Mormon’s Editorial Methods – and Insights to Headnotes in the Book of Mormon

Mormon’s Editorial Method and Meta-Message is a thoughtful article by Brant Gardner on the techniques Mormon used in editing the Book of Mormon text. For those wishing to understand the Book of Mormon (including some of its internal evidences for authenticity), this is a helpful article, though maybe a bit heavy for those new to the Book of Mormon.

One of several interesting point’s in Brant’s work is his analysis of the headnotes that Mormon apparently provided in some parts of the book. Here is the relevant excerpt:

Several clues in Mormon’s text bear evidence that he had at least created a full outline of his work before he began the task of committing it to the plates. Perhaps the most obvious evidence is the chapter headnotes which were physically written on the plates prior to the chapters they synopsize. The extant portion of the original manuscript preserves synoptic headnotes for Helaman and 3 Nephi, confirming that the 1830 edition’s headnotes were part of the translation and were not added in the preparation of the Printer’s manuscript when Joseph or Oliver could have created them from their reading of the original. As a representation of information from the plates, they indicate that Mormon wrote them prior to the chapters and therefore had to know the contents of the coming chapter before he began to write it.

The majority of the headnotes are at the beginning of named books. In the small plates, they appear only at the beginning of 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi and Jacob. In Mormon’s editing of the large plates, they appear at the beginning of every book but Mosiah. A headnote’s absence there is understandable because the lost 116 pages apparently included at least the first chapter of Mosiah. I feel fairly safe in concluding that Mosiah would have had such a headnote, given Mormon’s consistency in the remainder of the books he edited.

In contrast, there are no headnotes for Mormon, Ether, or Moroni–three books he did not edit. Mormon’s consistency in adding these introductory headnotes to the books that he is editing suggests (and is corroborated by other types of internal evidence) that he had some clear plan of what he was going to include in each book he edited. When Mormon switches to his own record, it is no longer a part of the planned text and therefore does not have the synopsis in a headnote.

Although there is evidence for an outline, there is also evidence that Mormon did not simply copy a previously written text onto the plates. While he certainly copied the various sermons from his source material, in his own text he allowed himself to interact with the information he was writing. We often see Mormon divert from his outline on a tangent occasioned by thinking about the material he was writing. The evidence both for the asides and for the outline from which they diverged comes in the way he returns to his task. In order to reset his narrative to the outline, Mormon repeated at least the idea, and often much of the language, of the last part of the outline before the departure.

I had noticed this process in the text well before I had a name to identify it, which (thanks to David Bokovoy) I now have. Bokovoy relates the technique as it is known from the Old Testament: “Repetitive resumption refers to an editor’s return to an original narrative following a deliberate interlude. Old Testament writers accomplished this by repeating a key word or phrase that immediately preceded the textual interruption.”


Author: Jeff Lindsay

2 thoughts on “Mormon’s Editorial Methods – and Insights to Headnotes in the Book of Mormon

  1. Wow, for Brant. I haven’t read the whole article, but does he ever come up with some interesting points. He buries one in his footnotes, that being that in the original manuscript, 3 Nephi and 4 Nephi are each just called “The Book of Nephi.” I checked a copy of the 1830 Book of Mormon, and Brant is right, 3 Nephi and 4 Nephi are each titled just “The Book of Nephi,” with 3 Nephi having the additional note, “The Son of Nephi, which was the Son of Helaman,” and 4 Nephi having a note in the heading saying, “Which is the Son of Nephi, One of the Disciples of Jesus Christ.” So, with the name of each book being identical, as you thumb through a copy of the original 1830 Book of Mormon, at the top of each page, it simply says “Book of Nephi,” for both 3 Nephi and 4 Nephi, giving no distinction as to which is which.

    And, the significance of it all is pointed out by Brant: 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi came from the Small Plates, but the Large Plates probably did not have had a 1 Nephi and a 2 Nephi, but rather a Book of Lehi. So, obviously, by the time the Large Plates reached 3 Nephi and 4 Nephi, they could not have been called by those names, 3 Nephi and 4 Nephi. That they are each just called “Nephi” is surely one of the internal evidences of the Book of Mormon that you, Jeff, refer to.

    But the most interesting thing Brant mentioned (from the part of his article that I did read) was his pointing out that in every single case, the names of the books from the Large Plates follow the change in the rulers who possessed and wrote upon them. And if a Book of Mormon writer was not a ruler, his writings went into the book named after the last writer who was a ruler. Wow on that. I find it fascinating.

    And, Brant points out that 3 Nephi probably didn’t come from the large plates (referring to 3 Nephi 5:8-10 to show as much). I had missed that.

    I also hadn’t considered that Mormon might have dug up the plates when he was 24, just as Ammaron told him to. On my last reading through the Book of Mormon, I noticed he would have been much older when he sallied his way to the hill Shim to retrieve the plates (Mormon 4:23). Brant says that was the second time Mormon took some plates from the hill Shim, assuming he also dug up plates at age 24, as he was instructed by Ammaron.

    Cool article.

  2. Whoops. I should have read more carefully. Brant notes Mormon’s first visit to the hill Shim is recorded in Mormon 2:16-17.

    If Mormon was 11 in A.D. 322 (Mormon 1:6), and it was about A.D. 345 when he first dug them up (Mormon 2:16-17) he was, though, late getting there. Ammoron had instructed him to get them when he was 24, not 33 or 34.

    I kind of like the idea he didn’t do it on time. In a perfect world, things might all get done as planned, but not always so in a real world.

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