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).


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