In my last post, Nephi witnesses Christ’s birth, life and ultimate sacrifice. In 1 Nephi 12, the angel shows him a vision of America including a quick summary of the entire Book of Mormon story. He sees the “land of promise”, a new land that he, himself will soon set foot on. He sees his descendants populating this land. He sees wars and bloodshed. Then he sees Christ descend from the heavens to visit those in this land who survived. He sees twelve disciples called to both administer and to eventually be the judges of those who dwell on this land. Christ leaves, and three generations continue in peace and in faith, before they eventually fall back into old patterns, wars and eventually, total unbelief.
Why is it important for Nephi to see this vision? Why is it important for us to read this vision? Why are twelve disciples who just happened to be alive during Christ’s visit to America called to judge all of those who have inhabited America? What does this have to do with us?
Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830 in Palmyra, New York. The United States was a desperately young country at this point of time. A young country in an old land, filled with strange people with an unknown historical past, even today I’m not sure how much we really know about the ancient American world. Joseph Smith is led to a hill by an angel and discovers a book with metal pages enscribed with words in an unknown language. He miraculously translates the book. Publishing the book kicks off the beginning of a new church that from humble beginnings eventually expands across the globe, by in no small part, the intense sacrifices of Joseph Smith’s earliest converts. Without this book there is no church.
I’m inspired by Richard Bushman’s words describing this book in the Joseph Smith biography, Rough Stone Rolling, in chapter 4, page 104:
The story of Israel overshadowed the history of American liberty. Literal Israel stood at the center of history, not the United States. The book sacralized the land but condemned the people. The Indians were the chosen ones, not the European interlopers. The Book of Mormon was the seminal text, not the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. The gathering of lost Israel, not the establishment of liberty, was the great work. In the Book of Mormon, the biblical overwhelms the national.
The Book of Mormon proposes a new purpose for America: becoming a realm of righteousness rather than an empire of liberty. Against increasing wealth and inequality, the Book of Mormon advocates the cause of the poor. Against the subjection of the Indians, it promises the continent to the native people. against republican government, it proposes righteous rule by judges and kings under God’s law. Against a closed-canon Bible and nonmiraculous religion, the Book of Mormon stands for ongoing revelation, miracles, and revelation to all nations. Against skepticisms, it promotes beliefs; against nationalism, a universal Israel….
I think timing of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon during the very beginning stages of the United States as a new nation is no accident. It foundationally stands in tension with secularism and nationalism as all churches should. Just as America was beginning to make its claim to what would become the light shining on a hill, the Book of Mormon comes forth to offer a counter-argument, to point to the one true light a light that knows no geographic boundaries.
That this story comes early on in the Book of Mormon story is telling. The book first tells us its purposes, then tells it again, and then again.
The birth of our nation was indeed a miracle and a blessing. So was the birth of this book and its church.