Getting over the Idea of the Physical Supernatural

In ancient times, when the bulk of our scriptures were written, humans did not make the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” causes.  Although the words “super” and “natura” are Latin, the Romans didn’t have a word “supernaturalis.”  This word was coined in Modern times.  The Oxford English Dictionary records that the word “supernatural” first appears in English in 1526.

This is because the ancients had substantially less understanding of natural mechanisms for everything from physics to meteorology to biology. And so the sun, the moon, the river running through your city, fate, fortune, death — these were all seen as divine forces, indeed, these were all revered as gods.

For ancient and Medieval Christians, even when an immediate cause was known, natural philosophers affirmed that the ultimate cause of everything, the “First Cause” is God.

But in modern times, as science better understood natural mechanisms, people invented the category of “supernatural” to house unexplained phenomena.  Instead of looking for God’s miracles in the universe that was better understood, they relegated God to the phenomena that were unexplained, equating miracles with physical magic.  This approach was known as looking for “God in the gaps.”  That is, although science could explain much of the universe, there were still “gaps.” After many centuries those gaps are much smaller than they once were and so I think we can say conclusively that it was an intellectual dead end to relegate God to the gaps. 

People continue to crave physical magic. Superhero movies dominate global blockbusters.  In census surveys here in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, hundreds of thousands of people have listed their religion as “Jedi.”  And who doesn’t want to be able to do Jedi mind-tricks or to have telekinetic powers?

Despite many centuries of looking for God in the gaps, of earnest people mistakenly believing in supernatural physical magic, I believe and I testify to you that knowing the real God is about the difficult work of knowing about the actual universe and the workings of this world.  It’s the work of understanding humanity and society and why some of our actions cause harm, while others can allow us to achieve greater equity, less bigotry, more justice, less violence, and we seek to fulfill Christ’s mission and realize our shared goal of bringing about the Peaceable Kingdom of God on earth.


Joseph Smith III on the Calling of the Seventy

“There is a possibility that in its very arduousness lies the secret of its success”
— Joseph Smith III on the Seventy


As I’ve been researching about the activities of the Seventies in the early church period (1835-1860), I have a number of books all around my desk.  I picked up Volume 3 of the old blue 8-volume RLDS history, and opening it at random I came upon this text (pp. 436-439), which I’ve retyped in order to share here. While Joseph Smith III’s thoughts on the Seventy are 150 years old, many of his words continue to resonate.*


On May 1, 1866, President Joseph Smith [III] published over his own signature a document defining the duties of the Twelve and Seventy. This document is well worth preservation, both because of its merit, and because it treats of the duties of two of the chief quorums of the church. It is as follows:—

“The duties of the Twelve, as a quorum, are to sit in council upon matters appertaining to the spread of the work abroad, and the firm continuation of it in the land of Zion; and upon this is based the recognition of their right to ordain and set in order all other officers in the church.

“Now, it seems to follow, that as they are to be representatives of the church while the gospel is being carried to the ends of the earth, and the church is to become as a light set upon a hill, this quorum of people should travel under the special direction of the spirit of their calling, and should live as it becomes righteous people to live. This being the case, the former requirements are seen to be essential, either inherent or in the process of acquirement.

“Their decisions (if unanimous) are of high importance, equal in authority to those of the First Presidency and are to be made in righteousness; how carefully then ought this band of especial witnesses to walk as a quorum and as individuals.

“At our April conference, just passed, the Spirit seem to indicate that the establishment of lines and boundaries over which the Twelve as integral parts were set to preside, was a contradiction of duty inconsistent with the character of the work, and an effort was made to place them more immediately under the impulses of the Spirit of God and the direction of the Presidency of the Church. We can all see that this accords with our understanding of the law; and no fears ought to be entertained that the Spirit will direct to be done that which is not in keeping with the law and the revelations heretofore received.

“The day has now come when the dread demons of distrust and suspicion must be exorcised by the efficient prayers of the faithful saints, for there are many lo heres, and lo theres, and few shall be able to stand.

“Let every one then go to with their own might to purge the evil from their own heart, and united, stand for the bulwarks of our liberty in the gospel.

“The Seventy are a body of elders set apart for the work of the ministry as a travelling quorum, working under the more immediate call of the Twelve, to preach the word, build up churches, officiate in the various directions necessary in spreading the gospel, and all acts that an elder may do by virtue of their office as such elder, a seventy may do. But there are certain conditions which require a seventy to travel, as especial witnesses, that are not binding upon the body of elders.

“There can be by the law seven quorums of Seventy, seemingly too small a number for evangelization purposes; and yet when we consider the number of elders there may be in the church, we are forced to acknowledge that God is wiser than man, and does not wish to cumber the legislative bodies of the church with too great numbers.

“The Seventy are to be people of action; ready to go and to come, full of energy and zeal; prepared at a moment’s warning to follow the lead of the Spirit, to the north, east, south, or west: proclaiming the gospel as they go, baptizing all who come unto them, laying their hands upon the sick in common with their brethren of the Twelve; under no responsibility of presiding, but when the Spirit so directs, or exigency requires, they may preside by virtue of their right to officiate as elders in the church.

