Book Review: Moroni - a brief theological introduction, by David F. Holland
published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute
The Maxwell Institute at BYU has been busy providing theological introductions to the books in the Book of Mormon. Below are links to my previous reviews on the other books available.
Holland divides his book into 7 chapters and a conclusion. The chapter titles are:
- Resolute and Unsure
- The Gifts of Sacred Community in a Time of Chaos
- A Sacrament of Multiple Gifts
- To Gather Among and to Rely Alone
- The Sermon, Part One
- The Sermon: Part Two
- The Letters
The Book of Moroni is the last of the books in the Book of Mormon. It is comprised of ten, seemingly different chapters that seem to be a hodgepodge of ordinances and letters tacked onto the end of the gold plates, almost as an after thought.
Holland suggests that the collection of chapters and topics that Moroni brings to the table are a well thought out series of important themes and issues, that link them and their specific sequence together.
First, Holland notes that Moroni is offering us a grab bag full of gifts from God. In fact, the words "gift," "give," or similar terms are found about 30 times in Moroni's ten chapters. Among the gifts that Holland discusses are: priesthood, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Sacrament, faith, hope, charity, meekness, miracles, and gifts of the Spirit. Moroni wishes us to recognize the great gifts that God is ready to impart to us. As Holland notes, "the giver leads us toward the Giver."
Holland notes that Moroni lives in a time of great uncertainty. His nation is destroyed. The Lamanites are in constant battle around him, decades after the demise of the Nephites. They kill Christians, and since Moroni will not deny the Christ, he is forced to wander continually. Twice before, he thought he would finish the Nephite record and bury them, but third time is the charm.
Holland writes, "Severely isolated, with only the records of previous generations as his companions, Moroni knows more about the past than about what is happening in his present moment." Instead of chronicling his own life experiences, he shares important teachings from past prophets in the Nephite record.
He recognizes the weakness he has in writing. Several times in the Jaredite record and in completing his father's history, he noted the weakness they had in writing. Holland describes it as a constant "handwringing" that Moroni shares. He worries about the imperfections in the record. He worries that the future Gentile readers will mock at the sacred text. "Everywhere Moroni appears, this issue comes up."
Holland expresses that in Moroni's first words, we learn two very important and inextricable truths, "The first two theological declarations of the book of Moroni intertwine in its opening verses: Jesus is the Christ, and uncertainty is an unavoidable part of our existence in this mortal world."
Interestingly, Holland notes that the following chapters on priesthood, baptism, etc., are issues for an organized church. "These things come from a man who is well aware that he will not live to see a church community capable of implementing these practices."
As Moroni looked four hundred years into the past to share the Church organization and ordinances that the resurrected Christ taught the Nephites, now he is looking centuries into the future, when the Lamanites and Gentiles will perhaps be ready to organize Christ's church again.
In discussing the importance of the church doctrine, organization and ordinances, Holland jumps ahead momentarily to chapter 8 (child baptism) and chapter 9 (the evil desecrations of the Nephites and Lamanites). He suggests that Moroni is using these letters from his father Mormon, as "guardrails" for organizing the church. Chapter 8 warns us about being so formally and logically strict in keeping/making commandments that we do away with the grace and love of God. Chapter 9 warns us about allowing things to go completely in the opposite direction: chaotic emotion and de-evolution going from children of Christ to children of demons.
It is an interesting suggestion, which definitely helps me personally to tie Moroni's writings together. Instead of thinking he randomly grabbed a couple of his father's letters, Moroni carefully selected two letters that would help guide the future church of Christ, warning them to avoid excesses in either direction (rigid logic and chaotic emotion). Holland calls these ends of two poles, "dead works" and "disorder." The challenge is to manage to be centered in the middle of these two poles, rather than on the extremes.
Holland returns to discussing the priesthood, and the ordinances. He breaks down and analyzes each piece of the ordinance, and explains how they relate to today's Church. He notes the careful balance the modern Church seeks to maintain between the power and guidance from the official hierarchy and the gift of personal revelation and gifts of God. In fact, he finds that the restored gospel has the "audacity" to make such an effort of balancing between the two.
