Evidence #29 | September 19, 2020

Politeness Formula

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Scripture Central

Abstract

An imperative request formula found in ancient Near Eastern epistles can also be found in the Book of Mormon.

Imperative Request Formula in the Ancient Near East

In 2016 Kim Ridealgh studied various forms of politeness found in a corpus of Egyptian letters known as the Late Ramesside Letters, produced between 1099–1069 BC. One interesting finding from Ridealgh’s study is that the phrase when my letter reaches you frequently shows up “directly before an imperative request act.”1 The phrase was “used by superiors to their subordinates and between individuals who appear to be socially equal; its role in this context seems to be to mitigate any possible FTAs [face-threatening acts] due to the request act.”2 In other words, it seems to have been a polite way of telling someone what to do.

Papyrus; thirty-one lines of Hieratic epistolary tect; Late Ramesside Letter no. 28, from Butehamun to Piankh, informing the general why his orders have not been carried out. Image and description via britishmuseum.org.

Here are several samples of this formulaic imperative request from the Late Ramesside corpus:3

  • “… when my letter reaches you, do not go out to look at the winnowing …”
  • When my letter reaches you, you shall release this man …”
  • When my letter reaches you, you should write to me about your condition …”
  • When my letter reaches you, you shall cause to have sent some cloth … Do not be neglectful.”4
  • As soon as my letter reaches you, you shall go to the open court of Amon …”5
  • As soon as my letter reaches you, you shall tell Amon to bring me back alive.”6
  • As soon as my letter reaches you, you shall fetch the remainder of the chariot-poles ...”7

This request formula also seems to be present in a corpus of Hittite letters (all examples from ca. 1400–1350 BC):8

  • As soon as this tablet reaches you, drive quickly to the presence of My Majesty.”9
  • As soon as this tablet reaches you, quickly mobilize  that 1,760-man troop of Išḫupitta ...”10
  • As soon as this tablet reaches you, go to Kašepura.”11
  • As soon as this tablet reaches you, harvest the grapes of His Majesty’s estate.”12
  • As soon as this tablet reaches you, take charge of the blind men and conduct them back here safely.”13
Late Bronze Age Hittite Tablet on display at the Oriental Institue, Image via wikipedia.org.

Ancient Near eastern texts from later time periods may draw upon this same ancient pattern. An undated letter from the Elephantine Papyri reads, “When this letter reaches you, do not delay, come down to Memphis at once.”14 And a letter from Egypt, written in Greek and dating to ca. AD 57, declares, “Just as soon as the letter reaches you, come at once. … If the letter reaches you, come immediately.”15

Imperative Request Formula in the Book of Mormon

Several examples of the imperative request formula are also found in the Book of Mormon. The clearest instance comes from one of the most famous passages in the text, namely Moroni 10:4: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” Although not quite as direct, the following examples also feature imperative requests soon after a reference to the words of the writer and their impending receipt by the reader:16

  • “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.” (Moroni 10:3)
  • “Therefore, when ye shall receive this record ye may know that the work of the Father has commenced upon all the face of the land. Therefore, repent all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me, and believe in my gospel, and be baptized in my name …” (Ether 4:17–18).
Moroni depositing the Plates. Image by Katie Payne.

Other imperative requests in the Book of Mormon seem to be intentionally linked to the words of letters in meaningful ways, even though they depart from the standard when-this-letter-reaches-you formula:

  • “And it came to pass that [Moroni] sent a petition, with the voice of the people, unto the governor of the land, desiring that he should read it, and give him power to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death.”(Alma 51:15, cf. Alma 60:34)17
  • “And I write this epistle unto you, Lachoneus, and I hope that ye will deliver up your lands and your possessions, without the shedding of blood” (3 Nephi 3:10)
  • “And now I, Moroni, have written the words which were commanded me … therefore touch them not in order that ye may translate …” (Ether 5:1)
  • “And now, my son, I desire that ye should labor diligently, that this gross error should be removed from among you; for, for this intent I have written this epistle ” (Moroni 8:6)
  • “And I exhort you to remember these things; … Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?”(Moroni 10:27)