“The law also contemplates the Seventy as a legislative body, and a decision made by these quorums (if unanimous) is of like importance as a decision of the Twelve.

“It may be also be concluded that any act which an high priest might do, while abroad as a minister of the gospel building up the church, might be legitimately done by one of the Seventy; for in speaking of the difference between the two quorums, the law says: that those who belong not unto this quorum, neither unto the Twelve, are not under responsibility to travel, nevertheless they may hold as high and responsible offices in the church; evidently carrying the inference that this was an office in authority greater than an elder, and if an elder may, why may not a seventy, or an apostle preside.

“It is eminently becoming to the office of a seventy to be contented and cheerful, full of hope of a renewed covenant; free from the resident care of a local congregation, nevertheless wise as a counselor both to the world and the church, having soberness as a safeguard against the levity of the world; always bearing about the consciousness of a slain and risen Redeemer, with assurance of a realized hope; and ever able to give by precept and example a reason for that hope.

“Is it an arduous undertaking? Most unquestionably it is; but while it is so arduous, there is a possibility that in its very arduousness lies the secret of its success, for in its successful ministry the devils are to be subject to the power of God.

“May the Lord God help the Seventy is the prayer of every well wisher of the latter-day work.

“There is a duty devolving alike upon these two quorums, i.e., the Twelve and the Seventy, that it is well to notice here. We mean the duty of being prayerful people, for by this shall come their power. Now if we could suppose that people could successfully propagate the work of the last dispensation, without the faith requisite to yield to obedience to its laws, we could imagine a ministry without purse or scrip, going to the ends of the earth declaring the way of life, without prayer, but we cannot, it follows that these people must be cared for by the divine Ruler of all, and must exercise the faithful prayer, the earnest desire of the soul, by which they are blessed of God.

“Purse and scrip are laid aside. It is the Lord’s work. He has promised to provide for them. Self-denial is to become a pleasure, danger is forgotten, fear overcome and cast out; revilings accepted with humility, and scoffings without reproach; the goods of this world measured only by their usefulness to the advance of truth; wisdom taken as a companion — a lovely handmaiden of the Lord; and with the blue dome as their rooftree, the Lord their refuge in sunshine and in storm; his hand their guard, his Spirit their comfort and their guide; Christ their pattern, his followers their brethren, and all the world their neighbors, the pass out, away from the scenes dear to them into the great harvest field, there to weild the sword of truth as ambassadors for Christ, and him crucified. Here is the sublimity of their calling, the excellency of their hope, and who shall then be found to deny them their reward? We trust no one.

“Away with the bickering jealousy of place and of power, let the ultimate accomplishment of our salvation enable us to overcome the divisions of the hour, and the distraction of the time, uniting for the present redemption of Zion.”




*In six places, I’ve used the word “people” to update the word “men” and in two I’ve substituted “their” for “his.”

What’s a Seventy?


Since Adam Wade* traveled from Australia to Toronto earlier this year and presented me with his moving and earnest testimony of a call to join the Quorums of Seventy in Community of Christ, I’ve been studying and pondering and praying about the role.  In this first post, I’m going to reflect on the origin and conception of the Seventies in the early Restoration movement.

The use of the word “Seventy” as a priesthood office is fairly unique in the Restoration tradition of Protestant Christianity.  Early members of the movement were alarmed at the explosion of rival sects in the early 19th century and sought to “restore” the organization and practices of the original 1st century Christians.  Lacking the results of some two centuries of study in the academic fields of history, literary criticism, and archaeology that we possess today, 19th century seekers had only a single, dusty lens through which to glimpse their vision: the New Testament texts as they were rendered in the King James Bible.

This source became the blueprint for Restored priesthood roles including deacon (1 Tim 3:8-13), teacher (1 Cor 12:28), priest (Rev 20:6), bishop (1 Tim 3:1-7), evangelist† (2 Tim 4:5), pastor (Eph 4:11), and prophet (1 Cor 14:29-32).  In addition, a misreading of the theological proposition that Jesus Christ is the high priest of the new covenant (Heb 3:1) led to the ordination of “high priests” and the separation of the offices into two orders, Aaronic and Melchisedec (Heb 7:11).

The role of apostle — then as now — was frequently confused with a special group set apart as “the Twelve.” The Twelve in the new covenant of God’s Kingdom symbolically represented the Twelve Tribes of the new Israel (q.v. Mat 19:28).  While it may be true that all of the Twelve were apostles, not all apostles in the New Testament were numbered among the Twelve.  Paul is the most famous example of an apostle (Rom 1:1) who was never one of the Twelve, but others explicitly named as apostles include a male and female pair, Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7).

The idea of a special group known as “the Seventy” derives from this wider category of apostles in the New Testament period.  The name itself comes from a story told only in Luke. In this text, having just sent out the Twelve on a preaching mission (Luke 9:1-6), Jesus sends out another group:

After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come. Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest. Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves. Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you: And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, “The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.” (Luke 10:1-11, KJV)

The Seventy, then, were meant to be itinerant preachers who lived by begging and the hospitality of those they encountered who accepted their message.  This passage in Luke inspired early members of the Restoration in 1835 to create a quorum of Seventies alongside a quorum of the Twelve.  As we read in the contemporary Doctrine & Covenants Section 104:11b-e:

Of the Melchisedec priesthood, three presiding high priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the church. The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ, in all the world; thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling. And they form a quorum equal in authority and power to the three presidents previously mentioned. The seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling; and they form a quorum equal in authority to that of the twelve especial witnesses, or apostles, just named.

