Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. IIIb. The material culture of Nephite literacy

The physical form a text takes has implications for how it can be used, and so it also tells us something about a society’s assumptions about how texts should be used. Broadsides were printed on just one side, for example, so they could be posted and perused by multiple readers. Books for personal use adopt a size that could be held in one hand, and letter or type sizes that were legible at arm’s length under typical lighting conditions.

Fortunately, the material culture of Nephite literacy is the one aspect of Nephite civilization about which we have any kind of historical evidence in the form of nineteenth-century eyewitness accounts of the Golden Plates.[1]

I don’t expect that all or even more than a fraction of Nephite records were kept on metal plates simply because of the expense and difficulty of preparing and using a metallic writing surface. Even cultures that write nearly exclusively on paper or parchment have known the concept of writing on metal tablets for uniquely noteworthy documents. But the Golden Plates are nevertheless our one piece of evidence of what form a typical Nephite book may have taken. When Mormon needed to compile his records, he did so with metal rings binding the plates together, and I assume this approach to constructing a physical book was based on how other documents he knew were constructed.

For our purposes here, the importance of the Golden Plates is neither the gold nor the plates, but the rings that bound them, and what those rings would allow you to do. If you’re a Nephite, and your idea of a “book” is a collection of individual plates bound with rings, then it’s relatively straightforward to open the rings, add or remove plates, and reclose the rings (by bending them, twisting them, using some form of clasp, or hammering them back together if needed). You can even combine two collections of plates of similar format into one book, as Mormon seems to have done with the small plates of Nephi.

This physical fact has implications for how we think about the nature of Nephite records. Based on what we can presume based on their physical form, the Nephite records Mormon knew and read were open—in both a physical and psychological sense—to supplementation, revision, and other processes of textual adaptation. A manuscript whose blank leaves can be filled with equal authority, or to which additional quires can be added, is open, while a modern printed book, which is not directly extendable by its owners or readers, is a much more closed form. A parchment decree to which a royal seal has been attached is by its nature closed, while the journal to which you add a new entry each week is clearly open. It’s in this sense that I suspect that Nephite records, Mormon’s sources, were open: open to addition, deletion, restructuring and recombination. This is another reason I think the text historical processes I’m familiar with from medieval and early modern Europe aren’t alien or anachronistic when discussing the Book of Mormon, because I suspect these processes emerge naturally in textual cultures that use writing surfaces that are realtively valuable or difficult to obtain or manufacture (like parchment, high-quality paper, and metal plates), and where documents are in some sense open.

There is at least one case of supplementation documented by the text of the Book of Mormon itself, as a prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite was famously omitted from the Nephite record. The omitted material now comprises Helaman 14:25.[2] Mormon’s abridgment was also open (in both senses) to additions by Moroni. John Sorenson assumes that new plates could be inserted, and Brant Gardner contemplates the rings being opened and plates being inserted or removed as needed.[3] But the openness of Nephite records also implies that Mormon’s sources were not fixed in permanent form, but subject to updating and revision over time.

The martyrdom by fire of the believers in Ammonihah along with the “records which contained the holy scriptures” is a revealing if unfortunate incident in the history of Nephite literacy and material culture. Some Nephite writing, including sacred writing, used a medium other than metal plates, perhaps thin wooden sheets of the type known from medieval Scandinavia or the beaten bark paper known from Central America. The perishability of these scriptures reinforces the suggestion that literacy and written texts were accessible to somewhat normal people rather than restricted or arcane knowledge. But multiple manuscript copies of scriptural records also implies, inevitably, that there were multiple versions of both scripture and other records, with each copy able to be emended, compiled with other texts, or extended in all the other ways that are known from the study of manuscripts.

This is also why I suppose that Mormon’s sources were more like a library containing single copies of more widely distributed works than a carefully-tended archive of unique and authoritative records. Instead of having the complete Nephite Royal Archive at his disposal, I suspect Mormon had access to something more like the remnants of the Nephite State Library.

* * *

So far, I think my notes and observations, although not the only possible interpretation, have been pretty defensible. These notes and observations have implications for the possible ways we might read the Book of Mormon, but the implications of suppositions are only going to be plausible at best, even if I think that these implications need to be taken more seriously.