In partaking of the Sacrament and other gifts, Holland shares a keen insight from Saba Mahmood's study on Muslim rites, that the people had to constantly remind themselves,
"...that an act of [ritual] performed for its own sake, without regard for how it contributes to the realization of piety is 'lost power.'"
The Sacrament, according to Holland, provides us with two important gifts that can transform us, as long as we do not drift into "thoughtlessness": "the gift of repetitive discipline and the gift of supernatural grace." He notes that the bread and water are sanctified, touched and made holy by the hand of God through his priesthood bearers:
"Before, they were unblessed and unsanctified; by the time they enter my mouth, they have been touched by the sanctifying power of the living God. This is not just a reverence that humans give them; this is a quality God imparts."
In one of his deeper theological discussions, Holland shares the tension between agency and God's foreknowledge. He briefly explores the background behind Calvin's predestination versus free agency. This discussion is brought about by Mormon's teaching that a good fountain cannot bring forth evil water, nor vice versa. This brings about a discussion on whether mankind are born completely evil (as Calvinism suggests) or as the children of God. How can we be both good and evil, a gray area, where Mormon only sees black and white? If we are sinful, can we change ourselves? Or can only God bring about change within us? Holland's discussion and his suggested answer are interesting to consider, as he discusses the miracles of change and agency.
In Moroni 7, we find certain common issues for Latter-day Saints and other Christians: understanding the differences between grace and works, and faith and hope, and understanding how each pair work together.. Mormon ties them inextricably together. Holland explains how they relate and how they relate to each of us.
On discussing faith and hope, Holland explains that
"...if faith is the belief that God is good, hope is the belief that he will be good to me."
This is a very interesting definition, given our modern context of faith and works. For many years in the 20th century, some Church leaders pressed works to the point that some members felt they had to earn their own salvation. Several times in his book, Holland expresses the balance, rather than the extreme, and that the gifts of God shared by Moroni are available to all. I've known members who believed Jesus is the Savior, but they doubted whether the atonement could actually save them from their sins. Here we find that faith and hope must go hand in hand: not only must we believe that Jesus is the Christ, but that he is my Savior!
Holland then shares an excellent discussion on charity. He especially notes that while most love is natural, charity (the love of Christ) is "supernatural." It clearly is a gift, as Mormon explains it is given to those who pray diligently for it (Moroni 7:48).
Again, he returns to chapters 8 and 9. Mormon lays bare his feelings on child baptism and the depravity of the Nephites.
"Mormon's unflinching gaze at the crimes of his own people, unobscured by the justifying instincts of nationalism, offers us a lesson in moral reasoning that elevates the low brutality of his description into a call to higher ground."
The danger didn't come from without, as Holland notes:
"...the people's precipitous transformation into savagery did not come through the corrupting presence of external forces. It came in a moment when his people seemed most liberated from structural constraint. It came from within."
Perhaps a deeper and more introspective study into these letters could offer us greater understanding of the processes ongoing in our nation today (Jan 2021), as we grapple with extremes of government excess and abuse on the one hand and chaotic rioting on the other.
Holland continues with several great insights into the remaining chapter: real intent, gifts of the Spirit, etc. In his final comments, he discusses the
",,,formulation of the doctrine of the gift. These are offerings (offered independently of human ability), and we have the chance to choose them."
As Holland notes earlier in the book,
"...it is difficult to appreciate a gift or its giver until you realize how desperately you need them."Moroni lived in desperate times. He saw the future and knew we would also live in desperate times, times that could easily reflect his own. Times when we would desperately need the supernatural gifts of God. Gifts like priesthood, remission of sins through baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, faith, hope, charity, and the redemption of Jesus Christ.
Over the past many months, I have read and reviewed several of the books in this series. I have not been disappointed in any of them. David F. Holland shares a Moroni that is very real and personal. I can now see how Moroni carefully chose what to place in the sacred plates. It is a gift that Holland has opened my eyes to. There is so much great information and concepts to consider in this book that I know I will be going back to it time and again to consider and ponder each of the teachings Moroni desperately wanted us to read and embrace.
I highly recommend this book. While there are a few deeper discussions, most of the concepts he shares are very accessible to the average reader. It will help each of us to read the very short book of Moroni in new ways.
Now available at
My previous reviews on the series