In the same document, we read that “The Seventy are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Twelve, or the traveling high council, in building up the church, and regulating all the affairs of the same, in all nations” (D&C 104:13a) and that “it is the duty of the traveling high council [i.e., the Twelve] to call upon the Seventy, when they need assistance, to fill the several calls for preaching and administering the gospel, instead of any others” (D&C 104:16).  Finally, we read that “the order of the Seventy… should have Seven Presidents to preside over them, chosen out of the number of the Seventy, and seventh president of these presidents is to preside over the six” (D&C 104:43a).

From their starting point in the Restoration tradition, therefore, the Seventy have been linked with the Twelve in their calling of traveling and building up the church community by sharing the good news and inviting people to join the movement.  Among the Seventies called in 1835 was my own great great great great grandfather Stephen Winchester, who had recently served as a captain in the Zion’s Camp expedition.‡

In my next post, I’ll look at the development of the role of the Seventies in the early Restoration and Reorganization, but reflections on their role today will probably have to wait for a third post.



*Adam Wade had been Community of Christ President of Seventy for the Quorum that included Canada.  Since the fields were redrawn at the 2016 World Conference, Canada has been moved to John Glaser’s Quorum.

†This word was used interchangeably with the term patriarch.

‡The early Seventies were called from among those men who had served in Zion’s Camp, an abortive attempt to retake lost lands in Jackson County, Missouri, by force. See Joseph Young Sr., History of the Organization of the Seventies (Salt Lake City: 1878), p. 3, where Stephen Winchester is listed among the original members of the First Quorum of Seventy.

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.

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.


[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).

King Benjamin Is Serious about Panhandlers

MiamiBeachOne thing about committing to a weekly schedule is that Wednesday comes around no matter what. Capping off an intensely busy work week last week, extreme weather in Toronto caused flooding at the building where my congregation has church, resulting in the cancellation of my Sunday School class. While you might think that would mean I’d have had lots of time to get ahead on my blog post, that didn’t happen. Instead, nothing got done prior to packing and getting on a plane Monday morning.  Now we’re here on our first vacation in a long time, visiting Miami Beach to celebrate Mike’s 40th birthday. (This was the destination of our first vacation together 17 years ago, so it’s a special place for us.) Anyway, long story short, I don’t have all my books with me this week, and I think I’m the only person reading the Book of Mormon here on the beach. But at least it’s sunny and 82° F.*

This week, King Benjamin is wrapping up his sermon and he’s got a message that is pretty explicit about a couple key ideas.

(Point #1) You must give money to beggars when asked. You may have all kinds of ideas about makers and takers in society. You may like to rant about a culture of dependency, but you’re totally wrong. According to King Benjamin, it’s a simple commandment: “ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish” (Mosiah 2:29 CofC).

Got some qualifiers on that? Want to rationalize your way out of this? King Benjamin’s way ahead of you.

Perhaps thou shalt say, “The man has brought himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance, that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just.”

Exactly! I’m good because I give charity freely to other, theoretical people who are “deserving poor” — not this guy in front of me, who is doubtless a welfare king.

Wrongo! According to KB:

“I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done, he perisheth for ever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.”

O man! For ever. (As an aside, although there’s no room for nuance in King Benjamin’s absolute formulation, I can’t help but reflect that the panhandlers here in Miami Beach have a bit of a different experience than the folks back home in Toronto enduring the polar vortex.)

That aside notwithstanding, the teaching about giving freely to all beggars continues very explicitly (Mosiah 2:37-45 CofC). This kind of personal charity, according to King Benjamin, is directly analogous to God’s grace, which is the other key point in the sermon’s wrap up.

(Point #2) From God’s perspective “are we not all beggars?”

Do we not all depend upon the same being, even God, for all the substance which we have; for both food, and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 2:32 CofC)

In King Benjamin’s formulation, we are totally dependent on God for everything, but most important of all, we are dependent on God for our salvation. As “unworthy creatures,” who ought to be aware of our own “nothingness” and our “worthless and fallen state,” salvation can only come as a gift freely given by God.

There is none other salvation, save this which hath been spoken of; neither are there conditions whereby man can be saved, except the conditions which I have told you. Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things both in heaven and in earth… Believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he will forgive you…And behold if ye do this, ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; (Mosiah 2:12-22 CofC)

Theologically, this whole passage struck me as very Protestant. No doubt many a Baptist preacher would like such an explicit description of the idea of grace. In King Benjamin’s formulation, salvation is the ultimate gift. We can’t earn it; we can only receive it if we humble ourselves completely and accept ourselves to literally be on par with the panhandlers.


Narrative Developments

When King Benjamin’s sermon ends, the whole assembly speaks a liturgical formula, which is called a covenant and is functionally like a mass baptism and confirmation, as they all take upon themselves “the name of Christ” (Mosiah 3:11 CofC).

