Mormon’s ‘Great and Terrible’ Leitmotif in 3 Nephi 8

Leitmotif associated with Siegfried
from Richard Wagner’s opera Siegfried – The Ring of the Nibelung

The concept of a leitmotif is a musical or literary theme that becomes associated with a particular person, place or  idea in a larger work.  Wagner is one of the earliest classical composers that used this.  Perhaps the best contemporary examples are John Williams’ use of leitmotif in Star Wars (here for a great example).

The Book of Mormon holds many examples of literary leitmotif. In the case of 3 Nephi 8, Mormon uses ‘great and terrible’ (or sometimes these words individually) as a leitmotif throughout the chapter:

  • great doubtings and disputations (verse 4)
  • great storm (verse 5)
  • great and terrible tempest (verse 6)
  • terrible thunder (verse 6)
  • great and terrible destruction in the land southward (verse 11)
  • more great and terrible destruction in the land northward (verse 12)
  • exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth (verse 12)
  • great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people (verse 23)
  • great were the groanings of the people (verse 23)
  • darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them (verse 23)
  • ‘O that we had repented before this great and terrible day’ (verse 24)

Mount Rinjani Eruption
Lombok, Indonesia
1994

Perhaps a goal Mormon’s use of this theme was an attempt to unify the message of his life’s work of abridging the Nephite record. The writings of Nephi show surprising literary sophistication in the opening pages of the Book of Mormon by his repeated use of word images and symbolism (probably a post unto itself).  For example, Nephi used the very same terms to describe ‘the great and spacious building’ of Lehi’s dream (1 Nephi 12:4-5; 2 Nephi 26:3), ‘the great and abominable church’  (1 Nephi 13:4-6; 1 Nephi 14:15-17and the ‘great and terrible tempest’ that threatened Nephi’s ship while sailing to the Promised Land (1 Nephi 18:13). Nephi tagged these events and ideas with the word great or the phrase great and terrible. Nephi subsequently linked them to things such as the pride of the world, the church of the devil or personal apostasy.  Finally to complete the message, he links this unrighteousness with the eventual outpouring of the wrath of God in great and terrible ways.  It seems that Mormon took notice.

I think it no small coincidence that the pride of the people was the proximate cause of their destruction at the time of Christ’s death (3 Nephi 6:14-16).  After many warnings and opportunities to repent and return to the Lord, his wrath was unleashed in great and terrible ways–just as Nephi and Samuel had foretold (here for an awesome article that explains this event geologically).  Mormon was undoubtedly reiterating the prophecies of earlier prophets that had foreseen this great and terrible dayNo doubt, he also used similar words as Samuel (Helaman 14:20-27) and Nephi (see 1 Nephi 12:4-5, 2 Nephi 26:3), who had seen it before it occurred.

Mormon may have also been tying into Hebraic ideas of the attributes of God. Today we find it a bit ironic to find ‘great and terrible’  as terms associated with God (here for my post on The Fierceness of God).  Daniel prayed to “great and dreadful God” (Daniel 9:4) and David praised God’s “great and terrible name” (a name which was simultaneously holy; Psalms 99:3).   Perhaps these were fitting for a God who fought their battles, destroyed their enemies and poured out his wrath on the unrighteous. For those that experienced that fateful day in 3 Nephi 8, few would disagree with Daniel or David.

Mormon’s “great and terrible’  leitmotif therefore represents God’s unrestrained wrath on those that have hearts hardened by pride and an unconquerable spirit that refuses to believe, and never understands and never bothers to repent or come to Christ. Though the day could be viewed as great in goodness because of the ministry of the Savior to the survivors, it was mostly a very bad day that was great in terribleness. What made it greatly terrible was the hardened hearts of the people that wouldn’t believe and could not be converted. They simply never repented and ran out of time.

I think that if Wagner or Williams were asked to score Mormon’s leitmotif it would be loud, dark, and somewhat chaotic . . . not the kind of music I prefer at all.

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