I’ve been reading Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon, which is a wonderful, wonderful analysis of that sacred text. In its cornucopia of insight, though, one thing has jumped out and fascinated me more than anything else: Hardy shows that the Jaredites probably weren’t Christians.
This might seem odd on the surface: it’s the Book of Mormon, after all. Everything about it is meant to testify of Jesus Christ. And certainly, the little book of Ether, which tells of the Jaredites, does do that…but only because of the commentary given by its editor, Moroni.
Hardy notes that the only explicit teaching about Jesus Christ in the book of Ether come from Moroni, and that the only two figures in the Jaredite record he’s abridging who seem to have any clear knowledge of Jesus are at the very beginning and the very end of that story: the brother of Jared sees Jesus personally, but is told not to share his experience (Ether 3), and the final prophet of that civilization, Ether, prophecies briefly of the New Jerusalem and is rejected (Ether 13).
That’s it. Nothing else is said directly of Jesus Christ or any gospel-related Christian doctrine in the Jaredite record, at least as we have it. There is no mention at all of the Atonement. The Jaredites don’t seem to have had any priesthood or any ordinances. No covenants among that people are recorded. Whenever the book of Ether mentions prophets working with people, it’s merely in the context of repentance, but it’s never tied into the grace of God’s sacrifice, so while they may have had some commandments to keep, their spiritual knowledge can’t be said to have extended beyond carnal morality.
This makes sense, actually. The Jaredites came from the Tower of Babel. While the Book of Mormon links its primary protagonists, the Nephites, directly to Israel’s history by connecting Lehi to the house of Joseph, no such connection can exist for the Jaredites, whose transplanting to the Western Hemisphere came before Joseph, before Israel, and before even Abraham himself. They didn’t have the law of Moses because their society predated Moses by centuries.
So the Jaredites couldn’t have come by any gospel knowledge by the means the Nephites did, starting with scriptures and tradition. But didn’t the Nephites have their own special revelations? Couldn’t the Jaredites also have had that? Sure, but the text simply doesn’t say that. We can’t imagine details into scripture that the scriptures don’t warrant.
Hardy speculates, quite cleverly, that that’s why Mormon never included the book of Ether in his own record, leaving it for his son Moroni to abridge and insert at his leisure. Mormon, perhaps, was uncomfortable with the pagan Jaredite record, or unable to fit in into his book’s thesis, and Moroni only did so by monopolizing the record’s narrative with his own commentary.
This conclusion isn’t a done deal, though. I have to wonder why Ether would prophesy about a New Jerusalem being built by the descendants of Joseph if the Jaredites had no knowledge of Joseph or, for that matter, the old Jerusalem itself. It seems like a strange thing for a prophet to tell people in a last ditch effort to forestall their doom. Still, it can be inferred that there was more to this prophecy, because Moroni then says that he was about to write more of it, but was forbidden (Ether 13:13). Maybe the rest of this prophecy referenced their gospel knowledge?
But the biggest question we would have to ask ourselves is this: if the Jaredites did have knowledge of Jesus Christ, why didn’t Moroni include any of it in his abridgement of their record? Indeed, the book of Ether as a whole only helps our faith if we see it as a companion to the Nephite record’s warnings about rebellious pride (as I wrote here once, the major theme of Ether is clearly a warning against the lust for civil power).
So while the jury’s out on whether or not the Jaredites were Christian—a question that probably can’t be answered without revelation through the Church—the text itself, quite simply, implies that they weren’t.
My take away from this is that maybe the book of Ether stands to testify of another one of the Nephite record’s themes: the universal love of God for all humanity and his fairness in caring for them. The Book of Mormon says that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nations and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). Perhaps the Jaredites weren’t ready for the fullness of the gospel as the Nephites were. Perhaps their prophets, then, were more like Mohammed and Buddha than like Alma, Peter, and Joseph Smith—chosen to impart only a portion of light and truth.
If so, then the book of Ether stands as a monument that basic truths of gospel law operate even when people are ignorant of them—that everybody must live up to the degree of light in their conscience, or endure the suffering promised by those prophets whose words so often confuse and offend the world.
UPDATE: I’ve been reading Ether with a view to confirming or denying Hardy’s thesis. I see three verses that might bear on the issue, but none is a slam dunk either way.
1. Ether 7:23— “And also in the reign of Shule there came prophets among the people, who were sent from the Lord, prophesying that the wickedness and idolatry of the people was bringing a curse upon the land, and they should be destroyed if they did not repent.” Condemining idolatry is solidly within the Judeo-Christian tradition, but not exclusively, so while this sounds like a reference to gospel knowledge among the Jaredites, it simply may or may not be. The text doesn’t say what constituted their idolatry (worshipping statues, living sacrifices, immorality, lust and greed, something else altogether?), much less to what righteous standard they returned.
2. Ether 9:22— “And after he had anointed Coriantum to reign in his stead he lived four years, and he saw peace in the land; yea, and he even saw the Son of Righteousness, and did rejoice and glory in his day; and he died in peace.” This is clearly a reference to Jesus Christ, but it’s only a personal experience. Did many others have visions like this, or know about them? Or was Emer a Jaredite version of Simeon, who saw the baby Jesus and said, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” (Luke 2:29-30)? But if this was only a private experience among a non-Christian people, who recorded this vision in the Jaredite record, and why?
3. Ether 12:30–“For the brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed. And if he had not had faith it would not have moved; wherefore thou workest after men have faith.” Outside of the first half of Ether, this is the only reference to the brother of Jared in the scriptures. This great miracle would seem like a public event, but what did other people really know about it, much less preserve? Was this a testament to them of Jesus Christ? We just don’t know.
It seems to me that the biggest problem in understanding the religion of the Jaredites is that we have so little of their actual record–it’s almost all been redacted by Moroni–and we know so little of who their record keepers were or what they knew.