When that’s finished, King Benjamin retires to emeritus status, his son Mosiah becomes king, and the narrative lurches forward. I know that the Book of Mormon is famous for being dull and repetitive — and maybe that will happen when Oliver Cowdery shows up, the dictation speeds up, and the well goes dry — but for now in this early phase, there’s a lot packed into a little space.

Right away King Mosiah sends a guy named Ammon (a descendant of Zarahemla, which was hitherto just introduced as the name of the land) along with fifteen other “strong men” to the “land of Lehi-Nephi” to find out what happened to “the people who went up to dwell” there (Mosiah 5:1-4 Cof C). Presumably, both the story of the people going to Lehi-Nephi and the story of Zarahemla were part of the lost 116 pages.

Ammon and his party find the land of Lehi-Nephi and its king, Limhi, who is the grandson of the leader of the original expedition, Zeniff. King Limhi and his people pay tribute to Laman, King of the Lamanites and hate their condition enough that they’d prefer to be slaves to Ammon’s people (who are being identified as the Nephites here, I think, for the first time) (Mosiah 5:22 CofC).

But there’s more! In addition to the records of his own people, King Limhi has a set of “twenty-four plates, which are filled with engravings; and they are of pure gold” (Mosiah 5:64 CofC). They were found in the wilderness amid the ruins of a desolate battlefield. The record will, no doubt, “give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed” (Mosiah 5:70 CofC).

King Limhi can’t “translate” the gold plates, but Ammon is aware that King Mosiah has inherited that capacity, which “is a high gift from God” (Mosiah 5:75 CofC). Specifically, King Mosiah is a “seer” — which is to say a man commanded by God to look at things called “interpreters” “wherewith that he can look and translate all records that are of an ancient date” (Mosiah 5:72-73 CofC). Moreover, Ammon goes on to explain:

…a seer is greater than a prophet… a seer is a revelator, and a prophet also, and a gift which is greater, can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God. But a seer can know of things which have past, and also of things which are to come; And by them shall all things be revealed, or rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them; And also, things shall be made known by them, which otherwise could not be known… Doubtless, a great mystery is contained within these plates; and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men… (Mosiah 5:77-83 CofC).

Thus we will be treated to a story within the story — gold plates within gold plates. And with King Mosiah the seer and his interpreters, we have a precedent for Joseph Smith the seer and his seer stones.

Next week: I’ll be reunited with my books in the winter wonderland of Canada and our reading will be Mosiah 6-8 CofC/Mosiah 9-16 LDS.

* At least it was that temperature Tuesday when I was doing my reading, not so today as I’m posting.

The Gospel According to King Benjamin

book-of-mormon-2This week we’ve jumped into the text of the Book of Mormon proper with Mosiah chapter 1 in the Community of Christ version, which is chapters 1-3 in the LDS version.[1]  Although the dictation process in the initial phase after the loss of the 116 pages was apparently slow and halting, the resulting text was certainly not lacking in ideas and content. Indeed, in this week’s reading we have the first portion of King Benjamin’s sermon — one of the most celebrated components of the Book of Mormon. As a result, this post will run a little longer than my plan for a normal week, but hopefully you’ll find it worthwhile.

As we begin our reading, we find ourselves at the end of the life of King Benjamin. We are told by the narrator that “there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla among all the people which belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin had continual peace all the remainder of his days” (Mosiah 1:1 CofC and LDS). As we discussed last week, it’s tempting to speculate that the first part of the Book of Mosiah was lost among the 116 pages (which may well have contained many more lost books than just the lost Book of Lehi). If so, the missing section would presumably have covered a period of warfare prior to this time of peace.

An Introduction to the Text

Although we are picking up mid-story, we are given a bit of an introduction to the overall text in the form of a lesson spoken by King Benjamin to his sons “concerning the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass”:

My son, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God. For it were not possible that our father Lehi could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates… were it not for these things which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God that we might read and understand of his mysteries and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren the Lamanites, which know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct. (Mosiah 1:4-8 CofC/1:3-5 LDS)

This restates the purpose of the text we read in last week’s revelation from the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 2:6a-e CofC/D&C 3:16-20 LDS) in greater detail but with an important difference. In the D&C revelation the “Lamanites” — for which we should read the Native Americans in Joseph Smith’s day[2] — are to be given a written history that will lead them to “believe the Gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ.” In King Benjamin’s teaching, the same dilemma (fro is cited: lacking such a written history, Native Americans refuse to believe “even when they are taught”. But unlike in the D&C where the gospel of Jesus Christ is cited, King Benjamin calls this knowledge the commandments and mysteries of God, (for an important reason we’ll see later in the reading). In King Benjamin’s teaching, the appreciation of the power of text expressed here is something that resonates especially for me.

A Model for Righteous Leadership

King Benjamin next makes a proclamation for all his people to gather to hear a lengthy farewell address, during which he promises he will “give this people a name that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem.” (Mosiah 1:17 CofC/1:11 LDS)[3]

Addressing the gathered multitude, King Benjamin first presents himself as a kind of perfect model of sacred kingship — providing a check list for the righteous exercise of authority, both secular and religious. Since these are a list of his own qualities and acts, he is forced to include a slightly defensive humblebrag: yes, humility should be on the list, so you can be sure “I have not done these things that I might boast…I do not desire to boast…” (Mosiah 1:47-48 CofC/2:15-16 LDS).

