heart because, by the time he was 14, he received a personal manifestation of the resurrected Lord. He was also a brilliant military leader because, by the age of 15, he was placed in command of an entire Nephite army; a few years later he would lead the entire Nephite armed forces. All this while being charged by God to compile the history of his people into the book that now bears his name.
Moroni had big shoes to fill. But he picked up the same skills and experienced many of the same blessings his father had: record-keeping, revelations, military strategy, and visitations by angels and the Lord. The father-son duo seems like they were also somewhat skilled in metalworking; when he runs out of space, Moroni tells us the problem is he can’t find any ore to make more plates– not that he doesn’t know how to make plates.
The great and last war
Moroni grew up in the darkest time in Nephite history. Both the Nephites and the Lamanites had fully apostatized from the Gospel. They had lost their souls and humanity. By the end of the war, all rules of engagement had been called off. The armies starved and tortured each other to death, cannibalized each other, raped the women, and sacrificed them to idols.
Moroni’s father, the prophet and national hero tried to call them to repentance, but the Nephites would not hear it. They wanted a military leader– not a pastor in chief. What more could he say, anyway? Mormon tells us they knew what they were doing. They had received the Gospel and then turned from it. The Spirit of the Lord had ceased striving with them. They were fighting in open rebellion against God. Eventually, it was too much for Mormon. He resigned his post and determined to record their defeat from the sidelines.
The Nephites fought against the Lamanites for many years, but they faced loss after loss. The Lamanites drove them from city to city, farther and farther north away from their homelands, slaughtering them by the thousands until they were almost extinct.
Eventually, Mormon couldn’t bear to watch his people struggle without him. Even though the people were fully on the “dark side,” Mormon loved them. So, he jumped back into the fray and took charge again. His son Moroni, also a great warrior, was put at the head of 10,000 soldiers, himself. The Nephites fought their best, but no one can stop the decrees of God. The wicked Nephites were obliterated. Their last words as the Lamanites mowed them down were often curses directed at heaven.
A few Nephites defected to the Lamanites. Others tried to escape to the south. Mormon, Moroni, and a few other men escaped to a nearby hill. There were a few stragglers, but the Nephite nation was no more. Mormon and Moroni looked out from the hill over the thousands of corpses moldering on the field of battle and wept bitterly, crying, “O ye fair ones!” The Church made a great video of this moment:
Moroni the lonely historian
But as important as Mormon’s work in leading the Nephite military was, that was not his calling– his life’s work was to compile the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, Mormon never got to finish filling the plates. The Lamanites were hunting and exterminating any Nephite survivors who would not deny Christ and join their cause. Eventually, the Lamanites caught up with Mormon and killed him.
Moroni was now utterly and completely alone. He took over his father’s work. But he had no plans after that. Wandering without a people and now without his family, with the Lamanites hunting him, Moroni told the reader he didn’t care if he lived or died once the records were done.
Moroni finished compiling the Nephite records and added a few final words about the sad tale of his now-extinct people. Then, he gave a highly condensed history of the people of Jared from the records translated hundreds of years earlier by King Mosiah.
He could probably relate a lot to that record of the Jaredites. Like the Nephites, the Jaredites were a mighty civilization on the American continent, brought to the promised land over the sea by the hand of the Lord, and blessed above all other nations. Like the Nephites, the Jaredite struggled through cycles of righteousness and wickedness, only to ultimately destroy themselves in a mad fit of Satanic rage. Moroni probably saw a lot of himself in the Jaredite prophet Ether. He, too, was the only believer in a nation of apostates, charged to witness the destruction of his family and his people, left alone at the end to seal up his testimony in the ground as a warning to future generations.
After finishing the records of the Nephites and the Jaredites, Moroni tells the reader, “I planned on that being the end. But I’m not dead yet. So I guess I’ll write some more stuff.”
What he wrote in this unplanned book of Moroni is remarkable. First, he addressed the Lamanites that killed his people and his family and were currently trying to kill him. He calls them his brothers, and dedicates the Book of Mormon largely to them because of the tremendous charity he has in his heart. He then gives instructions for performing key priesthood ordinances, teaches more about charity, explains spiritual gifts, and other great doctrines. He promises the reader a witness from God that the record is true if we will pray and ask.
