Thirty Years of Lessons: Women and Gays in the Community of Christ

Recently I was invited by the moderators of the liberal Mormon blog Wheat & Tares to be a guest contributor on issues related to Community of Christ. This post, published earlier today, is my first contribution for them.

By Rich Brown

Thirty years to the week after approving priesthood ordination for women, the Community of Christ is extending the sacraments of ordination and marriage to gays and lesbians in the United States. A two-year interim period begins on Monday, March 31, after which it will be reviewed and considered for permanent status. This follows similar action resulting from national conferences in Australia and Canada.

Lessons learned from what turned out to be a tumultuous (many might say disastrous) beginning for the 1984 landmark event have been put into place by CofC leaders today. Although a few church members in recent months have either turned in their priesthood cards or left the church, it’s nothing like the major exodus that took place three decades ago.

Aspen-TreesFor starters, this time there was a three-year preparation period leading up to a special USA National Conference held right after World Conference in Independence, Missouri, last April. The 2,000 USA delegates spent several days listening, testifying, and worshiping together before overwhelmingly recommending that the First Presidency and the USA Team of Apostles issue the changes. The official conference report is here.

Here’s the specifics: The marriage sacrament is authorized for individuals in a same-gender relationship wherever such civil marriage is legal. Elsewhere CofC congregations may celebrate a special covenant/blessing worship experience. And ordination can be extended to individuals with same-gender orientation who are either in a committed, long-term relationship or who are celibate. For those wondering, the same rules apply to straight folks.

Thirty years ago World Conference delegates were caught off guard when RLDS President Wallace B. Smith presented an inspired document to priesthood quorums and orders on April 3. Two days later the document was approved by the conference as a whole and it became Section 156 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The document was mostly about a proposed temple to be built in Independence. But the last few paragraphs brought general counsel regarding priesthood, including the following:

I have heard the prayers of many, including my servant the prophet, as they have sought to know my will in regard to the question of who shall be called to share the burdens and responsibilities of priesthood in my church. I say to you now, as I have said in the past, that all are called according to the gifts which have been given them. This applies to priesthood as well as to any other aspects of the work. Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. –Doctrine and Covenants 156:9

“Wonder” wasn’t exactly the operative word for traditionalists and conservatives. Already suspicious of what they viewed as dangerous liberalizing tendencies in the church for at least two decades, they were incensed and vowed to fight the move every way possible. Business meetings in congregations, districts, and stakes where priesthood calls for women were presented often turned into angry shouting matches. People made sure every one of their baptized children was on hand to vote yes or no depending on the parents’ direction.

My own stake (Blue Valley, which included a portion of Independence and eastern Jackson County) had its rules of operation suspended because people simply couldn’t get along. It was a sad, ugly, and unfortunate time even while marking a new era of broadened ministry in the church. Today women and men serve alongside one another. If you didn’t know what happened decades ago, you’d probably never suspect there was anything unusual about the way priesthood functions now.

Numerous resolutions on same-gender issues were submitted to the past few World Conferences but were ruled out of order by the First Presidency, mainly because they were considered important to church members in a select few nations rather than as something critical for the international church. The CofC has an official presence in more than 60 nations.

In 2010 inspired counsel to the church called for creation of national conferences, specifically to consider issues related to same-gender orientation. With somewhere around half of all CofC members living outside the Western, industrialized countries in North America, Australia, and Europe, this was believed to be the only way same-gender issues could be dealt with in the church.

Delegates at the USA National Conference engaged in a unique process aimed at reaching “common consent.” This meant that a significant majority (at least 66 percent) would have to make a recommendation for top church leaders to act.

In mid-March of this year, the five apostles responsible for USA mission centers sent a copy of President Stephen Veazey’s “Statement to the Church: National Conference Recommendations and Interim Policies” to priesthood members. It was mailed to all USA pastors and high priests, evangelists (referred to as patriarchs before women were ordained), bishops, and seventy. They presented the president’s statement as “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” A DVD titled “President’s Reflections” will be available in April to church members and include four sections: Let Me Be Clear, What Does the Lord Require of Us, My Personal Testimony, and Room for Everyone.

President Veazey’s statement, which spills over onto a fourth page, is essentially a point-by-point counter to criticisms of the new same-gender policies.

To those who argued that these new policies were in opposition to previous revelation given to the church, President Veazey had this to say:

Doctrine and Covenants 111 provides instruction regarding marriage in the church. It is a statement written in the mid-1830s to counter rumors about adultery and polygamy in the church. Same-gender marriage was not conceivable, much less a question, in early 19th-century thought. To conclude that Doctrine and Covenants 111 definitely resolves the question of same-gender marriage ignores its historical context and stated purpose. Also, although Section 111 was included in the Doctrine and Covenants, its historical preface clearly states it was not a revelation.

To those who have pointed to certain Bible verses used to condemn same-gender orientation and relationships, he offered this:

Let me be clear. Continuing Revelation approved by the World Conference means those particular Bible verses are not the final word on these matters. Such verses now are understood through insights offered in Continuing Revelation approved by the church…. However, the real issue was not just several Bible verses, but how we understand and apply scripture.

He identified Doctrine and Covenants Section 163 as important counsel in these matters:

Scripture is an indispensable witness to the Eternal Source of light and truth, which cannot be fully contained in any finite vessel or language…. Scripture has been written and shaped by human authors through experiences of revelation and ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the midst of time and culture. Scripture is not to be worshiped or idolized…. It is not pleasing to God when any passage of scripture is used to diminish or oppress races, genders, or classes of human beings. Much physical and emotional violence has been done to some of God’s beloved children through the misuse of scripture. The church is called to confess and repent of such attitudes and practices. –D. and C. 163:7 (excerpted)

President Veazey concluded that Section 163:7

applies to the verses used to deny persons of same-gender orientation access to all sacraments. It also applies to situations where scripture verses are used by some to dominate, oppress, or exclude others who are different from them. Because the World Conference approved Section 163:7 as an expression of God’s will, the Bible verses most often used to categorically denounce same-gender orientation and relationships no longer should be presented as the final word on these matters.

He said it “is clear that God is maturing us as a `prophetic people’ who discern divine will by responsibly engaging scripture, tradition, Continuing Revelation, knowledge and reason, personal and community experience, and Spirit-led consent…. I believe more-than-sufficient revelation has been received to resolve issues about same-gender relationships in nations where those issues are pressing matters.”

Near the end of his official statement, President Veazey wrote: “As I have continued to seek direction on behalf of the church, the Spirit has brought assurance that questions about same-gender orientation and marriage are primarily related to life on Earth. They do not have necessary bearing on salvation, the divinity of the church and the sacraments, or the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes.”

No doubt people both inside the CofC and outside it will be examining these words and trying to read between the lines. For me, it’s clear that “Continuing Revelation” is the most important consideration for the church as it deals with these and other critical issues.

It reminds me of an essay by theologian David Ford who described religion as God speaking to us from the past. Think of that as the accumulation of scripture, church tradition, and wise people who’ve used reason and intelligence to bring the church to where it is today. Ford identified revelation as God speaking to us from the future.

