Sep 28, 2009


Sometimes we get the impression from writers, teachers, or the media that the common people of the Book of Mormon were illiterate--that only the wealthy and elite members of the society were trained and capable of reading and writing. Granted, such was the case among the conquest-era Mesoamericans with whom they are often compared. For example, among the Maya, only the offspring of nobility were trained in special schools to become scribes. This was a laborious process requiring substantial time and effort. Takeshi and Houston observe:
Epigraphic evidence suggests that some scribe-artists were of royal or noble origins…. these scribe-artists were, in a sense, the intellectuals of Maya society and held the esoteric knowledge of religion, myths, astronomy, and the calendrical system; presumably they went through a long period of training. It is likely that most scribe-artists were born into the royal or noble classes. This pattern was not limited to the Maya area, since in many other parts of Mesoamerica scribal duties were discharged by nobles. The religion, calendar system, and other knowledge transmitted and developed by these scribe-artists, along with the products they made, such as stone monuments, were essential for enhancing the prestige and authority of the royal and noble classes and for maintaining the unity of the Maya polity. Maya scribe-artists were not powerless...specialists who simply produced artistic goods at the behest of the ruler; they were central players in the royal court who competed for high status and power by using their scarce skills and knowledge.1
Does this in any way describe the Nephite culture? I think not. Nephite culture was much more open and egalitarian. Although the Book of Mormon does not specify directly that the Nephites were literate, this can be inferred from a number of scriptures. Four examples will suffice.

King Laman, of the Lamanites, appointed Amulonites, who were apostate Nephites, to teach his people the learning of the Nephites, which included reading and writing
And he [king Laman]appointed teachers of the brethren of Amulon in every land which was possessed by his people; and thus the language of Nephi began to be taught among all the people of the Lamanites.
And they were a people friendly one with another; nevertheless they knew not God; neither did the brethren of Amulon teach them anything concerning the Lord their God, neither the law of Moses; nor did they teach them the words of Abinadi;
But they taught them that they should keep their record, and that they might write one to another.
And thus the Lamanites began to increase in riches, and began to trade one with another and wax great, and began to be a cunning and a wise people, as to the wisdom of the world, yea, a very cunning people, delighting in all manner of wickedness and plunder, except it were among their own brethren. Mosiah 24:4-7.
Here we learn that the Amulonites taught the Lamanites the language of the Nephites. The Lamanites already knew the spoken language, but didn't know how to read and write it. This is what the Amulonites taught them. As a result they began to keep written records and correspond with the Nephites. In addition, this knowledge gave them the power and ability to prosper.

For the second example we turn to the people of the wicked people of Ammonihah. Here, those who were converted by Alma's message where either evicted from the city, or burned to death.
And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire. Alma 14:8.
Note that many of these ordinary people possessed written scriptures, and we can infer from the account that they studied them. What is more interesting is that these records weren't written on metal plates as the official sacred records were, but were written on perishable materials that could be burned. Apparently copies could be obtained by any who wanted them. They were probably hand written, possibility even by the people themselves, on animal skins or crude paper.

A third example is found in Alma 63:12 which states:  "Now behold, all those engravings which were in the possession of Helaman were written and sent forth among the children of men throughout all the land, save it were those parts which had been commanded by Alma should not go forth."  Not only were the records sent forth, but it appears that they were very common and could be possessed and read by anyone who wanted to do so.

Our final example (and there are others that could be cited) concerns the valiant Captain Moroni and his Title of Liberty.
And now it came to pass that when Moroni, who was the chief commander of the armies of the Nephites, had heard of these dissensions, he was angry with Amalickiah.
And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole...
And...he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had written upon the rent part, and crying with a loud voice, saying:
Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them. Alma 46:11-12, 19-20.
Here again we have a Nephite writing a public message in a script that the people could understand. He expected them, all of them, to understand his call to action, and apparently they did.

From these examples I think we can safely assume that the majority of the Nephites were generally literate though out their history. On the other hand, the Lamanites generally were illiterate, except when taught by those who had been so trained. We can also see that the common people themselves possessed the written word of God and were versed in the scriptures except in times of laxity.