Spoiler: I’m going to propose that this amazing, majestic sermon was probably written and delivered by Mormon when he was just a teenager.
I read Moroni chapter 7 this last weekend. That’s where Moroni records his father’s great sermon about faith, hope, and charity. The rhetorical background of this text intrigues me.
First of all, we know to whom it was delivered; Mormon says quite clearly at the beginning that it’s for “you that are of the church, that are the peaceable followers of Christ, and that have obtained a sufficient hope by which ye can enter into the rest of the Lord, from this time henceforth until ye shall rest with him in heaven” (v. 3).
We can infer from the text, and what we know of that period of history, why it was given: surely, this was during a period of societal decline, and these faithful church members–no doubt a beleaguered minority–needed encouragement and guidance for dealing with their troubled times.
The text does a great job of achieving that goal. Here’s how: Mormon counsels them to, first and foremost, maintain righteous desires in their hearts (vv. 5-11), then proceeds to remind them of how to discern between good and evil (vv. 12-19–note that here he also stresses that everyone originally has the light of Christ in them [v. 16], which would be a striking teaching as they were surrounded by an increasingly wicked, crumbling society).
Mormon goes on to comfort and motivate them by preaching of the blessings of having faith (vv. 20-39), which leads to the blessings of enjoying hope (vv. 40-43), which leads to the blessings of exercising charity (vv. 44-48).
But my big question here is when it was given. Mormon’s most typical teaching mode–extrapolating morals from historical narratives (i.e. all of his famous “and thus we see” statements)–is completely absent here. Indeed, even the many contextual details that he drops in his second letter to his son in Moroni ch. 9 about the imminent doom of their ruined society has no corollary in ch. 7. In fact, the odd absence of that facet of Mormon’s modus operandi leads me to the theory I propose here.
Obviously, the sermon was given, chronologically, somewhere between Mormon 1:2 (when ten-year-old Mormon first appears on the public scene) and Mormon 6:15 (when the last remnants of Nephite civilization are destroyed).
First of all, the absence of narrative references or context leads me to theorize that Mormon, in this sermon, had not yet developed the historical acumen that we associate with him.
In fact, Moroni 7 not only lacks concrete examples, it is altogether theoretical. The doctrine it teaches is sound and true, and the writing and reasoning are strong, but there is nothing in it to suggest any extensive life experience in the author, unlike his much more practical letters to his son (Moroni 8 and 9). Indeed, surrounded by the deeply tragic texts of Ether, Moroni, and the older Mormon, the sermon is Moroni 7 has a refreshingly innocent tone.
In Mormon 1:15, he tells us that when he was 15 years old, he was personally visited by the resurrected Savior. However, nothing in Moroni 7 suggests this mature background. Even though sharing this experience would have greatly strengthened his assertions in that sermon that angels witnessed to people of the reality of Christ (vv. 22-26), that miracles have not ceased (vv. 27-29), and that people may one day see Jesus (v. 48), nowhere in the sermon does Mormon mention this powerful event.
It would seem that the sermon was given before that special visitation happened.
Even more strongly suggestive, though, is this: in the sermon’s section on faith, Mormon says that angels still minister to people to
call men unto repentance, and to fulfil and to do the work of the covenants of the Father, which he hath made unto the children of men, to prepare the way among the children of men, by declaring the word of Christ unto the chosen vessels of the Lord, that they may bear testimony of him.
And by so doing, the Lord God prepareth the way that the residue of men may have faith in Christ, that the Holy Ghost may have place in their hearts, according to the power thereof; and after this manner bringeth to pass the Father, the covenants which he hath made unto the children of men. (vv. 31-32)
Then he asks them, rhetorically, if the presence of angels or the gift of the Holy Ghost have disappeared (vv. 35-36).
He then answers his own questions:
Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain.
For no man can be saved, according to the words of Christ, save they shall have faith in his name; wherefore, if these things have ceased, then has faith ceased also; and awful is the state of man, for they are as though there had been no redemption made. (vv. 37-38)
But in his own book, he explicitly says that precisely those two things did, in fact, happen.
The three Nephite disciples (3 Nephi 28, who were “as the angels of God,” v. 30) ministered among the people until he was 15 years old (Mormon 1:15), when “I did endeavor to preach unto this people, but my mouth was shut, and I was forbidden that I should preach unto them…and the beloved disciples were taken away out of the land, because of their iniquity” (1:16).
If that’s not a cessation of the ministering of angels because of a people’s lack of worthy faithfulness, then what is? Also, if the divine order to Mormon to stop preaching included all instances of preaching to all Nephites, then Moroni 7 couldn’t be any later than that.
Even more clear are his statements when he was in his thirties that, by then, “the day of grace was passed with them, both temporally and spiritually” (2:15) and that “the strength of the Lord was not with us; yea, we were left to ourselves, that the Spirit of the Lord did not abide in us; therefore we had become weak like unto our brethren” (2:26).
Mormon’s teachings about angels and the Holy Ghost not leaving people unless they lack faith, if spoken to the people after those very things had happened, would seem pointless and mean. Therefore, I suggest that Moroni 7 was composed and delivered before those events are fulfilled in Mormon ch. 1 and 2.
Also, Mormon 2:2 tells us that young Mormon started leading the Nephite army in battle. Those wars occupy the rest of chapter 2, including the above verses about the Nephites’ spiritually destitute state, and even saying that Mormon spent much of that time traveling to various areas with his men.
Obviously, that period of his life would not have been conducive to delivering inspiring sermons about faith, hope, and charity in the synagogues back home! (However, it also would have been during this time that he turned 24 and first obtained the records, as he was told to do in Mormon 1:3).
So, the most likely time for Mormon to have delivered this sermon was when he was a teenager, due to these four things:
- He was inexperienced enough in life and unlearned enough in his people’s history to not include any concrete details in his sermon
- He doesn’t testify to these faithful saints of having seen Jesus, even though it would have helped his message
- The Nephites were still enjoying the ministering of angels and the gift of the Holy Ghost
- He had the time and opportunity to deliver a sermon
This would also lead to a possible location for where the sermon was delivered: as a young man, Mormon lived in Zarahemla (Mormon 1:6), which certainly would have had a synagogue, which is all Moroni 7 says about the setting of the sermon (Moroni 7:1)
To speculate about a placement for this sermon chronologically, we might most conveniently place it right between verses 12 and 13 of Mormon chapter 1: verse 12 tells of four years of peace among the Nephites, and verse 13 tells of such increasing wickedness that the three disciples were taken away.
This means I have yet another mistake to fix in my Complete Chronological Standard Works.