If God is free to open history from the future then the future need not mirror the past. In the Church this combines with the message of the cross to allow for discontinuities and innovations. –David F. Ford, `Faith in the Cities: Corinth and the Modern City’ in “On Being the Church” (1989)

Ford cited the example of the apostle Paul who claimed authority as an apostle through direct revelation from the risen Christ rather than an institutional authority handed on to him from Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem. To that I would add the experience of Joseph Smith Jr. in the early 19th century, who served as God’s instrument in bringing forth a “great and marvelous” new work.

We are all caught somewhere in between religion and revelation, and every church/denomination finds its own point on the continuum. With this “Statement to the Church” President Stephen Veazey is not only prompting the Community of Christ in an obvious direction but in a curious way he mirrors the examples of Apostle Paul and Joseph Smith in challenging the church to understand more fully what it means to be a prophetic people.

Sacramental Truth

This blog is part of my ZionBound series.  The full series can be read on my blog site here.

For a few years now I have viewed truth as something that should be regarded as a type of pseudo sacrament.  As I understand the sacraments, they are rites or rituals that bring us closer to God – they bring us, in a spiritual sense, into God’s presence.

Truth is similar to a sacrament in this manner.  Obviously, we cannot regard truth as an actual sacrament, because truth is a concept, not a ritual or ceremony.  Yet, like a sacrament, when we are honest with ourselves, and with each other, and with God, we move closer into God’s presence.  We become more aligned with what Christ wants us to be, as a people, and as individuals.

Conversely, if we are dishonest – in any way – we must expect that we drift further from God’s hopes for us.  We cannot expect to be more reflective of what God wants us to be if we are not truthful.

We also have to consider the fact that as Christians, as members of the Later Day Restoration movement, and as members of Community of Christ, we have a duty to be truthful.  I will even say that we have a duty to seek the truth – but let me put that in context.  We must, when we are exploring a particular issue of doctrine or theology, seek the truth. I don’t mean that we are otherwise obligated to keep hunting for truth, as that would become a full time vocation.

When we consider that Christians are called to follow Christ, to be His disciples, it than of course automatically follows that we need to embrace his teachings, and follow his examples.  This means that we need to promote truth.  How can we be regarded as model examples of Christian disciples if we do otherwise?

There is an even more important reason why we should ensure we are reflecting truth in our lives, in particular in our religious experiences.  Pontius Pilot asked Christ “what is truth?”,  however, before Christ could answer, Pilot turned away to address the multitudes.  Therefore, whatever Christ’s response may have been was not revealed.

I have often wondered what Christ’s response would have been, had Pilot not walked away (perhaps out of fear of hearing the answer).  A couple of years ago, I concluded that Christ would have indicated that truth, ultimate truth, is the mind and will of God.  Its just that simple, and it does not need to be any more complex than that.  Whatever is the mind and will of God is truth.

Being honest and truthful is, quite simply, our responsibility.  Meaning, that in our efforts to understand our doctrine and theology as fully as possible, we must ensure that we are being honest in our conclusions, and always fully truthful in all things.  Including our motives.

This is, however, perhaps not always easy.  As religious people, we each approach any doctrinal issue encumbered with our own beliefs.  Beliefs about scriptural interpretation, beliefs about scriptural authority, beliefs about the sacredness of tradition, beliefs about the church, beliefs about our history, beliefs about God, beliefs about how we think things ought to be.

The more controversial the doctrinal topic being explored, the greater the potential exists that we may compromise our own honesty, and our duty to the truth.

I’d like to use female ordination as an example of this.  A while back, I was engaged in a dialog with a person about the validity of the call of women to the priesthood.  He presented his reasons why he felt female ordination was wrong. I refuted them each.  This went on for a while, until he was no longer able to offer any further reasons for opposing female ordination.  He was unable to defeat my responses to his reasons for his opposition.

However, he still was against it.  It occurred to me that, ultimately, he just did not want female ordination to be valid.  He just didn’t want it to be right.  He preferred, and was quite comfortable, with viewing it as wrong.  Even when he realized there was no actual doctrinal basis to do so.

Of course, this was just my own conclusion and I had no way of knowing for sure if I was right.  So, I asked him.  Or, to be honest, I told him.  I said that I suspected that the real, ultimate, true reason why he was against female ordination was simply the fact that he did not like it.  He didn’t want to see things change.

He acknowledge that I was correct.  That actually surprised me.  However, it also impressed me.  He was being truthful with me.  Which of course, is commendable.

However, the fact that I was right is also troubling, because it proved to me that many people, in fact, probably all of us, are prone to behave like this from time to time.

He may have been truthful with me, but he was not being truthful with the doctrine in question.   To oppose a doctrinal change, simply because you don’t want it, is not an honest approach to God’s church – even if you are being honest with the reason for opposing something.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  It is perfectly fine to oppose doctrinal changes. I have done so on many occasions; and I have gone to great lengths to do so.  I’d almost say that I like it, however, that would suggest that I oppose doctrinal changes simply for the sake of doing so – for fun, and that is not at all the case.    However, when I do, sincerely feel in my heart that something is not right, I confess I do enjoy laying out my reasons for why I feel that way.  I like to explore and wrestle with doctrinal issues.  Pondering the scriptures, as Nephi counsels us, is something that helps me to relax.

Therefore, please be assured that I do not object to objecting.  However, I would hope that if we do so, if we object to something, that we have doctrinal reasons for doing so, so that we have something more substantial and legitimate than merely not caring for something.

The real test for all of us is this: how do we respond when we run out of doctrinal reasons?  Since opposing a doctrinal change without a doctrinal reason is not an honest approach to opposing such a change, than we had better find a doctrinal reason to object.

Often, the doctrinal reason is there first.  We oppose the change because we already believe that the change would conflict with our understanding of existing church doctrine, of our understanding of theology, of scripture, etc.

However, we have to ponder, what if all of the reasons that we have are soundly refuted? What do we do then?  Do we, like the person I spoke with, acknowledge that we still can’t support the change simply because we don’t like it?  Again, we already know that doing such is not an honest approach to rejecting a doctrinal change.

Or do we go hunting for additional doctrinal reasons to resist the change?  Doing that to some degree is probably acceptable. However, there has to come a point when, if we keep having our reasons refuted, yet we continue to keep hunting for more and more doctrinal reasons to object to a change, that we are equally guilty of not being honest since clearly our basis for doing so, if the first and even second wave of doctrinal reasons are refuted, is so that we can avoid accepting the change.

If we have to keep looking for more and more objections to try to defend our point-of-view, what than is the true, honest reason or our objection in the first place?  It would seem obvious that when it comes right down to it, we just don’t like it.

And that is not honest.  That is not valid.  That is not Christ-like.

As I suggested previously, I think we probably all fall into this custom, from time to time.  I’m sure I have.   However, I have to recognize that as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I have a duty to the truth.  Jesus Christ is God, and God is the source of all light and all truth.  Therefore, those of us who take upon the name of Christ must be upfront with ourselves, and with God, and with each other.  How we approach doctrine and theology and scripture, and any church issue must reflect our duty to the truth.  Truth is sacred, and if we obstruct truth, even our own personal truth, than we are undermining our own relationship with our Heavenly Father.

