Old School Scripture Mastery

Although Moroni was anxious about the Nephites’ “weakness in writing,” he does note that the Nephites were able to “speak much,” and that their spoken words were “powerful and great” (see Ether 12:23–27). This oratorical excellence to which he alludes could explain the inclusion, in part or in toto, of a number of notable sermons in both the Small Plates and Mormon’s abridgment of the Large Plates. Indeed, some of the best-loved passages in the Book of Mormon come from these speeches—Jacob’s explication of Isaiah (2 Nephi 6–10), his address in Jacob 2–3, King Benjamin’s speech (Mosiah 2–6), the missionary sermons of Alma and Amulek (e.g., Alma 9–14, Alma 31–34), Nephi’s repentance homily (Helaman 7:13–29), the prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite (Helaman 13–16), and, naturally, the sermons that the Savior gave as part of his Nephite ministry. Many others could, and likely should, be added to this list.

The authors and editors of the plates were interested in capturing the entire rhetorical effect of these sermons as events, not merely in preserving their doctrinal teachings. Accordingly, the text of these speeches is often accompanied by intriguing contextual details: historical and political background; facts about the speaker’s life; explicit or implicit information about the size and composition of the audience, their background, social status, and spiritual inclination; descriptions of the effect of the sermon on its listeners; and so on. Such details conjure up a vivid reality and evoke a world about which we have only a few tantalizing clues.

There are many curious and remarkable aspects of Nephite oratory that merit examination and, in fact, have been written about. I’ll comment here on a rather minor facet that happens to be of personal interest to me: the occasions in which the impact of a speech is enhanced by the speaker’s powers of memory.  In the Book of Mormon, this typically takes the form of a quotation, from memory, of a previously canonized passage of scripture. The Book of Mormon is pervasively intertextual, however, and not all citations of scripture in an oration fit this criterion. Jacob, for example, speaks of reading the words of Isaiah to his audience (2 Nephi 6:4–5), which, I assume, means he actually was reading from a physical document.

There are, however, at least a handful of examples in which the record, if we accept it at face value, depicts an orator who quotes texts from memory. This could be as short as a single verse (e.g., 1 Nephi 15:18) or as extensive as multiple chapters (3 Nephi 12–14, 22, 24–25). One might even include the section of King Benjamin’s speech in which he relays, from memory, the words of the angel to him (see Mosiah 3:2).

The use of memory as a rhetorical amplifier is particularly poignant when a speaker gives an unrehearsed response to an interlocutor’s question. We find an example of this phenomenon in Alma 33. In response to an inquiry from his audience, Alma effortlessly quotes passages of scripture from the extrabiblical prophets Zenos and Zenock (Alma 33:3–16). Alma implies that the audience should be familiar with these passages: “do you not remember to have read” these writings, he asks. He concludes by ratifying the cited witnesses with his own.

The single most dramatic example of memory enhancing an oration is Abinadi’s speech to the priests of King Noah. One of the priests attempts to confound him by asking for his interpretation of a passage of Isaiah 52. Abinadi’s reply is remarkable: he first recites the entire Decalogue while elucidating its deeper purpose, then quotes Isaiah 53 verbatim, and finally returns to the interlocutor’s original passage, embedding its explication in the context of a new Christology. One can well believe him when he notes that “my words fill you with wonder and amazement” (Mosiah 13:8). Indeed, it is not just the doctrine that is wondrous, but the rhetorical setting as a whole, including, in this case, a rather stunning display of familiarity with scriptural texts.

These passages of Book of Mormon oratory intrigue me for two main reasons. First, if one accepts the Book of Mormon’s historicity, they raise a whole host of interesting questions about textual sources and history, and even about Nephite civilization. How were these sermons recorded, for example? We understand that King Benjamin’s speech was recorded as it was given, but what about the others? Did the speaker himself endorse the canonical version of the text at some point, or was the editing process analogous to Thucydides putting words in Pericles’ mouth? Would the orators have gained familiarity with the texts via oral transmission, or would they have studied a physical document? Would the audience have been able to identify the speakers’ quotations, paraphrases, or allusions? Speculation is likely the best we can muster to answer such questions, but insofar as it represents a sincere grappling with the text, speculation may be a worthy offering.