Finally, after his record is done, after decades of wandering alone, Moroni buried the record, sealing it up for the Lord to bring forth in the latter days. His mortal life’s work was done.
Moroni, the angel and prophet tutor
But that’s not where Moroni’s story ends. Christ gave Moroni a special mission. In the Bible, Christ showed the Apostle John a vision of an angel that would bring the Gospel to the world in the last days. Moroni was to be that angel.
On Sept 21, 1823, Christ sent Moroni to Joseph Smith in response to his prayer for guidance. Joseph Smith was a teenage boy at the time, and like all teenage boys, he needed to be told something over and over again before it would stick. Moroni appeared to him several times that night, repeating word for word what he had said before, and adding a little more information at the end of each appearance.
Moroni was there to call Joseph to be a prophet and to translate the work he and his father had written 1400 years before. Moroni would essentially be his tutor and mentor– teaching him how to be a prophet.
This was easier said than done. I don’t know if angels can get frustrated, but if there was an angel who had reason to, it was Moroni. At the end of his first series of appearances to his new prophet-apprentice Joseph, Moroni issued two commandments that Joseph was to obey right away:
- Tell your father what I have told you.
- Meet me at the hill. And remember, the plates are for the building of the kingdom of God– not for getting rich. If you want them to get rich, you can’t have them.
Right after Moroni finished his repeated instructions, it was time to wake up. Did Joseph go straight to his father and tell him what was going on? No. Did he go straight to the hill to start the work of the Lord? No. He went back to the field, and a short while later, found himself unconscious, lying on the ground, and waking up to Moroni again, asking why Joseph had ignored the command to tell his father.
A few hours later, Joseph first saw the plates. These plates represented a millennium of history of a dead civilization. Dozens of prophet dedicated years of their lives to recording and protecting this record, including Moroni and his father during their mortality. The hopes and dreams of holy prophets of God lay there in the ground, to be brought forth by the gift and power of God to lift the world out of darkness. He had been told repeatedly that they were only to be used to bring forth God’s work– not for getting rich.
So, naturally, Joseph immediately ignored what he had been told the previous night, reached his hand into the box and tried to grab the plates so he could get rich. So God shocked him in the arm. Joseph tried a few more times to pull them out, meeting a shock each time. When Joseph turned around, there was the angel Moroni again, trying one more time to get the point across: the plates were not for sale.
If you are a parent, you know what it feels like to be consistently ignored by children. If you’ve never had kids, just watch that scene of Baby Groot struggling with simple instructions. Or (assuming you can separate the art from the artist) Bill Cosby’s piece about telling kids things over and over again. We don’t know if Moroni was a father while in mortality. Based on his repeated descriptions of how alone he was, my guess was no. If that is the case, I can only imagine father Mormon was watching his son Moroni with a big old smile. It’s the same smile grandparents always wear when their children are struggling with a child who just doesn’t get it. It’s the smile that says, “son, I remember when you were just like this. And I’m really enjoying watching you take your turn on this side of things now.”
Don’t get me wrong, Joseph was an exceptionally good and bright kid. But he was also a teenage boy. The qualities that made him a powerful, dynamic prophet later in life also made it hard for him to obey and stay focused early in his life. Moroni sent Joseph home that day disappointed and empty-handed. He wasn’t ready to receive the plates. And Moroni would have plenty of opportunities to disappoint and chastise Joseph again over the next several years. Sometimes, by his own admission, Joseph was just too cavalier about important spiritual matters. He just didn’t always understand how important this work was, so he didn’t always listen, and often needed repetition.
Moroni got on Joseph’s case for not being serious and for wasting time. When Moroni first gave the plates to Joseph, he commanded him to not let the plates out of his sight until they were safely locked up. Joseph didn’t listen, so Moroni took the plates back and Joseph again returned empty-handed that year. Moroni sent him away empty-handed from the hill yet again in 1826 with a stern command to stop associating with get-rich-quick schemes and digging for money. Moroni was likely the angel who met Joseph on his way home for dinner and gave him the “severest chastisement that he ever had in his life.”
As I’ve said before, the restoration was messy. God has to work with mortals. The angel Moroni met Joseph at the hill every year for 4 years. He wanted to give him the plates each time, but each time, Joseph proved he was not ready. Finally, on his last chance, after 4 years of maturing (a large part of which was marrying Emma), Joseph was finally deemed ready to receive the plates and the interpreters.