We are called to be perfect, to strive to be Christ-like; and if Christ ever said that he was against something, I’m quite sure, if he were asked why, his answer would not be “I just don’t like it”.

Questions to Ponder

1) How do you view the relationship between truth and discipleship?
2) What gets in the way of personal honesty?
3) How can we ensure that our motives are honest?

Lost and Found in the Wilderness

LostintheWildernessI’m still playing catch-up this week as our reading takes us through the end of the Book of Mosiah (11-13 CofC/23-19 LDS). Having left the people of Limhi reunited with the main body of Nephites in Zarahemla last week, we turn from the “the Record of Zeniff” to a new subset of the text introduced by the header “An account of Alma and the people of the Lord, which was driven into the wilderness by the people of king Noah.”

However, relatively little time is spent on the separate existence of the people of Alma. Very quickly they are found by the Lamanites and decide to flee to Zarahemla where the bulk of our reading is set. Thus, the seemingly complex structure that we saw established last week — where the people of Alma, the people of Limhi, and the priests of Noah all existed separately in lands divided by the wilderness — quickly reduces with the first two groups merging back into the main body of the Nephites at Zarahemla, and the last group uniting with the Lamanites.

To sketch out the narrative: the people of Alma are living in the newly settled Land of Helam. They are righteously devoted to their new church and are said to “multiply and prosper exceedingly,” but we are told “the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith” (Mosiah 11:22-23 CofC/ 23:20-21 LDS). This is a somewhat unexpected twist on the Deuteronomic history. Apparently the rule is sometimes if you’re righteous and therefore prosperous, you fall into sin and the Lord sends the Lamanites to chastise you and bring about repentance. However, at other times, if you’re prosperous and stay righteous, the Lord sends the Lamanites merely to test your faith. Either way, it seems, you get the Lamanites. (It’s a little like because the Lord has a hammer, every situation looks like a nail.)

In a kind of ongoing “lost in the wilderness” comedy of errors,[1] the Lamanite army chasing Limhi’s people into the wilderness instead finds the wicked priests and their stolen Lamanite wives. Through the intercession of these wives, the Lamanites forgive the priests and they all attempt to find their way back to the Land of Nephi. Instead, they stumble upon Alma’s people in the Land of Helam. (These lost in the wilderness snafus are a sequel to the experience of the Zeniff’s scouts who found gold plates at the Land of Desolation, imagining that they were in Zarahemla.) King Laman of the Lamanites appoints Amulon, leader of the wicked priests, to be a sub-king over the Land of Helam. Amulon proceeds to enslave Alma’s people who ultimately respond by fleeing into the wilderness (not forgetting their flocks!) and rejoining the main body of Nephites at Zarahemla.

 

The Acts of the Almas

The bulk of the narrative now focuses on the combined group at Zarahemla, still led by King Benjamin’s son, King Mosiah. Although called “Nephites” in shorthand, we’re now told that the majority of the people were actually descendants of a figure alternatively known as “Muloch” in the original manuscript, “Mulok” in the CofC edition, and “Mulek” in the LDS edition (Mosiah 11:78 CofC/ 25:2 LDS). Presumably Muloch’s story, the founding of Zarahemla, and the original migration of the Nephites to Zarahemla (including the establishment of a Nephite kingly dynasty) were stories lost with the 116 pages.

In arriving at Zarahemla with his people, Alma has brought something new: the church he has previously established in the wilderness. With the authorization of King Mosiah, Alma now begins to “establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla” led by priests and teachers. Alma himself is the “high priest,” which appears to be the title of the head of the church (unlike the way the term has been used in the Restoration tradition since 1835).

As the narrative tells the story of the establishment and growth of the Nephite church, it draws inspiration from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles — with one major twist.[2] The opponents of early Christians in the eastern half of the Roman Empire are, by and large, pagans, Jews, and false prophets and magicians. Essentially no one in the ancient world was an “unbeliever” — everyone, including most philosophers, held some idea of higher powers, God, or gods, even if they rejected mythology and/or cultic practices as superstition. The church in Acts, therefore, is built up as a result of victory over groups and individuals from these groups of rival believers who conspire to persecute the early Christians.

In Joseph Smith’s day, the Christians of the Second Great Awakening squared off, not against Greco-Roman paganism, but against the new kind of skepticism that had been born in the wake of the Enlightenment. Like them, the rivals of Alma’s church are not practitioners of some earlier Nephite or Mulekite religion that predated Benjamin and Abinadi’s prophesies of Jesus Christ, they are “unbelievers.”[3] And it seems that although Alma, as high priest, enjoys religious and political ascendance (including active sponsorship by the king), the unbelievers are still able to inflict great “persecutions” on his church (Mosiah 11:150 CofC/ 27:1 LDS).

 

Alma Jr on the Road to Damascus

Among the most prominent unbelievers, initially, is Alma’s own son Alma (“Alma Jr”), along with Alma Jr’s friends, the sons of King Mosiah. However, like the most famous episode in the Book of Acts, where the persecuting Saul is confronted by a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus and is converted and becomes the great missionary apostle “Paul” (Acts 9), Alma Jr and the sons of Mosiah are likewise visited by an angel of the Lord.

In Paul’s vision, Jesus asks “Saul, Saul, why persecutist thou me?” (Acts 9:4). The angel appearing to Alma Jr asks “Alma, arise and stand forth. For why persecutist thou the church of God?” (Mosiah 11:165 CofC/ 27:13 LDS). For Saul, the experience was so astonishing that he fell to the earth, and afterward was struck blind and speechless for three days. Then, after his site and speech were restored, he was fully converted to the cause of building up the church, ultimately becoming its greatest missionary.

Alma Jr shares Saul’s experience, falling to the ground in astonishment and losing the power of speech and movement for two days and two nights (Mosiah 11:179-185 CofC/ 27:18-23 LDS). Arising from the experience, Alma announces that he has been “born of the Spirit” and that it is necessary for everyone to become “born again, yea, born of God” (Mosiah 11:186-187 CofC/ 27:24-25 LDS).[4] At this point he and the sons of Mosiah become, like Paul became for the early Christian church, the Nephite church’s greatest missionaries. We’ll have more of their stories inspired by Acts in future weeks.

 

On Kingship: Sermons of Alma and King Mosiah

The pattern we’ve observed to date in the text are a series of stories told largely by an anonymous narrator[5] interspersed with sermons spoken directly by figures within the stories. At the beginning and end of our reading this week, we have sermons on the topic of kingship. The idea of functional monarchy is rather dated from our 21st-century perspective. The issue was largely decided in the Great War (whose centennial we’re commemorating this year) and its sequel; but the question of monarchy vs. republicanism and democracy was very much open in the early 19th-century.