Imperative Requests in 19th-century Letters

It should be noted that imperative requests following references to the receipt of a letter is not an exclusively ancient phenomenon. The same feature can be found in 19th-century American correspondences. For instance, in a letter to William W. Phelps, Joseph Smith stated, “I have a partickuler request to make of Bro John Whitmer that is as soon as you receive this letter for him to assertain the exact number of Deciples that have arived in zion … ”18 Similarly, Oliver Cowdery once wrote, “… we thought that we shall write evry week to our brothren Newel K. Whitney and on your receiving this we want you to do the same by us.”19

In a survey of 65 Civil War correspondences (most between common soldiers and their families) conducted by staff at Book of Mormon Central, two of them contain similar examples:

  • “Dear wife I will now come to a close soon as this reaches you and give me all the news you can”20
  • when you receive this I want you to write to me and let me heare from you all”21

Interestingly, 37 of these Civil War letters (57% of those sampled) instead offer well-wishes following a statement about the letter reaching the recipient, as demonstrated in the following examples:

  • “I hope that when these few lines reaches you that it May find you all injoying the Same Blessing”22
  • “I hope when these few lines reaches you they will find you well and harty”23
  • “I hope when thease few lines reach you they will find you and the childrean all well and in good Speerit”24
  • “I am Well I hope When thes few lines reaches you they may find you the same”25
  • “I am well at the present time and hope that when these lines reaches your hands they will find you and all of the rest of the family all in good health”26
  • “I hope and trust that when these few lines Reaches the 58 Ridgment that thay will find you alive and well and adoing well”27
  • “I am well at present hoping when thes few lines reaches you they may find you well and all the rest well and doing well”28
Example of well wishes following the mention of the receipt of a letter. Letter by John B. Gregory, February 17, 1862. Image via https://altchive.org/private-voices/.

Therefore, in at least this sampling of 19th-century letters, the standard when-this-letter-reaches-you formula was most often followed by well-wishes rather than imperative requests. Much more research would be needed to determine a reliable approximate frequency of either form of greeting in 19th-century correspondences generally or as employed by Joseph Smith or his associates specifically.

Conclusion

The above analysis demonstrates that several imperative requests found in the Book of Mormon somewhat mirror the imperative request formula found in ancient Egyptian and Hittite letters. The significance of this connection, however, should be tempered by the fact that similar imperative requests can also be found in 19th-century correspondences. It is somewhat natural that requests would be temporally linked with the receipt of a letter, which means that it is expected that examples of this phenomenon likely occur in correspondences in many languages and cultures throughout time.

On the other hand, the requests found in the ancient Egyptian and Hittite letters certainly seem to be intentionally formulaic and consistent in their wording, much like the well-wishes expressed in the corpus of Civil War letters. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough examples of the request formula (or of epistles that might exhibit that formula) in the Book of Mormon to reach any firm conclusions. The few examples that can be identified offer only preliminary evidence of a possible connection with this ancient literary practice.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Was Giddianhi So Polite? (3 Nephi 3:2),” KnoWhy 190 (September 19, 2016).

Robert F. Smith, “Epistolary Form in the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 22, no. 2 (2010): 125–135.

Sidney B. Sperry, “Types of Literature in the Book of Mormon: Epistles, Psalms, Lamentations,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4, no. 1 (1995): 69–80.

Alma 51:15Alma 60:343 Nephi 3:10Ether 4:17–18Ether 5:1Moroni 8:6Moroni 10:3–4, 27

Alma 51:15

Alma 60:34

3 Nephi 3:10

Ether 4:17–18

Ether 5:1

Moroni 8:6

Moroni 10:3–4, 27

Literary Features
Book of Mormon

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