As a model leader, King Benjamin has not sought gold, silver, and riches, but he has insisted that his people “keep the commandments of the Lord.” In words that must have been reassuring to readers in the young American republic who had only a few generations previously thrown off the rule of their British monarch King George III, in part, over the issue of taxation, King Benjamin reminds his people he had never caused them to “be laden with taxes” or to bear that “which was grievous to be borne.” (Mosiah 1:43-46 CofC/2:12-14 LDS)

In what I think is a very important message, King Benjamin stresses that his people should not “think that I of myself am more than a mortal man” since “I am like yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities of body and spirit.” (Mosiah 1:40-41 CofC/2:10-11 LDS) Leaders, even kings and prophets, are the same as everyone else.  Indeed, admitting his old age and infirmity, King Benjamin’s address marks his final act as king, since he has decided to retire from his position. (This is an interesting scriptural precedent for leaders retiring from active service to emeritus status, which has been the practice for the prophets and presidents of Community of Christ, but not the LDS Church.)

But the foundation of righteous leadership, in Benjamin’s teaching, is service. In a passage I found lovely, he takes his message of service even further:

Behold, ye have called me your king. And if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then had not ye ought to labor to serve one another? And behold also, if I, who ye call your king — who has spent his days in your service and yet hath been in the service of God — doth merit any thanks from you, O how had you ought to thank your heavenly King! (Mosiah 1:50-51 CofC/2:18-19 LDS)

The Gospel According to King Benjamin

The content of this sermon doesn’t let up. Although we’re skipping a lot — there’s far too much here to cover in one blog post — I want to get to place where King Benjamin fulfills his special promise to reveal a name to his people, which knowledge will make them “distinguished above all people” exiled after the destruction of Jerusalem.

At what is perhaps the core moment of his address, King Benjamin relates a vision of an angel, which I’ll quote here at length:

And he [the angel] said unto me: “Awake and hear the words which I shall tell thee; for behold, I am come to declare unto thee glad tidings of great joy…

“For behold the time cometh and is not far distant that with power the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, which was and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay;

“And shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases. And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwelleth in the hearts of the children of men.

“And lo, he shall suffer temptations and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.

“And he shall be called Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary. And lo, he cometh unto his own that salvation might come unto the children of men, even through faith on his name.

“And even after all this, they shall consider him as a man and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him and shall crucify him. And he shall rise the third day from the dead; and behold, he standeth to judge the world.”

This vision is a brief “gospel” in the sense that it is an account of the life of Jesus with a theological interpretation of its meaning. By way of comparison, the apostle Paul gives an even briefer summary gospel in his first Letter to the Corinthians:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news (“gospel”) that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NRSV)

When someone produces a summary, it can be interesting to observe which details are left in and which are left out. Paul, perhaps tellingly, omits relating anything about the teachings or acts of Jesus in life, focusing solely on his death and the resurrected Christ.[3]  King Benjamin’s summary, by contrast, includes many of the events of Jesus’ life recorded in the four full-length Biblical gospels, while still leaving out any teachings. (I notice that detail, perhaps, because if I were to undertake my own summary, it would probably focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ teachings.)

As in Paul’s theology, the purpose of Jesus Christ’s ministry in King Benjamin’s gospel is “that salvation might come unto the children of men, even through faith on his name.” This idea is explored in considerable detail elsewhere throughout King Benjamin’s address (and Paul’s letters). One critical distinction that King Benjamin makes is that although those who have knowledge of Christ must repent and have faith in Christ to be saved (Mosiah 1:108 CofC/3:12 LDS), Christ’s atonement automatically covers those who are ignorant of Christ’s gospel (Mosiah 1:107 CofC/3:11 LDS), including especially those who die in childhood (Mosiah 1:114-15/3:16 LDS), meaning damnation in King Benjamin’s conception is reserved only for those who have heard the gospel and reject it (Mosiah 1:127-29 CofC/3:25-27 LDS).

Finally, I’m struck by the “high Christology” of King Benjamin’s gospel. Since the death of Jesus, Christians have wrestled with his nature and the relationship between the ideas of Jesus, Christ, the Holy Spirit, God the Father, and God (explorations known as “Christology”). If there is only one, omnipotent God, who is Jesus? Was he simply a righteous man (a very “low Christology”)? Was he a righteous man who was “adopted” by God to become divine (adoptionism)? Was Jesus divine but subordinate to God the Father (Arianism)?  Was Jesus fully divine at birth and only appeared to be a man (docetism)? After centuries of wrangling, the orthodox position emerged that Jesus was both “fully human” and “fully divine” and that there is “one God in three persons.” This doctrine of the Trinity holds that God the Father and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are all one God, but Jesus is not the Father or the Spirit, nor is the Spirit the Father — a very complicated solution that is often described as a “mystery.”

King Benjamin’s calls the pre-existent Christ “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, which was and is from all eternity to all eternity” and goes on twice to use the formula “Christ the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 1:116,118 CofC/3:17,18 LDS). This strong equation of Christ with the Lord Omnipotent might imply either a Trinitarian outlook, or an even higher Christology — the idea that the pre-existent Christ is God the Father (modalism or Sabellianism). We’ll surely get more hints as we continue.

