Mormon 8:12-22 & Title page — LeGrand Baker — ‘the mistakes of men’

Mormon 8:12-22

17 And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire (Mormon 8:17).

The title page of the Book of Mormon contains that same warning to those who would read the book with a prejudice or jaundice eye.

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

The question we might ask is “The mistakes of which men – the writers or the readers?” Moroni’s answer is “the readers!” But most of us read it as Moroni humbly admitting that there may be mistakes in his book. I readily admit it can be read that way. But if we do way we essentially say that we choose to make your own learning and wisdom the criteria for judging the “mistakes” made by the ancient prophets. Doing that is very convenient because if we find something we don’t understand or don’t agree with, we can just pass it off as the author’s mistake.

I think it is important to try to discover how Moroni intended those passages to be understood.

The warning on the title page was originally on the last page of the gold plates, so it may have been the very last thing Moroni wrote before placing the plates in the stone box where Joseph found them. Joseph explained:

I wish to mention here, that the of the Book of is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general; and that said is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation. Therefore, in order to correct an error which generally exists concerning it, I give belowfn that part of the of the English version of the Book of , which is a genuine and literal translation of the of the original Book of , as recorded on the plates. {1}

Moroni writes, “…if there be faults” — he does not say “mistakes,” he says “faults” — then defines those faults as “the mistakes of men.” He then warns: “wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.”

There is no place where Moroni suggests there are mistakes in the doctrines taught in the Book of Mormon. Earlier he had expressed his concern about “imperfections” in the written words. That is not the same thing as “faults.” It is unfortunate – unfortunate but very true – that the meaning of written words are the private property of the reader. When the words are written and released, the author loses all control over what the reader may find there. Moroni recognized that limitation when he wrote:

12 And whoso receiveth this record, and shall not condemn it because of the imperfections which are in it, the same shall know of greater things than these. Behold, I am Moroni; and were it possible, I would make all things known unto you.
17 And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire.
18 And he that saith: Show unto me, or ye shall be smitten—let him beware lest he commandeth that which is forbidden of the Lord.
19 For behold, the same that judgeth rashly shall be judged rashly again; for according to his works shall his wages be; therefore, he that smiteth shall be smitten again, of the Lord.
20 Behold what the scripture says—man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay.
21 And he that shall breathe out wrath and strifes against the work of the Lord, and against the covenant people of the Lord who are the house of Israel, and shall say: We will destroy the work of the Lord, and the Lord will not remember his covenant which he hath made unto the house of Israel—the same is in danger to be hewn down and cast into the fire;
22 For the eternal purposes of the Lord shall roll on, until all his promises shall be fulfilled.

Moroni’s fears have been justified many times over. In the years since the Book of Mormon was published the “mistakes of men” have found many supposed faults in the Book of Mormon. From its onset, people have criticized the book because scholars did not have enough information to validate what it said. For example, everyone knew that cement was invented by the Romans, so the Book of Mormon’s claim that the Nephites had cement was an obvious fault. Then archaeologists discovered that the pre-Columbian Americans made a higher quality cement than the Romans ever did. There have been many such “mistakes” made in the ignorance of “learned” men, until scientists, archaeologists, and linguists have dispelled the ignorance.

Nibley wrote a book, Sounding Brass and Tinkling Symbols, in which he showed that there are relatively few arguments against Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. He says that when ill-informed anti-Mormon pamphleteers can’t find new ones, they just dig up and re-word some of the old worn-out arguments that others have been using for many years.

I suppose the greatest danger is not from those outside of the church who speak from ignorance. Rather, that Moroni’s intended audience is those within the church who choose to pit their education, or lack thereof, against the contents of the Book of Mormon. My best personal example is the BYU student who announced to me one day that he knew the Book of Mormon was not trustworthy because Mormon was not a credible historian. I asked how he thought he knew that. He told me that he was taking a historiography class in which he learned that good history presents both sides of a story in a balanced manner. The student said that Mormon does not present the Lamanite point of view, therefore he is not a credible historian. Having made his point, the boy walked off down the hall gloating as if he had scored a sound point.

Had he stayed to listen, my response would have been “Hogwash.” Great historians are those who are intelligent enough, and are self secured enough, to not try to hide their intentions, but to take a stand and defend what they believe. Dishonest historians pretend to present a balanced argument, but do it in such a way that they try to lead the minds of gullible readers to come to the same conclusion that the historian pretends not have reached. (We see this kind of approach all the time when we watch “unbiased” TV news broadcasts.)

Because of the twisted idea about historical honesty the boy learned in a history class, he thought his education had led him to expose a great “fault” in the Book of Mormon. The tragedy for the boy is that the “fault” was his own mistake. Had he been as wise as he thought he was intelligent he would have seen that his argument was in fact Mormon’s vindication.

When we pit our own learning against the scriptures we are at a self-imposed disadvantage because in our own minds our reasoning or learning will win every time. They will not win because the scriptures are inferior to our intellect, but because our attitude presupposes the superiority of our own reasoning. With that presupposition, scriptural truths don’t have a chance, and our education cripples our ability to learn. Jacob lamented that situation in his own day:

28 O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.
29 But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God (2 Nephi 9:28-29).

One of the surest ways to “discover” the faults in the scriptures is to read the text without reading the words. That is, to read the scriptures like we would read a novel, getting the gist of the stories without paying close attention to such mundane things as the precise meaning of words (especially the code words), verb tense, and the way conjunctions create relationships between ideas, what the words actually say.

In contrast, the surest way to discover what the authors are trying to teach is to actually read the words. That takes thought, and can be difficult because often the first step in learning a new idea is the willingness to unlearn an old one. But even doing that, does not guarantee that we will hear what the author has to say.

No matter how precisely an author writes, the reader will almost always understand the words according to the prior understanding and attitude the reader brings to the text. Because written words can be understood differently by different readers, the author simply has no power to control what the reader thinks the author wrote. This is even more true with inspired writings where the author is dependent on the reader’s ability to be taught by the Holy Ghost. Moroni was keenly aware of this problem when he wrote:

23 And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;
24 And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.
25 Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.
26 And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;
27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
28 Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness, and I will show unto them that faith, hope and charity bringeth unto me—the fountain of all righteousness (Ether 12:23-28).

The Lord lifted from Moroni the burden of the responsibility of what his readers would understand, because that burden remains squarely on the shoulders of the readers.

Notwithstanding what I have just written, I am aware that there have been many editorial changes in the book since it was first published. The most numerous are punctuation changes to make it easier for us to read. But neither Mormon nor Moroni had anything to do with the need to make those changes. There was no punctuation in the manuscript Oliver Cowdery took to the printer. The printer added them. Punctuation marks are editorial comments, just as are the chapter breaks and headings and the breaks between verses —sometimes in mid-sentence. Another frequent change was the shortening of very long sentences whose ideas were tied together into a continuum by the conjunction “that.” Modern editors have shortened some sentences by replacing “that” with a semicolon, a comma, or a period. My favorite way to read the Book of Mormon is to download the text of the first edition, use a search and replace to take out all the punctuation, and read it with the long sentences. It is remarkable how smoothly the ideas flow together.

I am quite sure that Moroni’s concern was not grammatical changes. Moroni’s warning expresses concern for the reader who innocently does not understand, just as it does for the reader who chooses to not understand. The difference is that the former faithfully waits for understanding, while the latter goes away thinking how very clever he is.

{1} Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), 7.


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