The first sermon on the topic is given by Alma, who is addressing his people while they were still an isolated group in the Land of Helam. His words “if it were possible that ye could always have just men to be your kings, it would be well for you to have a king” (Mosiah 11:8 CofC/ 23:8 LDS) are sometimes cited in support of divine-led monarchy as the best form of government. In fact, Alma’s arguing the opposite, i.e., since it’s impossible for the king to always be a just man, “it is not expedient that we should have a king” (Mosiah 11:7 CofC/ 23:7 LDS). Moreover, Alma quotes the Lord’s opposition “Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another” (Mosiah 11:7 CofC/ 23:7 LDS). Rather, Alma desires that his people:

Ye should stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free and that ye trust no man to be a king over you… (Mosiah 11:14 CofC/ 23:13 LDS)

Nevertheless, when Alma and his people relocate to Zarahemla, they do end up trusting a man to be king over them: King Mosiah. But King Mosiah himself ultimately agrees with Alma as he explains in a much longer sermon at the end of our reading this week.

As Mosiah approaches old age, following the pattern we’ve seen with his father King Benjamin and with King Limhi’s grandfather Zeniff, he would normally retire and confer the kingship on his son. However, all of Mosiah’s sons have become uber-missionaries following their “road to Damascus” experience. None of them wish the kingship, and even if they did, they are currently away from Zarahemla, evangelizing the Lamanites. Mosiah argues that it’s too dangerous to appoint someone else to the kingship, lest one of his sons change his mind, return and spark a civil war (Mosiah 13:11-12 CofC/ 29:6-9 LDS). Also, if the king proves wicked, it’s extremely costly to depose him (Mosiah 13:28-31 CofC/ 29:21-23 LDS).

Instead, Mosiah proposes that after he dies the people will transfer their governance to a set of “judges” chosen “by the voice of this people” (Mosiah 13:34 CofC/ 29:25 LDS). Rule will be by the majority, since Mosiah believes “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth any thing contrary to that which is not right, but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right” (Mosiah 13:35 CofC/ 29:26 LDS). As such he has much more faith in direct democracy than America’s founding fathers. Even so, Mosiah perceives the need for some checks and balances:

If ye have judges and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that he may be judged of a higher judge. If your higher judges doth not judge righteous judgments, ye shall cause a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together and they shall judge your higher judges according to the voice of the people. (Mosiah 13:39-40 CofC/ 29:28-29 LDS)

Mosiah then retires and Alma Jr, who had inherited the position of high priest from his father Alma Sr, was appointed “chief judge,” thus apparently ending the brief Nephite experiment with the partial separation of state and church.

 

Stray Observations

• When Amulon and the priests of Noah join the Lamanites, we are given the impression that the Lamanites and Nephites have come to speak different languages as the Lamanites are now taught “the language of Nephi” (Mosiah 11:49 CofC/ 24:4 LDS).

• We are once again reminded of the extreme importance of text in the view of the Book of Mormon’s author. When all the Nephite groups are reunited, King Mosiah gathers them together and reads them the various records he’s acquired: the Record of Zeniff and the story of Alma’s church (Mosiah 11:81-82 CofC/ 25:5-6 LDS). This act of devotion is reminiscent of Ezra’s reading of the book of the Law of Moses to all the people assembled in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8). Mosiah also translates the gold plates found by Limhi’s people (Mosiah 12:16-26 CofC/ 28:13-19 LDS) and discovers to his sorrow that it contains the record of a people who emerged from the Tower of Babel and were ultimately destroyed. Our narrator promises “this account shall be written hereafter; for behold it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account” (Mosiah 12:26 CofC/ 28:19 LDS). Finally, Mosiah confers all the records and the interpreters on Alma Jr., who is destined to be both high priest and chief judge (Mosiah 13:1 CofC/ 28:20 LDS).

• Although we learn that King Limhi gets baptized into Alma’s church (Mosiah 11:94 CofC/ 25:27 LDS), it isn’t clear what his status is now that he’s in King Mosiah’s land. Limhi falls out of the narrative and is not considered by Mosiah, when the latter is searching for a possible successor.

• The churches of Zarahemla founded by Alma Sr. are seven in number (Mosiah 11:102 CofC/ 25:23 LDS) which is reminiscent of the seven churches in Asia who are the recipients of John’s letter in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 1:4).

• Pretty much the first thing Alma is faced with after founding a church is the perceived need for church discipline. This is resolved at considerable length by setting up a system of excommunication: if members “would not confess their sins and repent of their iniquity, the same were not numbered among the people of the church; and their names were blotted out” (Mosiah 11:145 CofC/ 26:36 LDS). Unhappily this prefigures the early Restoration experience. Anyone reading early church records can’t help but be amazed at the amount of time early members spent excommunicating each other.

• In the wrap-up of the Book of Mosiah, we’re treated to some chronological reckonings for the year both Mosiah and Alma Sr die, which is 82 years since Alma Sr was born, the 33rd year of King Mosiah’s reign, 63 years since Mosiah was born, and 509 years “from the time Lehi left Jerusalem” (Mosiah 13:66-68 CofC/ 29:45-46). Next week we’ll begin numbering “the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi”.

• The concept of reverting to rule by “judges” draws on the Biblical precedent in the Deuteronomic history, especially the Book of Judges and the First Book of Samuel. In these stories, the early Israelites are led by a series of “judges,” the last of whom, Samuel, only reluctantly accedes to the desire of the people to appoint a king. However, the word “judge” here in Mosiah describes the 19th century American use of the term (a public magistrate who deals with legal matters), as opposed to the use of word in the Book of Judges, where “judges” fill the role of tribal heroes. (The most famous judge in the Bible, Samson, isn’t much of a lawyer.)

 

Next week we begin the Book of Alma (the son of Alma) with Alma 1-2 CofC/1-4 LDS.

______________

[1] I tend to read the imagery here as a kind of memory or imagination of early colonial New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, prior to the vast clearances of forests by European Americans for plow agriculture. My picture of the various “lands” are cleared areas with farms set in the imagined virgin woodland “wildernesses”. Once you’re in the woods, the Book of Mormon assumes there’s very little hope of knowing which land you’ll find when you come back out. We’ll have occasion to talk more about Book of Mormon geography in future weeks.

[2] Regarding parallels with Acts, we already saw how Abinadi’s speech and martyrdom at the hands of Noah’s priests mirrored Stephen’s speech and martyrdom at the hands of the Sanhedrin. Both Stephen and Abinadi explicitly quote the same passage from Isaiah (53:7-8) as predictive of Jesus (see Acts 8:32-33 and Mosiah 8:33-34 CofC/ 15:6 LDS). Both speeches are lengthy summaries. While the author of Acts puts a summary of the Hebrew Bible into Stephen’s mouth, the Book of Mormon’s author summarizes the Christian gospel in Abinadi’s speech. Finally, Abinadi’s speech led to the conversion of Alma, who had previously been one of the wicked priests of Noah. Similarly, Saul of Tarsis is among the Pharisees who hear Stephen’s speech. As we observe this week, Saul’s subsequent conversion is paralleled with the conversion of Alma’s son Alma.

