It appears that for some reason, the teachings of Christ and his gospel died out among the Nephites at some point after Nephi’s and Jacob’s deaths. It might have been a century later, less than that, or more than that, but it appears to have happened. The two men had taught about Christ’s mission, his philosophy, the need to repent of one’s sins, and the process of being baptized and receiving the Holy Ghost . Though no actual baptisms during their time are specifically recorded, it’s obvious the same teachings that would later define the church of Christ were well understood while they were alive. But it appears that after Nephi’s death, Jacob and Joseph, who had been consecrated priests and teachers, struggled to keep the people living the gospel of Christ, and the problem grew in succeeding generations. About four centuries later, by the time of King Benjamin’s address concerning the coming of Christ to the Nephites and Mulekites in Zarahemla, it’s clear the king was now declaring new information of which neither he nor his people had been previously aware. I draw this conclusion from three facts:
First, Benjamin introduces his Mosiah 3 sermon on Christ by stating that an angel had appeared unto him as he slept, in an answer to his prayers, saying that he had come “to declare unto you the glad tidings of great joy.” The angel proceeds to preach the gospel of Christ to Benjamin, which Benjamin would have already been familiar with if he’d read the small plates of Nephi. The angel’s words comprise the whole rest of the chapter from verse 3 through verse 27. The effect on the people of hearing the angel’s words in Benjamin’s speech is dramatic; they fall to the earth, overcome by the things they’ve just heard, and overwhelmed by the goodness of God toward them in being willing to come to earth and die for them. Both the words of the angel in introducing his message, and the people’s reaction when hearing the angel’s words, indicate the message was new and momentous.
Second, Mormon tells us that after the last person to write on the small plates, Amaleki, finished the record, he gave the plates to Benjamin, who added them to the records on the large plates that had already been kept by the kings from the time of Nephi. Words of Mormon 1:10. Mormon doesn’t say Benjamin read the small plates, but only that he added them to the already-voluminous records he already possessed. In fact, it’s logical that the reason the angel needed to come to Benjamin was because the king wasn’t familiar with what was on the small plates. This conclusion is also borne out by the point made in the next paragraph.
That third point is that Mormon himself wasn’t even aware the small plates existed until he’d already abridged the entire record of the Nephites on the large plates. He’d read all the prophecies and sermons among the Nephites over the past 950 years, but hadn’t read any quotations of the word of Lehi, Nephi and Jacob found in the small plates. At the last minute, so to speak, he discovered the small plates, read them, and was pleased because of all the prophecies about Christ and the last days contained upon them. See Words of Mormon 3-6. Mormon sensed great value in the small plates,”for they are choice unto me”, he said, and this value Benjamin would also have sensed had he read them.
The lessons we learn from this are twofold. First, the consequences of failing to read all our ancient scriptures can change the course of an entire civilization or culture, depriving it of vital treasures of spiritual and historical knowledge. How incomplete the Book of Mormon would be today if Mormon hadn’t come across the plates that constitute what we now know as First and Second Nephi!
Second, even very good men, like King Benjamin obviously was, can make the mistake of assuming that the religious and historical writings they’re familiar with contain all the gospel understanding they need, and that the more ancient writings are less relevant. Had King Benjamin known that what the angel eventually told him during that fateful night was already written on the small plates of Nephi, which he himself possessed, he doubtlessly would have done all within his power to read them. (We acknowledge the strong possibility, however, that King Benjamin lacked the ability to read the writing on the small plates of Nephi, given the likelihood that unlike his son Mosiah, he had received no interpreters with which to do so, and that the written language on those plates had undergone much change over the centuries of mixing with other peoples in the New World.) He and many of his predecessors had, in effect, been in the same situation as his Lamanite brethren; they were lacking the writings they most needed to read and understand. Similarly, we should always ask ourselves whether our church leaders, and we ourselves, have likewise ignored ancient scriptures in favor of less valuable latter writings.
(Note: This essay pertains only to the loss and restoration of the knowledge of Christ’s gospel among the Nephites. It does not treat the subject of the actual first reported full-fledged founding of the Church of Christ among the Nephites, which occurred after Alma’s embrace of Abinadi’s message. A separate essay on the formal founding of the Church of Christ by Alma is found on this website under the title “The Momentous First Recorded Founding of the Church of Christ before Jesus’s Birth.”