Second, in an age in which the memory arts are increasingly superfluous, it is inspiring to imagine this faculty of the human mind used in a powerful and effective way. Memorizing ever more digits of pi is not bad, of course, but applying oneself to deeply learning a text of life-changing power is many times better. The seriousness with which sacred texts are studied and memorized is, in fact, one of things I admire most about the Islamic educational tradition. Memorizing scriptures is, no doubt, a part of our tradition as well, as those who have gone through Primary and Seminary could attest. I worry, however, that we don’t make it too easy, that the Seminary scripture mastery lists inadvertently reduce complex texts to the equivalent of discrete sound bites—better than nothing, certainly, but perhaps not the bar for which we should aim. If we aspire to speak with the power of an Abinadi, we may need to study in Abinadi’s school.

8 comments for “Old School Scripture Mastery

  1. I can still recite the canonized account of Joseph Smith’s first vision from memory…albeit in Italian. I have to back-translate whenever I want to recite it in English.

    I made excellent progress earlier this year at memorizing my favorite passage from the Old Testament: Job 33:14-30. I unfortunately failed to permanently lodge it in my long-term memory.

    For the most part, my mastery of the scriptures is limited to “doesn’t it say something somewhere about (whatever)?” I am horribly dependent on search engines.

  2. Did the speaker himself endorse the canonical version of the text at some point, or was the editing process analogous to the member states of an international organization debating amendments to the chairman’s summary?

    “This is what we talked about.”

    “No, that was never mentioned.”

    “It was, but shouldn’t be included; we don’t want to set a precedent.”

    “Last time we said that and no one had any problems, so why the opposition now?”

    “Well, if we change the chapeau to reflect that only some of us said that…”

  3. Thanks for posting this article Robert.
    The words of Isaiah (probably preserved in thier purest form by the Book of Mormon authors) have great power to persuade all men to come unto Christ, to keep covenants and remember the great things the Lord has done – for Nephi’s brothers, his people, his posterity, and all of the house of Israel, including those living today and future generations. It is interesting to note when the prophets, such as Lehi, Jacob and Nephi, read the words of earlier prophets, rehearse them from memory, or WRITE them. (e.g. 2 Ne 11:8)

    We have a lot to learn from the Islamic tradition, and the Jewish tradition for that matter, in enhancing the memory arts. The gift of remembering plays an important role in inspiring people to abide by the precepts of the Book of Mormon and thus to draw nearer to God and live as Nephi did -delighting in the gospel, or as Abinadi did – with the words written in his heart.

  4. Our stake presidency challenged the stake’s seminary students to a Scripture Mastery contest.

  5. Far more impressive than Abinadi’s recitation of Isaiah was Alma’s recitation of Abinadi:

    “But he fled from before them and hid himself that they found him not. And he being concealed for many days did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken.” (Mosiah 17:4)

    Surely the Lord had a hand in that feat.

  6. Thank you. This post is an extremely observant and helpful insight.
    I had noticed (and read commentary on) the extensive use of un-identified but verbatim quotes that recur throughout the Book of Mormon (for instance the “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” which appears repeatedly, there are many others).
    I had not read ’til now any discussion of the announced use of extended, memorized quotes. But as you observe this is clearly a common practice among the Lehites. It signals a reverence for religious history and the power of memory that nicely mirrors the teaching of the text on these subjects. I also find it cool that the authors did not hesitate to approprate, enlarge, and even fundamentally alter source material; one thinks of the Tree of Life becoming for Alma and something that grows inside of the believer, an improvisational turn on Lehi’s founding vision.

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