But even once he had the plates and started translation, Joseph still had not developed the attitude of obedience God needed of Him. God denied Martin Harris’s request to take the first 116 translated pages home. Still, Joseph persisted in asking until it was obvious he was going to learn the hard way what happens when we don’t listen to the Lord. The translation was stolen and would never be translated again. The entire book of Lehi was gone forever. All the work of the prophets for millennia on that book had disappeared almost overnight because Joseph would not take God’s command more seriously than the peer pressure of Martin Harris.
Moroni was sent to Joseph again to confiscate the plates and the interpreters. Weeks later, Moroni reappeared and handed Joseph the interpreters. Looking into those seer stones, Joseph received a severe revelatory rebuke from Christ Himself, threatening to remove Joseph’s gift as a seer.
Weeks later, Moroni was dispatched again to return the plates to Joseph. Finally, Joseph was humble and faithful enough to get serious about the work. This time, Moroni was able to communicate a message of divine approval and love for Joseph because of his repentance. Joseph was now ready to be the Prophet God needed.
Joseph wasn’t the only person Moroni was assigned to minister to. Moroni seemed to always be the angel in charge of the plates, so I believe he was the angel that appeared with the plates to show to the Three Witnesses. Then, in one of my favorite restoration accounts, Moroni also personally visited the tireless Mary Whitmer to strengthen her faith and show her the plates.
Once the Book of Mormon had been translated and shown to all the witnesses the Lord deemed necessary, Moroni appeared to Joseph and received the plates back. Joseph recorded in his testimony that Moroni still has the plates in his possession to this day as far as he knows.
The Book of Mormon
When I think of Moroni now, I think of how he, his father Mormon, and all the other Nephite prophets worked so hard to bring the Book of Mormon forth into the world. It is “the most correct of any book on earth” and the “keystone of our religion.” So I wonder, how must those Nephite prophets feel about us today? Do they think we treat the Book of Mormon with the importance it deserves? Or do they feel disappointed that we sometimes take it for granted?
I don’t know the feelings of the Nephite prophets on the matter, but the Lord has made His opinion quite clear. Speaking to the Church in Joseph’s day, He warned:
Your minds in times past have been darkened… because you have treated lightly the things you have received … [and] brought the whole church under condemnation… And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon.
Pres. Benson added that this “condemnation” does not just apply to the Saints of Joseph’s time, but applies to us as well:
My beloved brethren and sisters, for some years now I have been deeply concerned that we are not using the Book of Mormon as God intends… I received the distinct impression that God is not pleased with our neglect of the Book of Mormon. In the eighty-fourth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord decreed that the whole Church was under condemnation, even all the children of Zion, because of the way they treated the Book of Mormon. “And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent,” said the Lord, “and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon” (D&C 84:57). Zion cannot fully arise and put on her beautiful garments if she is under this condemnation. (See D&C 82:14).
Pres. Benson shared his concern with the Quorum of the Twelve. Pres. Nelson recounts:
Not long after my call to serve as one of the Twelve Apostles, I was summoned to the office of the President of our Quorum, President Ezra Taft Benson. He expressed deep concern that members of the Church did not fully appreciate the value of the Book of Mormon. With emotion in his voice, he read to me from the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants [about the condemnation the Church was under]… President Benson had completely captured my attention. He then concluded his admonition… I shall never forget that lesson.
Elder Oaks counseled us further about our the importance of our duty to take the Book of Mormon seriously:
Do eternal consequences rest upon our response to this book? Yes, either to our blessing or our condemnation.
Every Latter-day Saint should make the study of this book a lifetime pursuit. Otherwise he is placing his soul in jeopardy and neglecting that which could give spiritual and intellectual unity to his whole life. There is a difference between a convert who is built on the rock of Christ through the Book of Mormon and stays hold of that iron rod, and one who is not.
Fortunately, this next year in Sunday School and in our personal and family studies, we have a great opportunity to show Mormon, to show Moroni, and to show the Lord that we don’t take the Book of Mormon for granted. We can read it. More than reading it, we can study it. More than studying it, we can let it change our lives.