Such contemplations have necessitated certain speculations regarding the religious lives of Mormon and Moroni. This is actually a far more complex matter than you might imagine. Mormon and Moroni consistently describe the state of the Nephites as one of corruption and degredation. And yet other places in the books of Mormon and Moroni make it clear that they enjoyed a rich association with fellow Christians. Exactly who were these Christians if they were not part of the main Nephite population?
As to the general depravity and wickedness of the Nephites, Mormon writes in 4th Nephi that "when three hundred years had passed away, both the people of Nephi and the Lamanites had become exceedingly wicked one like unto another" and that there were "none righteous save it were the disciples of Jesus" (4 Ne. 1:44-45). We can presume this refers to the three Nephites who were blessed with the ability to witness the history of the world until the end of times. However, wickedness caused the Lord to entirely remove these disciples from among the Nephites (Morm 1:13). Mormon states that iniquity was so rampant among the Nephites by the time he was 15 years old that "the work of healings and of miracles did cease" and "there were no gifts from the Lord, and the Holy Ghost did not come upon them . . ." (Morm. 1:13-14). Four years later, in AD 330 he boldly asserts that "the day of grace was passed with them, both temporally and spiritually" (Morm. 2:15). The eternal condition of the Nephites appears dire indeed. So grave that by the age of 15 Mormon was forbidden to preach the gospel to them altogether (Morm 1:16-17). And yet, in spite of this command from the Lord, there is evidence that Mormon did preach. But to whom? If Mormon was forbidden to preach to the Nephites, who did he preach to?
One of the most sublime chapters in the text of the Book of Mormon is a sermon from Mormon, transcribed to us by his son, Moroni, and found in the 7th chapter of Moroni. Chapter 8 also contains a sermon from Mormon regarding an important misunderstanding associated with the doctrine of infant baptism. (Such an error, though deeply serious with an active congregation, seems rather trivial if delivered to a people for whom "the day of grace was past.") Additionally, the opening chapters of Moroni present specific instructions regarding baptism, blessing the sacrament, and the ordaining of priests and teachers. Chapter 6 of the Book of Moroni offers detailed instruction regarding the day-to-day functions of Church leaders and basic doctrines related to repentance, prayer, fasting, and the proper conduct of meetings.
So despite rampant spiritual depravity among the Nephites, it appears that a relatively healthy and flourishing Christian congregation must have existed somewhere in Mormon's midst. This Church appears to have existed in Mormon's homeland in the land northward. He appears to have been reared within this righteous Christian community, and to also have raised his family here. In addition, an active ministry flourished among these Christians. Preaching as a part of his ministry is described as Mormon's "calling" (see Morm. 7:3) and this same calling was later passed along to his son, Moroni (Morm. 8:1).
References from Mormon's personal history suggest that he was raised somewhat apart from the general Nephite population, in lands that may have been at the northern extreme of Nephite territory, or else in a land generally inhabited by peoples who were not Nephites, either racially or culturally. This location was very near to the land inhabited by the Prophet Ammoron, son of Amos, and grandson of Nephi (that same Nephi for which 4 Nephi was named). Is it possible that spiritual corruption and depravity among the general Nephite populace forced righteous men and their families to seek habitation in other districts of the land? Or in Mormon's case, in lands at the northern extreme, or just beyond the borders of the region of formal Nephite occupation?
Mormon's first experience with the general Nephite populace occurred in about AD 322 when he was eleven years old (see Morm. 6-7). At this time he tells how his father carried him into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla. During this trip he vividly describes scenes around him by saying, "The whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and that the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea." Such a description rings with boyhood "fish-out-of-water" fascination, and strongly hints that his own homeland was very different from the one that he was observing. Probably, Mormon's home was substantially more rural and certainly more sparsely populated than those Nephite population centers he encountered in Zarahemla and the land southward.
Interestingly, Mormon tells us that at the age of ten he "began to be learned somewhat after the manner of the learning of my people . . ." A common interpretation for this verse is that it describes a typical "coming of age" experience for any ten-year-old. However, Mormon's phrasing may signify somewhat more. It may reveal that until this age he actually knew very little about his Nephite heritage. Around this time his father (and possibly others) began the process of enlightening and educating him with regard to the culture and history of his noble ancestors, whose descendents dwelled primarily in lands further to the south.
The precise motive for the journey of Mormon's father to the Nephite heartland in AD 322 is not stated. But it may have been an act of political obedience. Mormon reports that in this same year a serious war began to commence between the Nephites and Lamanites. This coincidence and historical dynamic led LDS Scholar John A. Tvedtnes to suggest that Mormon's family had directly descended from an established military caste. If Mormon and his father were part of a military tradition, the journey southward in AD 322 may have been the result of enlistment orders from leaders in Zarahemla. In short, Mormon's father was being "called to duty." If Mormon, the father of Mormon (the scriptures confirm that both had the same name (Morm. 1:5)), was already a war commander and part of a military caste, it would certainly explain, four years later, why young Mormon was so readily accepted as a commander himself—and possibly his father's successor—at the tender age of fifteen. Dr. Tvedtnes reinforces his proposition for Mormon's military heritage by comparing such a caste tradition to other Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Aztecs (John A. Tvedtnes, Was Mormon a Member of a Military Class?, SEHA 163 (April 1988)).