[3] Prior to his conversion, as leader of the “unbelievers,” Alma Jr is described briefly as a “very wicked and an idolatrous man” (Mosiah 11:159 CofC/ 27:8 LDS). While it could be argued that this implies he is literally worshiping idols, there’s no description of such idols in the text thus far. I read this as “idolatrous” in the figurative sense of a Second Great Awakening sermon, e.g., putting worldly concerns above faith in God.

[4] Although the need to be “born again” of the Spirit through a dramatic spiritual experience was a huge part of Second Great Awakening religious revivals, the terminology in the Restoration tradition today receives less emphasis, having been subsumed into the ordinance (LDS) or sacrament (CofC) of confirmation.

[5] The main exception, thus far, was the narration by Zeniff at the beginning of the Record of Zeniff.

“Why are you happy?”

“Why are you happy?” my bishop asked me last night. That question was the culmination of what was a casual conversation about life. I stared at the wall, unsure of how to respond. My words couldn’t be superficial, yet they couldn’t be obnoxiously verbose, either. “I am conscious of living,” was my response. The conversation then turned to love and gratitude as being the ultimate expressions of a utopian world. Yet the question then became, do we reject the negative or embrace it? thoreau

After the conversation ended, I realized where I had first heard of the idea of being “conscious of living.” It was a speech I have referenced before, David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” Regardless of beliefs, it seems true that “The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death,” or at the very least, the truth we can know is this reality, this existence. I have found that when I coast through life, unaware of those around me, absorbed in some meretricious pleasure for a period of time, I am actually miserable. From a religious perspective, being absorbed by the concept of an afterlife may be beneficial for hope, but should it distract us from the truth of this life? What happens if the eventual reality one conjures up is, in fact, a false, idolatrous hope, or as the philosopher of Ecclesiastes would put it, a “chase after the wind?” That is why when my bishop asked why I am happy, the answer was immersion in the mystery of this life.

But then there is the other question: whether or not we should reject the negative. For some time now, I have been inspired by the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Both seem to offer insights into this question. Job is usually interpreted as a commentary on why we suffer, but I think there is more. Otherwise, the answer would be that we suffer because God and Satan make a wager on whether or not we will crack under pressure. Job, as I have come to appreciate it, discusses why the righteous suffer, and contrasts itself with the traditional idea that the righteous will prosper and the wicked face destitution. At the end of the book, Job has an experiential conversation with God. Rather than the traditional monarchical image of God as a king who hands out reward and punishment, God emerges as the ever-present and transcendent force behind the mysterious wonder of existence. Job states:

“I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” (Job 42:2-5, KJV).

How does this answer the question of the righteous suffering, and challenge the conventional wisdom? Well, in this case, there is no sense of inherent justice. God is awesome and full of wonder, but we are the ones who must accept the injustices of existence. It is up to us to embrace and respond to the negative aspects of life affirming the marvel of existence. When we retreat from life, misery can consume us, however when we are conscious of living, negativity can be overcome.

Ecclesiastes answers the question similarly and more directly. According to Qoheleth, the philosopher of the book, we chase after different idols of fulfillment, trying to make sense of life and create ultimate, unfettered happiness. This is wrong, however. By accepting the difficulties of life, we may immerse ourselves in it. Happiness, in the eyes of Qoheleth, is relative to the negative. As with Job, we can create a real sense of joy out of life’s despairing moments and injustices.

“There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:)
Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14-17, KJV).

So I reaffirm my answer: I am happy because I embrace life in all of its joys and sorrows, and I try to live consciously, immersed in this world as the one truth I am sure is real.

The Evolution of a Faith Crisis: 11 Month(ish) Anniversary

From where I currently stand, I have come to appreciate my crisis of faith. It cleared my mind of all I had been trained to think, and allowed me to explore and develop my own, individual outlook. The world is no longer black and white, truth and untruth, good and bad. As psychologically painful as it was at certain points, I could not have come to see life that way had it not been for a crisis of faith. I have discussed my evolving opinions of God and spirituality (ad nauseam) in other posts, so I will take some time here to reflect on my faith crisis and Mormonism in general.

History was the buzzword when it came to my early struggles with belief. I cared about every detail of early Mormon history, from Joseph Smith’s family dynamics in Palmyra to his polygamy in Nauvoo. I spent hours poring over primary sources of the witnesses as they referenced their experience with the plates. In short, I spent most of my summer studying, emailing archaeologists, and, initially, entering a state of concern over my salvation: What if the church is the one true church-will I go to the telestial kingdom or worse, outer darkness? crisis of faith

Eventually, I had to come to my own conclusion that if fear was the driving factor behind my staying fully active in the LDS church, it was not healthy nor a testament to truth. Truth was beyond fear.

Today, I find it much more enjoyable to study the history of Mormonism for leisure rather than cognitive dissonance and emotional distress. As I reflect, I have come to realize that today, my issues are not primarily historical, but stem from philosophical/theological disagreements (ie conceptions of God, Jesus, truth), as well as institutional concerns. I find the history fascinating but, quite frankly, with regards to determining my own beliefs, it really doesn’t matter to me whether or not the eight witnesses saw physical plates or if Joseph had an affair with Fanny Alger. That is not to say that those aren’t legitimate problems, however they do not factor into my own equation of belief.

My institutional concerns relate to the LDS church, and not all of the various expressions of Mormonism. While sects such as the Community of Christ have integrated themselves into the liberal, ecumenical world of religion, the LDS church adheres to older, (I think) outdated ideals. This prevents the church from progressing in today’s fast-paced world and leads to an us-them mentality which is only reactionary. The LDS church also has not provided an open template for discussing theological and historical opinions, but instead retains a closed, correlated system which, when members do explore elsewhere, can cause confusion and hurt. The recent essays attempting to counter critical claims against LDS orthodoxy may be a half-step in the direction of progress, but the church still has a long way to go in accepting its past and its diversity of members. Finally, the church continues to build itself on a foundation of truth and certainty, rather than primarily being a community of ever-growing/improving people. In other words, the object, as I see it, of LDS orthodoxy is more of certainty, than community.

My crisis of faith has allowed me to critically evaluate myself. Perhaps the LDS church needs its own crisis of faith to fully come to terms with the prevailing modern and postmodern world views. It would do itself a service by looking to the Community of Christ and how they faced the realities of the past and the nature of society. But until (or if) that day comes, I will continue to evolve and journey on…

Whence Cometh Authority?

JohnandFionaHamerI’m on the road again (which has sadly delayed my post).[1]  This week I’m visiting my family in Minnesota and the –17° F temperature outside contrasts somewhat with the +82° F in South Beach a few weeks ago. The Book of Mosiah so far has alternated between narrative action broken up by two lengthy sermons. This week’s reading (Mosiah 9-10 CofC/17-22 LDS) picks up right after Abinadi has finished his sermon and the story takes off immediately. Chapter 9 in the Community of Christ version is big, long, and action-packed — I can see why it’s broken up into so many chapters in the LDS version.

