Evidence #146 | February 2, 2021

Survivor Witnesses

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The Book of Mormon’s accounts of horrific human atrocities manifest several of the same patterns found in “survivor literature” from the 20th century.

A Literature of Survivor Witnesses

In his sobering 1973 study “Survivors and the Will to Bear Witness,” Terrence Des Pres draws attention to patterns of behavior exhibited by those who have suffered terrible human atrocities.1 Des Pres explains, “Within the last twenty-five years a remarkable literature has come into being: all the forms of testimony which survivors give—diaries, novels, firsthand accounts—about the nature of survival in extremity and of the evil thus endured.”2

Des Pres’s work draws primarily on accounts from the survivors of Nazi and Soviet concentration camps during World War II. “What these books reveal most clearly … is the survivor’s will to remember and record.”3 Also relevant is that certain patterns have emerged from analysis of these records. “Survival, it turns out, is a specific kind of experience. It has a definite structure, and ‘to survive as witness’ is one of its forms.”4

Jews on a selection ramp at Auschwitz, May 1944. Image via Wikipedia. 

Survivor Literature Noted by Latter-day Saint Scholars

Several Latter-day Saint scholars have noticed that this research is relevant to the Book of Mormon. Drawing upon Des Pres’ article, Lisa Bolin Hawkins and Gordon C. Thomasson have helpfully summarized the essential features of survivor accounts:5

  1. The will to remember and record anchors the survivor in the moral purpose of bearing witness, thus maintaining his own integrity in conscious contradiction of the savagery around him.6
  2. Witnessing of his experience is viewed as a duty, even a sacred task.7
  3. It is instinctively felt, an involuntary outburst of feeling, born out of the horror that no one will be left.8
  4. The task is carried out despite great risks; often in secret or by depositing the record in a secret archive.9
  5. Survivors do not witness to inflict guilt or to rationalize their own survival. Their mission transcends guilt and their irrepressible urge to witness arises before any thought of guilt surfaces and at their initial stage of adjustment to extremity.10
  6. They speak simply to tell, to describe, out of a common care for the life and the future, realizing that we all live in a realm of mutual sacrifice.11
  7. Survival in this sense is a collective act; the survivor has pledged to see that the story is told.12 …
  8. The survivors speak to the whole world, as a firsthand eye-witness, one whose words cannot be ignored.13
  9. They view themselves as a necessary connection between the past and the future.14
  10. They perceive that “out of horror … the truth will emerge and be made secure.” That “good and evil are only clear in retrospect,” for wisdom only comes at a terrible price. Thus, their mission is to display the “objective conditions of evil.”15

Those familiar with the Book of Mormon will likely notice that many of the above features are, to some extent or another, present in the stark accounts of human tragedy recorded by Book of Mormon prophets. Ether, Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, Alma the Elder, Alma the Younger, Amulek, Mormon, and Moroni—each of these men witnessed terrible human suffering and lived to tell about it. Appendix 1 provides analysis for each of these individuals (except Mormon and Moroni) and their status as survivor-witnesses.  

Marvelous Were the Prophecies of Ether, by Walter Rane

Mormon and Moroni as Survivor Witnesses

Mormon and Moroni, in particular, can be seen as the Book of Mormon’s consummate survivor witnesses. Not only did they each behold the entire destruction of their people, but they wrote the most extensively and intimately about their divine commission to record these horrific events. As assessed by Hawkins and Thomasson, “Virtually each of the ten characteristics of the survivor-witness typology listed at the beginning of this paper is present in the words and deeds of Mormon and Moroni.”16

Concerning the destruction of his people, Mormon commented, “I did even as the Lord had commanded me; and I did stand as an idle witness to manifest unto the world the things which I saw and heard” (Mormon 3:16). Clearly, he viewed it as a sacred duty to share these things with the world. Mormon saw his son Moroni as sharing in this obligation: “it supposeth me that [Moroni] will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them” (Words of Mormon 1:1–2).

Moroni later confirmed that this indeed was the outcome: “And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people” (Mormon 8:3). Moroni may have been able to save himself by joining the Lamanites (Moroni 1:2). Instead, at great risk to his own life, he wandered for years without friend or family in order to preserve his people’s writings (v. 3).