If you’re reading along and other content-related things popped out at you, please feel free to comment!


Next Week:

Next week’s reading is Mosiah 2-5 (CofC), 4-8 (LDS), where we’ll hear part 2 of King Benjamin’s sermon.


[1] As I noted in the first post outlining the project, the Book of Mormon was only broken up into verses after the schism of 1844.  As a result, the LDS Church and Community of Christ have completely different versification systems.

[2] Because there’s so much content to consider this reading, I want to temporarily side-step a lengthy discussion of race and the Book of Mormon. We will surely have much more to say in future weeks. For now, I’ll say that to my thinking, the Anglo-American worldview of the early 19th century was itself unarguably racist and the Book of Mormon reflects the historical biases of its day, just as Paul’s epistles reflect the biases of the Roman Empire of the 1st century CE. Since we are not reading the Book of Mormon as a history this year, I am not supposing here that the text has anything at all to do with the actual history and pre-history of peoples indigenous to the Western Hemisphere prior to 1492. Instead, I expect the description of Lamanites in the text will tell us about the ideas (and prejudices) of Joseph Smith and other Anglo-Americans in the US of the early 19th century.

[3] According to Biblical stories, the exiles from the fallen kingdoms of Judah and Israel would include those taken to Babylon, those who (like Jeremiah) fled to Egypt, along with the members of the northern kingdom who had previously been removed by the Assyrians.

[4] Paul’s writings pre-date the composition of the four full-length gospels of the Biblical canon, and thus the “summary” in his case would be those details about the life of Jesus that Paul thought were most relevant, based on what Paul might have known from the contemporary oral tradition.


A Couple Stray Observations:

• Last week in the D&C revelation, we were told “neither doth he [God] vary from that which he hath said” (D&C 2:1c CofC/D&C 3:2 LDS) and in this reading the same teaching is repeated: “he [God] never doth vary from that which he hath said” (Mosiah 1:56 CofC/2:32 LDS).

• In explaining why he needed to rehearse his characteristics as ruler to his people, King Benjamin said “I, at this time, have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together, that I might be found blameless and that your blood should not come upon me when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you” (Mosiah 1:64/2:28 LDS).

This reminded me of the theology of King Henry V’s men in the famous scene in Shakespeare (act iv, scene i). The king, in disguise, talks to common soldiers to get a sense of his army’s mood on the eve of battle and at one point states: “methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.”

To which the first soldier replies: “That’s more than we know.” The second agrees, saying: “Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.” And the third further explains: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.”

Henry’s theology is more sophisticated and he disagrees (the text is here), but King Benjamin’s words imply that he may agree with the men.

The Earliest Part of the Book of Mormon

ChapterheaderSample1Although our project this year is to carefully read the Book of Mormon in the order of its composition, the earliest portion of Joseph Smith’s gold plates manuscript was lost (and consequently did not make its way into the Book of Mormon when it was published in 1830).

The first phase of the writing began after Joseph and Emma moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where her father Isaac Hale set them up with a small house of their own in December of 1828. The composition process was oral: Joseph dictated and Emma wrote down the text. Martin Harris, who was emerging as the chief financier of the project, visited a couple times in early 1829 before relocating to Harmony on April 12 and taking up work as the principal scribe.[1] By the middle of June, a significant portion of the work was complete and Martin convinced Joseph to let him take the working manuscript back to Palmyra, where it was stolen and probably destroyed.

The lost section is generally called the “116 pages,” (although that figure refers to the number of pages of the later replacement manuscript covering the lost section and not the actual number of pages lost). This first section is also called the “Book of Lehi.” From the later internal narrative of the Book of Mormon, the lost text was said to have been first part of an abridgment or edited summary of a much longer collection of records. The Book of Mormon takes its name from Mormon, who was the editor of the abridgment. Properly speaking this name should only refer to the lost 116 pages and the section of the text from “Words of Mormon” through the “Book of Mormon” within the Book of Mormon, i.e., because the Book of First Nephi through the Book of Omni, and then the Book of Ether and the Book of Moroni are not meant to have been part of Mormon’s abridgment.

We’ll explore the device of texts within the text in future weeks; suffice to say that that although we’re attempting to read the book in the order it was composed this year, we can’t start with the original beginning because it is lost. However, we do have something else. (If you’re following along in our weekly readings, you’ll already know what that something is.) In July of 1828, Joseph dictated a new text — with Emma once again replacing Martin as scribe. Joseph used the same procedure that he had been employing to dictate the Book of Mormon with the key difference that the plates were not involved at all, even conceptually. The result was an original message of rebuke, but also consolation. (Because of later alterations when the text was published in the Book of Commandments and again when included in the Doctrine and Covenants, I’m quoting here from the text as copied into the “Revelation Book 1” manuscript, transcribed by the Joseph Smith Papers Project.)