As you’ll recall from last week, we’re in our book within the book.  The “Record of Zeniff” chronicles the story of a smaller group of Nephites who have gone back to the Land of Nephi, where they are surrounded by (and pay tribute to) a much larger kingdom of Lamanites. King Zeniff the Over-Zealous was succeeded by his unworthy son, King Noah the Wine-Bibber. King Noah, aided by the wicked priests of his court, has initiated all sorts of unrighteous practices, which Abinadi has condemned in his sermon. In keeping with the theology presented thus far, Abinadi has predicted that since God punishes nations for bad behavior, the Nephite kingdom in the Land of Nephi is about to get punished.

That happens right away in this week’s reading. The wicked priests charge that since Abinadi “hast said that God himself should come down among the children of men” and predicted the ministry of Christ, he has crossed a line and said things that “art worthy of death” (Mosiah 9:10-11 CofC/17:7-8 LDS). Refusing to recant, Abinadi is burned at the stake on this charge of heresy and/or blasphemy.  He thus becomes the Book of Mormon’s first proto-martyr: killed for his testimony of Jesus Christ on the model of the early martyrs in the Biblical Book of Acts. (Abinadi’s experience with the wicked priests can be compared with Stephen’s long speech before the Sanhedrin and his subsequent execution for heresy, told in Acts 6-8.)

As with martyrdoms in Acts, Abinadi’s Christian martyrdom achieves converts. One of the priests — a man named Alma — is persuaded by Abinadi’s preaching, leaves the court, and secretly organizes a new church called “the church of God or the church of Christ” (Mosiah 9:49 CofC / 18:17 LDS). When King Noah find out about it, he sends the bulk of his army to break up the new church, but Alma and about 450 of his followers escape into the wilderness (Mosiah 9:72-73 CofC / 18:33-35 LDS). Meanwhile, with the army gone, a revolution against King Noah breaks out at home. The chief rebel, Gideon, is about to slay the king when the Lamanites attack.

After much battle and mayhem, King Noah is himself burned to death, but his priests escape into the wilderness. The remaining Nephites (sans both Alma’s group and the wicked priests) make peace with the Lamanites on much harsher terms. Gideon becomes captain of the Nephite royal guard and Limhi, one of Noah’s sons, is named the new king. In the wilderness, the priests have fled without their families and decide to kidnap “daughters of the Lamanites” to start their lives over again. Thus, we now have three separate groups of Nephites in vicinity of the Land of Nephi: (1) King Limhi’s group, (2) the group of wicked Nephite priests with Lamanite wives, and (3) Alma’s group.

It is now that our story re-encounters representatives of the main group of Nephites (who live in the Land of Zarahemla) as our disembodied narrator brings the story all the way up to the point where Ammon and his search party discovered King Limhi’s group (Mosiah 9:164 CofC / 21:23 LDS).[2]  Having reconnected with the Nephites in Zarahemla, King Limhi decides that his group needs to escape their Lamanite overlords. Captain Gideon hatches a plan, which is to get the Lamanite guards drunk,[3] while all the people and all their flocks escape through the secret back gate of the city (Mosiah 10:8-11 CofC / 22:3-8 LDS). All goes as planned and Limhi’s group are reunited with the main body of the Nephites in Zarahemla, leaving Alma’s group and King Noah’s group still off in different parts of the wilderness.

That’s a lot just to summarize. At some point, the action may get boring or repetitive, but that hasn’t happened yet for me.

Alma and Authority

Although Alma and his group largely duck out of the action, their story is the most interesting to me from a theological perspective. In Acts, preaching and martyrdoms are set against the backdrop of the apostles’ work building up the young Christian church. Here in the Land of Nephi, however, there is no Christian church (yet) and there are no apostles commissioned directly by Jesus to build one up. King Limhi’s group (after the defections of both Alma and King Noah) feel the problem acutely. They now believe the testimony of the proto-martyr Abinadi, and they are “desirous to be baptized” — “but there was none in the land that had authority from God” (Mosiah 9:176 CofC / 21:33 LDS).

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, Christians understood authority to descend through apostolic succession. Jesus commissioned apostles including Peter, who established churches led by bishops who succeeded each other in an unbroken line to the present. While Catholic and Orthodox Christians continue to look to apostolic succession, Protestants in breaking with the Papacy had to look elsewhere for authority. They found it in scripture, which they argued was the sole source of authority.

Off in the wilderness with his small band, Alma has neither ordination through apostolic succession nor scriptures (King Limhi’s group and King Mosiah’s group have the various plates). Alma’s solution is to receive authority directly through the Spirit. As we read:

Alma took Helam, he being one of the first, and went and stood forth in the water, and cried, saying, “O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart.” And when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said, “Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead, as to the mortal body; and may the Spirit of the Lord be poured out upon you; and may he grant unto you eternal life, through the redemption of Christ, whom he has prepared from the foundation of the world.” (Mosiah 9:43-44 CofC / 18:12-13 LDS)

Alma then submerged both Helam and himself under the water, baptizing himself at the same time as Helam. After this original self-baptism/baptism, we’re told that in all the subsequent baptisms only the baptizee would be submerged. As mentioned above, the newly baptized souls then came to be called “the church of God or the church of Christ” and “whosoever was baptized by the power and authority of God, was added to his church.”

Alma then went on to establish a priesthood:

And it came to pass that Alma, having authority from God, ordained priests; even one priest to every fifty of their [the church members'] number did he ordain to preach unto them, and to teach them concerning the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. (Mosiah 9:51 CofC / 18:18 LDS)

Thus, it’s very clear that Alma has authority to baptize (beginning with himself!), to organize a church, and to ordain priests. That authority has apparently not come from any ordination he may have received as one of King Noah’s wicked priesthood (apostolic succession, however tainted). Instead, he’s received authority directly from the Spirit, in response to his public prayer.

The question faced by Limhi’s people and Alma’s people was, of course, directly relevant to Joseph Smith and his early supporters. Being a part of the Gold Plates project stirred within them a desire to be baptized and to organize a church. And they were able to take Alma’s precedent as a model for how this could be done. Accordingly, having prayed about the matter like Alma, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had a spiritual experience which caused them to feel they had received authority to baptize. They then baptized each other and others in their early small group; and, like Alma, began to ordain members to a restored priesthood long before their own “Church of Christ” was organized on April 6, 1830.

Later, as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s ideas of authority evolved, they remembered or retold their spiritual experiences with more detail as visions involving specific personages: John the Baptist, and the apostles Peter, James, and John.[4]  And these visions as they were heard became visitations, which were consonant with a new understanding of authority — one that once again relied on apostolic succession, in this case, directly from the apostles themselves. Thus, the idea of the authority of the Spirit, presented here in Alma, while serving as the actual model for the early Restoration as it happened, no longer matches the idea of authority in the mainline Restoration tradition, nor does it match the “traditional” way the sacred story of the Restoration is now told.

Nevertheless, the model has continued to inspire individual Restoration believers who find themselves in schism with the larger, mainline Restoration tradition churches. For example, in rejecting the organizations of Brigham Young in Utah and Joseph Smith III in Illinois, William Bickerton (a former follower of Sidney Rigdon) explicitly used Alma’s church as a model for reorganizing his own “Church of Jesus Christ” (headquartered in Monongahela, Pennsylvania), which has continued to this day as the third largest branch of the movement.