Moroni traveling in the wilderness. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

And, indeed, the preservation of a record was essential. These writings would provide the means of warning future audiences and connecting them to past prophets. For those who treat the Book of Mormon lightly, Moroni warned that the Lord will say unto them: “Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead?” (Moroni 10:27–28). The Book of Mormon is truly a record that the world cannot ignore. A more comprehensive documentation of Mormon and Moroni’s relevant statements are presented in a chart in Appendix 2.

Conclusion

According to Thomasson, “Obviously, there are several differences among the personalities, conditions, and divine callings of each survivor witness in the Book of Mormon, as well as between them and the survivors of modern holocausts. But there are also many distinctive and unexpected similarities.”17 These similarities suggest that the Book of Mormon was not merely derived from Joseph Smith’s active imagination, but rather from individuals who experienced authentic atrocities of calamitous proportions.

As concluded by Hawkins and Thomasson,

… there is enough said about the horrible experiences of some of the prophets and others [in the Book of Mormon] that we can discern that they suffered in a manner analogous to those who have suffered in the man-made hells of the Twentieth Century. That the response of the Book of Mormon peoples to that type of atrocity and widespread death is so accurately similar to a typical human phenomenon observed and analyzed in remarkably parallel detail under comparable circumstances by a Twentieth Century sociologist—especially where genocides and calamities of the magnitude studied by Des Pres and depicted in the Book of Mormon were unprecedented in the world of Joseph Smith—is worthy of note.”18

Book of Mormon Central, “How Can the Book of Mormon Survivors Give Us Hope? (Mormon 8:3),” KnoWhy 393 (December 26, 2017).

Gordon C. Thomasson, “The Survivor and the Will to Bear Witness,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 268.

Lisa Bolin Hawkins and Gordon Thomasson, “I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee: Survivor Witnesses in the Book of Mormon” FARMS Preliminary Reports (1984): 1–13.

2 Nephi 26:7Jacob 7:26Words of Mormon 1:1–2Mosiah 17:2–4Mosiah 24:14Alma 14:12–13Alma 14:28Mormon 3:16Mormon 6Mormon 7Mormon 8:1–9Mormon 8:35Mormon 9:30Ether 8:20–26Ether 13:18–24Ether 15:33Moroni 1Moroni 9:7–24Moroni 10:27–28

2 Nephi 26:7

Jacob 7:26

Words of Mormon 1:1–2

Mosiah 17:2–4

Mosiah 24:14

Alma 14:12–13

Alma 14:28

Mormon 3:16

Mormon 6

Mormon 7

Mormon 8:1–9

Mormon 8:35

Mormon 9:30

Ether 8:20–26

Ether 13:18–24

Ether 15:33

Moroni 1

Moroni 9:7–24

Moroni 10:27–28

Ether

For years, Ether hid himself in the “cavity of a rock” by day, and then at night he would go out to witness the entire destruction of his people, the Jaredites (Ether 13:18–24). The battles which he witnessed, whether directly or in their aftermath, included breathtaking casualties: “yea, there had been slain two millions of mighty men, and also their wives and their children” (Ether 15:2). Then, after Ether “beheld that the words of the Lord had all been fulfilled” he recorded them and “hid them in a manner that the people of Limhi did find them.” (Ether 15:33).19

Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob

When Lehi was called as a prophet, he was shown “great and marvelous things … concerning the destruction of Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 1:18). Years later, Nephi not only revealed that this destruction had taken place (2 Nephi 25:10), but he saw that in the future his own people would suffer a similar fate: “O the pain, and the anguish of my soul for the loss of the slain of my people! For I, Nephi, have seen it, and it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord” (2 Nephi 26:7).

