Enlarging Our Memory
Mormons understand the Book of Mormon to be a third testament of God's work in this world, one given in addition to the two testaments of the Christian Bible. It is the sacred record of an ancient people, telling us of God's dealings with them and of Jesus Christ's appearance to them after his resurrection. We believe that Joseph Smith was given that record by an angel and that he translated its content by revelation.
Within the Book of Mormon we find histories, sermons, parables, blessings of posterity, letters, and poetry—the same variety of genre that one finds in the Bible. But one thing we find in the Book of Mormon that we don't find in the Bible is an explicit discussion of the need to keep sacred records.
In several places Book of Mormon writers tell of handing their record to the next record-keeper or reflecting on what they are doing as record keepers. Most of these reflections are no more than a few sentences long. But one of the Book of Mormon prophets, Alma the Younger, in passing the sacred record to one of his sons, spends more time than others talking about the importance of scripture.
Among other things Alma says, "Behold they [the scriptures] have enlarged the memory of this people" (Alma 37:8). The most obvious meaning is that those who have a history of themselves remember more than those who do not. We remember the tragedy of the Civil War not only because we've heard about it, but also because we have historical records reporting what happened and the work of historians analyzing the war's events and their impact.
Obviously the point of scripture isn't just to give us an historical record of events that we might otherwise forget. In fact, we make a mistake if we think of scripture as histories in our sense of that word. Scripture writers weren't just trying to tell us the objective facts about what happened and the most reasonable interpretation of those facts. Anything but. They were telling us of their experiences of the world and how God and his work is revealed in those experiences.
In the Book of Mormon we see that conversion and reconversion come by remembering. Dedication, sacrifice, and covenant are one with memory. Sermon after sermon begins with a prophet reminding his listeners or readers of what the Lord has already done for them. Book of Mormon prophets remind us of the flood (Alma 10:22) and of the exodus from Egypt (Mosiah 7:19). The Book of Mormon missionary, Ammon, converts an enemy king, Lamoni, by rehearsing the stories of what we call the Old Testament (perhaps more accurately called the First Testament). Ammon begins with the story of Adam and Eve (Alma 18:36) and ends with the story of the origins of the people of the Book of Mormon.
It is as if these prophets say "Given all the things that God has done for your ancestors and for you, how can you resist his call to come to him in repentance and love?" As records of memory, the Book of Mormon and the Bible are each a revelation of God's work in the world. Each is a testament, a testimony. Each is a collection of such testimonies.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.