Explanation of larger project:
D&C 42 says the Book of Mormon contains a “fulness of the gospel.” As I’ve searched elsewhere in the scriptures, it seems this phrase is unquestionably linked to the Book of Mormon. What is the gospel, in this sense, and what does it mean to have a fulness? D&C 10, where Joseph is instructed to translate the small plates of Nephi, deals with this theme of the gospel and its fulness. Verses 45-63 talk of “parts” of the gospel or “points” of doctrine. I want to start in verse 38, where there is discussion of what was on the 116 pages and the small plates.
38 And now, verily I say unto you, that an account of those things that you have written, which have gone out of your hands, is engraven upon the plates of Nephi;
Whatever it was that Joseph Smith had translated, it is apparently also “accounted” for on Nephi’s small plates. Apparently whatever was in those 116 pages did not go past the small plates.
39 Yea, and you remember it was said in those writings that a more particular account was given of these things upon the plates of Nephi.
So on Mormon’s abridgment, it was said that a more particular account was on the small plates. An account of what? I wonder. I tend to think of Nephi talking about his small plates not having the “particular account” – for example, 2 Ne 5:33: “And if my people desire to know the more particular part of the history of my people they must search mine other plates.”
“A more particular account … of these things.” Whatever it was that Mormon wrote, Nephi gave more details (or Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni, etc.). I would imagine Mormon would have covered the story of Lehi’s family leaving Jerusalem and coming to their Promised Land, which Nephi does dwell on quite a bit. But what besides this? What narratives do the small plates tell?
Did Mormon use Lehi’s record when he made his abridgment? Or did he stick to the large plates? Ah, apparently he did stick to the large plages – see Words of Mormon, verse 3. So no other records were used, such as Lehi’s. Hence, Mormon’s abridgment was an abridgment of the history, and yet there is a more particular account was on the small plates. Doesn’t this go against our normal ideas of the small and large plates? What’s going on here?
So far we’ve seen:
- Many if not most of the historical accounts that Mormon pulled off of the large plates were ones that were on the small plates too.
- Of those historical events, the small plates actually had the more particular account, even though Nephi says that the large plates usually have the more particular account of the history.
What we have is a reversal of the normal relation between the small and large plates. Most of the historical accounts in the small plates come from 1 Nephi. (Come Enos, Jarom, and Omni, we get so little detail that I can’t believe there was any less on the large plates!)
The other avenue to go is that Mormon tried to include as many of the sermons and doctrinal discussion as he could. He abridged what he had, and then found the small plates (had he found both at the same time, would he have incorporated the sermons from the small plates into the historical account as he abridged the large plates?). So in this case, Mormon did his best to include these spiritual things along with the history. And in his record, Mormon mentions that a “more particular account” of the sermons and doctrines are on the small plates. (But hadn’t he not found them yet? Maybe he carries this over because the large plates mention the small plates. Something like, “Somewhere there are these small plates, and if you ever find them you will have a more particular account.”)
40 And now, because the account which is engraven upon the plates of Nephi is more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people in this account—
Here we have another use of the phrase “more particular.” In verse 39, those writings themselves said that there was a more particular account on the small plates than what they could offer. Here, we have the Lord saying that the small plates contain a more particular account concerning certain things: “things … I would bring to the knowledge of the people.” They are more particular in a certain way or about certain things that the Lord wants His people to have. This seems to support the second road I went on earlier: Mormon tried to include as many sermons has he could, but had little access to them. The Lord can fulfill Mormon’s desire by introducing the small plates to Joseph.
41 Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained;
“down even till you come” – does this imply that the engravings went further than King Benjamin? If the small plates ended where we have them ending, then why would God need to tell Joseph when to stop translating from them? And yet, the small plates seem to imply that they did end where we have them ending. But it’s just an implication:
Omni 1:25, 29: “And it came to pass that I [Amaleki] began to be old; and, having no seed, and knowing king Benjamin to be a just man before the Lord, wherefore, I shall deliver up these plates unto him … and these plates are full. And I make an end of my speaking.”
This is the very last thing we get from the small plates. Next, in our Book of Mormon, we have the Words of Mormon. Here is what Mormon himself says about his abridgment (perhaps equal to our 116 pages?):
“And now, I speak somewhat concerning that which I have written; for after I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi, down to the reign of this king Benjamin, of whom Amaleki spake…” (verse 3)
And about the small plates:
“… I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi” (still verse 3).
It doesn’t sound like the small plates go further than Benjamin. But do they go further than Amaleki? It could be that Benjamin received the plates and recorded some of his words on them, so that “down to the reign” of Benjamin is inclusive. Or, it could be that Amaleki was it, so that none of Benjamin’s writings were on the small plates. We know they were delivered to him, but I don’t see any place where we know if he wrote on them.
Besides, then it would appear that Joseph would have translated through Amaleki’s words, then jumped to Mormon’s words. It does not seem likely to me that King Benjamin wrote on the small plates.
[I do have other questions for Words of Mormon; I worked them out here: Words of Mormon – questions.]
Second avenue: What if the phrase “plates of Nephi” in verse 41 meant the abridgment of Mormon? Then Joseph would be going back to Mormon’s abridgment and finishing up a few more pages in order to introduce King Benjamin. This seems pretty weak, though. When else is the abridgment called “plates of Nephi” rather than the small plates? Although this would have been a handy way out of the problem, but I don’t see it working out.
This remains a puzzle to me. Why give Joseph directions to stop at Benjamin, when it appears to us that the switch to Benjamin was the end of the small plates?
Third avenue: Was it just a preview? “Translate these plates, which will go until the reign of King Benjamin, which is right where you were at in translating.” If it’s read in this sense, the Lord is simply saying the small plates are going to come to King Benjamin, which Joseph already knows about. (Side note: he could know about Benjamin from words on the 116 pages we don’t have. But in addition, it says there is some translation work “which you have retained.” It sounds like Joseph would have known who King Benjamin was from perhaps a chapter or two from what we have in the Book of Mosiah, even if there wasn’t anything about him on the 116 pages of the abridgment.)
This doesn’t settle well with me either, though. The language of verse 41 really seems to me to be a direction of where to stop, so that it will match up in a certain way with what he’s translated.
The only way out of this problem for me is to assume that the Words of Mormon were not on the small plates, or that Mormon added pages to the small plates in the front or at the end in a way that made them separate (and it would make sense for Joseph to translate these pages and not the rest of the small plates). But again, this doesn’t settle out either for me.
So far, I can’t find a way out of this one!