Stray Observations

• The formula employed by Alma for performing baptism is interesting for its uniqueness.  Making no mention of the “remission of sins,” the baptism is instead a “testimony” or symbol of a personal covenant to serve God.  The inclusion of the phrase “until you are dead” reminded me of the traditional marriage vows which are taken “until death do us part”.

• The ratio of 1 priest per 50 members in Alma’s church has not been the practice in any Restoration tradition church that I am aware of.

• The priests of Alma’s church “were not to depend on the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit…” (Mosiah 9:57-59 CofC / 18:24-26 LDS) signalling a very early bias in the Restoration against paid ministry.  This view, of course, later became problematic for Joseph Smith himself as he struggled to lead a church and support a growing family.

• Alma does his baptizing at the Waters of Mormon, which are at the place of Mormon near the forest of Mormon.  This is our first introduction to the name “Mormon”.  It’s described as “having received its name from the king, being in the borders of the land having been infested, by times, or at seasons, by wild beasts” (Mosiah 9:32 CofC / 18:4 LDS).  But it isn’t clear from context, if the land is named after a King Mormon (whose story was lost in the 116 pages) or if some other king (like Noah) named it because Mormon means “borderlands” or “semi-infested with wild beasts”.

• Alma’s church came up with a solution to the beggar problem that we all struggled with during King Benjamin’s sermon:

Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly, he should impart more abundantly; and he that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given. And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul. (Mosiah 9:60-62 CofC / 18:27-28 LDS)

• Although Zeniff was originally just an over-zealous guy and although we are told that his grandson Limhi had the kingdom “conferred on him by the people,” the new king was nevertheless chosen from Zeniff’s royal line, despite the wickedness of Limhi’s father Noah (Mosiah 9:103 CofC /19:26 LDS).  The idea of kingship here includes a popular component and retirement, but it remains hereditary.

• The idea of that the Nephites had to pay tribute for the upkeep of the guards quartered among them by the king of the Lamanites (Mosiah 9:105-106 CofC /19:28 LDS) must have resonated to readers in the early post-revolutionary United States.

Next week: The end of the Book of Mosiah (Mosiah 11-13 CofC /23-29 LDS).

_______________________
[1] Sadly, no books with me means none of the footnotes are going to be backed up with references until I get home.

[2] Although the Record of Zeniff began as a first-person account by King Zeniff, after his retirement the narration become anonymous.  Now the record comes all the way down to and includes the arrival of Ammon previously narrated from Ammon’s perspective in Mosiah 5:1-24 CofC.  As the story has played out, we now have the additional detail that Ammon and his companions were mistaken by King Limhi’s guards for members of King Noah’s group.  If the text had been composed in a conventional way, an author might now be tempted to go back to chapter 5 and have the guards ask Ammon something like, “What have you done with the daughters of the Lamanites?” Which questions would confuse both Ammon and the reader at that stage in the story.  However, the Book of Mormon was not composed conventionally, and the text once dictated was essentially fixed permanently.

[3] Getting your guards drunk is a general stock literary device, but it is also, unfortunately, in keeping with European American stereotyping of Native Americans.

[4] Although these have become sacred stories for the movement, they do not fit the rest of the historical record.  Early members like David Whitmer testified that stories of these personages were a later development.  Their memories are backed by contemporary records which show that the understanding of priesthood as narrated in the story were later developments that did not exist in the early period.  For a complete description of the evolution of priesthood, see Gregory Prince’s Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995).

Abinadi Re-Imagines Isaiah

589px-Michelangelo,_profeti,_Isaiah_01Our reading this week (Mosiah 6-8 CofC/9-16 LDS) is the beginning of our book within the book. We’re now reading “The Record of Zeniff” which is engraved on one of the two sets of plates mentioned in the Ammon and Limhi story. The record starts in the voice of our first named narrator, who begins his story with a familiar Book of Mormon formula: “I, Zeniff, having been…” This will later recur when the new beginning of the text is dictated and we hear the famous phrase: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…” (I Nephi 1:1 CofC/1 Nephi 1:1 LDS).[1]  After King Zeniff tells his tale and retires (conferring his kingdom on his son Noah), the voice once again shifts to anonymous narration (as King Noah does not keep the record).

The story within the story is set across the wilderness from Zarahemla, in the Land of Lehi-Nephi (sometimes just called Nephi) and the neighboring lands of Shilom and Shemlon. This week’s reading gives us our first taste of warfare and slaughter between the Lamanites and Nephites and it also introduces the Book of Mormon’s take on the Deuteronomic history embedded in the Bible. Put briefly, the Biblical author/editor(s) who composed the related books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, envisioned a history for Israel which showed that the nation was alternatively punished by disobedience to God and redeemed and blessed by obedience to God. This is most evident in Judges where God uses foreign nations like the Philistines to chastise the Israelites, later calling a judge to deliver the people when they are sufficiently chastened. Similarly, the kings of Israel and Judah in the books of Kings are portrayed as either wicked or righteous depending on their commitment to the Lord.[2]

The parallel in “The Record of Zeniff” comes as the righteous King Zeniff is succeeded by his wicked son, King Noah. As frequently happens to unrighteous kings in the Books of Kings, King Noah is treated to a lengthy rebuke from one of the Lord’s prophets, in this instance a man named Abinadi. After some relatively boilerplate jeremiads where Abinadi promises the Lord is going to do a whole lot of smiting,[3] the priests of King Noah enter the ring to debate. In a move reminiscent of questions posed to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, the priests ask Abinadi to interpret a passage of scripture (Isaiah 52:7-10, quoted from the King James Version): “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings…” This is the beginning of a passage that Christians came to read as a prediction of Jesus and it is our first block quote taste of the Book of Mormon’s love of Isaiah.

At first, Abinadi refuses to play that game: if they claim to be priests they ought to know what it means themselves! Instead he asks them what it is that they teach. They reply that they “teach the law of Moses” (Mosiah 7:84 CofC/12:28 LDS) and after some sparring they additionally affirm “that salvation did come by the law of Moses” (Mosiah 7:93 CofC/12:32 LDS). Abinadi rebukes them for not keeping the laws they claim to teach using repeated rhetorical questions that he himself answers: “Have ye done all this…? Nay, ye have not!” “Have ye…? I say unto you: Nay!” in between which he “reads”[4] the complete text of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20:2-17 (KJV).

The multi-page discourse Abinadi delivers is a second major sermon, which shares some of the same ideas and themes with King Benjamin’s sermon. The recitation of the Ten Commandment leads Abinadi to a higher teaching about salvation:

And now ye [the priests of Noah] have said that salvation cometh by the law of Moses. I say unto you that it is expedient that ye should keep the law of Moses as yet; but I say unto you that the time shall come when it shall no more be expedient to keep the law of Moses. And moreover I say unto you that salvation doth not come by the law alone. And were it not for the atonement which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses. (Mosiah 8:3-5 CofC/13:27-28 LDS)

After quoting an entire chapter of Isaiah (53:1-12 KJV), Abinadi goes on to lay out a Christology similar to that described by King Benjamin:

God himself shall come down among the children of men and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in the flesh, he shall be called the Son of God… and they are one God, yeah the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth (Mosiah 8:28-29, 31 CofC/15:1-2, 4 LDS).

