In chapter 19, Nephi breaks from the family history narrative to detail the purposes of the two sets of plates he made. In this post I’ll focus in particular on the first six verses. Essentially, this post will be an extended idea of Joseph Spencer as outlined in his book, An Other Testament.1 I will quote and summarise extensively from his book, the reason being that it is important to properly understand his idea in order to make sense of arguments he will later make about the significance of the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi. Additionally, Spencer’s thoughts about what Nephi writes in 1 Nephi 19:1–6 are central to his suggested structure of 1 and 2 Nephi as outlined here.
Spencer begins his argument as follows:
In a neglected but vital study of First and Second Nephi, Frederick Axelgard points to the importance of 1 Nephi 19:1–6 for understanding the “overarching framework in Nephi’s writing”. In these verses, after distinguishing the small and large plates, Nephi says: “And an account of my making these [the small] plates shall be given hereafter” (1 Nephi 19:5). With this sentence, Nephi points to a later moment in his record, found in the last verses of 2 Nephi 5, where he describes the actual physical production of the small plates. This is important because Nephi goes on in 1 Nephi 19 to explain that only “then” – that is after the account of the actual physical production of the small plates at the end of 2 Nephi 5 – would he “proceed according to that which [he had] spoken,” namely to fulfill the “commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these [small] plates” (1 Nephi 19:5, 3). Nephi thus identifies for his readers a basic structural division in his record, one he apparently imposed on it consciously and of which he wanted his readers to be aware.
Spencer goes on to say that Nephi’s statement in the last verse of 2 Nephi 30 – “And now, my beloved brethren, I make an end of my sayings” – indicates another division in his record. He then states:
Because Nephi only begins to “fulfill the commandment” [see 1 Ne 19:3] concerning the small plates with 2 Nephi 6, the break between 2 Nephi 6–30 and 2 Nephi 31–33 turns out to be important: it allows one to identify 2 Nephi 6–30 as the core of Nephi’s record. These twenty-five chapters are what Nephi calls, in 1 Nephi 19:5, the “more sacred things” of his record.
To summarise, Spencer is proposing that in the first six verses of 1 Nephi 19, Nephi highlights a textual marker (in 2 Nephi 5) that signals the beginning of the most sacred part of his writings. Spencer then asks the perhaps obvious question: Why would Nephi postpone the “more sacred things” of his record until so late (several chapters into his second book)? Indeed, why would Nephi write anything but “more sacred things” in his record?
To answer this question, Spencer turns to the work of Noel Reynolds. In a study about the political significance of Nephi’s small plates, Reynolds states:
Every people needs to know that its laws and rulers are legitimate and authoritative. This is why stories of national origins and city foundings are so important to human societies throughout the world. Such stories provide explanations of the legitimate origins of their laws and their rulers … When Nephi undertook late in his life to write an account of the founding events of the Lehite colony, it appears that he wanted to provide his descendants with a document that would serve this [legitimizing] function. His small plates systematically defend the Nephite tradition concerning the origins and refute the competing account advanced by the Lamanites … Thus, the writings of Nephi can be read in part as a political tract or a “lineage history”, written to document the legitimacy of Nephi’s rule and religious teachings.2
Spencer suggests that Nephi hoped the less scared material in his record (i.e. everything preceding 2 Ne 5) would legitimise Nephi’s claims to leadership and thus would ensure that the more sacred things would not be dismissed. In fact, in several of these early chapters I have drawn attention to the fact that Nephi has written them in such a way as to draw comparisons between himself and great leaders from Israel’s past, including Joseph, Moses and David.
In a later study, Reynolds argues that Nephi understood his role as “ruler” to be more religious than political, modelled on the prophetic leadership of Moses rather than the political leadership of the Israelite monarchy. In contrast, Laman and Lemuel were, according to this argument, fixated on the monarchical model. As Reynolds puts it: “It was a contest between the claims of inherited royal right and divine prophetic calling, a contest that necessarily put religious claims at the center of the dispute.”3
Again, to summarise, it is Spencer’s argument that the less sacred material of 1 Nephi 1 – 2 Nephi 5 were inserted into the record to guarantee that the more sacred, instructional materials of 2 Nephi 6–30 would be taken seriously and remain in the Nephite consciousness.4
As an aside I should note that there is some irony in this interpretation of the structure of Nephi’s writings. That is, the purpose of the early chapters is to prepare the reader to take seriously Nephi’s work in reading Isaiah. But the modern reader is typically far more familiar with these preparatory chapters and we are eager to skip through the Isaiah chapters of 2 Nephi as quickly as possible!
Finally, Spencer asks one more question of his own theory: Why does Nephi bury his explanation of all this in the (relatively obscure) nineteenth chapter of First Nephi? Why are his structural intentions not, for instance, laid out in the very first verses of 1 Nephi 1, or at least 2 Nephi 1? He goes on to suggest the reason may be that when Nephi began his small plates record, he only intended to write 1 Nephi 1–18, i.e. to write a record that would legitimise his claims to leadership, and that only after he completed these chapters was he commanded to write “the more sacred things”. He explains:
If Nephi indeed first intended only to write what is now 1 Nephi 1–18, and if he therefore wrote these chapters before deciding to alter the scope of his record, it would seem that he had no choice but to spell out at the beginning of what is now 1 Nephi 19 the new projected structure of his record. On this reading, Nephi’s concern in 1 Nephi 19:5–6 that his readers might miss the overarching intentions of his record would have been motivated by the discontinuity of his record resulting from his change of plans. Having decided to restructure his record, Nephi would have to provide an explanation that would gather into the project he now saw himself writing what he had already written.
This post is already pretty long and I’ve only covered the first six verses of the chapter. As this is a mid-week post, I’ll follow-up on Sunday with some more thoughts re. the rest of 1 Ne 19. Until then I’d be interested in your thoughts re. Spencer’s ideas. What do you think of the structure he proposes in which 2 Nephi 5–30 make up the more sacred core of Nephi’s writings? And what do you think of the idea that when Nephi began writing the small plates he only intended to write the 1 Nephi 1–18?
- Joseph Spencer. An Other Testament, pp. 34–41
- Noel Reynolds, BYU Studies 27.4 (Fall 1987):15
- Noel Reynolds, “Nephite Kingship Reconsidered” in Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, pp. 155
- A modern comparison might be the inclusion of Joseph Smith’s testimony and the testimony of the 3 and 8 witnesses at the beginning of the Book of Mormon. Their testimonies legitimise the book so that the reader is incentivised to take it seriously. Similarly, Nephi’s history as contained in 1 Ne 1 – 2 Ne 5 legitimises his role as prophet-leader so that his descendants (and modern readers) are incentivised to take seriously his more sacred writings as contained in 2 Ne 5–30.