Lehi’s son, Jacob, wrote that his people were “wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). Hawkins and Thomasson noted that “Lehi’s entire family can be considered survivor-witnesses of a sort, fleeing from … Jerusalem to save Lehi’s life.”20

Alma the Elder

Alma the Elder can be seen as a survivor-witness of Abinadi’s prophecies and tragic martyrdom. After risking his own life by pleading on Abinadi’s behalf, Alma went into hiding, wrote down Abinadi’s words, and used them to gather a following (Mosiah 17:2–4). Sadly, Alma’s followers were forced to flee into the wilderness to escape King Noah’s soldiers, only to fall into bondage under Amulon and his Lamanite army a short time later. In the midst of these trying circumstances, the Lord declared to His people that He would ease their burdens so that they could “stand as witnesses for me hereafter” (Mosiah 24:14; emphasis added).21

Alma the Younger and Amulek

While witnessing the terrible martyrdom of women and children by fire, “Amulek said unto Alma: Behold, perhaps they will burn us also. And Alma said: Be it according to the will of the Lord. But, behold, our work is not finished; therefore they burn us not.” (Alma 14:12–13). It is likely that some of these women and children were part of Amulek’s own family.22

While Alma and Amulek were being persecuted by their captors, an earthquake caused the surrounding prison walls to fall, and “every soul within the walls thereof, save it were Alma and Amulek, was slain” (Alma 14:28). As noted by Hawkins and Thomasson, “Alma and Amulek did escape from Ammonihah and lived to preach, prophesy, and bear witness of the evils they had seen.”23

Mormon and Moroni as Survivor Witnesses24
Survivor Witness FeaturesWritings of Mormon and Moroni
1. The will to remember and record anchors the survivor in the moral purpose of bearing witness, thus maintaining his own integrity in conscious contradiction of the savagery around him.

Words of Mormon 1:1–2

1 … behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

2 And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people.
2. Witnessing of his experience is viewed as a duty, even a sacred task.

Words of Mormon 1:2

2 But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

Mormon 3:16

16 … I did even as the Lord had commanded me; and I did stand as an idle witness to manifest unto the world the things which I saw and heard

Mormon 8:3

3 And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people. But behold, 

they are gone, and I fulfil the commandment of my father. And whether they will slay me, I know not.

Moroni 9:22

22 I pray unto God that he will spare thy life, to witness the return of his people unto him, or their utter destruction;
3. It is instinctively felt, an involuntary outburst of feeling, born out of the horror that no one will be left.

Mormon 6:16–20

16 And my soul was rent with anguish, because of the slain of my people, and I cried: …
4. The task is carried out despite great risks; often in secret or by depositing the record in a secret archive.

Mormon 8:3–4

3 And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people. But behold, they are gone, and I fulfil the commandment of my father. And whether they will slay me, I know not.

4 Therefore I will write and hide up the records in the earth; and whither I go it mattereth not.

Moroni 1:3

3 And I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life.
5. Survivors do not witness to inflict guilt or to rationalize their own survival. Their mission transcends guilt and their irrepressible urge to witness arises before any thought of guilt surfaces and at their initial stage of adjustment to extremity. 
6. They speak simply to tell, to describe, out of a common care for the life and the future, realizing that we all live in a realm of mutual sacrifice. 
7. Survival in this sense is a collective act; the survivor has pledged to see that the story is told.

Mormon 8:2–3

3 And my father also was killed by them, and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people.
8. The survivors speak to the whole world, as a firsthand eye-witness, one whose words cannot be ignored.

Mormon 3:16

16 I did stand as an idle witness to manifest unto the world the things which I saw and heard, according to the manifestations of the Spirit which had testified of things to come.

Moroni 10:27

27 … and the Lord God will say unto you: 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?
9. They view themselves as a necessary connection between the past and the future.

Mormon 8:35

35 Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.

Mormon 9:30

30 Behold, I speak unto you as though I spake from the dead; for I know that ye shall have my words.

Moroni 10:27–28

27 … and the Lord God will say unto you: 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?
10 They perceive that “out of horror … the truth will emerge and be made secure.” That “good and evil are only clear in retrospect,” for wisdom only comes at a terrible price. Thus, their mission is to display the “objective conditions of evil.”

Ether 8:26 (cf. v. 21)

26 Wherefore, I, Moroni, am commanded to write these things that evil may be done away, and that the time may come that Satan may have no power upon the hearts of the children of men, but that they may be persuaded to do good continually, that they may come unto the fountain of all righteousness and be saved.

 

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