Despite young Mormon's destiny and training as a military officer, it reveals little about the deep spiritual nature of his character. Such traits appear to have developed apart from his racial roots, and perhaps on the very fringes of Nephite population and influence. So if the Christians with whom Mormon associated, preached among, and sat with at church services throughout much of his life were not Nephites, who were they?
According to part-time Book of Mormon geographer and researcher Alan C. Miner, the idea that these "mystery" Christians may have been Ammonites, or descendants of the Lamanite converts of Ammon, was first proposed by Clate W. Mask Jr., emeritus member of the Seventy, while he and Dr. Miner were touring Central America together in 1991. The proposition that Ammonite society survived in the lands northward, essentially intact, for four centuries is extremely difficult to confirm archeologically. However, the prospect becomes interesting when examining together a number of references in the Book of Mormon.
A thorough reading of Helaman 3: 3-16 reveals an extraordinary amount of information regarding a massive northward migration that took place in about BC 46. Mormon offers many details on the complexities of trade between the lands northward and southward. He also describes the task of creating and storing written records. In addition, Mormon offers further information regarding the complex cultural and racial dynamics as to how terms like "Lamanite" and "Nephite" were defined (see vs. 16 in particular).
The text reveals that a primary motivation for this northward migration was to escape the "contentions and many dissentions" (vs. 3) which sprang up in the land of Zarahemla. The Ammonites, or Lamanite converts of Ammon, are identified as one of the groups who became involved in this northward migration (vs. 12). Throughout these thirteen verses of Helaman we find that Mormon often interjects an editorial perspective, particularly with regard to the monumental task of abridging a singular record from his extensive library, but also his frustration that he cannot include in his abridgment more than "a hundreth part" of the materials at his disposal (vs. 14). Verse 13 seems to suggest that the Ammonites themselves were ambitious record keepers. Mormon apparently had these Ammonite records in his possession, but as with other records, he regrets that he cannot contain them all upon the plates of the Book of Mormon. For Mormon to make an editorial statement of this specificity regarding Ammonite records is noteworthy. One might wonder how Mormon came into possession of such records in the first place, except for the fact that Mormon or Ammoron, as fellow inhabitants of land northward, were in close enough in proximity to the people of Ammon. Therefore, obtaining such records could have been accomplished with ease. Also, since Mormon and Ammoron were prophets, the Ammonites likely would have felt no reservations about turning over their sacred records. This would have been especially true of their attitude about the Prophet Mormon since, during these years, the survival of all records, as well as the survival of the people themselves, was in serious jeopardy.
But let's make sure we have properly examined the text. Verse 13 reads, "And now there are many records kept of the proceedings of this people, by many of this people, which are particular and very large concerning them." To reiterate, the previous verse (Verse 12) speaks specifically of the Ammonites. It's not entirely certain that Mormon is reflecting a continuity of thought and subject, and whether he is referring exclusively to Ammonites when he says "this people" in Verse 13, or if he is referring to all Nephites and Lamanites. Mormon's editorial style may imply that he begins his general reference to the records of all of the inhabitants of the land in Verse 14, but the question is open to conjecture.
However, also consider an earlier statement from Alma 23:6 wherein Mormon reports that those Lamanites who were converted by Ammon "never did fall away." Beyond Helaman, Chapter 3, no further mention of the Ammonites is made in the scriptural record. Perhaps it is a stretch to interpret the term "never did fall away" as multi-generational, extending all the way to Mormon's own time period, but because Mormon never recanted or amended this statement anywhere else in the Book of Mormon, the conclusion becomes at least plausible.
During Mormon's sublime sermon on faith, hope, and charity recorded in Chapter 7 of the Book of Moroni, he states:
|I would speak to 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 . . . And now my brethren, I judge these things of you because of your peaceable walk with the children of men. (Morm. 7: 3-4, emp. added).|
For these reasons, I have made the speculation that Mormon and Moroni's stewardship and ministry as witnesses of Christ (see Mormon 3:16, 9:1-6, Moroni 9:4) may not have been among a congregation of Nephites at all. Oh, it's possible that a few Christian Nephites residing in Mormon's homeland had been embraced by the local congregation. But for the most part, this Christian community may have comprised god-fearing peoples who were the direct descendants of the converts of Ammon. Additional information regarding these ideas, and possible timelines for when Mormon may have delivered some of his celebrated sermons, are provided here: Link
Such a speculation naturally leads one to wonder what became of these Christians. I propose that the Lamanites and robbers of Gadianton lumped the Ammonites in the same general category as the Nephites and therefore sentenced them to face the same fate. Such a conclusion seems compatible with Moroni's statements in the years following the slaughter at Cumorah that he was alone with no kinsfolk or friends (Morm. 8:5) and that any Nephite who would not deny the Christ was hunted down and put to death (see Moro. 1:2).
But again, the reader is reminded that the Book of Mormon frequently hints that the world of the Nephites and Lamanites is infinitely more complex than it initially appears. Even after all the many times that I have examined its pages, I continue to have moments like this wherein layers of depth are revealed that make the text as fresh and invigorating as the first time ever I encountered it. To be certain the full story of the Nephites and Lamanites—their history, migrations, and inevitable spiritual destiny—may one day be revealed to the world in far greater detail than what is currently extant, that is, right alongside the history and destiny of every people and tribe of God's children who ever inhabited the earth.