Abinadi then interprets the Isaiah passage he quoted to predict details of Christ’s ministry:

…after working many mighty miracles among the children of men, he shall be led — yea, even as Isaiah said, as a sheep before the shearer is dumb, so that he opened not his mouth — yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain… (Mosiah 8:33-34 CofC/15:6-7 LDS)

Beyond reiterating the message that salvation comes through Christ’s atonement, the new message here is that all the prophets of the Old Testament predicted Jesus Christ. It’s not just King Benjamin and Abinadi who knew the details and meaning of Jesus ministry, all prophets of the Old Testament knew it. As Abinadi rhetorically asks, “did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah and that God should redeem his people?” (Mosiah 8:11 CofC/13:33 LDS) Sadly he fails to answer that one up with an “I say unto you: Yay!” But he does later assert that “all the holy prophets have prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord” (Mosiah 8:41 CofC/15:11 LDS).

Abinadi then turns back to the passage of Isaiah that the priests had asked him about and re-composes it. The original went:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, the publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation.

In Abinadi’s re-imagining this becomes explicitly Christological:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that is the founder of peace, yea, even the Lord who hath redeemed his people, yea, him who hath granted salvation unto his people (Mosiah 8:51-52 CofC/15:18-19 LDS).

This is a point that Christians have attempted to make all the way back to the era when the texts of the New Testament were being composed — as the evangelists repeatedly argued that the Old Testament scripture predicted Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon continues this tradition of re-imagining the Hebrew prophets by setting Christian interpretation in the mouth of a character who is meant to have lived before Christ.

Temporal Anomalies and the Mechanics of Composition by Dictation

I think the overall concept of a predictive Christian gospel — perhaps a prophetic proto-gospel — is clever. That it was composed after the fact, is actually in keeping with the general character of literary prophecy in scripture. For example, the Biblical Book of Daniel, although set in the 6th century BC, can be fairly precisely dated to the 2nd century BC because of “predictions” (technically postdictions) it makes about the Seleucid king of Syria, Antiochus IV Ephiphanes.[5] Nevertheless, as anybody who’s ever watched a time travel episode in Star Trek knows, talking about the future of the past from the perspective of the present where the past’s future is also now past is complicated. And it’s very easy to mess up your verb tenses.

This happens pretty starkly when Abinadi begins a phrase saying “And now if Christ had not come into the world…” using the pluperfect had from Joseph Smith’s perspective (Mosiah 9:79 CofC/16:6 LDS). Then, before finishing the thought “there could have been no redemption,” we have a tangential explanatory phrase “speaking of things to come as though they had already come” which brings things back to Abinadi’s literary time frame.

This appears to highlight an interesting feature of the Book of Mormon’s composition process. When not quoting (reading directly from) the Bible [recall note 4], Joseph is dictating the text to scribes. Once he’s said it, it’s composed. Fixes have to be made in the next lines as they are orally composed. A regular author could just go back and fix the verb tense “if Christ will not come into the world.” That option isn’t open to Joseph and so the correction takes the form of this odd, supplemental explanation “speaking of things to come as though they had already come.”

Just prior to this, Joseph actually made a much bigger error. In predicting Jesus Chirst, although using exactingly precise details like the crucifixion, Abinadi had nevertheless gone out of his way to name him “the Son of God,” the Messiah, or the Lord. But when explaining that “there cometh a resurrection, even a first resurrection, yea, even a resurrection of those that have been and which are and which shall be, even unto the resurrection of Christ” (Mosiah 8:55 CofC/15:21 LDS) he slips up and mentions “Christ.” As we remember from our last reading, the very heart of King Benjamin’s sermon was the idea that he was going to reveal a name to his people as a reward for their righteousness, possession of which would make them choice above all other exiled Israelites. And now Abinadi, whose story is set a generation before King Benjamin’s story, has revealed the word “Christ” to wicked people he’s in the middle of cursing and rebuking. Once again, the error must have been obvious when dictated, because the following phrase quickly explains “…for so shall he be called.”[6]

Other Observations

• With Mosiah 6 (CofC)/Mosiah 9 (LDS), we’ve come to our first chapter header in the original text: “An account of his people from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time that they were delivered out of the hands of the Lamanites.” Although left out of the versification schemes, this header is an actual part of the Book of Mormon text unlike the many additional chapter headers in the LDS version which are, like the chapter headers printed in many Bibles, simple editorial helps added by the publisher.

• We’ve started to encounter original Book of Mormon words beyond names. “Neas” and “sheum” are included among a list of seeds, and “ziff” is twice among lists of precious metals.

• In this reading, we encounter some pretty terrible European American biases in their contemporary view of Native Americans. The Lamanites are described as “a lazy and idolatrous people” (Mosiah 6:15 CofC/9:12 LDS) and as “a wild and ferocious and bloodthirsty people” (Mosiah 6:45 CofC/10:12 LDS). Obviously, I believe these say nothing about actual customs of Native Americans and merely stand to condemn the bigotry of European Americans in the 1820s.  Nevertheless, I want to punt a broader discussion of this at least one more week.

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[1] This formula is reminiscent of the introduction to the Book of Tobit “I, Tobit…” (Tobit 1:3), a book of the Apocrypha commonly included in King James Bibles which is notable for the appearance of the angel Raphael and many magic-like miracles. Since the beginning of the book of Mosiah was lost, we don’t know if it might have begun with a similar formula. In fact, the narrator of the surrounding Ammon and Limhi story is still anonymous at this point in the text.

[2] We will have plenty of occasion to discuss the Book of Mormon’s cycle and the Deuteronomic history in weeks to come.

[3] After all the smiting, the Lord promises King Noah’s people that “except they repent, I will utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth. Yet they shall leave a record behind them, and I will preserve them [the record on the plates] for other nations which shall possess the land. Yeah, even this will I do that I may discover [sic] the abominations of this people to other nations” (Mosiah 12:8 LDS). Thus Abinadi’s prophecy of national destruction predicts the colonization and possession of the land by “other nations” and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

[4] Abinadi says “And now I read to unto you the remainder of the commandments of God” (Mosiah 7:111 CofC/13:11 LDS).  Given that the quotation is read verbatim from the King James Bible, I believe we can assume that when block quotes are read from the Bible, Joseph switched from oral composition to simply reading from the Bible directly.

[5] This is generally accepted. See the Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993): “The book of Daniel is one of the few books of the Bible that can be dated with precision… The discussion of the date of the book can be summed up as follows. With the possible exception of minor glosses, the book reached its present canonical form in the middle of 164 BCE…” (p. 151)

[6] I’m aware that Christ is not actually a name and that the word is the English version of the Greek word for the word in Hebrew that comes into English as “messiah”. But it’s clear from Abinadi’s phrase “for so he shall be called” that he views the word the way King Benjamin did, “he shall be called Jesus Christ” (Mosiah 3:8 LDS).