Beginning with the assurance that “the works & designs & the Purposes of God cannot be frustrated”, we read: “although a man may have many Revelations & have power to do many Mighty works yet if he boast in his own strength & Sets at naught the councils of God & follows after the dictates of his will & carnal desires he must fall to the Earth & incur the vengence of a Just God”.[2]  However, the warning is probationary: Joseph has messed up, but he’s going to get a second chance:

[B]ehold thou art Joseph & thou wast chosen to do the work of the Lord but because of transgression thou mayest fall but remember God is merciful therefore repent of that which thou hast done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen & will & will again be called to the work & except Thou do this thou shalt be delivered up & become as other men & have no more gift[.][3]

In the first several paragraphs, God is referred to in the third person (he, his) and Joseph in the second (you, your, thou, thee, thy) as if the Joseph who is dictating the text is acting as a kind of disembodied narrator to the Joseph who is receiving the message. However, that changes briefly in the final paragraph[4]:

[F]or as the knowledge of a Saveiour hath come to the world so shall the knowledge of my People the Nephities & the Jacobites & the Josephites & the Lamanites come to the Lamanites knowledge of the Lamanites & the Lamanites [Lemuelites] & the Ishmaelites which dwindeled in unbelief because of the iniquities of their Fathers who hath been suffered to destroy their Brethren because of their iniquities & their Abominations & for this very Purpose are these Plates prepared which contain these Records that the Promises of the Lord might be fulfilled which he made to his People & that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their Fathers & that they may know the Promises of the Lord that they may believe the Gospel & rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ & that they might be glorified through faith in his name & that they might repent & be Saved Amen[.]

With the phrase “my People the Nephites,” Joseph appears to slip into the prophetic voice for the first time — moving from the indirect discourse of God speaking of his people to the direct discourse of God speaking about “my people” in the first person.[5] (And I say “appear to slip” in because by the end with “his People” and “his name” he has already slipped back out again.) Joseph’s use of the prophet voice (which will build considerably in future revelations) was a restoration or imitation of ancient Israelite prophets, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, who presumed to speak messages of rebuke, counsel, and hope to people and individuals, invoking God in the first person.

Thus, out of the crisis of the lost text, we have the start of something new: Joseph the seer is now beginning to act as Joseph the prophet. Ultimately, the assertion of direct revelation was probably just as important as the publication of the Book of Mormon for the foundation of the Latter Day Saint movement that followed. But as the first instance illustrates, the history and forms of both are intertwined.

We can note also that in addition to rehearsing some of the contents of the lost text — it was apparently a story about the Nephites, Jacobites, and Josephites who were destroyed because of their iniquities and abominations by the Lamanites, [Lemuelites], and Ishmaelites — we also are told the purpose of the work: to give the “Lamanites” a history that will lead to belief in Jesus Christ and ultimate salvation. We’ll surely talk more about all of the above in the weeks to come.

Next week’s assignment: Mosiah 1 (CofC); Mosiah 1-3 (LDS).



[1] An extremely useful chronology of this period is found in Dan Vogel (ed.) Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Signature Books, 1996-2003), 5:337-456. A briefer, but still useful chronology can be found in Grant Hardy (ed.) The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003), 643-52.

[2] In the original, the scribe wrote “the words of designs” but crossed out “words of” correcting the text to read “works & designs”. See: : the-papers, Revelations and Translations, Manuscript Revlation Books (2), Revelation Book 1, pages 3-4.

[3] Later edits will soften this rebuke somewhat. When published in the 1833 Book of Commandments as “Chapter II”: “thou mayest fall” becomes “if thou art not aware thou wilt fall.” And by the time the same text was included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants as “Section XXX,” the line “therefore repent of that which thou has done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen” became “therefore repent of that which thou hast done, which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen”.

[4] This changed when the text was edited. The text in the Book of Commandments read: “Therefore, repent of that which thou has done, and he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season, and thou are still chosen…” The altered text in the D&C reads: “therefore, repent of that which thou hast done, which is contrary to the commandment which I gave you, and thou art still chosen…” which retroactively introduces God as “I”.

[5] These prophetic compositions (now usually referred to as “revelations”) were often initially called “commandments” and were collected, edited, and published in the Book of Commandments (1833). They were later edited again and rebranded as “covenants” when included in the Doctrine and Covenants (1835). This first revelation became “Chapter II” of the Book of Commandments and “Section XXX” of the 1835 D&C. (It’s now Community of Christ D&C 2 and LDS D&C 3.)

This series is cross-posted on Wheat and Tares.

Reading the Book of Mormon in 2014 with Fresh Eyes

BooksOfMormonIn the new year 2014, I’m going to read the Book of Mormon.

I’ve opined more than once that as a major work of American literature, the Book of Mormon is unfairly ignored by readers outside the Restoration tradition. I believe the book can (and should) be read as an epic of the young American republic in the first generations after the revolution. With a few exceptions like Harold Bloom, most non-Mormons have either followed Mark Twain’s humorous panning of the text (as impenetrably boring)[1] or they’ve disregarded it altogether.