I.The philological instinct

II. What did Mormon know?

III. Mormon’s sources
IIIa. Nephite literacy
IIIb. The material culture of Nephite literacy
IIIc. The source structure of the Book of Mormon

IV. The puzzle of 3 Nephi

V. The permissibility and utility of philology for studying the Book of Mormon
Va. The permissibility of philology
Vb. The utility of philology
Vb1. Useful cautions
Vb2. What did the Nephites know about Nephi?
Vb3. The overdetermination of Nephite origins
Vb4. Jacob and Sherem


[1] Kirk B. Henrichsen, “How Witnesses Described the Gold Plates,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10.1 (2001): 16-21, 78.

[2] D. Lynn Johnson surmised that the missing text was added as interlinear or marginal annotation: “The Missing Scripture,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3.2 (1994): 88.

[3] Sorenson, “Mormon’s Sources,” 5; Gardner, Labor Diligently, 39-40 n. 64.

5 comments for “Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. IIIb. The material culture of Nephite literacy

  1. Mark Ashurst-McGee
    June 15, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    “You can even combine two collections of plates of similar format into one book, as Mormon seems to have done with the small plates of Nephi.”

    So, when Mormon stumbled upon the small plates, they just happened to be the same height and width as his abridgment plates (like our ubiquitous “8 1/2 x 11” paper leaves)?

    Or what are your thoughts on this (and the various theories out there).

  2. The Other Clark
    June 15, 2020 at 1:17 pm

    Can any light be shed on Nephite record keeping based on the mesoamerican codex that have survived? (e.g. The format of a book in western culture–paper bound on the left, with two hard covers, with text in rows and read front to back–has survived unchanged for 1,000 years. The binder of the Book of Kells would recognize a 20th Century Bible, for instance). Nearly all of the pre-hispanic writings we have—some of which date back to the 600s!–are all folded like accordions.

    Is it possible the small plates of Nephi were originally “closed,” as the later writers (Enos, Omni, et al.) all complained they were running out of space? Maybe Mormon “unbound” the small plates and punched holes for rings in order to fit them into his “open” compilation?

    Again, fantastic post. Thanks for the time and effort you’ve taken to share your research and expertise.

  3. June 15, 2020 at 6:42 pm

    Those are both great questions, and this comment is a placeholder for the longer answer that might have to wait until tomorrow.

  4. June 16, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    Mark, I wrote up an answer, but it got a bit involved for a comment, so it appears here:

    Other Clark, an answer is still coming.

  5. June 16, 2020 at 10:51 pm

    Other Clark, I think you could have a situation where both Enos and the others were running out of room, and later authors are opening the plates to insert material. I’ll look at that more in the next installment.

    For this series of posts I’m being agnostic about time and place. But let’s relax that restriction for a bit and accept for the moment that Mesoamerica is the setting and 600 BC-400 AD is the time period. At first glance, there isn’t much to connect accordion-folding books made of beaten-bark paper with ring-bound plates. So maybe my assumption that the Golden Plates looked like other Nephite records is wrong.

    The difference in book forms between the Old and New World doesn’t worry us too badly, as Lehi and his family would be leaving Jerusalem well before the codex (in the technical sense) came into use (most prominently among Christians in the early 2nd century AD so or). But it would leave ring-bound metal plates, unenclosed by any covering, co-existing with accordion-form books made from beaten bark paper.

    Maybe there’s a path from one to the other. The sad fact is that we have more eyewitness accounts of the Golden Plates than we do of a typical Mesoamerican book from the 2nd-4th century AD, but let’s assume that the use of beaten bark paper and accordion-fold form were already in use. That’s a book format that’s possible but somewhat awkward for metal plates or rigid writing surfaces. You can’t fold metal like that, as it would fatigue and break. You’d have to use hundreds of small rings to connect the plates in accordion fashion. It might occur to someone to put all the holes together on one side instead of alternating sides, but then you could get by with two or three big rings instead of hundreds of small ones.

    Some things about books remain constant for centuries (like the height-width ratio I mentioned in my answer to Mark), but changes in material and technology do have consequences. Paper led to standardized book sizes, and print led to smaller letter sizes (ink from an expertly cut metal letter is legible at smaller sizes than hand-written letters), and print also led to title pages and paragraphs and some other changes that might have irritated the scribe who wrote the Book of Kells. Going from accordion-form paper books to ring-bound plates isn’t the only possible step, but maybe it’s not too much of a leap to imagine.

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