Even within the Restoration tradition, the book has tended to be used in particular ways. For the earliest members in the 1830s, the Book of Mormon was apparently more important as a sign of the end times and prophetic authority than as a source of theological content for preaching.[2] Over the years I suspect that readers within the tradition have tended to read the text as a history book — in keeping with the idea that the religion of Mormonism has history in place of a systematic theology. Recently, for many readers committed to reading the text as a literalistic history of the ancient Americas, this has led (in my opinion) to substantial distortions of its original meaning as the book is reframed through the prism of our ever-expanding knowledge of actual Meso-American history.  (In Community of Christ, it’s been read less and less according to informal feedback from members in my own congregation and around North America, with many people unsure how to approach the book anymore.)

I’m planning to approach the text differently. Instead of reading the book as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority or the authority of one of the successor churches of the religious movement he helped found or trying to read into it a history of the ancient Mayans or Olmecs, I’m intending to read the Book of Mormon for its theological and philosophical content. To better understand this content, I’ll attempt to place it within Joseph Smith’s immediate context — the fervent North American Protestant religious revival in early the 19th century known as the “Second Great Awakening.” I’ll try to read the stories for what they are trying to teach as stories, rather than as histories of past events. I hope to track the early development of Joseph Smith’s religious thinking and how it influenced the early Restoration, but I also want to see how I will find meaning in the Book of Mormon’s theology and philosophy for those of us living now in the 21st century.

I think I’m returning to the Book of Mormon with a unique vantage. On the one hand, I’m fairly knowledgeable about the background history of its composition and publication and I think I’m rather familiar with its contents in a general sense. But I haven’t actually read the book cover to cover since I was a young teenager. I’m therefore approaching the text with eyes that are at once informed but also somewhat fresh.

I also come at the text armed with a different understanding of scripture than many other faithful members of Restoration traditions that are more literalistic. My views are largely in keeping with Community of Christ’s statement on scripture. This view includes the idea that scripture is not inerrant scientifically or historically. Rather, scripture is a human response to the Divine and the prophet or evangelist who authored the text was subject to the biases and errors inherent in his or her historical context. Rather than excuse ethical or philosophically bad teachings in scripture, in my view we need to understand them for what they are and use them to help us explore the ethical and philosophical questions we face in our lives today.

My own bias at the outset includes my belief that the Book of Mormon is a work of 19th century scripture, composed orally by Joseph Smith and written down by various scribes (especially Oliver Cowdery). If you believe the text is a translation of an ancient American text, I think you may still derive benefit from reading along with me and examining the text in a different light. However, the resulting discussion will not be a forum for historicity debates; those can be held elsewhere. Similarly, if you aren’t sure about or don’t believe in God or have value for the word or concept of “scripture,” I think you may still benefit from reading along and examining the book’s content in context.

Scope of the Project / How You Can Read Along

The text of the Book of Mormon as we have it today is different from the text as it was composed. Thousands of edits were made in Joseph Smith’s lifetime and the different churches and publishers made subsequent changes. One of the biggest changes was the division of the book into numbered verses, which each church did on its own. The LDS Church also divided the long, original chapters into shorter chapters — thus the chapter and versification between the Community of Christ and LDS versions are entirely different. (I’ll cite both reference systems as I post.) To get at the earliest text, I’m going to do my principal reading from Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale, 2009). I’ll supplement it using Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003) for the LDS text along with my copy of the Community of Christ’s “Authorized Edition” of the Book of Mormon (Herald House, 1992).

In order to take in the development of the Book of Mormon’s ideas, I’m going to read it in the order it was composed, rather than in the order of its internal chronology. The earliest part of the text is famously lost: the so-called “116 Pages” given to Martin Harris. When Joseph began to compose again, he started at the point of the narrative where he’d left off with the story of King Benjamin in the Book of Mosiah. He then dictated the text to the end of the Book of Moroni before starting in on I and II Nephi through Words of Mormon. Using that order, I’ve divided the book into reading sections, which I’m posting here for anyone who wants to read along. Each Wednesday I’ll publish a blog post with my reflections on that week’s reading and we can share in discussion here.

My first post will be next Wednesday (on New Year’s Day), where we’ll talk a little bit about the book’s composition process and the original, lost part of the text. Since we don’t have the “116 Pages,” our reading will come from the Doctrine and Covenants (Community of Christ Section 2, which is LDS Section 3).

Next year I’m teaching adult Sunday School in the Toronto congregation who will be reading along with me and discussing the text each Sunday at 10 am.  I’ll be posting posting on Wheat and Tares for the Mormon audience and here for the Community of Christ audience.  Feel free to read along and join us!




[1] Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872). Twain devotes chapter 16 to a humorous review of the Book of Mormon. Although Twain’s quip that the book “is chloroform in print” is much quoted, the joke no longer translates as people have ceased to remember chloroform as a sleep-inducing anesthetic. I much prefer Twain’s take on the Eight Witnesses, which still holds up: “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”

[2] In her study of the writings of William McLellin, one of the original Latter Day Saint apostles, Jan Shipps noted that “although the Book of Mormon is always mentioned, at only three points does this extended account of six years for Mormon preaching in the early 1830s [i.e., McLellin’s journals] indicate that this scripture was used as a source for sermon texts.” More important than its content for early members was “the fact of the book” and “its coming forth a the opening event in the dispensation that was serving as the ‘winding-up scene’ before the curtain rose on the eschaton.” See Jan Shipps, “Another Side of Early Mormonism,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, eds. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 6.